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Our lesson on St. Columba.  For those finding this update through Facebook, be sure to go to https://brotherkenneth.wordpress.com to access the audio.  God’s Peace!

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This week’s lesson was on St. Brendan the Navigator.  For those seeing this through Facebook, you’ll need to go to brotherkenneth.wordpress.com directly to play the audio.  Enjoy and God’s Peace! 

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 am a cradle Episcopalian.  That is, I was born and baptized into the Episcopal Church as opposed to converting later on in life.  That being said, I did not actually learn much about my own church history until I was well into high school and only because I started looking into it on my own initiative.  In college I eventually majored in Religion (with an emphasis on world comparison) and had still further opportunities to delve into my own religion’s history.  In all that history that I read, and all my life as an Episcopalian, my contact with monasticism was minimal.  I, like most Protestants, had the image of austere Catholic monks, shrouded in shadows and dark robes, chanting in the dark hours of the night behind a veil of incense.  Or the image of the corpulent and jolly Friar Tuck. 

 It is a wonder to me that I ever encountered contemplative prayer at all.  I of course studied meditation and such practices through my courses in Religion, but to actually practice it?  It was early in my freshman year that I was l fortunate enough to hear a lecture by Fr. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O while he was visiting UGA in which he guided us through centering prayer.  After that, I was of course hooked. 

When I started practicing on my own as a contemplative, I found so few outlets within my own religious sphere up in Athens, GA.  My chaplain at that time was a low church Lutheran convert.  He was tremendously adept at pastoral care with college students, but not very helpful in the contemplative realms.  However, when that chaplain left for another college chaplaincy gig up north, we were assigned an interim chaplain that was to be my saving grace.  This visiting interim priest, who would later become my Spiritual Father, was not only knowledgeable about our church’s contemplative expression, but actually practiced in it. 

Finally being keyed into the Episcopal monastic tradition, my studies and practices went delving into the depths of that tradition.  The culmination of that would be my eventual formation of a Religious Order here in Atlanta to make sure that contemplative spirituality would become accessible and more prevalent in the Church again. 

In the ten years since that advantageous introduction into monastic tradition, I have studied the ancient Orders in great depth.  I have studied the contemplative sects of the other main world religions as well and seen how they have fed one another.  No man is an island, and neither is any religion.  When I started looking into monasticism throughout Christian history, I discovered a view of Christianity that was never mentioned in my upbringing in the Episcopal Church or even in my college courses.  What I discovered was a Christian history that could not be separated from this monastic influences and yet for 500 years now, Christian history has been shaped in order to make no mention of its monastic roots. 

Today, traditional monasticism is dying.  There’s no other way to see it.  Despite resurgences here and there in the cloisters, the Religious Orders of the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions are gradually disappearing.  Orders are having to consolidate their member houses and monumental monasteries that were once alive with prayer are now empty and crumbling across America and Europe. 

For most Christians, monasticism is a romanticized past at best.  I’ve lost track of the number of fellow Episcopalians that have come up to me since I’ve donned the habit and asked with surprised curiosity, “You mean there are Episcopal monks?”  And how could I fault them for that ignorance when I would have asked the same thing for most of my early life? 

The monastics across the centuries used to be an endless field of countless blossoms of spiritual growth.  Now we must ask, “where have all the flowers gone?”  The monasteries were the fonts of spiritual practice, a balance to the clergy that were the bureaucrats and politicians.  Now all we have left are churches that are businesses more than they are houses of worship and priests and pastors that are more concerned with money and numbers than they are the true spiritual development of their parishioners.  And now we have Christians who are becoming disillusioned with their faith because they find no fulfillment in it.  Church is just entertainment on Sunday and they’re left spiritually dry the rest of the week. 

