I don’t know why, but the Protestant Reformation found no room for monastics. I understand why Luther fought the selling of indulgences and the notion that sin could be forgiven by anyone other than Jesus. But why did the leaders of the Reformation decry the monasteries?
The purpose of the monastery was to be a place where its members could spend their lives focusing on their spiritual lives. Most of them spent time doing charity work in the community as well, but the core of the experience was studying, working, and praying or meditating. The distractions of the world make it difficult for a Believer to focus their mind on God as a effectively as a monastic could. This made the monastics into spiritual leaders and it gave them very rich internal lives.
So, why didn’t the Reformation pick up this tradition? I have no idea. I suppose they didn’t see the value in it, but I don’t understand how that’s possible.
I do understand, however, why we don’t care about it, today. The monastic could not have a family, because the ascetic life was simply incompatible with raising children and seeing to a spouse. That’s not meant as an insult to families – it’s just a fact. The hours a monk could spend in prayer, or pouring over a religious text, are simply unmatchable for a married person with a normal job. It is currently popular in Protestant circles to believe that a person with a big family is somehow very holy because of their progeny.
So, if someone in a Baptist church told everyone that he was going to be a hermit they would probably not take it too well. What if he said that he intended to live on the street so he could pray all day without other responsibilities getting in the way? Would that be a noble thing to do? Or an irresponsible one? Would his parents be proud of his choice?
When St. Augustine found God, he told his mother that he was going to leave the things of the world and devote his life to Christ. His mother, Monica, had been pining away for him to have another grandson (which meant finding him a wife – this had been her favorite hobby since his childhood), but that desire was pushed aside when he told her his news. She energetically supported his monastic efforts and saw this as the highest calling one could have; this meant so much to her that she no longer needed to see more grandchildren. How many parents today would be that supportive if their only child announced their intention to avoid marriage?
Our society doesn’t treat non-married adults well. We assume that they are all just pining away for a spouse and few people can imagine that they actually enjoy being single and use their free time wisely. I know single people who get a lot out of their lives, and they are constantly frustrated when someone says, “When are you going to start dating?”
Of course, there are a few radical Protestants out there who are trying to revive the tradition, but it’s going to be very challenging in our social climate to get any sort of support.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)