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 Spirituality of Study

Studying

In 1975, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Paul VI issued a document on a theme that has come to dominate the language and thought of the modern Church. It was entitled, On Evangelization in the Modern Word. Quoting a previous document, the pope reminded us,

“We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.”

He then wrote,

“Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity.”

From the pontificate of Paul VI to the present time, we have heard and seen countless references to what is now called, the “New Evangelization.” It is an expression that, unfortunately, has been used ad nauseam, to the point that it has lost the force of its actual meaning. The New Evangelization has now come to include not evangelizing, not bringing the faith to non-believers, but rather, celebrating the immense diversity of theological and religious viewpoints in some sort of ecumenical inter-religious spasmodic fit.

The Church must evangelize because she has been commissioned by Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel to all people – without exception – that they may be saved by the truth and grace of God. This also implies a seemingly unmentionable teaching of the Church: the possibility of the eternal loss of salvation. The world needs the Church to evangelize, because the world needs the Gospel of salvation.  To state what should be obvious, then – Christ sent the Church to teach and preach to non-believers.  She must do far more than merely make the Gospel available to those interested.  She must also bring it to those who are definitely not interested in it, and offer it, therefore, with persuasive arguments.  None of this entails force of any kind, for the Church is commissioned to draw souls to God, not drag them kicking and screaming.

In the same document, Pope Paul VI stated,

“The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.”

The importance of this last statement cannot be emphasized enough. If the Church is to preach and teach the truth of the Gospel, then her individual members must first be evangelized. They must be prepared to evangelize others by being thoroughly instructed themselves in the fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith. One cannot effectively bear witness to a faith of which one is ignorant. The required knowledge can be gained in part by attending lectures and listening to recorded presentations, but it is gained primarily by assiduous personal study.

Tragically, Catholics often have an aversion for study. The notion of spending an hour or two reading the Bible, Catechism, magisterial documents, or other essential sources of Catholic truth, is considered mundane and unspiritual, as if such intellectual activities were a danger to personal faith and devotion. Supposedly, the truly pious Catholic – the one who loves God deeply and prays to Him fervidly – should not be attracted to reading religious books because the intellectual life is, by nature, a threat to the spiritual life. This is perhaps the most absurd idea I’ve ever heard from fellow Catholics. It’s detrimental to the mission of the Church and, therefore, to every confirmed Catholic’s dutiful participation in that mission.

I’ve often heard Catholics say, “I’m not an intellectual person. I have a simple faith and that’s enough for me.”  This statement reveals a laxity disguised as piety.

If you have an intellect, then you are an intellectual!  The only question is, will you use your intellect for sacred purposes, or only for profane purposes?

Why should every Catholic study the faith with substantial depth? For many reasons, but let me mention only two. First, because, if you truly love someone, you will seek out every means of coming to know that person better. We come to better know God – motivated primarily by a love for Him – by studying the record of His Word, the Bible, and the writings of His Church, including the Fathers, the great theologians and commentators, the catechisms, and the documents of the magisterium. These teachings are available on all levels of difficulty, from simple to sophisticated.  In coming to know God better through study and prayer, we enable ourselves to love Him more by knowing and understanding more about the salvific plan that is the Gospel.  That is, we acquire more reasons to love Him.  As St. Faustina wrote in her diary,

“I took part in this retreat, as I very much desire to know God more deeply and to love Him more ardently, for I have understood that the greater the knowledge, the stronger the love” (#974).

In coming to better know God, we also learn how He wants us to live – what we should do, and equally important, what we should not do.  For we cannot serve a God whose will is unknown to us due, not to His silence, but to our ignorance.  Ignorance is not a form of intellectual purity; rather, it is the result of mental sloth.  It is due to a laziness of the mind.

This first reason for studying the faith concerns our own sanctification and salvation, but so does the second reason. We should study also so that, knowing the faith well, we will then be able to effectively bring it to others. For a full two thousand years, the world has been sharpening and refining its methods and arguments to an impressive degree in opposition to the faith. The world is brilliant at resisting and undermining the Christian religion, and its dedication to the cause puts us to shame.  Responding to such arguments requires serious preparation through study, including both biblical catechesis and apologetics. We must know how to explain the faith and also how to defend it. This will make us effective missionaries in the New Evangelization, in the battle for souls waged by the spiritual army that is the Church of Jesus Christ.  Such study is not some sort of dry insipid exercise for high brows.  Rather, it is an act of devotion to God and to the truth He has purposefully revealed to us.  Which is to imply yet another truth: namely, the only person who is served by religious ignorance is the devil, who revels to see the human mind deprived of Gospel truth and absorbed primarily in the things of this world.  For religious ignorance is not a virtue, but a vice with awful consequences.

