In Defense of the Monasteries

In my previous post I asked the question, “Why Aren’t There Any Protestant Monasteries” and my readers responded by accusing monks of being closeted Believers who irresponsibly ignored the world.  I was horrified, because this is great misunderstanding (though, a very common one).

Here’s one comment that summed up many of your responses:

I don’t believe God would bless any decision to place yourself in a long-term situation of literally doing no earthly good or good for His kingdom. It’s a selfish act and utterly useless for His kingdom.

Is that really common perception of a monk?  It’s true that there have been a few groups who disappeared into their monasteries never to be seen again, but most ascetics were known for their community work and their interaction with the local church and city authorities.  It was the monastics (monks and nuns) who copied the Bible and other important works (both Christian and secular) so that we didn’t lose them, ran nearly every school in the middle ages, and worked with the sick and needy.  For example, when no one else would tend to the leper population, the Lazarite order was begun under which monks moved in with leper groups to take care of them – even though it meant probably catching the disease themselves.  That is truly a noble life.

If you think about it, you already knew this.  Remember Mother Teresa?  She’s probably the only monastic that pop-culture can name, and she’s famous for her charity work.  Instead of assuming that monasteries are filled with selfish people who are hiding from responsibilities, we should understand that as these men and women meditated on Jesus’ teachings they were naturally moved to help those around them.  History tells us that this is so, because in many places the local monastics were the only source of charity and learning in a community.  John of the Cross is well known for his writings on meditation and solitary living, but his neighbors knew him as a compassionate and generous man.

Of course, there were exceptions.  The Carthusians (for some reason) locked themselves in cells and only left once a week.  They normally had some other people employed in the monastery who would go out and do normal things, but those few in the cells never left.  It’s the most strict form of monasticism I can think of in the Christian tradition, and rarely did being a monk or a nun actually mean to live a life of pure isolation.

So, go easy on the monks.  When done correctly, the monastic life was enriching for the individual and for the community and local church, as well.  It would be very interesting to see how monastics would affect our culture, today.

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