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What Is the Use of Monasticism?

Jeffrey Bruno/EWTN/CNA
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The death of Mother Angelica has brought attention to the unique religious vocation of enclosed monasticism

In virtue of the absolute primacy reserved to Christ, monasteries are called to be places in which space is made for the celebration of the glory of God, where one adores and chants the mysterious but real presence of the divine in the world and where one tries to live the new commandment of love and mutual service.—Pope Benedict XVI, November 2008 address to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Last week’s wake and funeral for Mother Mary Angelica, PCPA, brought monasticism somewhat to the fore for many people who have little exposure to the idea of a religious enclosure that is so complete it includes grilles, or other barriers, that ensure a physical separation from the world beyond their cloister. The bars may seem severe, even forbidding — as though the monastics are prisoners — but they will joke that if so, they are prisoners of love. And then they will say, “The grilles are not to keep us in but to keep you out — they prevent intrusion and distraction that can take us away from our work.”

The work, of course, is prayer, and what sustenance is required so that there can be more prayer.

The people who end up as monastics don’t usually start out heading in that direction. When Sr. Mary Jacinta, OP, made her solemn profession as a “moniales” — a nun of the Order of Preachers — it was after a journey that had included a turn in an “active” religious order, as was also true of her novice-mistress. Frequently in interviews monastic women will say that a cloister was the last they they ever thought they would be drawn to. “When I first visited some Carmelites, I thought to myself, These women are crazy,” Sr. Mary Magdelene, OP, has said. “Then I thought, I might be as crazy as they are …

Read more: These nuns live in a strict cloister, so why are they on Facebook?

It is not unusual for non-Catholics, and even some Catholics, to wonder, But what use is it?

When you have become God’s in the measure he wants, He himself will know how to best bestow you on others. Unless he prefers, for thy greater advantage, to keep thee all to himself.— St. Basil

In our utilitarian era, we want everything to be obvious and immediate, but that’s not really what life is. How often do we look back on something and say, “Ah, I hadn’t realized then what I see now …”

In the life of faith things are even less obvious, less immediate. A life of faith often means conforming oneself to taking the “long view” of things — looking at where we are in one particular moment and realizing that some things, even if we prefer they would not happen, must happen in order for something else to occur, later. That, as St. Philip Neri taught, “All of God’s purposes are to the good; although we may not always understand this, we can trust in it.”

Monasticism can be said to train that long view. Monastics build their day around two things: the conventual Mass and the prayers of the Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours), which complement each other and bring a theme, as it were, to the whole day, sanctifying its hours.

All of their work, their chores, even their meals, are meant to prepare and support monastics in their larger job, which is the Office — totaling five to six hours of liturgical prayer in choir — and their private prayer, as well.

As firefighters and cops refer to “the job,” monastics refer to “the life.” The life is prayer, constantly, for the praise of God and the good of the whole world.

It’s understandable that people might think praying all day, every day, could render a community out of touch with the world, but monastics seem to understand society very well. The psalms in which they immerse themselves are — when unabridged, with their darker tones left intact — perfect reflections of the human condition in all its despair and hope. They show us that there is nothing new in the human heart.

Read more:What is it really like to be a Mother Superior?

Monastics do get news, but they don’t wallow in it. They do not need to read the awful headlines constantly before our eyes to know that people suffer and go hopeless, and hurt or kill themselves, for lack of one person telling them that they are good, and lovable and beloved. They do not need to read about governments obstructing religious freedoms to know that such governments often lose sight of the God-given gift of human liberty, or that a culture inhospitable to inconvenient life is in serious, fundamental conflict with itself.

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