Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Monasticism as it existed in the 20th century is dead."

That obituary is from Fr. Hugh Feiss, OSB, of Ascension Priory in Idaho. It is from "Reconfiguring Monastic Life," an article he wrote for the March 2010 edition of the American Benedictine Review.

Ascension is one of several "fragile" communities under review by Benedictine superiors. Another is Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, South Dakota. Brother Benet from Blue Cloud was in Sioux Falls tonight, meeting with lay Oblates of the Abbey. He read some of Fr. Feiss' article for the group, which meets at my parish.

The statistics show many monastic communities aging and declining. Ascension's monks have a median age of 70, there are no professed brothers under 55, and the youngest man exploring monastic life is 50.

Most men who come to investigate the religious life are older, and increasingly lack grounding in Catholicism. Bro. Benet noted that new men at Blue Cloud routinely require a basic Catholic Catechism course.

At the same time, Oblate groups (lay people who enter into a spiritual association with a religious community) continue to grow. Feiss' article shares one effort to envision a residential Oblate community, where men, women, married couples and single people would live a Benedictine life style on the monastery's grounds.

Fr. Feiss is up front about the difficult practical questions that come up and, in most cases, nip the idea in the bud. Will children be allowed? Pets? Vehicles? Protestants?

Bro. Benet mentioned one community in Texas that has achieved this model, with the Oblate community collectively running a farm.

There are a few exceptions to these trends and questions. Some monasteries have increased visitors and vocations by becoming more traditional in their monastic routines and disciplines.

Fr. Feiss ends his article on a hopeful note, affirming that monasticism has rolled with change throughout the centuries, always building on the ancient practices of prayer while seeking innovative ways to establish communities.

It was an enlightening and challenging evening, and I was honored to listen in. The monks face challenges very much like those in mainline Christian denominations. Answers that benefit one group may well help the other.


Anonymous said...

Maybe they should check out what the Orthodox Churches are doing.

David Handy+ said...

I'm glad to hear that you have a group of Benedictine Oblates meeting at the church, Tim. I used to be an Associate of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (commonly known as the Cowley Fathers) for a number of years and found their Rule of Life for Associates quite helpful as a way of imparting more discipline and vigor to my practice of the classic spiritual disciplines.

Then I discovered how some members of SSJE were not only pro-gay in theology, but unchaste in their actual behavior. I quit.

But I spent 15 months in 2008-2009 living and working on staff at an evangelical retreat center called the LivingStone Monastery in Newport News, VA. A former Franciscan convent, a group of charismatic Baptists bought the facility seven years ago when the nuns moved to a quieter location, and those Baptists turned it into a residential community of disciples of Christ. There were about 20 of us living there most of the time I was there, and the majority were in their 20s and 30s. However, they made no lifetime commitment, and didn't take the traditional vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience on even a temporary basis. Yet we did live a very simple and prayerful lifestyle. Talk about "Ora et Labora," there was lots of prayer and lots of work too, running a very active retreat center.

I mention all that just to show that while traditional monasticism is struggling, especially in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions where it's always been somewhat suspect as unProtestant, there are also innovative experiments going on too that are highly attractive to some young people. And I too am confident that new, vibrant forms of the monastic life will emerge in the 21st century.

TLF+ said...

Thanks, David+. Fr. Feiss was leaning that same way - a union of the ancient and proven disciplines with fresh forms of community.

Anonymous - type "Polamalu" in the search function of this blog (top left) and you should get my post of an article about NFL star Troy Polamalu, who coverted to Greek Orthodoxy via his marriage. He has explored their monastic tradition and speaks of it with great respect - he honors them as spiritual warriors, in fact.

David Handy+ said...

You're welcome, Tim.

And BTW, I love the picture of the owl in flight. Beautiful. But I'm curious, if it is indeed an owl, I thought they were noctural birds, yet this one is flying in the daytime...