The Secular Utility of the Cloistered Contemplative

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.

26 thoughts on “The Secular Utility of the Cloistered Contemplative

  1. Vacant or nearly vacant Church property in cities should be given to Benedictine monks and used to provide affordable hospitality to young working class Catholic couples that face the ridiculous costs of modern family formation. Discuss …

    • I have thought this for years. There is no reason that hundreds of vibrant and growing monastic estates could not soon be established in this way: parishes renewed, magnificent old churches and rectories restored, lives succored, souls saved, saints made, and the seeds of a new sort of urban life planted, yeast in the bodies of cities that are otherwise doomed to die. It could make all the secular efforts to intervene in inner city life look sick by comparison.

      • Yes. A genius move. The Christians and Jews of those days also abhorred abortion and infanticide, unlike the surrounding gentiles. They cared for their sick, providing them with the basic nursing which is generally the most important factor of healing. They took in widows, orphans and abandoned slaves who had nowhere else to go, and who often then became converts. All of these measures had the effect of increasing Christian and Jewish conversions and fertility far above those of the surrounding gentiles. So they outgrew their competition.

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  3. @Kristor

    As you know, I used to argue on similar lines on my blog – as did John Senior from an RCC perspective http://www.edocere.org/biographies/dr_john_senior_biography.htm, and much more famously Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue of 1981 (1981!)

    – but there is no sign of a resurgence of monasticism in The West (there is in some Orthodox countries like Romania and Russia).

    Far from it.

    In the UK vocations to the Men’s catholic religious life are I think probably numbered in single digits or maybe a few dozen per year (in a context when there were *hundreds* per year just among Anglicans, as recently as the mid 1950s). There are few monasteries/ friaries, and most of the orders are the opposite of orthodox but function primarily as quasi-Marxist left-wing pressure groups (e.g. the Dominicans).

    (There are nearly always more women religious than men – but it is the male religious who are primarily necessary and distinctively functional in catholic Christianities, at a societal level.)

    If there is a desire for increased orthodox and devout monasticism among devout catholics (whether Roman, Orthodox, or Anglo), there is nothing significant to stop it and much to encourage it – they should Just Get On With It.

    But it Just Isn’t Happening – ergo there is no *real* desire for monasticism in The West.

    I conclude that a significant revival of Western monasticism is merely an interesting basis for speculation, a ‘talking point’.

      • Hah! When your comment posted, I had just begun to respond to Bruce thusly:

        Sure. Things have changed. But that will keep happening. Next year’s news is not yet apparent, by definition.

        Yesterday’s news is that, as with every other aspect of the Church, the liberal orders are dying like flies, while the strict, conservative, orthodox and old-fashioned orders are booming. Their numbers may be small in absolute terms, but there’s no other way to be a new thing than to be small.

    • Since Kristor inserted an LOTR reference into his post, it seems appropriate to mention that Bruce Charlton, if only in the tone of his comment, appears to be playing the part of the Lord Denethor. Perhaps its time to take a break from the palantir and get a different perspective.

      • I think you are being way too critical of Bruce, who, while not unsympathetic, makes the valid point that the problem with numbers is daunting. Sure, things could change, as Kristor says, but one has to assume long and sustained growth in numbers to fulfill this vision. A company that is “booming” but which has sales that are small in absolute terms is a very speculative investment, especially if the industry it is in has been declining for decades and which once had a near monopoly position. What is plan B if a new monasticism doesn’t take off?

  4. .. 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.

    Beautiful reflection, Kristor. Praise of, and hope for, such great things is never just a talking point. A monastery is an inn of prayer, a house of labor, a road sign to heaven, its denizens toiling not for themselves only, but for us. A resurrection Just Might Happen. There is sometimes safety in numbers, but numbers also sometimes lie.

    I don’t believe Earl would make a happy Carthusian.

    • I see Earl as more of a Friar Tuck than a John of the Cross, God Bless him.

