It’s hard to imagine, particularly in this modern age, monastic communities that resembled small cities.
There was, however, a time when men and women in large numbers, in heartfelt pursuit of personal holiness, abandoned the cacophony, luxuries, and comforts of their own contemporary times adjoining themselves to monastic communities that did indeed resemble small cities with populations numbering in the thousands.
There were no promises of fame or fortune, writing contracts or royalty checks. Monastic meals were, according to our tastes, a lot less than meager. Monastic garb was of a coarse fashion of its own. Despite these things, it is rather interesting how many of the well-to-do class turned their backs on their pomp and prosperity and chose the poverty, obedience, and humility of living in monastic community.
There were no lords and ladies here. No people living lifestyles of glamorous self-exaltation and self-absorption. There were only men and women spending their entire lives, as obedient living sacrifices, praying the Psalms with their hearts and lips, working with their hands, disciplining their thoughts, and conquering the desires and ambitions of the flesh.
Their holy desire was simply to live in Christ and to have Christ live in them. They realized their human condition, that their human condition was filled with inherent impediments keeping them from the realization of their holy desire. They chose the harder course, realizing that it would be a difficult course. They were well aware of the “buts”. But they didn’t get stuck on the “buts”.
Those first desert dwellers were something of an oddity. They were quite “out of the norm”. One here in a cave. One there in a cave. The development of their personal holiness became attractive. Others seeking personal holiness began to seek them out. It didn’t take long for this eremitical oddity to become an acceptable norm in religious life. Their pursuit of personal holiness, and their abandonment of the social ills of their times in this pursuit, laid the foundation that monastic culture and spirituality has stood upon for these many centuries and must, if it is to remain viable, stand upon in this century.
The clamoring confusion created by the world in its pursuit of the antithesis of personal holiness has a way of blinding the eyes and deafening the ears. Brazen sinfulness does not want to see or hear the truth, nor admit the truth when its rays of light penetrate the depths of the heart.
However, despite the clamoring confusion, and humankind’s willful acceptance of it, monastic culture and spirituality stands before us as both a historical event and as a present prophetic voice calling the world to return to Christ.
Monastic communities, by their very existence as microcosms of the Church and as the Church’s greatest collective prophetic body, call the Church to return, in a real, tangible, ongoing lifestyle, to the singular purpose found in the pursuit of holiness.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the pursuit of personal holiness, in this modern culture that thrives on self-promotion, sensuality, and carnality, is rejected and laughed at. Even the mention of the Evangelical Counsels (poverty, chastity, and obedience) in the faith-realm, despite the historical significance of their faith-orientation, generates tirades of prideful self-justifying excuses.