It’s been a long time since I’ve read Bare Ruined Choirs, by the English Benedictine scholar David Knowles. As Knowles details Henry VIII’s closure of the religious houses in England, the story invariably stirs a bit of melancholy, a melancholy in keeping with the season of autumn.
As Knowles readily admits, it was true that a few English religious houses needed reform. But that was not the case for the majority, notwithstanding the propaganda machine at Henry’s disposal. On the contrary, in so many of them there was a deeply-rooted vitality, and their sudden disappearance in 1539 engendered a spiritual displacement within English Christianity. That in turn contributed to social and political conflict that persisted for generations.
Recently a friend wrote to ask for prayers as her community discerns its future. Like more than a few religious houses today, the seniority of most of the members in her community does not augur well for the future. Will there even be a future for many such communities? If not, have the last 100+ years of service been all for naught? To some it might seem so. To a few it’s as if God has not lived up to the bargain that the community seemed to have struck so many years ago. So if survival is not in the cards, then what was the point of all that work?
As a medieval historian I’ve learned one lesson that is as valid today as it ever was. God never made covenants with religious communities; nor did God promise to grant them immortality, despite any assumptions to the contrary. A case in point is nearly every monastery in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. For centuries religious men and women had prayed day in and day out; but despite this fervor, hundreds of monasteries vanished in the wake of the Reformation. And the French Revolution finished off most of what had survived. So barren was the religious landscape of western Europe in the early 19th century that people began to speak of monasticism in the past tense. Monasticism once was; but now it was no longer. Still, the reports of its extinction were premature, because apparently God had other plans.
Today the dreams of so many 19th-century religious founders seem to have melted away, and that raises the question of legacy. Is there nothing to show for all that zeal? Will there only be bare ruined choirs once again?
Ever the optimist, as well as the contrarian, my approach does not rely on autumn and winter as the best metaphor for what’s going on here. First of all, it’s regrettable to see not a few religious houses face the wrecking ball or be repurposed into condos or offices. At the same time it’s important to recall that God never did deals with buildings, nor did God swear eternal covenants with corporations. No, God did deals with the people who lived in those buildings, and so the true legacy of any bona fide religious community will never be real esate.
That leads to a second point. As near as I can parse it out, the whole point of religious life was and remains the search for God. If so, one should expect to find the authentic legacy of any community in the lives and ideals of the people who comprise it. Further, if they are worth their salt, you should detect trace elements of any spiritual vitality in the people whom they’ve served.
From this vantage, the only legacy that counts is a spiritual one, and who really knows how extensive that might be? Who can possibly count the people whom those communities have nourished, either directly or indirectly? Who can measure the spiritual vitality that has been stirred by their lives of prayer and service? To no one’s surprise, there is as yet no instrument to measure this, so we may be well-advised to leave the evaluation to God, while we plow on.
That leads us to consider the practical course of action that we must take. First off, religious should not be so foolish as to think they are alone in their anxiety about the future. Everyone shares in building a life and then the prospect of letting go. Everyone shares in the pursuit of daily bread, in the broadest sense of the term. And God gives us all the mental acumen to do the best we can as we face life’s challenges.
But there is also the spiritual reality to consider, and again we all confront it in one way or another. In the Gospel Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to the sower who flung seed far and wide. Given the generosity of God and the invitation we each receive, God expects from each of us some minimum of response and some sort of fruit. And if by chance we haven’t a clue to the sort of fruit we will yield, that’s okay. God will see to the harvest, and God will harvest a crop that we can scarcely imagine.
Meanwhile, what are we supposed to do as we await the harvest? Well, it occurs to me that whether we might live in lively and vital monasteries or in houses that are aging gracefully into oblivion, the point of it all never loses its significance. To live is Christ; and if we choose to live in Christ, then all else is secondary.
And there’s lots of precedent for this. To take but one example, the martyrs asked for nothing and must have looked like absolute fools to many of their neighbors. Mother Theresa must have seemed like someone doing a dead-end job. And countless others continue to do the work of God, expecting little or nothing in return. But the irony is that they enjoy life in abundance, even now. What it will be like in eternity is in God’s hands. But that will be God’s surprise for us. And surprise us, God certainly will!
+On October 15th I was in Edina, MN, to attend a reception in support of the McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship at Saint John’s University. It was a pleasure to visit with many friends and former students, including one young couple whose wedding I witnessed a year ago, and another couple whose wedding I witnessed twenty-four years ago. Both couples are still happily married!
+On October 16th I spoke to the faculty and staff of Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, MN.
+During the past week we’ve enjoyed the peak of our fall colors at Saint John’s. We’d almost given up hope when an early burst of color seemed to fizzle. But this week the colors popped into focus, and maples, oaks, larch and other trees and shrubs made for an end-of-season show. For images of this, visit the gallery at Saint John’s: fall color.
+About a week ago my iPad rebelled and refused to accept any more pictures. With over 6,500 photos stored away, I realized it was at capacity and it was now time to do something. So I began to organize galleries for this blog, with the generous assistance of one of my colleagues. On the tab marked Galleries, at the top of this post, you will be able to access the beginnings of this work. For a sample, you might review the gallery on Saint Mary’s Abbey in York. It fits well with the theme of this post.