In other words, we must know the faith first for our own salvation, and second, for the salvation of others. And yet, our own salvation is actually dependent on our personal witness to Jesus Christ before others and on striving to bring salvation to others. Salvation is not an individual solitary pursuit, but a matter both of the love of God and the love of others. Hence, the person who says, “I’m not an intellectual person. I have my simple faith, and that’s enough for me,” has quite a self-centered view of the whole scheme of salvation. As if to say, “I’ve got mine. What else or who else do I care about?”

The highest purpose to which one can devote the human mind is the contemplation of God and His truth. It would be sacrilegious, then, to reserve the mind entirely for mundane things – for work, business, culture, politics, and recreation – to the neglect of the things of God. True piety requires that we make use of all that God has given us for His glory and His purposes. And this certainly includes the human intellect, which is the highest faculty possessed by man; it is the “place” where the individual knows God and has a relationship with Him.  It is entirely proper, then, to speak of the spirituality of study, and many teachings of the faith could be cited in support of this notion.

The Sermon on the Mount (found in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapters 5-7) is the most complete and elaborate body of our Lord’s teachings found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, the popular view holds that this sermon is a impenetrable theological treatise for sophisticated scholars alone. And yet, the Sermon on the Mount was addressed by Jesus to the crowds of ordinary folk. They constituted His regular and most devoted audience. Jesus constantly instructed the people and declared that He was sent by the Father to teach the masses. This teaching continued, not only until the Last Supper, but even beyond it to the Ascension. And in those last few moments before He departed this world, what did He do?   He commissioned His Church to go out and baptize and teach.

How strange it would be – considering the tremendous importance that Christ placed on teaching – if it were not equally important for us to receive this teaching, to learn its contents. Such an arrangement would make no sense whatsoever; which is to say that Christ’s primary activity during His public ministry would have been a pointless waste of time and effort.

On the contrary, it is the revealed will of Christ that we should study His teachings and learn from the Church their meaning. We must do this for our own salvation and for the salvation of others. In other words – as Pope Paul VI stated – we must first be evangelized ourselves, and then we must evangelize others. Such is the authentic Catholic program.

Study is not unspiritual; rather, it is profoundly spiritual and a participation in the divine plan of salvation. For, again, in order to witness to the faith, we must know the faith, and in order to correct the many lies told about Catholic teaching, we must know what the Church really teaches, and not merely in a vague or general way. The view held by many Catholics that a state of ignorance is equivalent to a state of purity – this will find no precedent in the teachings of the Holy Gospel. Religious ignorance renders a person substantially useless in the divine plan, but quite useful in the diabolical one.  It makes us “useful idiots” in the hopeless demonic attempt to prevent the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Now consider the Church’s catechetical tradition. Of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, four especially concern the intellect: wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. Consider also the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. Three are especially intellectual: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, and admonishing sinners. Finally, consider the sacrament of Confirmation. At #1303 the Catechism says,

“[Confirmation] gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the cross.”

In light of this excerpt, an unavoidable question comes to mind: Considering the dedication and sophistication of those who seek to refute Catholic doctrine and confuse even the faithful, how effectively will a poorly instructed Catholic be able to “spread and defend the faith?” Not effectively at all. Ignorance will terribly hinder them in the complicated cause of evangelizing others, and it will even render them vulnerable to the clever arguments of anti-Catholics. The most immediate proof of this is seen in the success with which the promoters of same-sex “marriage” have transformed a large portion of the Catholic population into a reliable voting bloc. This is Catholic ignorance on display, and it will have a devastating effect in the very near future on religious freedom, on our freedom not merely to worship, but to publicly proclaim the Gospel and openly debate the moral issues of our age.

Will the Holy Spirit compensate for this ignorance? Should we wait for the proverbial bolt of lightening through which the Spirit will supernaturally infuse into our minds a deep knowledge of the mysteries of faith? On the contrary, the Holy Spirit gives us grace – moral conviction and the supernatural strength to act on it – so that we may overcome the sloth that renders us too lazy to study.

It is the teaching of both Scripture and Tradition that we should strive to acquire a deep knowledge of the Catholic faith. It is the will of God that we should possess this knowledge, and the Holy Spirit assists us with many gifts and graces related to it. To learn the faith, to study divinely revealed truth and constantly meditate on it, is exceedingly spiritual. To dedicate oneself to such a lofty pursuit is to consecrate one’s mind to God; it is to sanctify one’s intellect with the truths of the God who is Truth Himself.

“He who has ears, let him hear.”