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Monasticism and the Reformation

13 Nov

In a comment on my recent education-related post, Matthew brought up the subject of monasteries, which I responded to with a thought I’ve had.

I’ve long thought, BTW, that the Reformation was too quick in eliminating all monasticism; why couldn’t the cloisters be reformed rather than abolished, I don’t know.  I’ve always thought it’d be great, for those who choose the single life, to have the support of the church in doing so, rather than find oneself truly on one’s own…

This is something I’ve thought about, given the MGTOW (men going their own way) types in the manosphere.  Obviously, our Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox friends are going to think, “Well, duh!”, but I wonder how many Protestants other than Anglicans have given much thought to monasteries, and nunneries for that matter, too – and the role they have played in history, in so many ways – the hospitals established by nuns; the scientific and technological advances developed in monasteries (the mechanical clock was invented by monks seeking to know exact times for their scheduled prayers; the contributions of Gregor Mendel and many others to scientific knowledge, and the like), not to mention Chartreuse and Benedictine and Frangelico liqueurs, Belgian ‘abbey’ ales, etc. (All drinkers, rejoice!)  This is to say nothing, so far, of all the hymns composed by monks, ancient knowledge and writings preserved, etc.  And Luther himself started out as a monk, too; if it weren’t for the contemplative life he lived, affording him great amounts of time to think about things, the Reformation itself might not have happened…

Luther and Calvin came out swinging against monasticism, because of the many abuses and corruptions they witnessed within such communities – and indeed, we know about many unfortunate things that happened within some or many monasteries (homosexual relations between monks; monks frequenting prostitutes in town, getting plastered out of their gourds, etc.), and many more.

But I wonder, sometimes, whether in getting rid of them rather than trying to reform them and introduce more accountability, etc., as they did the Church, the reformers ‘threw the baby out with the bathwater’; and not only because of all the innumerable benefits the world has received from monasteries, but also, frankly, that in having such communities, the Church had a place for those who deemed that the married life was not for them, and where they could have the support of a community of like-minded fellow Christians.  Surely, the existence of such communities provided support for the MGTOW (and WGTOW, too) of the past; it provided a place for them, where they could live out their lives not in relative isolation from each other, but as people united towards common, godly purposes – and contribute greatly towards Western civilization, too, as it happened.  (Remember, Christ Himself acknowledged that marriage isn’t for all men; as did Paul, of course.  So why not have the Church acknowledging that more concretely, by providing a specific place for such?)

Might we as a civilization – and as Christians – not benefit from a revival of monasticism, today?  Even within Protestantism?  (I am especially interested in hearing from my fellow Protestants’ thoughts on this, though certainly not only.)

 
18 Comments

Posted by on November 13, 2011 in spirituality

 

18 responses to “Monasticism and the Reformation

  1. Ulysses

    November 13, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    I’ll go ahead and throw it out there I’m interested in monasticism from a Protestant and Anglican angle as it requires a different sort of choice. Essentially all Catholics who want to dedicate their lives to God must choose celibacy, but other faiths allow for both celibate devotees and married, monogamous devotees. (For the sake of simplicity I’m ignoring the decision by certain denominations, my own included, to accept serial non-martial homosexual monogamy as an expression of “marriage.”)

    As such, I think there is a certain power in voluntary celibacy, as opposed to mandatory celibacy, as it carries with it a level of chosen dedication that is amenable to theological and scientific discovery. This is not to say that theologically mandated celibacy is at odds with those goals as free will and choices are always free will and choices, but that there is value to be had from those who freely choose celibacy when sex is an option.

     
  2. Will S.

    November 13, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Anglican monks can be married, Ulysses? I didn’t know that. I admit, I know very little about Anglican monasticism; I always assumed it was a more-or-less Anglo-Catholic mirror image of Roman Catholic monasticism.

    I guess I always have seen any form of monasticism as involving voluntary celibacy, insofar as one chooses to either be a monk or nun, or not; and if the order requires, as Catholic ones do (BTW, I also don’t know about Orthodoxy, whether any of their orders have married members), celibacy, then the hour of decision is when one decides to join…

    I agree, though, that it is a powerful statement, to decide to forego marriage and observe lifetime celibacy…

     
  3. Ulysses

    November 13, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Anglican monks cannot be married, there was a problem way back involving “spiritual sisters,” you get the idea, but priests and bishops have long been free from a sex standpoint. That’s why I respect the monks – less glory, but more abdication.

     
  4. Will S.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Ah; got it.

    That’s interesting, that Anglican clergy are free to marry, whilst their monastic orders cannot. Indeed, a higher standard to meet…

     
  5. Will S.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:24 am

    And if other Protestants were to do as the Anglicans do, and permit monasticism, they’d be in the same boat, i.e. having clergy who can be married, but monks who aren’t…

    I haven’t thought much about the implications of this, but ’tis interesting to consider…

     
  6. CL

    November 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    And Luther himself started out as a monk, too; if it weren’t for the contemplative life he lived, affording him great amounts of time to think about things, the Reformation itself might not have happened…

    Are you trying to argue for, or against, monasteries? 😛

     
  7. CL

    November 14, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    As such, I think there is a certain power in voluntary celibacy, as opposed to mandatory celibacy

    But in a sense, isn’t it all voluntary? Since going into religious life is not mandatory for anyone, the choice includes the choice to be celibate and chaste.

     
    • Ulysses

      November 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      Stop poking holes in my logic, CL.

      Yes, it’s all voluntary. For me the thing is I really enjoy sex and cannot imagine giving it up to dedicate myself to religion given that my faith doesn’t require it. To say, “I could marry and have sex and still pursue my studies within the church, but choose not to” is very impressive to me.

