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What is the Catholic Religion Actually For? A Monastic Answer

Do we really know when this “crisis” started?

Many of those concerned about our ongoing – and suddenly calamitously escalating – crisis look mainly back to the last 50 years for causes; it is certainly undeniable that the period immediately following Vatican II has seen the most precipitous drop in the relevant statistics in our history[1]. We’ve all seen the graphs, the little blue line climbing steadily through the early 20th century, reaching a peak about 1964, and then it’s as if the little invisible guy with the blue pencil suddenly lost the will to live and dove off a cliff, hit bottom, then kept on rolling down hill. And this is the graph for everything; baptisms, adult conversions, priesthood and religious life vocations, marriages.

The only statistics going the opposite direction – picture a little devil with a red pencil – are things like, “number of Catholics who don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” “number of Catholics who think women/married men should be ordained,” “…who think they can be ‘good Catholics’ without ever going to Mass,” “…who accept legal abortion and support gay marriage.”

We all agree that Vatican II was far from the origin. We point fingers at the French Revolution, but where did that come from? Was it the Enlightenment taking Renaissance Humanism too far in the wrong direction? Was it Luther’s fault? We wonder who a time traveller would have to eliminate in the past in order to steer the future away from this universal cataclysm[2]?

The other day I had an email from an Important Monastic Personage that suggested that all our estimates about the origin of the current ecclesial crisis are way, way, WAY off. It got me thinking; what if we’re looking at all this completely wrong? Is it possible that even self-identified traditionalists are thinking without realising it like moderns?

And what if the solution is nothing like what we are thinking either? What if a great mass re-catechising of Catholics, or authentic Catholic action in politics, or a great revival of moral teaching on sex and the family, or even the complete reversal of the liturgical disaster, were all putting the cart before the horse? What if the “solution” is something completely different? Something that relies on us and our efforts in the natural realm not one whit?

And of course it goes almost without saying that the deadly disease that has infected Mother Church is the same that has so grotesquely deformed the rest of our civilisation. Nineteen years ago, when I started working in the pro-life movement, I knew dimly that something awful had struck in the 1960s and ‘70s. I had already rejected feminism – even at the tender age of fifteen I remember arguing against this poisonous creed with people twice my age – and I knew that nearly everyone had somehow been brainwashed to think abortion was acceptable. As of five minutes ago, it has suddenly become a universal human right, ordained by the very structures of the cosmos, that we ourselves determine, and from one minute to the next, whether we are male or female… or some other thing. The very principles of rational thought, without which no conversation is possible about anything, have been unmoored and tossed gaily aside.

Simply put, the secular culture and the Church are dying of the same disease. In the Church and the world we are all now living in Wonderland, a horrifying prospect.

Another one bites the dust

My conversation with the Important Monastic Personage came as the Catholic world received the news that yet another great, ancient, monastic tree has fallen. Vatican Radio reports that the Cistercian Abbey of Himmerod, founded in 1134 by St. Bernard of Clairvaux[3], will close. The 900-year history of Himmerod ends ignominiously with a dull thud: “The monastery’s property, near the village of Grosslittgen, will be transferred to the Catholic diocese of Trier, while the six monks will move to other monasteries.”

I’m afraid this news elicited from me not much more than a shrug. There is always a good reason when a great tree falls. I don’t know this one in Germany, but I’ve visited quite a lot of monasteries in Europe – mainly in Italy and Britain – and it’s always the same disease present in nearly all of them; the symptoms are spiritual apathy, indifference, a paralysing acedia[4]. If this old German tree has finally fallen, an examination of the carcass will invariably reveal extensive rot; there is usually little left of the heartwood[5].

In Italy the failure of the Novus Ordo “new springtime” to revive – or even to minimally sustain – monastic life is perhaps more palpable than anywhere else, because monasticism was omnipresent here. Every town of any size has its monastery of Benedictines or its house of Poor Clares and often Dominican or Carmelite convents all at the same time. Monastics are still revered by the local laity, but once inside what do we find? The architecture is still there; delicate stonework and frescoes – often of extreme antiquity – are painstakingly preserved usually with considerable help from the Italian government. Yet, while cold stone is conserved, in the monastic communities themselves, the great living organs of monastic life — the breath, blood, and heart that gives life to the community: the liturgy, the Chant, the vita communis, the single-minded pursuit of the Summum Bonum — are barely shadows of their former reality.

