Mysticism, Monasticism, and the New Evangelization
April 04, 2014
The New Evangelization requires a rediscovery of Christian mysticism, and a revival of the monastic setting which is its natural home
Benjamin Mann Abbot Nicholas Zachariadis
The community at Holy Resurrection Monastery, Saint Nazianz, WI, in June, 2013: Fr. Basil, Fr. Maximos, Abbot Nicholas, Fr. Moses, Br. Ambrose and visitor, Deacon Patrick Firman (Photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery website)
“If God exists, He must be felt. If He is Love, it must be experienced and become the fact of one's inmost life. Without spiritual enlightenment, all is an idle talk, like a bubble which vanishes under the least pressure. Without the awakening of the religious sense or faculty, God is a shadow, the soul a ghost, and life a dream.” — Soyen Shaku, Zen For Americans
“Put out into deep water, and lower your nets for a catch.” — Luke 5:4
The first two topics of this article are not often associated with the third. Many people think of Christian mysticism and monasticism as strictly “in-house” matters, too remote and esoteric to have any bearing on the Church’s re-evangelization of the post-Christian West.
While Catholics generally respect the contemplative vocation, they may see it as peripheral to supposedly more urgent concerns, such as improving catechesis and the liturgy, or bearing witness to faith and morality in public life.
Those concerns are critical. But we believe the New Evangelization of historically Christian countries also requires a rediscovery of Christian mysticism, and a revival of the monastic setting which is its natural home.
The Church has a new task in our time: to re-evangelize regions that are falling away from the faith. Most inhabitants of this post-Christendom are not atheists: many of them are open to “spirituality,” though skeptical toward “religion.”
This public hunger for spirituality reflects a legitimate need. Christians must rediscover the mystical core of the Gospel, and present it to the world through the witness of monasticism.
We have written this article to outline the urgency of both tasks, and their inseparability from one another. To re-evangelize the West, the Church must recover its mystical heritage – but this task requires contact with the living monastic tradition. Monasteries are thus essential to the New Evangelization.
Sympathizing with the “Spiritually Independent”
Though their cultural prominence is new, and their identifying label of recent vintage, the “spiritual but not religious” are no new phenomenon. Great heresies, and even some major world religions, have sprung from the minds of those who sought mystical experience without structure and authority.
Ultimately, we need both mysticism and structure. The spiritual life is not just about connecting with God, but also involves public worship and communion with others. With no doctrinal and dogmatic center, it is hard to tell true experiences of God from delusions – and hard, too, to discern God’s will among the morass of human opinions. For these reasons, and many more, “spirituality” needs “religion.”
Critiques of spiritual individualism will not solve the problem, however. Moved by charity, the Church must respond to whatever is legitimate in the desires of the “spiritual but not religious.” In a misguided way, many of them are seeking something essential: a transcendent, transformative experience of God.
Pascha at Holy Resurrection Monastery, Saint Nazianz, WI, in 2013 (Photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery website)
The Christian faith, in its diverse Eastern and Western forms, is the definitive answer to man’s search for transcendence and meaning. Yet the swelling ranks of the “spiritually independent” – many of them originally baptized into the Church – indicate a vast public ignorance of Christian mysticism.
Worse still, many Christians share this ignorance. They neglect their own mystical tradition, often due to misconceptions about what it actually is. Unschooled in their own rich spiritual heritage, they cannot evangelize those for whom “spirituality” and “religion” are at odds.
This ignorance of mysticism must cease, especially if we care about the New Evangelization of historically Christian nations, which are now the breeding-ground for “spirituality without religion.”
Monasticism has always been a privileged vehicle for the transmission and spread of mystical spirituality, especially among Eastern Christians. Our tradition exists to foster the same intimacy with God that the first hermits sought in the Egyptian deserts. The same is true of traditional Western monasticism, especially in the Benedictine lineage which drew so much from the Desert Fathers.
We hope that the Western Church will rediscover its own great monastic tradition, and the practical mysticism at its core. Nothing else will suffice for the evangelization of those who seek “spirituality” but mistrust “religion.” Indeed, nothing else will satisfy the needs of the human soul.