What truly surprises me is when a solution is rediscovered that has lain dormant in our tradition for centuries, there is a violent backlash from other Christians.  I was astonished to find entire websites and Christian groups dedicated to slandering contemplative prayer.  And my God!, the lies they lay down to discredit it!  Still, I understand that this vehemence comes from two roots: ignorance and fear.  That is ignorance of their own Christian history and fear of anything different from what they think they can control in their religion.  There was one series of blogs I came across a while back (that for the life of me I can’t find again) that tried to even offer the background on the Religious Order and try to prove how they weren’t Christian.  I really wish I could find that blog again, because the historical “facts” they he was laying out were just plain incorrect.  To offer a few other examples of those against, feel free to check out these sites: http://jesusfreakrkg.wordpress.com/2007/02/02/a-better-way-to-pray-the-old-way/ , http://freedomtofollowjesuschrist.wordpress.com/2008/10/14/contemplative-prayer-vs-biblical-prayer/ , http://simplicityinchrist.org/2006/06/13/beware-of-contemplative-prayer/ , http://www.lighthousetrails.com/aboutus.htm .  Truly, these people astound me.  I pity them for their misguided fears and my heart aches for the damage they are doing to other Christians who may desperately need to rediscover the practices of their ancient religion.   

Still, there is hope.  With the budding movement of “new monasticism”, we find Protestants that are following their own deep yearning for something more fulfilling, to rediscover a tradition that has been in their religion from the start.  To counter the above list of sites, here are some that are trying to re-approach monastic living:   http://staidensmonastery.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/the-unexpected-monastics/ , http://www.st-aidens-monastery.org.uk/ , http://adventuresinmercy.wordpress.com/2007/01/19/big-bad-ugly-contemplative-prayer/ , http://christianviewpoint.wordpress.com/2008/06/29/contemplative-prayer-is-biblical/ , http://christchurchleaders.wordpress.com/rule-of-life/ , http://eliacin.com/2008/06/11/open-space-at-msh-for-those-seriously-seeking-community/ . 

Today’s youth are not afraid to be Christian and counterculture.  In fact, they’re discovering the truth, that to be truly Christian is to be counterculture in our day and age.  Jesus was a radical.  And so many monastics through the centuries have been happy to follow in that same radical path. 

First and foremost, before we can even begin to explore monastic expression throughout Christianity, I would suggest two books that take a very fresh and accurate look at Jesus.  The first which does a beautiful job of showing Jesus as the radical that he really was is “What Jesus Meant” by Garry Wills http://www.amazon.com/What-Jesus-Meant-Garry-Wills/dp/B001AYDBY2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1232215905&sr=1-1 .  The second book I would recommend which delves more into Jesus’ radical spirituality is “The Wisdom Jesus” by Cynthia Bourgeault http://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Jesus-Transforming-Mind-Perspective/dp/1590305809/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1232216062&sr=1-1 .  The common task that each of these two books attempt is to peel back the centuries’ worth of intentional misdirection that the Church has layered over the real Jesus. 

To sum up these two books, though very crudely,  would be to say that Jesus taught us to love as God loves (unconditionally without boundaries or exceptions) and to experience that very God within us in order to be transformed by it.  Now, there is a whole lot more that goes with that and these books do a great job of discussing where and why the church has veered from that.  Suffice it to say, I have a feeling that Jesus would have a great deal of difficulty claiming modern Christianity as the faith he was preaching.  Still, there have been throughout the centuries those radical Christians that have tried to return to that ideal which Jesus was for Christianity.  It’s easy to find them when looking through old Church history – they’re usually the ones being called heretics.  Of course, after they die, the Church finds it ok to praise them, but oh so rarely during their lifetimes – and a great number of these were monastics. 

(By the way, I choose to use the word monastic as a label rather than just an adj. because for me it can include male and female, cloistered or not.  And despite MSWord yelling at me and putting an angry red line under it, I’ll continue to use it though I will sometimes interchange it with monk or contemplative.  But understanding that these latter two come with their own baggage, I will try to stick to the generic monastic which can include monks, nuns, friars and tertiary seculars).