Visiting such places, you always get the same kind of response if you dare to ask how vocations are going; a kind of dull resentment that “young people can’t commit these days” and a blank, incomprehending stare if you ask, “Commit to what?” In those houses still clinging to life, the purpose of monastic life has simply faded away, attention turning to “social projects,” experiments with permaculture gardening, concerts, lectures, crafts and art history. A generic “spirituality” gets talked about a bit, if you trouble to bring it up[6]. But with all this new purpose of “community involvement,” “socially minded projects for the youth” and exciting ventures into online “virtual tours” the community itself is still six old Italian monks or nuns and two young transplants from Africa, India, or the Philippines. And those are the “healthy” and “vibrant” communities.

Many of the houses in Italy have turned themselves into a sort of “spiritual holiday” alternative, offering their guest quarters to people who want a medieval or monastic zing to their agritourismo[7] weekend getaway. In fact most monastic houses in this country are reduced to a sort of cross between a bed and breakfast and medieval re-enactment/living history re-creation group. As the even more ancient abbey of Farfa[8] put it on their website, “Today thousands of visitors admire the cultural and artistic heritage, spending some time or even days in this peaceful place in order to rest their mind and soul. Refreshments and accommodation are provided.”

I have visited some of these places, and it is clear that the problem in the monasteries is the same as it is in the rest of the Church: an illness of deadly apathy; a strange spiritual indifference toward what we have now combined with a hatred for what we had in the past[9]. This has created a spiritual cul-de-sac, a dead end that leaves the discontented, confused or spiritually thirsty with nowhere to turn except the next pseudo-spiritual novelty fad.

A few years ago my friends and I took a day trip to the exquisitely beautiful abbey of Fossanova, to make a small pilgrimage to the room in which St. Thomas Aquinas died. We found the room, that is now a little, indifferently maintained chapel, at the top of some precariously crumbling, winding stone steps, in a building that was once the guesthouse of the monastery. It was clear that no one had said Mass on the little stone altar in a very long time.

The beautiful orange grove for which the monastery was famous was still there, and the cloister garden with its unique twisty columns, its huge bird-bath-like lavatorium that the medieval monks used to wash in the mornings. But the whole place had an air of neglect, a sort of spell of sad nostalgia for former greatness – the absence of a confidence of meaning – that is common all over Italy. The church was used for (Novus Ordo) Catholic religious services only a few times a week.

In the book shop, run by the Franciscans who now hold the monastery, the books gave the game away. There we found very little that showed an interest in the Catholic religion or its great tradition of prayer, but a great array of squishy quasi-Catholic popular works and outright New Age nonsense; Enneagram this, Anthony deMello that, centering prayer the other thing. To be polite I bought a bar of lavender soap and a book on medicinal herbs.

Yet of course, this is normal throughout the Catholic world; monasteries are dying because they have rejected the thing they were founded to do and to be, and can find no alternative that has the same appeal for vocational prospects. 

Yes, yes, praying…so important… But what can we actually do?

We know the problem is universal; the New Paradigm rules the secular realm with an increasingly totalitarian spirit and almost completely infests the Church in every institution from the Vatican down to the parish ladies’ Thursday night Rosary group. The real actual thing that Catholicism is made of, its substance, has been abandoned. People still seek after its effects – they still want righteousness,[10] justice and all the other natural goods proper to a civilisation founded on absolute moral principles. We want the Sumum Bonum instinctively, even in times when we have forgotten what it is made of – or, more to the point, when we have been propagandized to believe it is made of something else.