What is Christian Mysticism?
Mysticism is often misunderstood, and thus treated as off-limits to the average person. So before speaking of what it is, we must make a clarification. The term “mysticism” does not refer to the extraordinary gifts sometimes found in the lives of saints: visions, private revelations, supernatural abilities, and the like.
These things are not essential to the mystical life, and the saints themselves tell us to not seek them out. We cannot understand the mystical dimension of faith, if we imagine it filled with apparitions, ecstasies, and unusual charismatic gifts. The essence of Christian mysticism is more profound, and more subtle.
Mysticism means relating to God on the deepest level of our being. It means knowing and loving him in a transcendent way, in keeping with his infinite and unfathomable nature. This profound communion with the Triune God is the reason for our existence, the true meaning of our lives.
Christian mysticism is rooted in the soul’s encounter with the Risen Christ, and our reception of the divine life that is his gift. The grace that Christ gives is not merely a created substance, but the indwelling personal presence of the Holy Spirit. The “Spirit of Sonship” conforms us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) – allowing us to share, by grace, in Jesus’ own relationship of oneness with God the Father.
Mysticism thus revolves around a central paradox – a central mystery. That paradox is the closeness of the transcendent God, which makes it possible for us, finite creatures though we are, to be united to him.
We humble ourselves before God’s infinitude; but in this very act of worship, we find he is, as St. Augustine said, “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” We cannot reach God by our own power, yet by his grace, we are re-united with him as the very ground of our own being.
The mystical relationship with the Trinity goes beyond human thoughts and words, although thoughts and words can help us enter into it. Mysticism is also deeper than emotions and desires – though they, too, can help us reach the depths of spiritual life. The mystical life is neither mindless nor emotionless, but it puts the intellect and the emotions at the service of something greater.
The word “mysticism” is related to the idea of “mystery.” From a mystical perspective, the paradoxes of faith are not intellectual puzzles to solve, but sacred realities to approach with awe. God reveals himself, yet remains infinitely mysterious – always more unknown than known.
There are different schools of Christian mysticism, with different vocabularies and methods. But they are all responses to the same truth: the absolutely transcendent God has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ. The wholly Other has become one of us, sharing in our death and rising again to give us his everlasting Life. The Lord Jesus wants to give us his Spirit, and make us sons of his Father.
These are revealed truths, the factual basis of our faith. But they are also mysteries that we can never fully comprehend. To be a mystic is to found one’s life on the truth of the Incarnation, while striving to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ and the life of the Trinity.
Christian mysticism is not for a select few. Christ tells us that this union with God is for all: “Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him” (John 14:23, NJB).
The Dangers of Discarding Christian Mysticism
Understood in this sense, mysticism is not optional. If we strip the Gospel of mystery and mysticism, we cut out its heart. For the Church is Christ’s Mystical Body, united to the Lord in the Paschal Mystery.
Yet there is a temptation to substitute other things for that direct encounter between the soul and the Lord. We often shy away from that transforming union with God, replacing it with something else: something we can comprehend or control, which takes less discipline and sacrifice.
Pascha at Holy Resurrection Monastery, Saint Nazianz, WI, in 2012 (Photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery website)
This temptation is pernicious, because most of our substitutes for mysticism are good and necessary in themselves: doctrine and theology; moral virtue and good works; sacred music and art; social action and reform. All of these things can support a transcendent relationship with God – but none of them can take its place. They cannot substitute for our spiritual union with God in Christ.
When lesser goods occupy the place of the mystical life, we become spiritually blind. Doctrinal orthodoxy, moral uprightness, and the externals of Church life become substitutes for God’s very presence. Surrounded by the paraphernalia of holiness, we believe we are close to God, when in fact our hearts and souls are far from him.
The Church exists to unite us with God, as partakers of the Divine Life, and every other aspect of our religion serves this ultimate purpose. We must never forget this, in our practice and proclamation of the faith.