Before I begin to address monastic history, however, I think it necessary to point out why we should rediscover this tradition and what the damage has been since its downfall.  For those that say contemplative spirituality is not Christian and is only a new development of practices borrowed from the East, then I encourage you to look back at the 2000+ years of monastics in both Christianity and its Jewish roots.  Contemplative prayer, the practice of experiencing God internally and in every moment has been at the heart of Christianity since Jesus taught his first disciples.  It was why John the Baptist was a desert hermit.  It was what fueled the merkavah mystics and the Essenes of Judaism before, during, and after the time of Jesus.  And it was in these monastic communities that this spirituality was harbored and allowed to flourish.  How it came to be isolated in the monasteries I will discuss later, but what is important to note here is that with the fall of monasticism so went the most enriching form of spiritual practice in Christianity.  As I said before, the monastics were the balance to the clerics.  Without them, the Church has been skewed ever since.   

For various reasons that I will explain, the Protestant reformation divorced Christianity from monasticism.  They were rebelling against the corruption that had taken root in many of the cloisters, but unfortunately in dispelling all of monasticism rather than trying to fix it, they threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  Ironically, the corruption that the Protestants then were charging against the monasteries is common practice in many of their churches today.  But again, I’ll get into that later. 

In addition to being a font of spirituality for the Church, the monastic Orders were also examples of a true Christian life.  Theirs was a life based on prayer; exploration towards, of, and with God; hospitality; and love, especially for the outcast. 

For these reasons, Christianity needs monastics again.  For that reason I pray that these “new monastics” can rediscover our monastic tradition and make it work for our modern age.     I am with them in that venture.  But before we do, let us discover the monastics that have come before us.  To begin, however, I will start at the end – the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent revolutions in Europe that destroyed monasticism as a scapegoat.  For those that have a prejudice towards monasticism and have been taught over the years why its destruction was justified, and why the Protestant reformers were acting gloriously as they killed hundreds if not thousands of innocents, I hope this can shed some light on this episode of history so we can then explore the history of monasticism from its roots without preconceived ire.  

Georgia nights in the summer tend to be hot, humid and generally uncomfortable.  This past Saturday was no different.  It doesn’t take long standing outside before you start sweating, even if wearing a lightweight habit.  Still, the oppressive Georgia weather wasn’t enough to keep me from enjoying a tremendous gift that Br. Addison offered me this past weekend. 

Following our Order’s retreat, Br. Addison led two of his friends and me to a small neighborhood land trust tucked away in Atlanta.  The land trust was nearby Little Five, already a fairly groovy place in our sprawled city.  By 10:00 PM, we had arrived and managed to find parking a few blocks from the event.  As we made our way down the street, I could hear the faint beginings of what would be the sirens’ call for the rest of the night.  As we got closer, steady rythms got louder, and the beat of the drum circle that we were coming to enjoy started to seep inside me. 

It had been almost nine years since last I went to a drum circle.  I remembered how amazing it was then, and I wasn’t disappointed by this one either.  There is a wonderfully instinctive, almost primal, connection found in a drum circle.  As various people bring their own intruments (usually drums but tamburines, shakers, flutes and bells are common), a beat starts and each person adds their own beat to the music – like a mass of artists in front of a large canvas with each adding his or her own color to create the masterful painting. 

The crowd was mixed with people coming from so many walks of life.  There were children and adults, preppy college kids and gray haired hippies, dancers charged with vigor and laid back observers that were happy to just watch and listen.  The blacklight lit peace sign hanging under an awning added a curious backdrop to the whole setting.   

If in a city as large as Atlanta, a microcosm of acceptance can be found around a bonfire in the heart of a neighborhood community, why can’t that same community be built elsewhere?  In religious life, this is what contemplatives are called to experience.  A sufi twirling in their dance is no different than Br. Addison and I finding God in the beat of the drums as we danced about the fire with others, or an ecstatic Jew dancing about in their own form of dance circle. 

We all bring our own instruments to this drum circle we call religious life.  The key is to find our own beat, to find how it fits with others, and to enjoy the Divine music we make together. 

Amen.

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