Meanwhile, with traditionalists and “conservatives” arguing incessantly over the reason for this catastrophe,[11] very little is being offered in the way of solutions. Possibly this is for the same reason we can’t agree on the origin of the problem. Of course the quasi-official line one gets from prelates continues to be that all we need to do is “properly implement” Vatican II. But while most laymen are now, not to put too fine a point on it, and after 50 years of having it rammed down our throats, fed to the back teeth with “implementing Vatican II,” the possibility of a consensus on a good solution will often founder on disagreements over what caused the mess in the first place. 

While all this arguing was still going on, we had the advent of Pope Francis and the anti-rational doctrines of Bergoglianism being forced aggressively onto the universal Church, and our arguments have been rendered moot. We are now finally facing our helplessness in the face of a superior hostile force[12]. Part of the great revelation provided by this pope is the understanding of just how entirely out of our depth we really are. I can’t help picturing Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner, thinking he was doing pretty well, when the Roadrunner glances back, sticks his tongue out, and tears away at light speed, the road behind him peeling out of its bed in ribbons, leaving poor old Wile E. realising he has been totally outclassed.

For fifty years our ideas, our projects, our work, have focused on this or that discrete aspect of the crisis: pro-life activism or “the fight for marriage”; some optimists thought the solution is a revival of catechesis in schools; some do vocation work; others try to bring back authentic sacred music. But we are now finally coming to understand that all these are as nothing to the enormity of the catastrophe we face, a scale that, once grasped, renders futile and absurd all activism. All our works, including the will to do them, as well as the desire on the part of the world to receive them, depends on something antecedent to them, something we are incapable of generating by our own efforts. We cannot work to bring back the Faith if the virtue of faith itself is what has been lost. All these works become pointless, like doing surgery on a dead body, without this first supernatural requirement.

Of course we know that the crisis in the Church is one of faith. For reasons that remain obscure, Catholics, en masse, have simply lost their faith. The saltiness has gone out of the salt. All these suggestions, all our activities, seem to me to be an attempt to restore salinity by pouring more good salt onto the savourless. The faithlessness of modern Catholics[13], for all that we can point to Vatican II and the deliberate orchestration of the de-Catholicisation of our liturgical lives, remains essentially a mystery. Why have Catholics become savourless salt? Why have monks forgotten why they are monks?

If Our Lord asked it as a rhetorical question “How will it be made salty again?” we have come to a time when we really do want to know the answer.

For a supernatural problem only a supernatural solution

What did my monastic friend say? Unless we’re living in a monastery, we tend to think of Catholicism as primarily about the “apostolic life,” the active works of the Church, the stuff you do on your feet. Certainly this is the view of the Bergoglians, who credit even the Spiritual Works of Mercy as a kind of irrelevant throwback. To we modern Catholics Bergoglio is perhaps the ideal pope, confirming us in our insistence that the most important thing about our Faith is its secondary material effects, not its spiritual causes.

But this Important Monastic Personage said,

The strength of the Church lies in the strength of her monastic life, and the ages of faith clearly show that the strength of the priesthood truly does as well.

We believe that the crisis of faith with which we are now dealing is not a fifty-year problem, but more like a seven-century problem when the Church began to neglect her contemplative stronghold in favor of external engagement with the world.

Now it seems the vision has been so lost as to have the apostolate be the defining element of the Church rather than her spiritual role, hence the questioning of contemplative life.

Having, essentially, abandoned the monastic mindset, the Church has pulled its own plug and cut itself off from the sources of its Divine energy. Was the last time we were doing it right really the Middle Ages? My friend did not elaborate further on this point but it made me start thinking. What started happening 700 years ago? Was that really the dividing point where we started to steer wrong?

For 700 years we have re-oriented not only the Church but our entire culture towards material ends. What has that 700 years brought us? The long slow shift in human value from intrinsic and derived from the Imago Dei to the totally materialist notion that a man is “worth” only what he owns. The invention and finally supremacy of the cash economy – the exchange of work for pay as opposed to the integration of work as part of the sanctifying life – has dehumanised labour. This has given rise to the great calamity of the Industrial Revolution, a Protestant invention that has scarred and disfigured both the planet and the human soul almost beyond recognition.