The neglect of Christian mysticism has severe consequences. If they are given doctrine and morality with no clear path to union with God, Christians are tempted to seek the very inverse: spirituality without objective truth, mysticism with no moral or intellectual guide rails.
If the Church does not offer instruction in the spiritual life, believers will not give up their desire for it. Often they will seek it in a non-Christian setting, looking to New Age teachers or Far Eastern religions.
The modern “spiritual marketplace” is a challenge for all Christians: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. But it is a particular challenge for Western Christians, whose mystical and contemplative traditions have (since at least the 16th century) been less prominent, and less accessible to the lay faithful, than those schools of mysticism native to the Christian East.
By encountering our Eastern tradition, Western Christians can reconnect with their own mystical and monastic roots – as they must, in order to evangelize the spiritual seekers in their midst.
Practical Mysticism: The Prayer of the Heart
The mystical life, then, is essential to the Christian faith. The gift of union with God, in Christ, belongs to all the baptized, who comprise “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9, RSV-CE).
This means, too, that mysticism is inseparable from the liturgy and the sacraments since worship is the central, definitive act of God’s people; and it is through the sacraments that we first become partakers of Christ’s life.
Within these guidelines, there are various approaches to mysticism. It would be dangerous, however, to attempt a reconstruction of Christian mysticism “from scratch” – as though the centuries of Church history, and the lives of the saints, had not occurred.
Nor is it prudent to approach the mystical tradition alone, simply by studying texts without personal guidance. It is best to make contact with the tradition through its living recipients and representatives.
For Eastern Christians, this means looking to monasteries – the traditional setting for the transmission and spread of practical mysticism.
This was also the case in the Western Church for most of its history. Thus, we suggest that Western Christians should also look to monasticism, as much as possible, as a point of entry into the living mystical tradition.
We hope, too, that monasteries in the West may regain their historical status as cultural centers, places of pilgrimage and spiritual direction. Eastern Christians are well equipped to help the West recover its heritage in this regard.
Western Christians have no need to “Easternize” themselves, however. The Christian West should look Eastward, not for externals to adopt, but to gain a deeper understanding of itself.
This was the approach taken by the renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in several of his works. A helpful example of Roman Catholic engagement with the Christian East is found in his book The Climate of Monastic Prayer (also published with the title Contemplative Prayer).
Merton’s interest in the Christian East arose partly from his desire to recapture the spirituality of the early Desert Fathers, from which his own Cistercian-Benedictine tradition descended. St. Benedict had drawn from Greek and Egyptian traditions, through the writings of St. Basil and St. John Cassian, in establishing the Benedictine Rule.
For Merton, the “strict observance” of that Rule was not enough: one also had to return to the wellspring of Patristic teaching and practice, which meant looking to Eastern monasticism.
In doing so, Merton hoped to remind Roman Catholics of a heritage which belonged to them just as much as to the Eastern churches. He understood the universal value of certain Eastern Christian practices – above all, what is called the “Prayer of the Heart,” or the “Jesus Prayer.”
Pascha at Holy Resurrection Monastery, Saint Nazianz, WI, in 2013 (Photo: Holy Resurrection Monastery website)
Contrary to some presentations, this practice is not a “technique,” physical or otherwise. There is also no single, mandatory set of words that one must use. The words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” are widely used; but other formulas – longer, shorter, or completely different – are legitimate.
As the 19th century Russian bishop St. Theophan taught: “The words pronounced are merely a help, and are not essential. The principal thing is to stand before the Lord with the mind in the heart. This, and not the words, is inner spiritual prayer.”
Thomas Merton was an avid reader of St. Theophan, and of earlier monastic fathers like St. John Climacus and St. Diadochus of Photike. Through his study of these Eastern sources, Merton understood the Prayer of the Heart as something simple and universal.
In The Climate of Monastic Prayer, he summarizes the Prayer of the Heart, as a practice consisting in “interior recollection, the abandonment of distracting thoughts and the humble invocation of the Lord Jesus with words from the Bible in a spirit of intense faith.”
