Where Are The Monastic Ascetics?
Matthew J. Bellisario 2011
Matthew J. Bellisario 2011
The religious ascetic monastic life is one that has helped the Church to stand fast against the tides of hell since the earliest years of Christianity. In fact, we can name Jesus Christ Himself as the first true example of asceticism. Although he lived in the world he gave up the world in order to show us how to be one with the Father. Many times we see that he retreats into the wilderness to pray alone, or subjects himself to days of fasting. He even tells of a demoniac who could only be helped by prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:14-29) Saint Anthony of the Desert, Saint Pachomius, Saint Basil the Great, John Cassian, Saint John Climacus and many others set out to imitate Our Lord in these respects. They illustrated the need for some in the Church to live this type of dedicated ascetic life. Some would do it as St. Anthony did, largely isolated alone in the desert only seeing people for short periods of time, or many in communities like the one Saint Pachomius built known as the Pachomian koinonia. I may be making an over generalization, but It seems to me that these types of ascetic hermits, monks and ascetic communities have largely vanished from the Catholic Church, and have only remained largely active in the Churches of the East. The Orthodox Churches have remained rooted in the Desert type asceticism while the monastic life in the West has deteriorated. What were once thriving ascetic communities committed to prayer and penance have been largely infiltrated by liberal minded modernists who have turned the monastic life into more of an extended vacation stay at a Disney lodge. There are few Catholic monastic communities that remain faithful to their founders, and fewer who follow a strict ascetic life. Western monasticism has largely become a haven for liberal modernist heretics and apostates.
While certainly there are some strong communities in the U.S., such as the Benedictines of Clear Creek, and the Carmelites of Wyoming, they seem to be the rare exceptions to the rule. Just look at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, or Saint Leo’s Abbey in Florida, they seem to be the norm. Where has the ascetic life gone in Catholicism? Has it become outdated? No one can deny the influence that desert monasticism had on the early foundation of the Church. Even the great Saint Benedict in the West had his heart grounded in the ascetics of the East. Many modern scholars have said that St. Benedict was against the strict form of asceticism that those like Saint Anthony practiced, yet there is no evidence that this is true. In fact, the communities that he founded were based largely off of the Eastern ascetics like John Cassian, who helped bridge the ascetic life over to the West. Saint Benedict lived an ascetic life, at times received visitors, cast out demons and read the hearts of men, much like Saint Padre Pio. But when we look at modern Benedictine abbeys, they resemble little of their great founder. It seems that long gone are the ascetics who sought to purge sin from their lives, not only for their benefit, but for that of the entire Church. Without fasting, praying and penance, the Church grows soft and many souls are put in peril.
I believe that one of the last true Western ascetic monastic Saints was Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. He went on to his eternal reward in 1968. He lived a life rooted in the Capuchin spirit which resembled that of the earlier ascetic monastics. I am sure there are others, but they seem to be few and far between. Nowadays, you rarely hear of Catholic laymen and women traveling to seek out the spiritual advice of a monastic. But if we look to the Eastern Orthodox, even while they are in schism, they have had no shortage of ascetic saints, who were grounded in the spirit of Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers. In Russia, Romania, Serbia and Greece there are no shortage of ascetic monastic communities dedicated to living the “desert” life. In Romania for example there are at least 600 active Orthodox monasteries or communities dedicated to living the ascetic life! Romania is smaller than the state of Oregon, which gives you an idea of how this form of monasticism thrives their culture. The monasteries dot the countryside, and there are even those who still disappear on their own into the wilderness to live the life of isolation, penance and silence. There have been many recent Orthodox monastic men who lived holy lives and who were sought by many for their spiritual advice, like those Catholics in the West who sought out the spiritual advice of Saint Padre Pio. In Romania, Elder Cleopa, and Elder Paisus are both very recent saintly men who were heralded by many who sought out their spiritual advice and witnessed many miracles. In Greece there are many as well such as Elder Paisos of Athos, and Elder Archimandrite Philotheos. I could name many more. These men in the East have lived the ascetic life and have become what the Orthodox faithful consider to be saints. Their communities continue on in the same spirit, and there always seems to be a new monastic elder who is sought out for spiritual council.
