Fr Peter CSWG looks at the reasons why some forms of the religious life attract widespread interest and describes some of the work carried out by RooT to provide the public with information on this subject
Four years ago a film called Into Great Silence – later released as a DVD – hit the box offices of Europe and later this country. The subject of the film was a silent monastic order, the Carthusians; the monastery involved was the renowned La Grande Chartreuse, high up in the French-Swiss Alps, near Grenoble. What was unusual about this film, which was over two-and-a-half hours in length, was that it had almost no dialogue: there was neither commentary nor any conversation apart from a brief interview towards the end of the film with an elderly blind monk. Two-and-a-half hours of film in virtually complete silence! Yet despite this, the film showed to capacity audiences everywhere it went: cinemas were packed not only for the beginning, when many perhaps did not know what to expect, but more important, right through to the end. People stayed the course.
A mysterious attraction
What accounted for this unexpected interest, even fascination, with monastic life, particularly lived under one of its most rigorous and austere forms? Its geographical setting in the French Alps, and the somewhat spartan living conditions, were visibly in evidence, but perhaps the most striking aspect of austerity was the absence of ordinary human conversation, the one exception being the weekly recreation walk.
Something awakened this fascination in such a life which, by media standards at least, must rate low on the entertainment scale. Yet, demonstrably, the audiences took a different view. There was avid interest in the same way that the television programme The Monastery from Worth Abbey exercised considerable public attention and interest.
Clearly, there is in monastic life something that people recognize even, or perhaps more readily, when it is presented in its starkest colours. This recognition may be primarily instinctive and intuitive, yet there is the pull to learn from such a mysterious life, because it teaches us something about ourselves and our faith that we need to learn and share in some degree: ordinary yet important things like silence, stillness, the meaning of contemplation, prayer, the carrying out of very ordinary jobs (the digging of gardens, chopping wood, preparing meals) simply as tasks to be done, not for some immediate agenda or financial gain. There is something subliminal here about the living of life and the heart of life, which attracts in some mysterious way.
Monastic life, particularly in its more austere forms, helps rediscover perhaps some of the basic truths of daily living that are often lost sight of in the sheer pressure and speed of contemporary living. Yet, of course, it is more than that which attracts – it is above all perhaps the recognition that here we taste of the future goal of our Christian life and our journey together, something of the kingdom of God.
Monastic life in its origins was founded to underpin the fundamental Christian life and values in a way that remained close to Christ’s radical call of discipleship to his first followers: the call to renunciation, to purity of heart at the core of Christ’s teaching, and the living of holiness. This was certainly the case after the Edict of Milan in 313 ad, when, following 200 years of continuing persecution, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, bringing in its wake all the temptations that come with ‘establishment’ and official recognition by the State.
The first monks and nuns lived lives based on the original apostolic community in Jerusalem – ‘and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers… And all who believed were together and had all things in common’ [Acts 2.42, 44]. The Christian Church in its beginnings was thus a community of men and women together. It was not part of the Church: it was the Church. Indeed in the first centuries of the Church’s life, all the great theological developments – her self-understanding, her doctrine, liturgy, spiritual life – owed their inspiration principally to monks or monk-bishops. One thinks of Anthony, Gregory the Great, Augustine, Gregory, Nazianzus, Basil, Athanasius.
So monastic life, properly understood, is not part of the Church, but the Church herself living the fullness of her life. The common life of daily worship, prayer, Eucharist and holding all things in common – these reflections of that first apostolic Community – constitute the Church’s life most fully expressed, the life of heaven on earth, where her members are united in one mind and soul.
Religious life in the CofE
In the Church of England, monastic life or religious life (as it became known in the West) has been part of the scenery for over 150 years. It was revived as part of the Oxford Movements call to live the fullness of the Church’s Catholic and Apostolic Faith. Those who helped to found it, like Dr Pusey, knew religious life to be basic to the life of the Church; that without monastic life, our Church lacked something essential to its being as a Church.
Like everyone in the Church of England, religious were affected by what happened in 1992. Soon after, a group formed, who were concerned to continue the religious life’s witness to Catholic fullness, expressed through its daily life and prayer. The fundamental presupposition is that the life belongs to Christ who calls us, not to ourselves. It is gift from God to be received from him, with thanks and reverence.
So we would not see it as something to be changed to conform to cultural fashions in the desperate contemporary search for relevance. What we are asked to do is simply to be faithful, to witness in the world around us the timeless truth which sacrificial religious life embodies.
Eighteen months ago, members of our group (RooT – Religious of orthodox Tradition) mooted the idea whether it was not time to be more pro-active about the religious life by making a DVD about it. Our main purpose was to inform about the religious life, through the five participant Communities, but also to encourage people to consider relating to the life more closely through the communities, and even with the ultimate hope perhaps that some may consider joining. It is unfortunate that many do not even know of our existence, or that we are there to help all, priests and people alike, in the growth and formation of Christian life and prayer.
Removing the mystique
We have called the DVD All for Christ, a quotation from a poem by St John of the Cross. If you have seen Into Great Silence, All for Christ will take away much of the mystique surrounding monastic life, because some of the places will be familiar – Walsingham and Mirfield particularly – as will some of its participants!
It aims through interviews to answer the ordinary questions folk are likely to ask, and to present the life focused around the daily Mass, which echoes with parochial life. Yet there is also much to muse on about silence, about the monastic ‘strengths’ of prayer and contemplation. We hope that it will be at least a useful educational tool in the clarification and discerning of vocation.
To paraphrase Bishop Lindsay Urwin ogs in the introduction, ‘religious people are not particularly special people. You don’t need to be special to be a religious. They are just ordinary women and men who have given their life to God.’ We hope you will watch All for Christ and perhaps consider it for your parish library.