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The Necessity of Contemplative Monasticism for the New Evangelization

Contemplative Monasticism

Fr Lawrence Lew OP

Colin O'Brien - published on 01/12/14

More than just having to do with "doing," the New Evangelization depends firstly on prayer - a lesson that monasticism teaches well.

When we discuss the "New Evangelization," we tend to think of the many active ways in which the Church seeks to engage the world and to share the Gospel with it. From large-scale special events such as World Youth Day and the recently completed Year of Faith; to the everyday work at the diocesan and parochial level in evangelization, catechesis, pro-life ministry, and service to the poor and suffering; to the efforts of laity and clergy alike in social media to explain the faith in blogs, speaker conferences, and publishing – it is easy to see that we are indeed a very busy Church doing much work to advance the Good News. In vocations, some of the strongest growth in recent years has been in orders with visible and active apostolates, such as those of the Eastern Province Dominican friars and the Dominican sisters in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Nashville, Tennessee. A less apparent, but no less necessary aspect of this great effort is found in the life of contemplation, particularly in that of the contemplative monastic orders. In order to get a more complete picture of this great endeavor to share the Good News, we must explore the rich gift of cultural witness, prayer, and personal holiness that the monastic orders (particularly the Benedictine and Cistercian orders) have given to the Church throughout history down to the present day.

A Call to Something Greater

Since the early days of the Church, men and women have been called by God to sell their possessions, renounce attachment to the things of the world, and to enter into lives of prayer, solitude, and a closer union with God. Following the example of Jesus praying and fasting in the desert prior to beginning his public ministry, they left the towns and cities to live eremitical lives in the Egyptian desert. We know about these early monks and nuns – the Desert Fathers and Mothers – through their wisdom, which has been recorded and handed down to us through the centuries. The great monk, St. Antony of Egypt, whose life is recounted by St. Athanasius, is a prime example of a man who sold all he had and went into the desert. After many years of rigorous fasting, prayer, temptations, and demonic attacks, St. Antony came to be known by the people as a holy man. St. Athanasius writes of Antony as a man divinized by his abandonment of self and his attachment to Christ.

These desert hermits began to attract disciples, and over time a new form of life began to take shape: the cenobitic, or community life. Rather than living as solitary hermits, men and women started to form communities as places where spiritual masters could impart their teaching to other like-minded people wishing to grow in holiness. Out of this communal experience came monastic rules, community governance under an abbot, common liturgical life, and commercial activity as a means of self-support.

In the Western Church, the great and definitive cultural innovation of the Rule of St. Benedict came about in the 6th century. His simple Rule sets forth organizing principles for a life of communal prayer, fraternity, and charity. A subsequent renewal of life under the Benedictine Rule by the Cistercian founders in 1098 brought a new vitality to the Church that serves as a good example to us today of three most essential principles: cultural witness, prayer, and personal holiness.

The cultural witness of the monastic life serves as a corrective to some of the excesses and deficiencies of the secular culture in several unique ways, even in contrast to other forms of Catholic consecrated life. Perhaps the most visible of these is the monastic life of stability, wherein a professed monk or nun vows to remain in his particular community until death. By this vow, the monk or nun vows to remain in the geographic location of the monastery and with the community of his or her brothers or sisters. In an age not only of great family instability due to divorce and other offenses against loyalty and interpersonal commitment but also of great mobility, it is a singularly countercultural act to say, "I will stay here, on this piece of land and in these buildings, with this group of brothers, until I die." The monastic cemetery serves as a silent reminder of this vow, whereby even the deceased members of the monastic community are remembered and included in the life of the monastery. This vow of stability is one unique to the Benedictine life; where other religious orders observe vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the monastic orders take the vow of stability, obedience, and "conversion of life", whereby a monk or nun vows always to conform ever more closely to God, to the precepts of the Rule, and to the customs of the particular monastic community.

Seeing Glory in the Ordinary

Perhaps most prominent among the customs of monastic life is the discipline of silence. Popular imagination notwithstanding, there is no monastic "vow of silence"; rather, monks speak as necessary in the course of work, or when meeting privately with one another in specially designated areas of the monastery. Meals are taken in silence, with one of the brothers reading from a book during the course of the meal. This culture of silence extends beyond simply speech; radio, TV, movies, mobile phones, and even bright colors are all absent from the cloister. This "sensory deprivation" of silence, neutral colors, and elimination of distraction all help the monk to direct his thoughts toward God. This testimony of silence is such a powerful witness to a world that seems to assault its inhabitants with ever more stimuli each day. In the silence, we confront our true selves: our memories, our desires, our temptations, our struggles, and our joys. In doing so, we begin to see our profound need for God, and also His love for us. It was in this intense silence and solitude that I came to see how burdensome my own sinfulness is, and by extension, to see how great God's love for us is, that he would send His son to bear the weight of all our sins for all eternity.

