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Many centuries ago, there was an Abbot who was head of a monastery in Northern Ireland.  He was renowned for his compassion, insight, and great inner silence.  As Abbot, his charge was to lead the monks of his monastery and teach them the spiritual life that had been passed down through the monastic communities.  He was a teacher, and this is one lesson he taught.

One day, a young and headstrong novice came up to the Abbot, and pointedly told him, “Father Abbot, you should know about all the terrible ideas that some of the Brother and Sisters here believe and are teaching!  I’ve made sure to correct them as often as I can, because they are teaching terrible and contradictory things about God!  I wanted to tell you myself so you know just how dangerous their questions and behaviors are towards God.”

Taken aback, the Abbot asked, “What exactly are they saying?  What exactly are they doing?”

Glad to see the Abbot’s concern, the zealous novice explained, “One Brother said that God was in everyone, not just those who believe correctly!  I made sure to correct him on that since God would not want such accusations said about Him.  One Sister said that God would accept everyone into heaven, and I know God wouldn’t want that, so I corrected her right away.  And then!” he continued, “one Brother went so far as to smile and even laugh under his breath in the middle of prayers!  I know how much this must disturb God, so I made sure to correct him right there on the spot!”

“You are indeed filled with such a great responsibility, my Brother,” the Abbot responded.  “Because of your great zeal and purpose, I have a very important task for you.”

The novice puffed up his chest at this, glad that the Abbot understood how important his efforts were.

“I need you to go out along the road towards the lake,” the Abbot instructed, “and along the way, you will find a very large stone in the middle of the path.  It is quiet massive, so I know you won’t miss it.  It has been there for a very, very long time, and it’s important that it’s there for many years to come.  So, I need you to guard and protect that stone. Brothers and Sisters have been walking over it as they go down the path instead of going around it, and their feet may hurt it.  Also, the wind and rain could hurt it, so I need you to be sure to protect it from that as well.  I’m sure you understand how important this is!”

“Absolutely, Father Abbot!  I’ll be sure nothing happens to the rock!”  And with that, he ran out the door to take on this very important commission.

When he came to the rock in the road that led down to the lake, he took up his post in the middle of the path, certain that he would protect the rock.

It was not long before a Brother came down the path on his way to the lake to catch fish for their evening meal.  As he approached the rock to climb over, the novice jumped in his way, pushing him to the side, and insisting that he go around.

Annoyed, but not wanting to argue, the Brother went around the rock and met up with the path on the other side.  Proud of what he had done, the young novice took up his post again in the middle of the path, ready to protect the rock.

Later in the afternoon, a group of Sisters came down the path to fetch water from the lake.  Quickly, the novice jumped in front of them, and insisted that they go around.  One he was able to push to the side, but the others ignored him, skirting around him, and started climbing the rock.  Leaving the first Sister that he had corralled away, he leapt up on the rock to push the others away.  He managed to shove on Sister off, who stumbled and fell, but the others still managed to get around him and walk down to the path on the other side.  The Sisters, regrouped on the path, continued on down to the lake, glancing back with disapproving glares at the headstrong novice.

Though he had gotten some of the Sisters off the rock, he was discouraged that some still got by him.  He was even more discouraged that he had to walk on the rock himself to try and corral them away!  Determined to do a better job, he planted himself back in the middle of the path, ready to guard the rock from the next onslaught.

As the afternoon wore on, the sky began to grow dark with clouds and brought with them a strong easterly wind.  Remembering his Abbot’s admonition to guard the rock, he placed his body squarely between the rock and wind and spread his arms to intercept the wind.  He quickly realized that his body wasn’t big enough to ward off the wind, but before he could solve this problem he felt a drop of rain on his bare cheek.  Within moments, a torrential rain was drenching him through his habit.  He frantically tried to protect the rock from the drops of rain, covering it with his body, then darting around waving his arms in the hopes of catching all the drops with his hands.