This shift paved the way for the 16th century invention of poverty: hopeless, insoluble, landless pauperism, as a kind of punishable moral defect, when the vicious Henry VIII made homeless, wandering beggars of huge numbers of formerly happy (and materially prosperous) monks. In a stroke, by his grand theft of the monastic lands and slaughter of monastic leaders, Henry the Ravener deprived his country of spiritual solace and moral guidance; material aid and help for the poor, elderly, disabled and sick; the main source of education and scholarship; agriculture and manufacturing; an ancient, stable social order that had given meaning and philosophical cohesion to the nation for a thousand years.

In the Dissolution and Protestantisation of England we certainly have a clear lesson of what the abolition of monasticism does to a nation, now we simply magnify that result for the rest of Christendom. In England it ushered in century of misery; ideological totalitarianism[14], internecine rivalry and conflict that finally dissolved into civil war as the various factions, deprived of the moral constraints of the Faith, fought like wild dogs over the treasures the mass-murdering apostates Henry and Elizabeth had looted from their rightful custodians. Sounds depressingly familiar.

We know that a big part of the methodology to install the New Paradigm has been the re-writing of history, and the popular view of that long period between the fall of the old Empire and the rise of the new Humanism is still dominated by the heavy hand of the Victorian anti-Catholic writers[15]. Serious historians have long ignored the fanatical anti-Catholic bigotry of Edward Gibbon but it is this mindset that has informed our picture of the Ages of Faith and remains the default opinion of the ordinary non-academic person. Because of the global supremacy of Protestant-informed, materialist, Anglo-Saxon outlook since the rise of the British and American Empires this is the view that prevails nearly everywhere in the western world[16].

But if we pull back the curtain of lies generated by Protestant revisionist historians, what do we find? Monasteries. Lots and lots of monasteries. How many monks were there in England in the year of grace, 1525? The Wikipedia page on the Dissolution tells us there were close to 900 monasteries, priories and friaries in England just before his massacre, housing about 12,000 people. This was for an estimated total population of about half a million. As a Christian nation, unified in an identity granted by a common faith, England was founded, built and maintained by monks[17].It is easy to look back at the material advances brought by monasticism. If you like beer, if you keep bees, if you went to university, if you’ve ever been treated in a hospital, thank a monk.

But from the 6th to the 13th century, Christendom and Benedictine monasticism were almost interchangeable, and the monastic understanding of the purpose of Christianity is the precise inversion of the modern understanding. To a monk, the faith is about sanctification, and it is this sanctified – as the eastern monastics put it this “divinised” – person who has the strength and energy to produce all the material benefits of Christian civilisation.

A long time ago, an elderly nun whose community I was considering joining issued the challenge that was, until the end of the Ages of Faith, understood by every Christian to be the purpose of life: “Well, Hilary, you’re going to have to become a saint eventually. Easier to do it in this life than to have to do it in the next.” I think this is what my friend the Important Monastic Personage meant. For 700 years we have aimed our civilisation – and our own lives – at the secondary goods of Christianity. We want a civil order founded on universal, absolute principles of justice and goodness; we want material prosperity, security and a guarantee that our sovereign personhood will be respected by our governments. We even want “inner peace,” however that is understood. The one thing we have been taught not to want is the only possible means to get these things, the antecedent requirements that make them possible.

We think of sanctity – the bi-locating, stigmatic, raising-people-from-the-dead kind – as the exception, and of course by the numbers it is. But for the God who was crucified, it was intended as the norm. The extraordinary manifestations of the saints – granted as signs for the rest of us – are products of what the great sanctified thinkers have called the Transforming Union. And they call it that because it changes you, it makes you into a radically new being.