“This simple practice,” Merton writes, “is considered to be of crucial importance in the monastic prayer of the Eastern Church, since the sacramental power of the Name of Jesus is believed to bring the Holy Spirit into the heart of the praying monk.”
Though different prayer formulas may be used, we are warned against changing the words often. In calm persistence, we repeat one simple prayer, calling upon the Lord in a spirit of inner poverty. No discursive thought, imaginative meditation, or emotional exertion is involved. This is the Prayer of the Heart.
This prayer, as Merton notes, is not merely one feature among many in monastic life. Ideally, it is the core of all spirituality and asceticism:
“The practice of keeping the name of Jesus ever present in the ground of one’s being was, for the ancient monks, the secret of the ‘control of thoughts’ and of victory over temptation. It accompanied all the other activities of the monastic life imbuing them with prayer.”
We concur with Merton, that the Prayer of the Heart is not a just an Eastern practice. It is, as he says, “the essence of monastic meditation, a special form of that practice of the presence of God which St. Benedict in turn made the cornerstone of monastic life.” The Prayer of the Heart is for all Christians, in every walk of life.
Merton also saw Eastern monasticism as preserving the connection between personal and liturgical prayer. Elsewhere in The Climate of Monastic Prayer, he notes that “liturgy by its very nature tends to prolong itself in individual contemplative prayer, and mental prayer in its turn disposes us for and seeks fulfillment in liturgical worship.”
Byzantine monasticism preserves this connection, through its strong emphasis on both liturgical prayer and the Prayer of the Heart. At Holy Resurrection Monastery, we have incorporated the silent practice of the Jesus Prayer into the community’s liturgical life.
Merton’s research drew on writings from the Christian East, and parallel aspects of Western monasticism. But his exposure to our tradition was hampered by a sad fact: in Merton’s day, there were practically no Eastern Catholic monasteries observing the authentic Byzantine tradition in the western world. For much of the 20th century, in fact, there were relatively few traditional Eastern Catholic monasteries anywhere.
This situation is slowly changing. Holy Resurrection Monastery hopes to make a difference, by providing a setting in which all Catholics can participate in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Christian East. By encountering Byzantine monasticism, and discovering the Prayer of the Heart, all Christians can grow in their appreciation of the Gospel’s mystical dimension.
New Evangelization: Re-integrating “Religion” and “Spirituality”
At first glance, the subjects we have taken up – Christian mysticism, monastic life, and the Prayer of the Heart – may seem unrelated to the work of evangelization. Yet this only goes to show how badly we have neglected and marginalized the mystical heart of the Gospel.
Karl Rahner famously said that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” This may be an overstatement, but it points to an important aspect of the crisis of faith now sweeping many of the Church’s historic heartlands.
Increasingly, we can expect that those unaware of Christian mysticism will dismiss our faith as shallow, or abandon it for something that seems more “spiritual.” Many clergy and lay faithful, ignorant of the mystical tradition themselves, are powerless to stop this trend.
The New Evangelization must offer many things, including sound catechesis, moral guidance, social action, and reverent worship. All of these things, however, must be put into their proper context. They are ultimately not ends in themselves, but aspects of the path to union with God.
Without this transcendent dimension, our New Evangelization runs the risk of simply creating new institutional structures, to offer doctrine and morality as if they were ends in themselves.
The closeness of the transcendent God is not a theoretical abstraction. It is a fact – the most important fact there is. The divine presence must become the basis of the believer’s whole life, through that harmony of liturgical and contemplative prayer which is the foundation of Christian mysticism.
We cannot recreate the mystical tradition anew, nor can we learn it from books alone. If the Church is to recover the primacy of the mystical life, the living tradition of monasticism must lead the way.
To those who doubt the value of monasticism for the New Evangelization, we say: “Come and see!” (John 1:39). For the witness of our tradition cannot be conveyed by words alone.