It was not long before he was completely exhausted and slumped down in front of the rock, resting his back against it.  As he sat there panting for breath, he fell from frustration into despair.  He had failed his important task!  The more he thought about it, however, the more he became upset with the Abbot for giving him what was surely an impossible and even useless task!

Leaving the rock to fend for itself in the middle of the road, he trudged off in sodden sandals to find the Abbot.  He found him soon enough, warm and dry in his cell.

“Father Abbot!  Why did you assign to me such an impossible and useless task?  Surely you knew that there was no way I could protect the rock from all the Brothers and Sisters, and surely not from the wind and rain!  And why protect a rock that has withstood such an onslaught for so long already?”

The Abbot held up a hand to calm the novice and simply replied, “If you see that protecting the rock is impossible and that it in fact does not even need you to protect it, then why do you spend the same amount of time and energy protecting God Almighty?”

In that moment, the novice saw how he had diminished God and even separated himself from his Brothers in Sisters.  It is said that thereafter, he gained a remarkable reputation for listening to others’ diverse thoughts on the Divine and whispering, as though to himself, “That and so much more.”

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By the time Martin Luther was formally excommunicated in 1521, monasticism as we would most commonly recognize it had been around for over 1200 years. In his early adult life, Luther felt called to the monastic life and joined a friary where he delved into Religious life and study. Unfortunately, he was not suited for this Religious life and amidst his own spiritual frustration and discontentment with the Roman Catholic Church, challenged the hierarchy with his 95 theses. When he was eventually excommunicated for pointing out the obvious corruption of the Catholic Church, his theology and teachings became distinctly anti-Catholic. One of his major condemnations was of monasticism, and this targeted focus would shape the movement and spirituality for all Protestants to follow.

Let us take a brief moment, however, to address the major concerns that Luther had. First and foremost, he was appalled by the corruption of the Catholic clergy, specifically the selling of indulgences. When you have a religion whose authority rests in a select minority, it does not come as a surprise that his solution was to hand that authority to the majority (provided they were male), and thus his emphasis on the universal priesthood. He also had a problem with the texts used for the Bible. Though few Protestants know it, Luther tried to throw out the Book of Revelation. He also set aside the texts that we now call the Apocrypha. As far as the Bible was concerned, he believed it should be available for all, so he translated it into German himself while in hiding.

Pertaining most importantly to our discussion here, he also had a problem with the Religious Orders. Unfortunately, his reasons for condemning the Orders were not singular, there were several at least. For one, he was drawing from his own poor experience as a friar. As a practicing contemplative, I would like to point out that there are as many paths to contemplative experience as there are people. Much to his discredit, Luther should have sought a different route than the friary of which he was a part. In the end, he was projecting his own inner turmoil on the system that he was expecting to fix his problems. So his answer to that failure was to blame the system entirely for it and abolish it rather than trying to fix it. Granted, towards the end of his life, Luther regretted that severe action, but by then the damage was done and the Protestant Reformation would continue on without the wealth of that spiritual heritage.

To his credit, though, he was also protesting the elevated position of the monastics. By that point, it was not an uncommon teaching that the most direct route to heaven was through monastic living, that the sacrament of monastic vows were greater even than the sacrament of marriage. This was a derivation that Luther was certainly justified in calling out. Contemplative life is a route to God, but it does not supersede other callings in life. Truth be told, as the Celtic Christians practiced, contemplative life is not even an antithesis to married life. But most of all, monastics are not better than everyone else. We are servants to God just like everyone else. For centuries, the Church had raised monastics on a pedestal, and it took Luther to knock that pedestal back down.

A number of the Religious Orders in Luther’s day had grown corrupt just like the rest of the Church. These monasteries and Abbeys were wealthy in land and riches. Their power was immense. Many monasteries had become homes of sloth, with monks keeping fat off the work of the peasants. Should these Orders have been shaken instead of being razed to the ground? Most likely. Should they have been abolished out of hand? Not at all.