Another aspect of monastic cultural witness is found in the monk's life of manual labor and prayer. Communities of monks and nuns have always sought to support themselves through manual labor of some sort rather than through donations, as in the mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans. Monastic labor has traditionally been agricultural work and animal husbandry, whereby monasteries supported themselves through the sale of farm products; this tradition is particularly strong in the Trappist and Cistercian traditions. In contrast to a broad culture that often values productivity, efficiency, and long hours of work over other human consideration, the monastic approach to work is as countercultural as the vow of stability. The Trappist monks of New Melleray Abbey, for example, do about 4 to 4 1/2 hours of manual labor per day, working in the garden, doing their assigned tasks around the monastery, or working in the casket factory that generates the vast majority of the community's income. The work is meant to be an extension, rather than an interruption of, the monk's life of prayer; therefore, a spirit of prayerful attention to the work at hand is called for. Nothing is rushed, or hastily done, or noisily announced. Pope Benedict XVI summarized it best in his address to representatives of the world of culture during his 2008 visit to France: "human work was now seen as a special form of human resemblance to God, as a way in which man can and may share in God's activity as creator of the world. Naturally, this ethos had to include the idea that human work and the shaping of history are understood as sharing in the work of the Creator, and must be evaluated in those terms” [1].

This attitude toward labor is reflected in the Benedictine Rule, which says, "Prefer nothing to the work of God," meaning, "prefer nothing to the communal liturgical prayer of the Divine Office." This primary emphasis on the life of prayer is the second aspect of the contemplative role in our New Evangelization; in placing the liturgical prayer first, the monk seeks to sanctify time itself by following the same schedule of liturgical prayer from day to day and year to year in the same way he seeks to sanctify a specific physical location through his vow of stability. From their devotion to the Divine Office, we are reminded that the Office is the other great liturgical action of the Church in addition to Holy Mass. 

To Be in the World, but not of It

Though monks and nuns lead hidden lives in silence, they offer their prayers for the Church and for the world. By the constant and powerful prayers of the contemplative communities on behalf of those who cannot or will not pray, as well as for the conversion of all peoples to Christ, they are often likened to a 'heart' or 'engine' for the Church's mission of evangelization. The Second Vatican Council, in its document Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church, stated, "Institutes of the contemplative life, by their prayers, sufferings, and works of penance have a very great importance in the conversion of souls, because it is God who sends workers into His harvest… God who opens the minds of non-Christians to hear the Gospel…, and God who fructifies the word of salvation in their hearts" [2]. We are reminded, therefore, that it is not through our own efforts, but rather through God's grace that the evangelization of the world is carried out. The monks of New Melleray Abbey close one of their early morning Vigils with a moving and beautiful prayer for "those who are sick, those who cannot sleep, those who are using this night for evil purpose, and those who fear the coming of the day." What great reassurance it is to know that such men and women are praying for us!

To encounter monks and nuns is to experience the last key element of the monastic contemplative's role in the New Evangelization: the personal holiness of the individual monk or nun. In simple, materialistic terms, the contemplative life seems almost pointless; unlike religious who educate, treat the sick, assist women in crisis pregnancies, tend to the material needs of the poor, or travel to distant lands to preach the Gospel, monks and nuns do not seem to "do" much. They pray the Divine Office, they assist at Mass, they intently read Scripture, and they welcome guests who come to their monasteries. However, the ongoing, lifelong formation in silence, prayer, lectio divina, penance, and solitude helps them to achieve an ever deepening union with God. This was the motivation for the early Desert Fathers and Mothers, as well as the monks of the 11th and 12th centuries, and also of the monks and nuns of our own time. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the greatest of the Cistercian fathers and a doctor of the Church, succinctly wrote, "The reason for loving God is God; the measure of this love is to love without measure."

In being transformed by this measureless love for God, the monks and nuns hope to become divinized, as St. Antony was. Paradoxically, their lamps cannot be hidden under the bushels of their cloisters: St. Bernard was called upon to preach, to encourage, and to settle disputes; St. Anselm was made Archbishop of Canterbury; the Benedictine scholar Jean LeClercq, writing of St. Gregory the Great, described him as a "contemplative condemned to action" [3]. The world, in aching to hear the Good News, has throughout history sought out the holiness and wisdom of contemplative monks and nuns, and today ought be no different if we wish for the success of the New Evangelization. We can do this through praying for the monastic orders, through visiting monasteries for retreats, and through learning about monastic spirituality and history through the writings of the great monastic theologians and teachers. In his encyclical on the teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Pius XII warns us of the need that we now call the New Evangelization when he writes, "A certain restlessness, anxiety, and fear have invaded the minds of men. It is indeed to be greatly feared that if the light of the Gospel gradually fades and wanes in the minds of many, or if – what is even worse – they utterly reject it, the very foundations of civil and domestic society will collapse, and more evil times will unhappily result" [4]. May God hear the prayers of our monks and nuns, may He ever increase their numbers and their holiness, and may He grant us His salvation.


1. Pope Benedict XVI, "Meeting with Representatives from the World of Culture", College des Bernardins, Paris, Sept. 12, 2008.
2. Vatican Council II, "Decree Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church," #40.
3. LeClercq, Jean. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, p. 28. New York: Fordham University Press, 1961.
4. Pope Pius XII, Doctor Mellifluus, May 24, 1953.

Colin O'Brien completed a six-week observership with the Trappist community at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa in spring 2013, and is affiliated with the monastery as a layman through its Monastic Center program. He currently works in the USCCB's Communications Department* and has previously worked as a litigation paralegal in New York City. He periodically updates his personal blog, "Fallen Sparrow," and also sings in his parish choir.

Colin is a native of Minneapolis and studied philosophy at the University of Minnesota. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area.

(*The preceeding commentary constitutes the personal views of Mr. O'Brien, and do not reflect the views of the USCCB.)

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