In its description of Padre Pio, EWTN offers this description of the Transforming Union, or the Unitive Life, as it has been described for 2 millennia:

According to the doctrine of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the progress of growth in holiness and union with God in prayer rises together. Beginning with the most simple and human practices the person is transformed, supernaturalized, in their exterior life with man and in their interior life with God. This progress can be summarized as being emptied of self and being filled with God, or putting off the old man (Adam) and putting on the new man (Christ), or simply, conformity to Christ. It involves acts on the part of the Christian, but even more so the initiative and grace of God to raise the person to the heights of holiness, to which all are called but which few seem to achieve.

A while ago, I proposed to some friends, “What would the world look like if one in ten Catholics achieved the Transforming Union?” The answer? A total transformation of our entire world; a world set alight. All humanity would be changed. What is wrong with the world? We are. Human sinfulness and disordered desires are – after 700 years increasingly deprived of moral restraint – now rampant, and raging across the globe. What is the only solution?

I think we cling to the material answer – our works – because we know how much harder the supernatural solution would be. Ours is the easy way, the way of politics and activism. But here’s the rub: to make it work we ourselves would have to cease to be products of this seven-century long corruption. There is a way to do this, but it is the project of a lifetime. The only thing human beings have ever come up with to solve it is the monastic life; the intense boiling away of impurities provided by this total, 24-hour a day focus on God.

This is the monastic solution, and it is not dependent on our Bright Ideas, our campaigns, our activism. It is the cessation of these things, in fact, and the radical opening of the self to the designs of God.

My monastic friend closed her letter, saying,

“So these are my thoughts to be added to yours, but please know they are joined by my prayers. May the Lord soon restore monastic life to its central place in the heart of the church. While it may mean a return to the deserts and clusters of pious women known before the monastic age, we hope and pray that He might call women to stand in the breach and ‘rebuild His church.’ May He bless you abundantly ~”

 

NOTES:

[1] We can of course immediately dispense with the notion that Pope Francis is the source of our troubles. He is, in fact, with all his anti-rational, anti-Catholic nonsense-blithering, merely the embodiment or the personification of the crisis. As though God in His permissive will, has allowed all the world to see what kind of creature the New Paradigm of the Church and the world will produce. “See? Repent! Return to the Faith! Don’t let this happen to you!”

[2] If I had a TARDIS, my personal favourite candidate for temporal relocation – perhaps to some uncomfortable place in the middle of an ice age – would be William of Ockham, the 13th century intellectual fraud who first injected the poison of Nominalism into Catholic thinking.

[3] As if we needed another little tidbit of evidence: the report from Vatican Radio declines to grant the founder his correct Catholic identity. The Pope’s news service calls this great saint, mystic and Doctor of the Church, merely “the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux.” Oh, well, if that’s all…

[4] Acedia: “sadness at holy things” – the spiritual illness to which monks tend to be prone. Called “sloth,” for the torpor and indifference it produces, it is much more akin to envy, and often manifests itself in the younger monks as a desire to leave the silence of their cell or cloister and go about the world doing “more important things.” The Desert Fathers always offered the same cure: “Stay in your cell.”

[5] Also, we need to not get ourselves too worked up about these stories. Monastic buildings are meant for monks, and monks will always be around to take up the life in them again. Good ideas don’t die; only communities that abandon them. If these monks-of-a-certain-age failed to keep the fire alight, plenty of young people are ready to pick up the torch. Catholic history is jammed with monastic re-foundings and revivals.

[6] But whatever you do, don’t ask why the monks don’t use Gregorian Chant.

[7] A countryside B&B.

[8] Farfa is so old that their foundation is quasi-mythical, said to have been in the 4th century – built on the ruins of a pagan temple – by a saintly bishop known only as Lawrence the Syrian who came to Italy with a group of desert monks to transplant monastic life here, and to civilise Italy that was in danger of falling into pagan barbarism. Farfa has been founded, destroyed by Vandals, re-founded, become rich and famous, been sacked by Saracens and re-built. It fell into moral depravity when its abbot was poisoned, twice, by wicked, corrupt monks. It was reformed and fell into depravity again in a time when the monks looted their own sanctuary and lived lives given over to vice. And all this before the end of the 10th century. The original monastic community was all but extinct by 1920 when a group of monks went there from Rome to get it started again. Farfa’s longevity as a  Benedictine house, through all the ups and downs of the last 1600 years of European history, is legendary and at least once has been attributed to a direct intervention from the Blessed Virgin Mary. Its incredible staying power tends to lend hope that even the current state of desuetude is only another passing phase, a hope we might dare to extend to the rest of the Church.

