Sunday, July 18, 2010

Monks and nuns...

Letter to B. Racrasy, continued
Well, what about things like Franciscans and nuns and third order Carmelites? Also simple. These groups aren’t part of the hierarchical structure of the Church. They began as popular movements. It seems that from the earliest days of the Church, women would sometimes live communally, especially widows and young unmarried women who had decided to forego marriage for the sake of the Gospel.
In the 200's, men started getting into the act. There were already Jewish desert communities in Egypt. Even before the time of Christ, the Judean desert had been home to Jewish groups that fled what they saw as the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. The first notable Christian hermit in Egypt was St. Paul of Thebes (228-341). He fled the Roman persecution of Christians in the Nile Valley and took up life alone in the desert.
Believe it or not, this sort of thing caught on. People started going out to the desert to live the simple life in union with God. They were called “monachoi,” a Greek word that meant “loner’ or “solitary person,” hence “monk.” The next big name in desert lonerness, monasticism that is, was St. Anthony the Abbot. (a quick definition: abbot means “papa” or “dad” from the Aramaic word “abba”) An abbot is the leader of a monastery, not to be confused with the Swedish pop-rock group of the seventies that some people love and some do not love so much.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Anthony the Abbot (251-356). When he was just a lad of 18, his parents died and left him their fortune and the care of his little sister. He was in church one sunny Egyptian day and heard the words of the Gospel “Sell what you have and give to the poor” so he did, stuck his sister in one of the women’s communities already mentioned and ran off to the desert. There he lived in an old tomb and then in an abandoned Roman fort, did battle with the devil and acquired a great reputation for holiness. People flocked to hear his teaching, making it a little difficult to be solitary.
At one point, he went to Alexandria hoping to be martyred by the Roman government, but they were full up with martyrs at the time and turned him down. He went back to the desert and organized the other monks into communities with a more defined way of life because, frankly, all the solitude in the Egyptian desert can make one a little wacky. St Athanasius, (293-373) bishop of Alexandria wrote a life of St. Anthony (still in print). It sold like hotcakes in the west and soon monasticism became all the rage, people renouncing the comforts and indoor plumbing of Roman life to go off and live in desserts, swamps and mountaintops in an attempt to be martyrs after the Roman government had stopped martyring people. In fact, the Roman government had become mostly Catholic by that time.
Monasticism was pretty disorganized. Wandering holy men could be rather strange, and sometimes less than holy. There were some interesting ascetic practices among early monks. My favorite were the “stylites” (Greek for pole-sitters.) They would spend years living on small platforms on top of high poles in an attempt to get away from it all and, quite literally, draw closer to heaven. The crowds would come to admire their holiness and the pillar sitters, in turn would harangue the multitudes for their worldliness and a good time was had by all.
The next two big names in monasticism were St. Basil of Caesarea in Turkey (335-379) and St. Benedict of Nursia in Italy (480-547). They did something about the wackiness of monasticism by writing rules of life for monks, Basil for the east, and Benedict for the west. No more wandering around, sitting on poles, taking up collections and going to dinner parties. They lived secluded lives of prayer, work and study in monasteries. These are the origins of Benedictine and Basilian monks, and most subsequent forms of monasticism. Monks still tried to live far from corrupt society, and in the process they drained swamps, cleared forests, cultivated land, preserved the learning of the Greek and Roman world, maintained hospices for the poor, hospitals for the sick, schools for the young and in general created Western Civilization. You remember Western Civilization, don’t you? It flourished until people like Freud, Darwin, Ted Turner, Madonna and Elvis trashed it.
Now you understand monasticism. All orders of monks are variations on the theme. There are men and women monks. The women monks are usually called nuns. They live in monasteries, sometimes called convents. The are cloistered, a Latin word meaning “enclosed.” Thus, a cloister is an enclosure. They have limited contact with outsiders and even with one another. In traditional monastic life there are sometimes long periods of silence during the day or even for extended periods of time.
They are not ordained as bishops or priests except for specific purposes. A monastery will ask a local bishop to ordain some men for the need of community, and sometimes bishops are chosen from among monks, but the monk is essentially a lay man or woman who has taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and lives in a monastic community. Regular diocesan priests don’t take vows. We make promises of celibacy and obedience, but they are not part of our primary calling.
The penitential life is the monastic calling. The priestly and diaconal calling is devotion to the public prayer of the Church, sustained by a life of personal prayer and holiness. Our calling is to assist the bishop in offering of the Liturgy and the Sacraments. Celibacy is useful in the west, though not necessary in all forms of ordained ministry. Deacons are commonly married and in certain cases, especially in Eastern Catholicism, priests are married. Obedience to the bishop is certainly necessary and implied by the very nature of the priests and the deacon. If our job is to assist the bishop, how can we help him without obeying him? However, obedience is not the same for ordained diocesan clergy as it is for monks. Monks are supposed to live a life of self denial. Poverty, chastity and obedience are the very heart of their prayer and penance.
For diocesan clergy, celibacy and obedience are part of our service. We do not take vows of poverty. I have to buy my own car, pay for my own retirement, clothes etc. though I am provided room and board as long as I am working in an assignment. My money, or the lack thereof, is my own. If a monk needs new shoes, he asks the abbot for money to buy them. As a diocesan priest, I ask the credit card company. A monk is not supposed to have money or property of his own. He asks his superior. He forgoes financial decisions as part of his penitential life. There is an old proverb that monastic orders take a vow of poverty. Diocesan priests live it. But of course, that is just an old proverb.
You promised to explain Jesuits. What about Jesuits? That, dear reader, will have to wait for next week.
Rev. Know-it-all   

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