Todd, who I trust has recovered from the flu, and I have posted a few times about monasteries and the monastic tradition (see here, for example), so I thought that the title question here would be relevant. Needless to say, my own musings on the subject would be rather shallow, if not worse. I would like to look to the answer of the late Dom Francis Kline, abbot of Mepkin Abbey.
But, before we do that, we should acknowledge the temptation of inadequate answers. Perhaps many of these answers are constricting, in implicit opposition to the dynamism of Francis Kline’s book on monasticism “let loose in the Church.” They would preserve monasteries as protected “religious” spaces in contrast to the messiness of the rest of the world. On the inside, then, monasteries would become places of flight from reality (and perhaps the self). On the outside, we laypeople could gaze at monasteries with romantic visions of “silent men in cowls padding about cloisters while Gregorian chant plays in the background,” to borrow Lawrence Cunningham’s phrase. They would provide scenes of reassurance to compensate for our nagging doubts. We could visit once or twice a year to counterbalance our usual lives of accumulation and defensiveness.
These sorts of inadequate answers, though, would leave monks and nun deaf to the Holy Spirit, when the Spirit should happen to speak through the rest of the baptized in what has already been dismissed as the “world.” And they would leave laypeople bereft of the real gifts of monastics, which have less to do with imaginary romantic visions than the hard-won capacity to be healers, reconcilers, and bearers of compassion in our world. As Dom Francis Kline wrote, “The stature which we receive from Christ does not put us higher than the others, but more transparent to their needs, more sagacious in their affairs, greater than our own finiteness.”
So, What are monasteries for? In a 1996 paper, Dom Francis Kline gave the answer: “Jesus Christ.” More precisely, perhaps, monasteries are “schools of charity” (but, presumably, not the only ones): “We put on Christ in an ecstasy of love, in which, like him, we may love our brothers/sisters as he loves them in his Paschal Mystery.”
If more precision is required, and it probably is, here is a longer but interesting excerpt from the late Dom Francis Kline’s “The Monastic Community as a School of Charity” (RB stands for the Rule of St Benedict):
In the monastery, we aim to achieve the perfect love that casts out fear (RB 7:67). This love, of course, is the love of Christ. The whole of the structure of the community, as envisaged by the Rule, is built on this love of Christ. Its sole purpose is to foster this love. The Rule speaks of preferring nothing to the love of Christ (RB 4:21; 72:11), and believing that the Abbot holds his place in the community. By the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, Christ and his love are present and acting in individuals and in the community which is a local Church, and thus the very Body of Christ. We understand, too, that the Liturgy of the Hours, because it is Liturgy, is also the locus for the presence and action of the Paschal Mystery, whenever the community is gathered to celebrate it. The presence and action of Christ is the place where God’s love for us is palpable and effective.
And that love is given and received throughout the Body, the community of the monks. This love, naturally, is what we strive to put on more and more. It is the very program of the Rule to which we are vowed. The point to remember is that in the monastic community, it is already present and acting. The exhortation of Jesus, which, though not quoted in the Rule, but which can certainly sum up its message, For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (Jn 13:15), is not too high for us to reach. More than an ideal of misty and mythical proportions, the fraternal charity to which we are invited, calls us to become what we already are, alive in Christ, living no longer for ourselves, but for him and for all those for whom he died and was raised. Thus our own salvation cannot be considered without practicing the love that binds us necessarily to our brothers in community, that is, to Christ. Having been called to this love before the foundation of the world, we are now called in the monastery to clinch that love in an eternal possession. By its very nature, his love becomes a power mounting up to a personal transformation. And this new person communicates and receives love through the frail instrumentality of community life. Often we realize the significance of exchanges in the community as pregnant with the love of Christ only after they occur. Our individuality can now be glorified in Christ, instead of slipping down into the abyss of sameness with the transgressors. The monastic way, therefore, is the way of the Gospel made possible in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. It is a proclamation addressed to those who, in the multitude of people, hear the Lord calling them to himself and offering the gift of true and eternal life (veram et perpetuam vitam [RB Prol 17]).
The action of Christ’s love in us needs further examination. Since it is so strictly derived from his own love of the Father, we may approach the Revelation with this question in mind: What is the nature of the love between the Father and the Son? Here, we necessarily withdraw from trinitarian theology, because a more ample treatment of the topic at hand would have to involve itself with the circumincession of the three Persons. Put quite simply, God goes out of himself to come to us. He comes to find us, so that he may take us back with him where he is. The divine economy works within the Trinity when the Father sends the Son to redeem the world by the power of the Spirit. In the Johannine theology, it sounds thus: I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father (Jn 16:28). Far from lessening his godhead, God reveals himself as God precisely because he goes out of himself (in Greek = extasis; in Latin = excessus; in English = ecstasy?) in an ecstasy of love, the obediential love of the Son for the Father in the communion of the Spirit. The mystery here is in the nature of love, that it shares itself by going out of itself. Since Christ is God, we can say that God goes out of himself when Christ goes out from the Father in obediential love. At the same time, Christ is God’s love for us. Christ, then, is an ecstasy of love. And by reason of his humanity, the ecstasy, which Christ is, becomes our bridge with God. In him, our union with God is made possible.
So now, with this Christ planted in our hearts, or, rather, we planted in the heart of Christ by Baptism, and by the monastic life, which is the development of our Baptism, any love we exercise is going to be of this same nature. The love planted in our hearts does not change us automatically without our consent and without our action. But it builds a bridge across the immense chasm that separates our lowliness from God’s majesty. Christ, in his ecstasy out from God, is the bridge from God across to us, and our way back to God. Christ’s ecstasy is also our ecstasy. We do not walk to God, acceptable and accepted, as we are. We go to God in the only way that is acceptable to him as God, through Christ who also is God. Our finitude becomes infinity. Our paltry reason, so rooted in self preservation, leaps up to the folly of the Cross. What is proper to us and our culture, gets overturned in the divine construction of the bridge which is Christ. Not only must our sin be forgiven, but our nature must be transformed, before we can approach God, before we can satisfy the unsatisfiable urge which God has planted deep within us.
Instead of climbing mountains from one ecstasy of love and/or forgiveness to the next, we might begin to view the love of God as a gradual diminishment of boundaries and limits, both personal and communal. Ecstasy does take us out of ourselves, and, more and more, we may find that it is alright to stay out there, removed from our own concerns, even though the air can get thin. We develop the lungs for it. We begin to trust the experience. And we taste in oh so tremulous a way what unlimited life is like beyond the grave. The experience has to do with more life, not less; more love of more people, and in this is the richness of God. Even time and space recede before the energy of ecstasy. We become more like fire in the stubble than climbers of dizzying heights. We return to the People of God and find there our fertile field, spreading out like a sea seeping into a low field when the tide is in. The stature which we receive from Christ does not put us higher that the others, but more transparent to their needs, more sagacious in their affairs, greater than our own finiteness. In the realm of being, monks roam free, thanks to Christ and his ecstasy, and inaugurate in themselves and in their communities the Kingdom of God for which we are all longing.