The Domestic Monastery

Saint Augustine Studying

 

The Second Vatican Council, in asserting the importance of the Christian family, referred to it as a sort of “domestic Church.”  The council fathers wrote,

“From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism, are made children of God, thus perpetuating the People of God through the centuries.  The family is, so to speak, the domestic church.  In it, parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care the vocation to a sacred state” (Lumen Gentium #11).

According to this admirable view, the family is a Christian community, conceived by the love of husband and wife, that sustains the ancient faith through time.  It is the setting where children are first evangelized and catechized, and are simultaneously encouraged in the ways of Christian virtue through the examples of their parents.  And it is also that corner of the Church where religious and priestly vocations are first discerned and encouraged.

This is an admittedly ideal view of the home, but it must remain the standard for all Catholics, because it is essential to the survival of the Church in a profanely secular society.  The Catholic family is presently surrounded on all sides by a culture constructed by the lost that militantly propagates religious skepticism, dangerous superstition, and unspeakable perversity.  Amid such filth of mind and body, the family must provide young impressionable souls with a safe haven of goodness where the love of truth and purity are nurtured and an interior life is pursued.  And yet, as described by the council, this “domestic church” is actually only a beginning.  It is the place where young souls are introduced to the faith and life of the Church.  The catechism somewhat develops this notion:

“The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith.  For this reason, the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and Christian charity” (CCC 1666).

Again, the emphasis is placed on the word “first.”

But what is to follow this “first” – this initial evangelization, this introduction to catechesis?  Does something described as “first” in order not imply something second in order?  If persons grow, mature, and increase in their capacity for religious knowledge and spiritual life, then should not the domestic church also experience an increase or deepening of some type?  Yes, it should; it must.  The mission of the domestic church must mature as its members mature, so that adult souls may continue to advance in the interior life.  I would suggest that the Catholic home in which one or more adults reside should be viewed as the “domestic monastery,” an essential component in the survival of Catholicism in the modern world.

But first – I realize that the domestic church is meant to lead to the Church proper, the institutional Church, the local parish and diocese.  This is the intended “second,” of which the domestic church is the “first.”  But I dare say, the current sequence is not working so well.  There is a clear breakdown in the scheme, and something needs to be urgently done about it.

The word “monastery” originally meant a solitary abode, a place where an individual prayed the complete Divine Office.  But the term now obviously refers to professed religious men or women who, as a community, pray the Divine Office and attend daily Mass, but also, study theology, scripture, and spirituality.  And this is precisely what the Church needs from her laity.

The contemporary Catholic Church suffers from many spiritual afflictions.  She is a sort of crumbling palace – magnificent, but on the verge of collapse.  At this point, some one will want to quote to me Christ’s promise to Simon Peter, that the gates of hell will never prevail against the true Church built on the rock of Saint Peter and his successors (Mt. 16:18).  Yes, it is Gospel truth: Satan will never destroy the Catholic Church.  But tragically, Catholics have often misused the foregoing passage and distorted it into a pleasant comforting promise from Our Lord that the Church will never experience theological, moral, and sacramental confusion, exasperated by a dearth of courageous religious leadership.  I would cite the last fifty years as proof that such an interpretation is false; I would cite all the more the last several years – and most recently, the appalling Pachamama fertility goddess fiasco in the Vatican.  As biblical proof, I would refer to Saint Paul’s public rebuke of Saint Peter (Gal. 2:11-14), as well as the New Testament prophecies of a Great Apostasy in the Church at the end times.  The catechism has some remarkable comments about this apostasy (CCC 675-677).

My point is, in spite of Christ’s promise to Simon Peter and his successors, the Church can descend into shocking degrees of religious confusion and moral scandal, while lacking at the same time the sort of leadership needed to resolve the crisis.  It is her official defined teaching that will never be corrupted by those powers of hell that revel in spreading doubt and confusion.  Yet, there is plenty of allowance, within the parameters of divine providence, for a widespread failure of both clergy and laity to manfully uphold authentic Catholic teaching.  To deny this is to deny the facts of Church history.

In light of this, what is the laity to do in such an era?  Must we be content with the paucity of truth and the banality of devotion found in our local parish or diocese?  Are the treasures of the Church’s theological, biblical, and moral writers the exclusive property of the ordained or professed?  Are we inescapably deficient in some sort of supernatural grace, so that it is impossible for us to grasp the wisdom penned by the ancient masters of the spiritual life?  A thousand times, “No!”  For the riches of the Gospel are meant to be distributed to all who would receive them.  It is only our own laxity and indifference that can keep them from us.

