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.

A Method of Self-Instruction

TrailMany years ago, I had an immensely valuable opportunity to develop my teaching skills and philosophy: I had to teach probably the stupidest person I’ve ever known – myself.

In 1990, after returning to the Catholic Church, I found myself thoroughly convinced of the veracity of Catholic teaching, but equally ignorant of it.  No, that’s not a contradiction.  One can come to a biblical and historical conviction beyond all doubt that the Catholic Church is the one true Church directly founded by Jesus Christ, and yet be substantially ignorant of the specifics of her many teachings.  Such was the case.

At the time, I had great admiration for certain well-known Catholic organizations that specialized in apologetics and evangelization.  Their advice to those who wanted to engage in this sort of work was the same: study individual subjects one at a time; become proficient with one particular teaching of the Church, and then move on to the next.  If you’re speaking to someone about a topic on which you’re confident, stick to it and do not wander off to another topic, even if you’re asked questions about it.  For example, become adept at speaking about the Holy Eucharist.  But if someone asks you about the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, humbly withdraw.

For a short while, I followed this council against my instincts.  But I soon enough concluded that it was not for me, and possibly, that it was not good advice in general.

Pardon the tangent, but this metaphor offers a little light on the subject.  If one is hiking a new area – be it a mountain or a flat wooded expanse – one can erratically and randomly take one path after another, in the hope that an accumulation of many hikes will eventually familiarize one with the area.  Or else, one can be much more methodical, deliberate, and patient.  One can take the main trail and stick with it to the end, and repeat this several times, on several different hikes.  Becoming well-grounded in the perimeter of the area on the most important trail of all establishes a sense of the place as a whole.  After this, one can hike the first side-trail off the main trail, then the second side-trail, then the third side-trail, and so on.  In the end, after many hikes, one will have built up both a general knowledge of the area, as well as an organized knowledge of the smaller less-important trails.  This takes much more time and patience than the erratic method, but in the end, one’s familiarity with the area will be far superior.  And one will be confident when hiking it.

I have found this second method to be the correct one, both in hiking and in studying the faith.  While preparing for my reversion to the ancient faith, I read many books at random, many excellent apologetical works by superb Catholic authors, but without a plan.  This was the erratic method of self-instruction, and it produced very little knowledge or understanding because it neglected to educate me in the fundamentals of the faith – the “main trail” of Catholicism.  It was interesting and enjoyable, but it wasn’t effective.  So, in struggling to effectively educate the stupidest person I’ve ever known, I changed the method of education.  I decided instead to start at the very beginning and build up.  This meant children’s catechisms.  In my early thirties, I read the Penny Catechism.  Then I read the Baltimore Catechism, numbers one and two.   Then I read several of Father John Hardon’s catechisms.  Meanwhile, I repeatedly read the Bible cover to cover, as well as some fairly simple apologetical works.  With this approach of starting at the bottom and studying very clear, simple, and yet thorough explanations of Catholicism, my dull mind began to grasp the faith, not as an assortment of religious propositions, but as a unified body of doctrines and morals that formed a beautiful and purposeful whole: the Holy Gospel, the faith of the saints.

There are countless Catholics today who have a fine education in various sophisticated fields, who have earned advanced degrees of impressive sorts, but who possess only the crudest religious education.  Parallel to this, catechesis has reached a catastrophic low in the modern Church, even in this age that is obsessed with formal education.  The instruction that we constantly hear from our preachers and teachers, from those whose solemn duty it is to form the faithful in the truth, is often banal, confused, inaccurate, and even shrewdly laced with errors that can deceive even the vigilant.  I dare say, this is true even at the highest levels of the modern Church.  To survive and acquire a sound Catholic formation today demands constant watchfulness, courage, and often independence from one’s immediate “Catholic” environment.  If you wish to gain a truly Catholic formation of mind and heart, prepare to go it alone.  That is the sad reality of our present situation.

In the midst of this chaos, there is quite predictably a constant berating of traditional authentically Catholic catechesis.  Both clergy and laity commonly speak of the Penny, Baltimore, and other similar catechisms as if they were a means by which, through memorization, the pre-Vatican II Church brainwashed the young with hurtful pious-sounding lies.  If anything is a brainwashing, it is this reckless claim that takes from Catholics the means of effective formation in the essentials of revealed Truth and leaves them both ignorant of the treasures God wishes them to possess and vulnerable to the spirit of the times, to the destructive nihilistic ideologies of liberalism, relativism, and agnosticism which corrupt the soul through the intellect.

Ask one such critic of traditional catechesis to define the Church, a sacrament, the nature of the Mass, the two-fold nature of Christ, or the purpose of life itself.  They will fumble and mutter a mouthful of nonsense as they try to invent their own definitions, until they finally declare, as if uttering the last divine revelation, “The Church doesn’t engage in religious definitions any longer.  Catechisms are passé.  We’ve moved beyond them!”

If such persons were to take themselves seriously and assess the actual meaning of their message, they would realize that the emptying of our churches of souls is the only logical consequence.  For if there is nothing to teach because nothing is true, and if catechisms contain a mass of outdated nonsensical propaganda, then the Church has no mission, and only a fool would continue to attend her services and listen to her homilies.  And this is what the dedicated Catholic must be courageous enough to admit, reject, and denounce – all alone, without the help or support of clergy or laity.  It is a weight almost too heavy to bear, but it is precisely what God is presently requiring of those who love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

My point is simply to offer some prudent advice and encouragement, in light of the current crisis.  Don’t give up; don’t quit on God and His Church; ignore the mockers and the lukewarm who have no use for the priceless gold of God.

Beware of excessive article-reading.  The Internet is a bottomless pit of both useful and useless information on the Church and religion in general.  It can be a superb tool for certain types of research, but it can also pose a serious threat to the study of the faith.  One can become obsessed with current information, but information is not a formation, is not an education.

If you would like to learn the Catholic faith, first patiently follow the main trail, and then gradually and systematically add the side trails.  Work at it from the ground up.  Study the Church’s classic time-proven catechisms cover to cover.  Learn the long-established vocabulary of the faith.  Read, re-read, and through the tedious wonders of repetition, memorize the answers and definitions.  Humble yourself and follow the way that Catholic children once followed.  This will be only a beginning, but a good and right beginning.  Later, you can build up a more mature grasp of the faith with more advanced manuals.  But first, establish a basic and thorough understanding of the faith through an assiduous study of fundamental catechesis of the clearest type.  Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.  And at all times, Holy Scripture.

Baltimore Catechism