      I should note in fairness to Earl, that vital earthy man, that I am myself in no sense an ascetic. Not a successful one, anyway. If I became a monk, I should have to join a monastery that operated a brewery …

  5. Let’s just be honest and acknowledge that modernity, beginning with the Reformation was an explicit revolt against monasticism as a concept. Consider in American culture, the prioritization of “activity” over “contemplation.” Consider both the modern state’s and modern “free” individual’s intolerance of intermediary bodies. Consider the rootless cosmopolitanism of moderns, in complete contrast to the stark commands for a monasticism rooted in a particular place (Benedict’s Rule). It is not for nothing that early capitalists (when they didn’t plunder them outright) demanded that monasteries be dissolved for tying up not just valuable land and treasures, but also intellectual power to non-utilitarian uses. I can’t think of a better contrast between the Catholic society and modernity – contemplative/leisure v. feverish activity with no real end.

    Since the Catholic Church now apparently holds marriage as “common in dignity” with the monastic vocation there seems no real impetus, outside of the traditional orders to take monastic vows. Even traditionalist Catholic culture here in the US now takes its cue (like most things) from the secularized Protestant order and upholds marriage as the only viable rout to a “good life.” What is it with women who all of sudden start throwing themselves at men discerning the religious life? We need to stop losing future priests this way.

    • What is it with women who all of sudden start throwing themselves at men discerning the religious life?

      No need: it’s a powerful lure. The most attractive sort of man is the man who is engaged on more important things than the mating game. Heroes on a quest are so alpha they don’t even register. Those engaged on the Grail Quest make even Lancelot and all his ilk look like mere pathetic boys.

      • are so alpha

        When did we start using such language at the Orthosphere? That you use such terms as “alpha” and “secular utility” in reference to the religious life is problematic to say the least.

      • Hey, you asked the question why women find postulants to holy orders attractive, and acting on that attraction try to lure them back to worldly affections, and so I answered in worldly terms.

        Likewise, the OP began with questions posed from within a worldly frame of reference, asking what worldly good monasticism might be. This it did for purely rhetorical reasons, the better to upend the perspective of the typical worldly reader as the argument progressed.

        Why in any case is worldliness per se, or the terms thereof, so problematic? What, are we just Gnostics, who hate and revile bodies, matter, flesh and its life? Or, are we Christians, who profess at every turn our faith in Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection? The world is not to be utterly abandoned at the eschaton, under the Christian hypothesis, but rather translated, cleansed, and redeemed. We can if we are faithful look forward to even more profound and intense embodiment than anything we now enjoy.

        The great and wonderful surprise of the Christian revelation is that God has been active in his world, and loving it, all along. So should we.

    • Also, this: don’t forget that economic enterprise (however ostensibly free)(it is never really quite free) is not in *essential* contradiction with monastic life, or therefore with holiness. Economics is after all nothing more than the science of human motivations; so that, because sublunary human life of any sort (whether or not ordered ultimately to this world) cannot (yet) be prosecuted at all except by men who find themselves in the world, and suffering worldly feelings, economics is by defintion always commensurable thereto. A holy man seeks heaven because he deems it – properly, rightly – good, indeed better than all other subsidiary goods. The saint is the most successful of economic men, the best at comprehending what is most valuable: the pearl of great price, for which he is prepared to trade every other good. The saint’s bargain with the cosmos yields an infinite profit.

      We should remember then also that Cluny and the Franciscans did much of the heavy lifting in devising the theology, theory, organs and instruments of post-Roman economic life. The medieval monasteries were the big corporations of their age. It was not the merchants of London who demanded the confiscation of the British monastic estates, but the quasi-public fisc of Henry VIII. It was not the merchants of Paris who demanded the confiscation of the Templar assets, but the quasi-public fisc of Philip the Fair. The Protestant revolts served the quasi-public interests of German and English princes who gave them succor and protection for the sake of tax revenues they had long chafed at having to forward to Rome.

      Business – like any other human activity – enters into conflict with holiness only when it is pursued unjustly. Usually it is, of course. But then, so is every other human activity.