To those who doubt the need for both “religion” and “spirituality,” we extend the same invitation: Come and see! We hope you will see how monastic life, for all its discipline and structure, exists for the sake of a supreme freedom – “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21, RSV-CE)
About the Author
Benjamin Mann is a member of Holy Resurrection Monastery, due to be tonsured a monk in April 2015. He writes a regular column for Catholic Exchange and released a short autobiographical book entitled "Shouting Through The Water" in October 2014.
About the Author
Abbot Nicholas Zachariadis
Archimandrite Nicholas Zachariadis is the founding abbot of Holy Resurrection Monastery, an Eastern Catholic monastery in Saint Nazianz, Wisconsin.
The Necessity of Contemplative Monasticism for the New Evangelization
When we discuss the "New Evangelization," we tend to think of the many active ways in which the Church seeks to engage the world and to share the Gospel with it. From large-scale special events such as World Youth Day and the recently completed Year of Faith; to the everyday work at the diocesan and parochial level in evangelization, catechesis, pro-life ministry, and service to the poor and suffering; to the efforts of laity and clergy alike in social media to explain the faith in blogs, speaker conferences, and publishing - it is easy to see that we are indeed a very busy Church doing much work to advance the Good News. In vocations, some of the strongest growth in recent years has been in orders with visible and active apostolates, such as those of the Eastern Province Dominican friars and the Dominican sisters in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Nashville, Tennessee. A less apparent, but no less necessary aspect of this great effort is found in the life of contemplation, particularly in that of the contemplative monastic orders. In order to get a more complete picture of this great endeavor to share the Good News, we must explore the rich gift of cultural witness, prayer, and personal holiness that the monastic orders (particularly the Benedictine and Cistercian orders) have given to the Church throughout history down to the present day.
A Call to Something Greater
Since the early days of the Church, men and women have been called by God to sell their possessions, renounce attachment to the things of the world, and to enter into lives of prayer, solitude, and a closer union with God. Following the example of Jesus praying and fasting in the desert prior to beginning his public ministry, they left the towns and cities to live eremitical lives in the Egyptian desert. We know about these early monks and nuns - the Desert Fathers and Mothers - through their wisdom, which has been recorded and handed down to us through the centuries. The great monk, St. Antony of Egypt, whose life is recounted by St. Athanasius, is a prime example of a man who sold all he had and went into the desert. After many years of rigorous fasting, prayer, temptations, and demonic attacks, St. Antony came to be known by the people as a holy man. St. Athanasius writes of Antony as a man divinized by his abandonment of self and his attachment to Christ.
These desert hermits began to attract disciples, and over time a new form of life began to take shape: the cenobitic, or community life. Rather than living as solitary hermits, men and women started to form communities as places where spiritual masters could impart their teaching to other like-minded people wishing to grow in holiness. Out of this communal experience came monastic rules, community governance under an abbot, common liturgical life, and commercial activity as a means of self-support.
In the Western Church, the great and definitive cultural innovation of the Rule of St. Benedict came about in the 6th century. His simple Rule sets forth organizing principles for a life of communal prayer, fraternity, and charity. A subsequent renewal of life under the Benedictine Rule by the Cistercian founders in 1098 brought a new vitality to the Church that serves as a good example to us today of three most essential principles: cultural witness, prayer, and personal holiness.
The cultural witness of the monastic life serves as a corrective to some of the excesses and deficiencies of the secular culture in several unique ways, even in contrast to other forms of Catholic consecrated life. Perhaps the most visible of these is the monastic life of stability, wherein a professed monk or nun vows to remain in his particular community until death. By this vow, the monk or nun vows to remain in the geographic location of the monastery and with the community of his or her brothers or sisters. In an age not only of great family instability due to divorce and other offenses against loyalty and interpersonal commitment but also of great mobility, it is a singularly countercultural act to say, "I will stay here, on this piece of land and in these buildings, with this group of brothers, until I die." The monastic cemetery serves as a silent reminder of this vow, whereby even the deceased members of the monastic community are remembered and included in the life of the monastery. This vow of stability is one unique to the Benedictine life; where other religious orders observe vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the monastic orders take the vow of stability, obedience, and "conversion of life", whereby a monk or nun vows always to conform ever more closely to God, to the precepts of the Rule, and to the customs of the particular monastic community.
