What are monks good for, anyway? Why do we allocate scarce resources to their activities of prayer, liturgy, and the odd bit of gardening, or apiculture, or brewing?
We could ask the same question about priests, and about church buildings. Sure, they do lots of good and valuable work – teaching, nursing, and so forth – but their strictly religious activities would seem to be a complete waste.
But not so. People do better – are braver, more resilient, and happier in the face of life’s ineliminable vicissitudes both small and great – when they can see that their personal struggles signify in the larger struggle of good with evil for the redemption of the whole world. They do better when they can see how their small efforts to be good contribute weal to the side of the angels in the Wars of Heaven. If earthly life is throughly pointed toward some utterly transcendent and wonderful Good, then it can all be worthwhile. Otherwise, it just can’t, and is utterly vain and meaningless, so that despair is the only apposite response to life’s utter futility.
As for people, so for their families, their enterprises of all sorts, their tribes and nations. If these are formed by a shared understanding of their important roles in the wider struggle of God with his enemies, they are more likely to prosper and prevail. Otherwise, they are more likely to dwindle and fail. The demographic collapse of our merely secular society – more and more obviously nihilist – shows how irreligion plays out.
Religion orients the whole society toward its transcendent purpose, and explains to people how they, their lives, and their culture cohere – and coinhere, and coordinate – with the rest of the world, and with the world of all worlds that environs it. Religion shows us how everything hangs together, and how that hanging together depends upon all of us, and on our humble quotidian duteous hanging in – with each other, and for it. Thus almost all traditional societies have understood their central religious liturgies as crucial to the maintenance of cosmic order. A sacrilege against the cult – either by ruining the rite, or by any failure or defect of participation therein – was a grave and terrifying insult to the cohesion of the world, and might unravel the whole shooting match. So apostates and heretics were objects of horror, and rage.
Devotion of social resources to ostentatious religious activities, then, reminds everyone what everyone is really about. It makes everything work better, and everyone work together better, if almost everyone is in fair agreement about what God wills – about what it is important for everyone to do, and about the over-riding goals of the social order.
Contemplatives cloistered in their monasteries, then, and invisible to the world from without, are nevertheless the men and women who, everyone knows, have devoted their entire lives to that worship which is the ultimate work of the whole people. Habits have the same signification as the cloister, denoting lives set apart, consecrated wholly to the ascent to Heaven which is the ultimate aspiration – the hope, and the practical goal, and the end and organizing principle of life – of the whole people.
Up through about AD 1800, it was not uncommon for worldly men and women who had for one reason or another reached a point of closure in their mundane careers – the death of a beloved spouse, bankruptcy, disgrace, retirement, or a profound metanoia and resulting revulsion for the mess and hurry and compromise of secular life, and a wish to be done with it – to retire in holy poverty to a monastery, a nunnery, or a hermitage, there to round out their days in prayer, fasting, worship, contemplation, and the humble work of the hands. It was understood that when one cut away all the inessential things in life, the monastic life would remain. Worship was the core and essence, the sine qua non, of a life that could aspire to propriety.
This ennobled and encouraged the whole society. When a noble lady or a peasant girl dedicated her life to a religious order, everyone was gladdened, and heartened; for it told them what their own lives were about, and for. “If she so small can be so valorous,” one could think, “why then I suppose I shall be able to manage my bit.”
The ostentatious presence in the midst of society of consecrated religious, then, illumines the rationality of social life, reinforcing the social order and nerving the organs of society to their duties under their proper ends.
Now it might seem that this is all some sort of reductionist account of monasticism. That monasticism has social utility, however, does not entail that its utility is at all specious. To think so is to labor under the unconscious, quintessentially modern presupposition that our convictions are all specious – a conviction that renders itself specious. On the contrary: that a thing is practically useful to us ought to suggest first that it is in fact quite likely to be really good for us in the ultimate scheme of things.
Thus the modern consequentialist approach to utility has it all backwards. Things are not good because they result in good consequences; this utilitarian explanation begs the question it purports to answer. Rather, things have generally good consequences when they are really good and beautiful in themselves. Things are useful because they are good, and not vice versa.
So far is this then from being a consequentialist or utilitarian account of monasticism, as to be the very opposite. Monasticism is not useful to us because it fools us all into thinking that our daily activities are important. No: our daily activities *really are important,* seeking the Good and devoting our lives ultimately to God *really is* the essence of goodness, value, spiritual and corporeal health, and of joy; and monasticism helps us remember these facts.
But yet, more than that, monastics *really are* the van of the general heavenward motion of humanity. They are blazing a trail for us, not just metaphorically, but in simple fact. Monasticism is useful to us in worldly life because it is important in the ultimate life of all the worlds. After all, we tend all in the end, willy nilly, toward the monk’s utter renunciation of all inferior values in favor of what matters most. We are all of us to be utterly impoverished, sooner or later, intentionally or not, nobly or not. We are all of us incipient monastics.
Monks then are as valuable to us as the van of our host in battle. Their spiritual warfare, of which all earthly wars are theaters, is the real struggle at the heart of all others.
So it is that, back when Israel was at war with the Canaanite idolaters of Moloch the devourer of children, the warriors at the bleeding edge of the Israelite army, first into battle, were priests in white linen, blowing shawms and singing Psalms of wrath and battle, angels of the Lord.