      • Also, this: don’t forget that economic enterprise (however ostensibly free)(it is never really quite free) is not in *essential* contradiction with monastic life, or therefore with holiness

        Sure, but economics even when practiced in the traditional Aristotelian sense was in tension with the monastic life. The most devout monks and ascetics surely did not engage in it. There is also a just as obvious affinity between Marxism and the monastic life, which makes right-liberal Christians very uncomfortable. Economic liberalism on the other hand does quite blatantly contradict the monastic way of life, most especially in the heterodox Austrian school, which you seem found of.

        A holy man seeks heaven because he deems it – properly, rightly – good, indeed better than all other subsidiary goods. The saint is the most successful of economic men

        Religious consumerism, is that what you are proposing? The holy man seeks to attain the Good out of love, not merely self-interest. Indeed many radical liberal thinkers explicitly discount the possibility of anything save self-interest (or discontent) as motivating “acting man” towards his end. Von Mises literally extrapolates that God cannot exist for this very reason since a perfect being could not act out of discontent.

        Also witness the great “traditionalist” Bruce Charlton, who coined the apt phrase “church shopping” and has described picking a church in terms analogous to buying a car in a whatever “model works for you” mentality. Liberalism has so badly warped how we view everything, that it we now see our religious traditions in the same way we look at any look at any consumer product.

        We should remember then also that Cluny and the Franciscans did much of the heavy lifting in devising the theology, theory, organs and instruments of post-Roman economic life. The medieval monasteries were the big corporations of their age. It was not the merchants of London who demanded the confiscation of the British monastic estates, but the quasi-public fisc of Henry VIII. It was not the merchants of Paris who demanded the confiscation of the Templar assets, but the quasi-public fisc of Philip the Fair. The Protestant revolts served the quasi-public interests of German and English princes who gave them succor and protection for the sake of tax revenues they had long chafed at having to forward to Rome.

        When the monastics got too involved in the “business of the world” outside of practicing the works of mercy and contemplation, corruption and ultimately destruction set in. I agree with your account of the history for what it is worth, the state did indeed “create” the “free” market out the ash heap of corporate Christendom. and the partisans of the market would come to use their new found wealth to capture the state and destroy those same absolutist monarchies. Never mind the fact that the capitalists also saw to it that Catholicism would not be established for fear of losing their plundered wealth (1688) we had the recent spectacle of “business conservatism” stabbing traditionalists in the back in the recent fight in Arizona over whether private businesses could discriminate against homosexuals.

        The “free” market is not a hill worth dying on.

      • … economics even when practiced in the traditional Aristotelian sense was in tension with the monastic life. The most devout monks and ascetics surely did not engage in it.

        When a nun walled into her cell accepts a plate of food from her sister, she engages in an exchange of value. That’s an economic transaction. Not all exchanges of value are intended to exploit a counterparty. A gift motivated by pure love is an exchange of value; trade began as an exchange of gifts, and signified friendship. Treaties and important contracts are celebrated with feasting, good fellowship and gifts to this day. Business is not combat, but agreement, and society is not a battle, but peace – except when they break down and their proper operations are deranged (this sort of derangement being, admittedly, all too common). In fact, there are relatively few antagonistic exchanges. Most exchanges are effected in good faith, and with a good will. People who are not profoundly whacked want their deals to work out all around. Men who set out to exploit their counterparties make lousy counterparties, and soon find that no one wants to deal with them, so that their opportunities dry up. Such men end bitter and alone, and often poor withal.

        Religious consumerism, is that what you are proposing? The holy man seeks to attain the Good out of love, not merely self-interest.

        Who said anything about “mere” self-interest? The cost of the pearl of great price is every other good whatsoever, so that one must trade (i.e., sacrifice, forego, surrender, exchange) everything else for its sake – including all the goods that serve only oneself (of which, in the final analysis, there are but few). To see by themselves that such a total sacrifice is reasonable, and worthy, men must see by themselves the good that shall follow upon it. They won’t take the pearl at all, otherwise, because they’ll never quite see it for what it is.

        So a church must, *of course,* seem right and true and good to us if we are to join with it honestly, or fervently. What, would you have people professing their faith in doctrines they thought false? Do you *want* people to lie when they say the Creed? Do you want people to spend their lives in service of ideas and projects they find ugly or hateful or stupid or wicked? No, of course you don’t. So, you have to hope and wish that people shall be convinced of the Truth honestly, and find the Church and her works beautiful, lovable, worthy, alluring; that they therefore desire to join and serve her for love.

