Let us now consider a more or less randomly chosen episode from the Middle Ages, that serves in many respects to illustrate what we have been saying. It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this.
In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish...”
Contemplatives—contemplantes—must become agricultural labourers—laborantes—he says. The nobility of work, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, had already been expressed in the monastic rules of Augustine and Benedict. Bernard takes up this idea again. The young noblemen who flocked to his monasteries had to engage in manual labour.
In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil”, it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish. Are we not perhaps seeing once again, in the light of current history, that no positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown?
Spe Salvi 15
Reflection – This paragraph of the encyclical follows upon the previous, asking whether or not hope of salvation and the care of the soul are essentially selfish and individual concerns, and whether or not Christianity is thus essentially a selfish religion. In this historical example of Bernard of Clairvaux’s vision of monastic life, we see the fullest answer possible to this.
Namely, that without the care of the soul, without a concern for one’s own interior purification, the restoration of Paradise within oneself, no real social good or social justice or social restoration can happen. The whole monastic movement in the West was a sort of 'from the inside out' affair—the monks seeking to belong to God and God alone, to dedicate themselves to prayer and work, a consecrated life of virtue and holiness, and from that going out in missionary or apostolic life.
This was, in fact, the way a certain tarnished and abandoned artifice was fashioned in the first place. I refer, of course, to Western Civilization. It was the monks, first from Benedict and then from Cluny and Citeaux, who cleared the land, planted crops, copied ancient manuscripts (both sacred and secular), established schools, cared for the sick, brought the faith to all corner of the Continent and the British Isles—on and on and on. All flowing from this life of intense spirituality and depth of prayer.
There is very little about the heritage of Western Europe, of which virtually everyone reading this blog has been touched by if not wholly shaped by, that does not have a monastic foundation to it. So much for the idea of monks living selfish lives contributing nothing to the great society!
These celibate men are, in fact, the progenitors of our whole civilization. And this is the chaste fecundity that can be seen over and over again—a life wholly given over to God and to humanity is a life that bears fruit. In fact, it is the only way a life can really be said to be fruitful, regardless of one’s vocation.
“What you do matters, but not much. What you are matters tremendously.” Catherine Doherty said it as well as anyone ever has. It is the great paradox of our faith and of our humanity that unless we tend that garden within, the innermost chambers of the heart where pride and greed and vanity flourish, or faith, hope, and love take root, we cannot tend the garden without—the greater good of society, the needs and challenges of our times—with any success.
That which seems most selfish, most self-seeking, the pursuit of virtue and the battle against vice, is factually the most selfless thing, the necessary work if we are to do any good for anyone ever. A dirty rag cannot clean; a broken tool cannot build. So many efforts to save the world and build a new world order of peace and justice founder because the people doing them are not tending to the weeds of their own hearts’ gardens.
All of this is so utterly relevant to my own MH vocation and how we understand our life here in this corner of the Lord’s garden that I could go on (and on, and on, and on) about it. But that’s quite enough for one day. Let’s go weed our gardens instead, within and without.