       
  8. CL

    November 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Catholic Deacons can be married too, so there is always that option for those who are called to minister but also to marriage.

     
  9. Will S.

    November 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    “Are you trying to argue for, or against, monasteries?”

    Ha! 🙂

     
  10. CL

    November 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    @Ulysses

    I’m impressed with it either way, because I think I’d go batty pretty quickly if I thought I was never going to have sex again (it’s one thing to have hope while doing without; it’s another to take a vow of celibacy). Most people would probably go batty, actually.

     
  11. Steve N

    November 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I think I’d go batty pretty quickly if I thought I was never going to have sex again (it’s one thing to have hope while doing without; it’s another to take a vow of celibacy). Most people would probably go batty, actually.

    I don’t have any actual data on this (nor do I know of an actual scientific study), but based on conversations with celibates and non-celibates, it would seem that relinquishing sex once and for all and forever is actually quite a bit easier than giving it up for a short time. My wife and I, for example, use awareness of fertility to “limit” the size of our family (currently this “limit” is at 10). So we go cold turkey for about 7 days out of the lunar cycle. This is extremely difficult for both of us, and I cannot say that we always get through it without falling into some sort of grave sin. (Parenthetically, this is absolute 200 proof rocket fuel for the remaining 20 or so days!) It is the very knowing that that light at the end of the tunnel is there… and it’s going to be mind-blowingly fantastic that makes the wait so hard (no pun intended). The monastic or Latin-rite priest, in contrast, has made a once-for-all disavowal of any right to share with another this aspect of his humanity, of course only for the greater glory of God and in service to his kingdom and his Church. In a sense, he doesn’t know what he’s missing. And I think this is true even if the celibate is not a virgin, for there is really nothing on his part to be missing. The marrieds have a vocation to their spouses, and the sexual sharing is a part of that. He doesn’t miss and pine for sex qua sex, but rather misses and pines for his beloved. The spouses desire each other, not just abstract sexual release. (Of course there is that too, especially for men, but it is not the primary desire.)

    But this gets at one of the things that I wanted to address in regard to monansticism: namely the broader concept of asceticism, and how it is not at all well integrated into the secular life of Christians. It is therefore a bit askew from the question of monastic life, per se. Those who are married cannot (and should!! not) live that way. But marriage is a vocation every bit as much as the religious life, and… well that’s just my point: It isn’t treated in the minds of the faithful that way. It has been for most of Christian history treated as a kind of second class citizenship: monastics are holy for having fully abdicated the secular life, and most especially their natural sexual desires. If you’re married, well… you somehow compromised–gave into those base temptations. But the call to Christian holiness is universal, and our two most recent popes, especially JPII, went out of their way to develop Catholic teaching for marrieds. We now may, now must be able to see the married vocation as the Center of God’s Best Will for those so called to it.

    And to live that calling rightly involves self-sacrifice. Even you never abstain from sex for family planning reasons, you’ll have to do so for 3-6 weeks after she has each (inevitable!) baby. And beyond this, there are countless ways in which men and women have to sacrifice themselves, for each other and for their families. A man in marriage is properly a type of Christ, sacrificing himself for the greater good of what he loves (his wife and children). Ascetical living is utterly unavoidable in any well ordered family life.

    Yet ascetical living is consigned, in the modern mind, to monastics. Personal holiness for marrieds is very far from the radar. And you know, the sins of the flesh are relatively easy to conquer (whether in this life or in purgatory), sins like wrath, envy, and most of all pride are much more difficult to extinquish. And from what I’ve heard, those sins are just as present in the monestary as in the secular world. I recall hearing of a medieval abbott who scolded the monks about their petty bickering and pride. Given their austere living conditions, he advised them that there are much more pleasant ways to go to hell.

    So, on one hand, emphatically yes: the reformers went too far in essentially shutting off the monastic life and forcing everyone into the secular life. (As a Catholic voice crying in the wilderness here, I’d point out they went far too much farther than even that!!) But the greater question for those of us marrieds (or called to that estate) is how can we incorporate the broad ascetical disciplines usually associated with the monastic life (a life cut off from us anyway, unless we were to become widowed) into the secular life; and pursue holiness within our own high and special calling?

     
  12. Steve Nicoloso

    November 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Catholic Deacons can be married too, so there is always that option for those who are called to minister but also to marriage.

    Technically that is not correct: Married men may be ordained. Ordained men cannot be married. (Read that again, if you’re still confused.)

    In the Latin rite this allowance is limited to the (permanent vis-a-vis transitional) diaconate. But also note that in all other Catholic rites as well as all Orthodox, married men are routinely ordained up to the priesthood, and only Bishops are appointed from the monastic orders and cannot have been married. But even within the Latin rite, some RC priests are married. It is not a theological barrier, but only a disciplinary one.

     
  13. Will S.

    November 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    “But the greater question for those of us marrieds (or called to that estate) is how can we incorporate the broad ascetical disciplines usually associated with the monastic life (a life cut off from us anyway, unless we were to become widowed) into the secular life; and pursue holiness within our own high and special calling?”

    A good question, Steve N, and pertinent enough to us who are Protestants, too; our Reformed confessions encourage us towards chastity both inside and outside of marriage, so our conception of marriage is much the same as yours, I should think.

     
  14. CL

    November 14, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    Technically that is not correct: Married men may be ordained. Ordained men cannot be married. (Read that again, if you’re still confused.)

    Ah OK (and I only needed to read it once!)

     

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