        … many radical liberal thinkers explicitly discount the possibility of anything save self-interest (or discontent) as motivating “acting man” towards his end. Von Mises literally extrapolates that God cannot exist for this very reason since a perfect being could not act out of discontent.

        The pursuit and enjoyment of the good for its own sake is not wicked and selfish. It is basic to being as such. The saint seeks the BV rather than lesser or partial goods because he sees that it is the best and most complete good, and because he knows that he lacks it. If he already rested in the BV, he would be perverse to forsake it and set out in search of it.

        Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.

        – Saint Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1

        Aquinas agrees with von Mises that a perfect being cannot act out of discontent. By the definition of “perfect,” a perfect being is after all wholly in act. Apart from his act of being, God does not act at all; everything God does, he does by his one act of being. He lacks nothing, and there is nothing more that he needs to do – or, as already wholly complete, can possibly do.

        If von Mises does really conclude from this that God cannot exist at all, he grievously errs; for it entails not that God cannot exist at all, but only that he cannot exist *as imperfect.* With that conclusion, no classical theist would disagree.

        … the state did indeed “create” the “free” market out [of] the ash heap of corporate Christendom.

        I think we are indicating different things with the term “market.”

        The state cannot make two men want to exchange with each other. It can only either aid or hinder their efforts to find one another and discover their joint capacity for mutual aid, so that they are then motivated to trade, or to exchange favors (the transaction can be characterized either way with equal verity, provided both men are honest with each other). The state “makes” a market by its apt easements (or vitiates it by its inept constraints) only insofar as it furnishes conditions where such discoveries are more (or less) likely than they might otherwise be. But where men feel no reason or desire to trade in the first place, all the fairs and standards of weights and measures and rules and courts and police in the world will not induce them to do so. We don’t buy things only because we can do so easily and in security, but because we find them more valuable than what we already own.

        The state can facilitate or hinder the market, then. But it cannot really make it, properly speaking. The market is made by the very men who exchange with each other, by means of those exchanges, and consisting thereof. Two solitary strangers meeting on a barren moor can greet each other as friends, and trade favors. So doing, they make a bit of a market. Such exchanges are basic to human interaction, for even the exchange of information by language or gesture, insofar as it is valuable, is an economic exchange. As basic, then, exchange is coeval with society as such, and therefore prior to politics and the state.

      • There is also a just as obvious affinity between Marxism and the monastic life, which makes right-liberal Christians very uncomfortable.

        Marxist were also quick to recognize this affinity so they called Hussitism (or Hussite Revolutionary Movement in the old communist history books) one of the predecessors of the modern revolutionary movement. Hussitism is a perfect example of distinct features of monastic life and Marxism applied to wider society. I would say not only right-liberal Christians but the Church herself is uncomfortable with it and rightly so. Monastic life is not for everybody and, therefore, not a model suitable for society as a whole. It is similar to the life in the army. Army is important but who would want to have the public life organized as in the army?

        Indeed many radical liberal thinkers explicitly discount the possibility of anything save self-interest (or discontent) as motivating “acting man” towards his end.

        Mises rather refers to seeking happiness as motivation behind human action. For him self-interest and happiness are finally the same because the self is always involved, even in practices of ascetism or charity directed to diminishing the self. These practices are means to reach the end which is happiness. By happiness Mises means Epicurean ataraxia but if we replace ataraxia with eudaimonia, an objective concept of happiness, we are closer to Christianity and farther from liberalism. And yet praxeology still stands because it does not define what the happiness should be. Therefore, I think there is no real disagreement with Austrians on this matter. Or is there?

  6. Archbishop Justin Welby is planning a program at Lambeth Palace for young adults (age 20-35) to spend a year living, praying and studying together as a radical new Christian community with 16 people living at Lambeth Palace full time and up to 40 others joining part time. The yearlong experimental program will include prayer, study, and practical service and community life.

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