It wasn’t long after I became a Catholic at the age of eighteen, during my freshman year of college, that I began to discern religious life. I figured that if I was going “in,” I was going all in, and the monastic ideals of stability, fidelity, and obedience appealed to the desire for “something more” that had led to my conversion in the first place. Of course, I wouldn’t have known what a monk or monasticism was were it not for a literal monk (who was our campus chaplain) from a nearby Benedictine archabbey extending the invitation to “come and see” for a discernment weekend visit.
From the age of 19 to 29, I discerned such a vocation to the Benedictines (OSB), the Cistercians (OCSO), the Franciscans (CFR), and the Carthusians (O.Cart), visiting communities across the country and ultimately applying to be considered as a postulant at a contemplative community in New Mexico. When I was turned away (and subsequently met my future wife a few months later), it became clear that the monastic life was not God’s will for me, and I had peace.
But the ideals of monasticism never really left me. It took another ten years of wandering through the desert of liberal Catholicism — the only thing being served on the menu — to eventually stumble upon orthodoxy and the traditional expression of worship when we were introduced to the Latin Mass. Friends of friends extended an invitation, once again, to “come and see.” We began by taking them up on this invitation and attending Mass in the Extraordinary Form once a month, until the schizophrenia of switching between the Novus Ordo and the TLM became too difficult. After six months or so, we joined a parish with a small but dedicated community in which the Latin Mass was offered, the only one in the state. We quickly found like-minded Catholics, other homeschoolers who were concerned about the toxic culture we live in, and those who took their faith seriously.
Not that there weren’t fellow Catholics in the N.O. parish we came from who didn’t take their faith seriously, or who weren’t living pious and virtuous lives. But their fervor (like ours) was tempered by the culture of the parish, which seemed more concerned with maintaining a status quo lukewarmness than transforming worship or fostering genuine metanoia. For a time, we tried to “be the light,” but we were conflicted and felt out of place until we ultimately discovered intentional Catholics devoted to tradition, and our locus of worship — our paradigm — began to shift. We realized until then that up until then we were building our lives, and the lives of our children, on a liturgical foundation that was, for all intents and purposes, unstable.
In reflecting on our personal exodus, it struck me how, like many of the families we now worship with, we “fled to the desert” to seek a new liturgical way of living not unlike those early monastics in the early centuries of the Church.
When the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., ensuring religious toleration throughout the empire and stemming the persecution of Christians, it also ushered in a new era of more or less “comfortable Christianity.” Those seeking martyrdom may have been frustrated that they could not die as easily for the faith, and they began a new quest for purity and austerity in solitude as eremetics in the desert. The best known “father of monasticism” was Anthony the Great (252–356), but it wasn’t long before others followed in his footsteps, though not all were able to live the solitary life to the same extent.
In the centuries that followed, cenobitic communities began to be established and “rules for living” drawn up by those like St. Augustine and St. Benedict of Nursia for those who wanted to live “separate but together.” For the Desert Fathers and Mothers, their lives were a living martyrdom. People would seek them out so that they might “give a word” akin to spiritual bread for a spiritually hungry person. Monasteries became places of respite and renewal to get back to the fundamentals of the faith that had been neglected in the laxity of post-persecution Christianity after Constantine’s edict. They separated to become more authentically themselves, and they wanted to live in a kind of peace to worship God alone and live out their lives in accordance with the disciplines of the Faith.
In seeing the small but growing exodus of families leaving the liturgical laxity prevalent in most Novus Ordo parishes, wandering through the desert, and eventually finding their way (ironically) to the inner cities or castaway parishes where the traditional Mass is offered, I notice a kind of new liturgical monasticism happening. They are “seeking a word” that they find in the liturgy itself, and the growth around this essential work of worship manifests in these kind of cenobitic communities of families — living in their own homes and working jobs and educating their children, while coming together on Sundays to worship together and form a community to bulwark against the culture. They are willing to forgo creature parish comforts and programs in austerity for the sake of the liturgy. The process itself tends to be organic in nature, people seeking it out and finding it despite a lack of prominent advertising or marketing. And it continues to grow by word of mouth, much like the way those going into the desert heard and followed those who went before them seeking a less lukewarm and more intentional expression of worship, of living.
Monasticism’s contribution to the renewal of culture, both in Christianity and beyond it, cannot be overstated. And I see the same thing happening in the liturgical monastics — that is, families of individual “domestic churches” seeking out traditional worship today — who settle around a parish in which it is offered. They are a light on a hill, working to pass on the depositum fidei to their children and future generations, while extending invitations to others to “come and see” what they have been searching for, and where it might be found.
Image: Eugenio Zampighi (1859–1944), “A Happy Family” (circa 1944).
Rob Marco is a married father of three. He holds a MA in Theology from Villanova University. He has appeared on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” and his writing has been featured at OnePeterFive, Catholic Stand, Catholic Education Resource Center, SpiritualDirection.com, Beauty So Ancient, and other Catholic publications. He blogs at Pater Familias.