We must understand that the furor of the Protestant Reformation that took hold of Europe and later Britain and then America, was a grab for political power and wealth as much as it was reassessment of religious values. The kings, princes and nobility saw the schism of the Catholic Church as a chance to gain autonomy and absorb the wealth of the church in their lands. This may not have been Luther’s objective, but it became the driving force that would propel Protestantism onto the stage of Europe.

By the mid 1500s in England, Henry VIII would declare himself sovereign of the Church of England and divorce himself and his country from Rome because the Pope would not allow him to divorce his wife. In the years that would follow until Queen Elizabeth could finally hold the thrown and provide a sense of stability, England would be bathed in blood for the sake of its own reformation. And the monasteries in England? Henry confiscated the majority when he first declared the Church of England, and his son Edward and his proctors would confiscate the remainder to fill the royal coffers.

In France all the way through the early 1800s, revolution after revolution would see countless monasteries pillaged. Thousands and thousands of unarmed monks, from Germany to Spain, from England through southern France, would be slaughtered outside their sacred homes by mobs who would then pillage and rape these monuments, some of which had stood for over a thousand years.

Why this burning hatred? For what crimes were these monastics condemned? And why had so many monastic houses fallen so far? One by one, we shall address these issues.

One of the most pervasive crimes held against the monasteries was of their wealth. These monks who had been sworn to poverty were as a whole some of the wealthiest communities in Europe. Their primary source of wealth was in the lands they held. For the most part, these lands had been gifted to them from nobility and wealthy patrons. Keep in mind, that the peak of monasticism was during Europe’s feudal age and it was this form that monasticism followed for centuries. The land they held has been acquired legitimately. The peasants that worked the fields were allowed to live off the land. Truth be told, for the majority of this period, the peasants who worked under the shadow of the monasteries were offered better conditions and allowed to keep more of their crops than others under the nobility.

There came a breaking point, however. As is the tendency for base human nature, the poor saw the wealth of the monasteries and by right of might, felt they were entitled to it. As the Protestant Reformation dawned, it is true that many of the monastic Orders were trying to draw as much from their feudal peasants as possible, trying to squeeze the last drop of income from an already impoverished class. Unfortunately, this is where most histories today end the story, leaving out a crucial point. By filling in the rest of this history, we can see that the monastics were more scapegoat and victim than actual oppressor. As much as the monasteries were trying to bleed form the peasants, the monasteries were being bled by the nobility.

As early as the 6th century and well established by the 8th century, it had become common place to have the abbot of a monastery appointed by the local nobility or national monarchy. This period, called the Regime of the Commende, was curtailed on occasion, but by the 18th century was again in full force. Originally according to the commende, vacant monasteries were given to bishops that have been forced from their episcopates. It was not long before this was abused. In only a few centuries, Abbeys and monastic houses were being bequeathed as gifts to princes, mistresses, and illegitimate children. In fact, one of the Medici children was given a number of Abbey churches as a christening gift, one of which had been the Abbey of St. Benedict himself. These appointed abbots, properly called commendatory abbots, whose appointments were even sometimes approved by the Papacy for its own political reasons, rarely ever lived in the Abbey they were put in charge of. They simply saw the monasteries as income, like a child that has inherited his father’s business and expects the trust fund to keep coming in without actually have to manage anything. Thus the monasteries were stripped of their true religious and spiritual leaders and given abbots that had no interest in actually maintaining the spiritual state of the community they had been given. The one instruction they did receive from these appointed abbots was simple: raise money. A number of monasteries were eventually sucked dry and disbanded because the nobility took all there was without concern for the flock they had been given.

Not only were the monasteries being drained monetarily, but spiritually as well. Without an actual abbot overseeing the spiritual development of these religious houses, the brothers (and sisters) that had vowed their lives to the religious life were left on their own, and of course without the necessary leader, spiritual depravity ensued and was allowed to fester unchecked. You can hardly blame the monk for his fall if he came to a monastery where spiritual growth used to be found and was left to fend for himself and thus fell. It would be like blaming an invalid for being sick after he went to a doctor’s office only to find the doctor absent and refusing to ever see him.

