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Schools of charity? Tell me more.

Mark Clavier’s recent post produced a rich and lively conversation about Christian formation and the specific work and mission of seminaries and theological colleges.  Near the end of his reflection, he made specific reference to monastic communal ideals. For me, this mention rang a bell of recognition. I also believe that monasticism is deeply important for Christian formation in the broader church. Moreover, I believe that not only monastic ideals need reviving but also concrete communities of dedicated Christians. I don’t mean to hijack the discussion that’s come out of Mark’s post, but I do want to register a connection to that discussion, which I think is necessary.

I’m passing along a recent piece of reflection about monasticism because I believe it underlines this importance by rightly orienting it toward the universal calling of all Christians. It’s “Monasticism, Clericalism, and the Priesthood of All Believers” from the Catholic World Report. Here’s a good quote:

Many Western Christians see monasticism as remote and inaccessible, very different from ordinary Christian life. Often they associate monasticism with the ordained priesthood — as though ordination were the goal of monastic life, at least for men. Women’s monasticism, meanwhile, is almost off the radar.

All of these impressions are incorrect. Monasticism is a way of life for both men and women. Its goal is not ordination, but the fulfillment of one’s baptismal consecration to God. This is why monasticism can, and should, be a model for the “priesthood of all believers.”

The featured image is a statue of St Benedict within the precincts of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. It was taken in 2014 by Zachary Guiliano. 


  1. Caleb,

    I like the quote! When I made the reference to the idea of a ‘School of Charity’, I tried to read that in the context of the communal or corporate life of the Church. One of the points I probably should have made in my conversation with Woody and Ephraim is that I see formation as primarily about the community and only secondarily about individuals. In other words, what are the practices, habits, ends and beliefs that the worshipping community as a whole seek to exemplify even if its individual members fail to. I think that when formation shifts too far from the corporate to the individual it becomes too much like sanctified personal development and subsequently too self-oriented. The beautiful thing about the Cistercian ideal is that it understood the community as a whole to be formed into the divine love primarily through the experience of that love in contemplative prayer, worship and the monastic ideals of chastity, poverty and obedience.

    So, if I were to have my own follow-up question, it would be this: how do we allow our churches to become worshipping communities that dispose people to desire the ends of the Christian faith?

  2. The article provides an important and balancing distinction. Baptism grafts us as individuals into the corporate Body, the Church, the task and function of which as the Body of Christ is that of priestly mediation for the world to God and for God to the world.

    All churchy activity is summed up in worship and enabled by worship.To be the church is not to enter into an order of ministry but to be the distinct called-out community from which particular vocations are drawn. “From the apostles time”, there have been three distinct Orders of Ministry, each drawn from the other. Deacons, priests and bishops each constitute corporate groups or Orders drawing their authenticity and ‘power’ within the worship and mission of the Church. These ministerial Orders are distinct in charism and yet depend on the corporate, worshipping, serving life of the Church.

    To establish the laity as an Order is to devalue their essential identity and that of the Church itself. Far from elevating the laity recent developments have clericalized the laity and diminished it’s true and essential vocation.

  3. Mark,

    If I knew the answer to your question, I would be much wiser than I am.

    I suspect that thriving parishes alone do not provide a sufficient context for the kind of Christian formation you are talking about. Ideally, parishes make possible some experience of Christian community. And usually those experiences come about through smaller groups within it, groups formed by people who commit themselves to some shared regimen or extra undertakings in common. I think formation presupposes settings that are both more intentional and more demanding than the parish.

    I don’t think that only traditional monastic communities can pull this off, but they do represent a sustainable form of doing it. A shared rule of life is an opportunity for giving ourselves away, for self-renunciation, without which discipleship really is only a word. We cannot be disciples without denying ourselves, without taking up the cross. I don’t think that only monastics can be real Christians but I do think that a living monasticism can provide a point of reference for all Christians.

  4. Tony,

    I agree that attempts to elevate the laity have backfired and ended up diminishing its’true and essential vocation.’

    I think the critically important question is whether we define the laity in a negative way, as the unordained (in your terms, as another Order separate from the orders of ordained ministry) or in a positive way, namely as the baptized or faithful.

    When we enumerate particular functions or look for ministries and jobs that laypeople can do within the liturgical celebration, I think we often fall into using an implicitly’negative’ view. But active participation in the liturgical celebration shouldn’t really be about doing this or that little thing. Fundamentally, it is about offering the prayer of the Church. As I understand it, my job is to pray
    the prayers of the Liturgy. I do not feel excluded or left out doing ‘only’ that. Asking me if I’d like the honor of carrying up a cruet or dragging a basket around in order to ‘involve me’ strikes me as really misunderstanding my vocation and missing the point. Those things are not properly honors to be bestowed on the (otherwise left out) observers but simply chores, needful services to be undertaken with love by the Body on behalf of the Body.


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