Seeing Glory in the Ordinary
Perhaps most prominent among the customs of monastic life is the discipline of silence. Popular imagination notwithstanding, there is no monastic "vow of silence"; rather, monks speak as necessary in the course of work, or when meeting privately with one another in specially designated areas of the monastery. Meals are taken in silence, with one of the brothers reading from a book during the course of the meal. This culture of silence extends beyond simply speech; radio, TV, movies, mobile phones, and even bright colors are all absent from the cloister. This "sensory deprivation" of silence, neutral colors, and elimination of distraction all help the monk to direct his thoughts toward God. This testimony of silence is such a powerful witness to a world that seems to assault its inhabitants with ever more stimuli each day. In the silence, we confront our true selves: our memories, our desires, our temptations, our struggles, and our joys. In doing so, we begin to see our profound need for God, and also His love for us. It was in this intense silence and solitude that I came to see how burdensome my own sinfulness is, and by extension, to see how great God's love for us is, that he would send His son to bear the weight of all our sins for all eternity.
Another aspect of monastic cultural witness is found in the monk's life of manual labor and prayer. Communities of monks and nuns have always sought to support themselves through manual labor of some sort rather than through donations, as in the mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans. Monastic labor has traditionally been agricultural work and animal husbandry, whereby monasteries supported themselves through the sale of farm products; this tradition is particularly strong in the Trappist and Cistercian traditions. In contrast to a broad culture that often values productivity, efficiency, and long hours of work over other human consideration, the monastic approach to work is as countercultural as the vow of stability. The Trappist monks of New Melleray Abbey, for example, do about 4 to 4 1/2 hours of manual labor per day, working in the garden, doing their assigned tasks around the monastery, or working in the casket factory that generates the vast majority of the community's income. The work is meant to be an extension, rather than an interruption of, the monk's life of prayer; therefore, a spirit of prayerful attention to the work at hand is called for. Nothing is rushed, or hastily done, or noisily announced. Pope Benedict XVI summarized it best in his address to representatives of the world of culture during his 2008 visit to France: "human work was now seen as a special form of human resemblance to God, as a way in which man can and may share in God's activity as creator of the world. Naturally, this ethos had to include the idea that human work and the shaping of history are understood as sharing in the work of the Creator, and must be evaluated in those terms” .
This attitude toward labor is reflected in the Benedictine Rule, which says, "Prefer nothing to the work of God," meaning, "prefer nothing to the communal liturgical prayer of the Divine Office." This primary emphasis on the life of prayer is the second aspect of the contemplative role in our New Evangelization; in placing the liturgical prayer first, the monk seeks to sanctify time itself by following the same schedule of liturgical prayer from day to day and year to year in the same way he seeks to sanctify a specific physical location through his vow of stability. From their devotion to the Divine Office, we are reminded that the Office is the other great liturgical action of the Church in addition to Holy Mass.
To Be in the World, but not of It
Though monks and nuns lead hidden lives in silence, they offer their prayers for the Church and for the world. By the constant and powerful prayers of the contemplative communities on behalf of those who cannot or will not pray, as well as for the conversion of all peoples to Christ, they are often likened to a 'heart' or 'engine' for the Church's mission of evangelization. The Second Vatican Council, in its document Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church, stated, "Institutes of the contemplative life, by their prayers, sufferings, and works of penance have a very great importance in the conversion of souls, because it is God who sends workers into His harvest… God who opens the minds of non-Christians to hear the Gospel..., and God who fructifies the word of salvation in their hearts" . We are reminded, therefore, that it is not through our own efforts, but rather through God's grace that the evangelization of the world is carried out. The monks of New Melleray Abbey close one of their early morning Vigils with a moving and beautiful prayer for "those who are sick, those who cannot sleep, those who are using this night for evil purpose, and those who fear the coming of the day." What great reassurance it is to know that such men and women are praying for us!