When the Protestant Reformation released the valve on the political pressures that had been building up between Rome and the nobility of Europe, the various principalities were finally given the excuse to finish off what they had started. Rather than continuing to try and bleed the monasteries of what they could, they instead turned the peasants against the communities and pillaged them at will. The very people that claimed the monasteries were too wealthy were plundering them to increase their own wealth.

Protestants that revile monasticism rarely ever comment on the number of monks and nuns that were slaughtered without a fight. These were religious houses that had gained wealth primarily through the legitimate gifts of benefactors. It’s curious that the French Revolution was crying for the protection of personal property, but had no problem disregarding it when it came to plundering others.

As fate would have it, the peasants who were allowed to destroy and pillage these sacred houses in retribution for the “tyranny” they had endured soon found themselves under far more oppressive lords as the nobility took control of the lands (and peasants) that the monks had originally been holding. But by then the damage had been done. The Religious Orders that had protected the poorer classes were no longer there to shield them.

Another crime that was thrown against the monks was somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the populace was claiming the monks to be depraved and unworthy of their spiritual authority. On the other hand, the populace claimed that if the monks were so superior then it was actually a disservice to the community for not marrying and having children. Yes, the monks who felt called to Religious life in community, to find love of God above love of another person, were forced out of the monasteries so they could marry and have kids. They were breaking the edict to “go forth and multiply”!…never mind the fact that Jesus, his mother and many other notable figures in the New Testament were lauded at that time as being celibate.

Still, at what point did anyone have the right to ignore personal boundaries and tell these men and women how they had to live? They choose their form of religious vocation. They were not forcing it on others. Yet they were condemned and forced to live otherwise. I’m reminded of a quotation from one of the 19th century’s greatest social philosophers when he said “Selfishness is not living as you want to live, it’s making other people live as you want to live.”

Next, the populace said that the Religious Orders were not offering any service to the people. This attack was even carried into the 18th century, in spite of the great universities, founded in the monasteries, that helped bring Europe out of the Dark Ages. I came across an account of one monastery in France that was trying to open a school only to have the city pass an ordinance that forbid monks from teaching, and then only to have the same city governance abolish the monastery because it supposedly gave nothing back for what it took from the community. Never mind the fact that it was the monasteries that cared for and fed the homeless and poor – not the nobility and various governments that riled up the people to let them loose on the monasteries. The same nobility and governments, I might add, that did nothing to fill the void that was then created and left countless men, women and children to die of hunger and starvation across Europe.

Condemn the Religious Orders as you may, but only after you take into account that they were the caretakers of the forgotten; they were the teachers and educators; they were the proponents of social-class equality (when a member of nobility entered a monastery, he was no better than the poorest of the poor that had entered with him); and with monastics teaching the peasants how to sustain themselves through proper agriculture and irrigation, they cultivated over half of Europe.

The ferocity with which the monasteries were attacked is staggering. Again, there were thousands of monks that were murdered in their monasteries. But the vehemence goes even beyond that. Germany and England may have stolen all they could, but they at least left the buildings standing. Now we have the ruins as silent testaments to the holy people who once populated the cities. But in Spain and France, the monasteries were razed to the ground so that not even a cornerstone would be left as evidence of what had once held Europe above ruin. The Abbey of Cluny in France, for instance, was second only in size to the Vatican in Rome. It took them 20 years, but in that time the peasants completely destroyed the religious house. Imagine the history that France has lost! From the years 1830 to 1835, the French emptied and destroyed some 3,000 monasteries. 3,000 in just five years! For those that may think monasticism was some small sideline in Christianity, try to get your head around that number. 3,000 monasteries in France alone in just five years. Add to that the thousands that were destroyed in the centuries before it.