The home – that happy abode where we can slam the door on the insane world outside and live as Catholics should this is our solution to the troubled times in which God has purposefully placed us.  If truth is not to be found in abundance from our pulpits, I dare say, “So what!”  Platitudinous homilies provide no excuses for our own religious ignorance, nor does the absence of ongoing adult religious education.  If the sacramental life of our parish is poor – regardless, this provides no justification for our own impoverished spiritual life.   The truths of the Catholic faith and the practices of the Catholic life can now be learned by a myriad of means.  Catholic publishing, including the re-publication of reliably orthodox works, is now a thriving industry.  Hence, we must not use the state of the Church as a convenient rationalization for being and remaining ignorant.  Such ignorance can be blamed only on our own sloth.

As a solution to a grave problem, and as a worthy end in itself, we must elevate the Catholic home to a domestic monastery of study and prayer.  As the Church swirls in a state of religious confusion, let there be no such confusion at home, but only light and clarity.  Let our homes shine as beacons of Gospel fidelity and resound with the sacred chants of the ages, like the Benedictine monasteries that once salvaged Catholic civilization as the Roman Empire collapsed around them.

I realize that the activities and responsibilities of family life can leave many people with minimal time and opportunity for regular study and prayer.  For most working people, perhaps, the notion of a domestic monastery is quaint, but utterly unrealistic.  Then apply the notion to whatever degree is possible, even if only once a day or once a week.  Devise a routine, however slight, that suits the circumstances.

One would ideally begin with the praying of the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours.  This official daily prayer of the Church will establish a routine of formal devotion and expose one to the Church’s sagacious patrimony of Church Fathers, biblical commentators, and spiritual masters.  Following the Office, one could add other devotions as well, or else, bible or catechism study.  The essential element in establishing a spiritual life is form, of not continuing in an amorphous state of intent, but giving shape to that intent; in other words, a spiritual routine.  This is absolutely essential.  And around this routine, other devout practices will naturally collect.  By means of saying, for example, Evening Prayer, followed by twenty or thirty minutes of catechetical or spiritual study, one could correct decades of accumulated error and reach a sound understanding of the faith.  It’s entirely possible, if one looks upon such a program as life-long, as having no actual point of completion except salvation.

An additional and essential element in the domestic monastery is silence.  Except for faith itself, there is nothing so necessary to prayer and study.  One needs to find a quiet room that is free of the countless distractions that fill our homes – phones, televisions, computers, and any objects that will especially distract our mind.  The ideal is to arrange a particular room for such devout purposes, and provide it with holy images and appropriate furniture, so that we can comfortably sing, pray, meditate, and study with minimal interference.

In summary, a partial solution to the current state of the Church is the domestic monastery.  The home is a place where the faithful – either alone or with other family members or friends – can substantially compensate for the inadequacies of the modern Church and advance in the interior life.  By this means, the perennial faith of the saints will survive the darkest of times, and the souls of the faithful will be set free from ignorance and sanctified in truth, as Christ intended for every member of His Church.

The Poetic Witness

 

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‘We retreat.  We don’t escape.  That’s a word I loathe.  But retreat – that’s a characteristic word for me, that you retreat for strength.  You don’t escape; you withdraw with God.’

– Robert Frost

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The poet Robert Frost was not a religious man.  During his childhood years, his multi-denominational family only occasionally attended Church, and later as an adult, he followed the same practice.  Frost seems to have been something of a non-practicing Protestant, with a proclivity for the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  And to add even more mystery to the man, he cited the Old Testament – not the New Testament – as one of a small number of books that had most influenced him.

In spite of the absence of overt religiosity, Robert Frost recognized the importance of one element of authentic Christianity, one that is seemingly of little importance to most Christians.  That element is the need to retreat from the world and rest in God.  Christ, the saints, and the poet all harmoniously emphasize that retreat is not a form or act of escape.  It is not a running away from the world, but a withdrawing from it in order to be refreshed and strengthened by a divine spring.  For the world – meaning, all that is opposed to God and His Kingdom – is an ugly and wearisome thing.  Excessive exposure to it and absorption in it draws the soul perpendicularly downward into countless thoughts, concerns, and activities that isolate it from its source of celestial inspiration and light – God the Almighty.  Man was not made for this world, even though he was placed in it.  He was made to pass through it, and, after being refined in its sorrows and hardships, after enduring all by the grace of God and rising victorious in Him, to finally triumph over this world.

Immediately after His baptism and just before the initiation of His public ministry, Jesus withdrew to the desert for a forty-day period of absolute fasting, prayer, and demonic temptation.

“Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led about the desert by the Spirit for forty days, being tempted all the while by the devil.  And in those days he ate nothing; and when they were completed he was hungry” (Lk. 4:1-2).

Although the extreme asceticism of this retreat exhausted Our Lord’s physical body, it prepared his spiritual soul.  It was not an escape.  No, the forty days were anything but that, due to the demonic confrontations Christ endured.  But this was the only appropriate preparation for a ministry that would demand, not only physical exertion, but spiritual as well.

Throughout His earthly life, Jesus continued to practice solitary prayer.

“The report about him spread all the more, and great crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their ailments, but he would withdraw to deserted places to pray” (Lk. 5:15-16).

He also recommended it to His disciples.  In the Sermon on the Mount, He taught,

“But when you pray, go into your room, and closing the door, pray to your Father in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Mt. 6:6).

Shortly before He selected His twelve apostles, He withdrew by Himself.

“Now it came to pass in those days, that he went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.  And when day broke, he summoned his disciples, and from these he chose twelve” (Lk. 6:12-13).

After the apostles had been sent out in pairs by Jesus to preach, heal the sick and crippled, and exorcise the possessed, and after they had been wearied from the constant demands of such a mission, Jesus said to them,

“‘Come apart to a desert place and rest a while.’  For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they got into a boat and went off to a desert place apart” (Mk. 6:31-32).

Scripture repeatedly reveals that, before each important act, Jesus prepared Himself by withdrawing from the world to a solitary garden or mountain and passing even an entire night in contemplation and prayer.

Previous to His most important Eucharistic discourse, after miraculously feeding well over five thousand people on the plain of Bethsaida, and after finding the crowd on the verge of proclaiming Him their political Messiah, Jesus quickly dismissed both the people and His apostles.  Then, as the Gospel of St. John expresses it, He “fled again to the mountain” (Jn. 6:15) to pray.

Each of these biblical examples shows our Lord and His disciples retreating to quiet solitary places, not only to eat and rest in peace, but also, to think and pray apart from the chaos, demands, and distractions of the world and the worldly.  It is as if the human being was made for another sort of life and can endure a mundane busy-body manner of living for only so long, as if it is contrary to human nature and well being to be immersed in external activity morning, day, and night.  Positively, such a life style is contrary to the needs and vitality of the soul, and whoever wholly devotes himself to such a manner of living devotes himself to a slow and meaningless death.

I have no intention of spiritualizing Robert Frost or of reinterpreting his life and work as secretly religious.  The fact is, he was not a religious man, nor a Gospel man, but simply a secular poet.  So, it would be foolish to try to make him into a philosopher, mystic, or theologian.  Nevertheless, the poet in general stands in a unique place in society, as a sort of bridge between religion and irreligion.  He bears witness to a much-neglected side of life.  And I would even go so far as to suggest that there are “secular” prophets – the literary equivalents of the Persian King Cyrus, who was used by God to liberate the Jews from their Babylonian Captivity, even though he did not worship the God of Israel.  As another example, I would mention George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.  These two books prophetically warned the modern world of the dystopian hell that man can and will create for himself.

Poets remind us of the interior life.  They witness to the possibility and importance of calm reflection and critical reasoning.  They stand apart from the mindless bustle of the world and the mad pursuits of money, possessions, power, and popularity.  They are the indictment of the life of empty show, of living on the surface.  Their lives and work proclaim to the religious and irreligious alike a vital message that amounts to a Christian responsibility:

“Retreat.  Withdraw from the world – and not as an escape, but for the strength that will be found in sacred solitude.  For you are not only a physical body; much more, you are a spiritual soul.  And you were made for the life of the mind, – not only to live, but to examine the life you were given.”

One of my favorite poems by Frost begins in this way:

“Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day….”

Now who walks in a swamp? And who walks in a frozen swamp?  And who walks in a frozen swamp on a gray wintery day?  The obvious answer is: the poet.  As if in response to the cryptic voice of Christ that whispers to every soul on earth, “Come apart to a desert place and rest a while,” the poet forsakes the familiar pleasantries of modern civilization and wanders in order to wonder.  He or she is a standing witness to a fundamental Christian truth neglected by most Christians; namely, the innate religious nature of the human creature which finds its repose, not in the way of Martha, but in the way of Mary (Lk. 10:38-42), not in a frenetic exterior life, but in a rich poetic interior life.

Christian soul, retreat and withdraw often, not to escape from the world – for you cannot – but to defeat the world after being strengthened and guided by the God whose soft mellifluous voice is most distinctly heard when all others are silent.