I do not think it is a stretch to say that monasticism within the Catholic Church has been in serious decline over the last several decades. There seems to be now a worldly focus by many monastic communities. Rather than focusing on God and the salvation of souls, a liberal focus on social justice has taken over. It seems that many monastics today would rather make this world their heaven, rather than help people reach their true eternal reward prepared for us by God. For example, many Franciscan communities have gone off the deep end with their liberation theology. I have been at a Franciscan run parish where a women sought out their advice as to what liberation theology books she should buy, and they were more than happy to accommodate her. The world is their home, and they do not have the mind of their founder Saint Francis of Assisi, who died to the world so that he and others could be “sons of God.” That mentality has almost vanished in the West, and as a result we see the Western world sliding further into hell as each day passes. The Benedictine, Saint John’s Abbey has been a haven for liberal “new theologians”, and their way of life resembles little of their founder. Rather than living the ascetic life that their forefathers lived, they instead look for ways to undermine the Church’s doctrines. Even their art reflects the state of their community. Have you seen the St. John’s illuminated Bible? Yes there are many modern Saints in the Catholic Church, but it seems that few are religious monastic ascetics.
There are a couple of monasteries near me, both within about three hours drive. One is a Benedictine Abbey, and the other a Greek Orthodox monastery. Let me let you guess which one was more “orthodox.” If you guessed the schismatic Orthodox monastery, then you would be correct. They were actually living the monastic life they were called to, and you can tell that when you visit them. They are dressed in their cassocks and skufios, and invite their guests in for snacks and water. Although quiet men, they will talk about ascetic prayer and how they live, and they will take you into their church to show you the icons. The opposite is true when I went over to the Benedictines. They rarely wear their habits, instead dressing in pants and t shirts. They sell every kind of heretical book known to man in their bookstore, and act as if they could care less that you are there. I would rather read one of the Orthodox books on spirituality than a book from their bookstore. It would be less dangerous for the soul to do so. In fact, if I took an average orthodox Catholic to both monasteries, and never told them who was who, they would most undoubtedly recognize the holiness of life represented at the Orthodox monastery as being the authentic monastic life, rather than the Benedictines. I took a visiting seminarian a time ago to both monasteries. He was dressed in his cassock, and the monks at the Orthodox monastery were eager to welcome him, and even bowed to kiss his hand thinking he was priest. Even after finding out he was a Catholic seminarian they took us over to their refectory and gave us water and inquired about our visit. Our stop at the Benedictine monastery was quite different. When we walked in the bookstore, the monk, dressed in pants and a t-shirt saw us and almost scoffed at him and turned around in the other direction to ignore us. Sadly this is the state the Church finds herself in. I have a great respect for the Orthodox, but we must remember where the full truth is to be found, which is in the Catholic Church. This fact just makes these type of experiences all the more painful.
Now that I have pointed out the state of a couple of monastic communities in the Church, it is most important for us to look at ourselves as laymen and women, to see how we measure up to the faithful servants of God who came before us. If we live more holier lives and pray for the restoration of these monasteries, then all is not lost. It is a shame that the Church after Vatican II decided to relieve the rules on fasting and penance. It makes the mind of the faithful weak and more prone to sloth, and I am no exception. Many Feast days have been moved to Sunday to make it easier on people, yet by not having this focus on Christ during the week for Feast days, this also can make us apathetic in our spiritual lives. We should remember that it is not only the clergy, or the religious that will stand before the dread judgement seat of Christ. Each and every one of us will stand before Our Lord when our time of repose comes to meet us. Remember the prayer that is made in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, practiced in the Eastern Catholic Churches? It is that we may be granted “A Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful; and a good defense before the dread Judgement Seat of Christ.”
It is also wise for us then to study the lives of the Desert Fathers and ascetics of the past, and apply their teachings as best as we can to our own state in life. I also think it is imperative that we pray for the return of the monastic ascetic life to the Catholic Church, so that the sins we have before us, which are many, can be liberated by prayer and penance. That is one of the major reasons why God gave the Church the monastic vocation in the first place. It was not to make the world a better place so that we can all enjoy it per se. It is to help is die to the world and live our lives closely united to God, so that we can all obtain eternal life in heaven. It is God’s way of showing that suffering is not in vain. I believe we can all learn a lesson from those in the East, who still struggle to live the true monastic ascetic life. We can all be spending more time in silence, doing acts of penance and spending more time in prayer.