This was not simply reactionary religion. This was pure human violent greed. There was nothing noble, holy, or glorious about what took place across Europe. There is nothing to romanticize about this mob rule. It was hypocritical for these revolutionaries to cry for the freedom of religion when they would not let others practice as they so chose. Yes, some of the monasteries were corrupt. But in no way did that justify the terrible punishment that was exacted. In plundering, raping, pillaging and slaughtering the monasteries and convents, the Protestant Reformation erased the most viable source of spiritual growth and expression that had been the heart of Christianity. With that in mind, I will now delve into the history of monasticism from the beginning.

I have a great fondness for the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema here in Atlanta.  I count myself very lucky to have this theatre around as it is one of the only venues here in Atlanta that shows the greater variety of independent and more influential films that are being produced today.  Last night, Br. Addison and I went to see the new documentary on Hunter S. Thompson.  That alone will be topic for a later post.  But to my great surprise, I saw a preview for a new film by Parvez Sharma (Director) and Sandi DuBowski (the same producer of “Trembling Before G-d”).

As with DuBowski’s previous film, Sharma and DuBowski explore the intersection of religion and homosexuality, but this time Sharma will lead us into the heart of dogmatic and fundamentalist Islam.  The trailer alone caught my breath and left me stunned.  (http://www.firstrunfeatures.com/trailers_jihadforlove.html)  It was obvious, just from this glimpse, that this will be an exceptionally courageous and powerful film. 

One line in particular from the trailer frightened me the most.  Clad in his white robe, what I assume is a Muslim cleric states: “Homosexuality is a crime in Islam, and is punishable by death…The only difference among the jurists is how the person should be killed.  That’s the only difference.”  And here we see the ironic bedfellows of fundamentalist christians and fundamentalist muslims.  Just as I’ve written before, here again Christianity and Islam share a commonality, but unlike previous posts, here we see that both religions are subject to the same maligned interpretations of their fundamentalist or even orthodox sects. 

It proves to be the case in every religion: the fundamentalists – and to a degree, the doctrinally orthodox – are the most violent, angry and hate-filled individuals of their world-encompassing religions.  And though the fundamentalists are not majorities within their faiths, they are typically the most vocal and outwardly (in both word and action) violent and abusive.  It should bear striking witness to the fact that none of these fundamentalist sects could exist without a scapegoat they can target.  Within my own Christian faith, it saddens me that these denominations have chosen to revert back to the ritual of scapegoating, the very practice that Jesus abolished. 

And it is no wonder that these fundamentalists are trying so hard to protect their hatred against homosexuals.  After all, the LGBTQ community is one of the last scapegoats they have left.  In most culturally advanced countries, equalities have been offered (at least on paper) between the races, and between the sexes.  If these religions lost the legal ability to persecute, intimidate, harass and kill homosexuals without fear of moral or ethical reprisal, then who would they have left to hate?  Who would be left to stand above so that they will be able to feel justified in themselves?  Who would be left to target and abuse and thus save them from finally having to look inwards at themselves?

It still remains dangerous within Christianity and Judaism, let alone Islam to stand up against and especially expose the prejudices that remain against homosexuals.  But fundamentalists in all faiths have been allowed the shelter of silence and twisted religious tolerance for their violence for too long.  The only way to end it is to bring their bloodied hands to the light for all to see.  It appears that this film will have the courage to do just that.  I applaud Sharma and DuBowski for this effort and pray that it will be a solid step towards protecting those who are so inhumanely being hurt.   It is time to shatter the silence that surrounds this violence and finally give speech to those who are being killed without a word.  As a Christian, and fundamentally as a contemplative, I believe in a God of Love.  And as the title of their film indicates, we will have to fight for that Love.  But the weapons we choose to bear will have to be films like this instead of the typical weapons that fundamentalists have chosen to use for so long. I can only pray that it will be enough to make a difference. 

Amen.

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