To encounter monks and nuns is to experience the last key element of the monastic contemplative's role in the New Evangelization: the personal holiness of the individual monk or nun. In simple, materialistic terms, the contemplative life seems almost pointless; unlike religious who educate, treat the sick, assist women in crisis pregnancies, tend to the material needs of the poor, or travel to distant lands to preach the Gospel, monks and nuns do not seem to "do" much. They pray the Divine Office, they assist at Mass, they intently read Scripture, and they welcome guests who come to their monasteries. However, the ongoing, lifelong formation in silence, prayer, lectio divina, penance, and solitude helps them to achieve an ever deepening union with God. This was the motivation for the early Desert Fathers and Mothers, as well as the monks of the 11th and 12th centuries, and also of the monks and nuns of our own time. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest of the Cistercian fathers and a doctor of the Church, succinctly wrote, "The reason for loving God is God; the measure of this love is to love without measure."
In being transformed by this measureless love for God, the monks and nuns hope to become divinized, as St. Antony was. Paradoxically, their lamps cannot be hidden under the bushels of their cloisters: St. Bernard was called upon to preach, to encourage, and to settle disputes; St. Anselm was made Archbishop of Canterbury; the Benedictine scholar Jean LeClercq, writing of St. Gregory the Great, described him as a "contemplative condemned to action" . The world, in aching to hear the Good News, has throughout history sought out the holiness and wisdom of contemplative monks and nuns, and today ought be no different if we wish for the success of the New Evangelization. We can do this through praying for the monastic orders, through visiting monasteries for retreats, and through learning about monastic spirituality and history through the writings of the great monastic theologians and teachers. In his encyclical on the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Pius XII warns us of the need that we now call the New Evangelization when he writes, "A certain restlessness, anxiety, and fear have invaded the minds of men. It is indeed to be greatly feared that if the light of the Gospel gradually fades and wanes in the minds of many, or if - what is even worse - they utterly reject it, the very foundations of civil and domestic society will collapse, and more evil times will unhappily result" . May God hear the prayers of our monks and nuns, may He ever increase their numbers and their holiness, and may He grant us His salvation.
1. Pope Benedict XVI, "Meeting with Representatives from the World of Culture", College des Bernardins, Paris, Sept. 12, 2008.
2. Vatican Council II, "Decree Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church," #40.
3. LeClercq, Jean. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, p. 28. New York: Fordham University Press, 1961.
4. Pope Pius XII, Doctor Mellifluus, May 24, 1953.
Colin O'Brien completed a six-week observership with the Trappist community at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa in spring 2013, and is affiliated with the monastery as a layman through its Monastic Center program. He currently works in the USCCB's Communications Department* and has previously worked as a litigation paralegal in New York City. He periodically updates his personal blog, "Fallen Sparrow," and also sings in his parish choir.
Colin is a native of Minneapolis and studied philosophy at the University of Minnesota. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area.
(*The preceeding commentary constitutes the personal views of Mr. O'Brien, and do not reflect the views of the USCCB.)
WHERE RUPTURE WAS BETTER THAN CONTINUITY
Sometimes, when the Church makes a break with the past, it can see its continuity, its true nature, more clearly than before the rupture. Franz Jaggerstatter, by his lonely resistence and death, showed us the true face of Catholicism.
Besides being the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Nagasaki by an atom bomb, today is the 72nd anniversary of the martyrdom of Franz Jägerstätter. Jägerstätter was an Austrian Catholic farmer who, for his refusal to collaborate with the Nazi regime, was beheaded in Berlin on the 9th of August 1943. Jägerstätter saw with amazing clarity what was going on around him. Aware of the demonic character of Nazism, he spoke out clearly and without fear to both neighbors and strangers about the hell Hitler’s movement was rushing into. He has come to be widely recognized as a patron saint of conscientious objectors. A few years ago he was beatified at the cathedral in Vienna, but during Jägerstätter’s lifetime no member of the Austrian or German hierarchy declared that it was a sin to join the Nazi Party or to fight and kill in Hitler’s armies. The bishops closed their eyes and their mouths — just as the vast majority of church leaders in the US did during the greater part of the Vietnam War.