[9] This hatred is not natural to believers, but has been carefully manufactured and maintained through concerted propaganda by those who injected the ideology of the New Paradigm into the Church.

[10] This includes those campaigning for such immoral objects as homosexual “marriage”. These campaigns invariably use moral language, demanding their objectives on the grounds of absolute right and wrong. Those who object are cast as villains trying to suppress the natural rights and dignity of the person. However twisted and corrupt its object may be, the campaign’s success always rests on exactly the same desire for a life according to the moral law, ordered to absolute and indisputable good. Unfortunately, those upholding the traditional sexual morality are the only ones who see the irony.

[11] Anyone trying to maintain, at this stage, that there is no catastrophe may go and sit at the children’s’ table while the grownups are talking.

[12] One thing I’ll say for this pope, he’s certainly created a great sense of unity among the remaining believers; and, thank God, put a stop to quite a lot of this tedious bickering.

[13] It seems like a harsh judgment, but what else can we call the statistics showing the nearly universal support among Catholics for legal abortion “in limited circumstances” if not faithlessness? Indeed it would not be too far to stretch to call this appalling statistic a sign of savage barbarism not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. Even in those times, when the Paterfamilias decided, upon the birth of a child, whether he would be “accepted” as part of the family, the child was not sucked from its mother’s womb already shredded into sausage meat. The comparatively civilized Romans at least bundled the child up alive and left him to the care of the gods or fate. These “exposed” children were often picked up and taken home to be baptised and raised by the lowborn Christians. Or given a decent Christian burial. A tour of the catacombs of St. Sylvester will reveal dozens of tiny tombs for these foundling infants.

[14] I have heard there are still people out there who do not understand that Elizabeth I was a vicious, illegitimate tyrant who terrorized her own people by the creation of the western world’s first modern, ideological police state. I am astounded by this. St. Margaret Clitherow, martyr and hider of priests, pray for us. Our Lady of Walsingham, intercede for the conversion of England, thy lawful dowry.

[15] That the incredible mathematical precision and astounding engineering artistry of Chartres Cathedral seems to make no impact on this opinion about the “primitive” and “barbaric” Middle Ages is a clear signal that their disparagement has nothing to do with reality and is in fact a product of their ideology.

[16] A good place to start dispelling the brainwashing is the wonderful series of art history programmes for the BBC made by Sir Kenneth Clark in 1969. “Civilisation” was the first place I learned that the exclusively Catholic civilisation of the Middle Ages was what saved the world from the pagan barbarism and chaos that swept into the void when the disorganized and disheartened Empire could no longer keep the Pax Romana. Later it was only this (already badly weakened) civilisation that saved the world from the appalling threat of Islamic supremacy. The videos are all uploaded to YouTube, and can form the basis of a whole mind-altering, life-changing course that makes rubbish of mendacious Protestant revisionism of “the Dark Ages. In fact it did form the basis of a course in history for my grade 12 year of high school. I don’t know if “Western Civ 12” is still offered to students in the British Columbia public schools, but it would perhaps not be a bad idea for, say, homeschoolers to apply to the BC government for a copy of the syllabus for that course. Even if the course can’t be found, a copy of the companion book, containing the entire script, is easily findable from second hand book dealers, and it contains an extensive reading list, including an entire course’s worth of Sir Kenneth’s own books on Gothic art, Leonardo da Vinci, the art and architecture of Westminster Abbey… indeed an entire programme of study on the history of western art.

[17] Elizabeth II, as probably the last Christian monarch of Britain, was crowned by an ancient monastic rite in the church of one of the greatest monasteries in Christendom. Thank God it was recorded for posterity, since we will not likely ever see such a thing again in this life. After her, the deluge.

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