Spain’s monasteries offer exquisite examples of the faded glamor of godly things. In the Cistercian Monasterio de Santa María la Real de Oseira in northwestern Spain, I passed from one outdoor cloister beautifully overrun with purple lavender flowers to another with flocks of house martins sweeping around mossy stone pillars while leaving a lot of avian poop on the stone tiling.
On the monastery’s second floor, I unwittingly strayed from the route laid out for visitors and entered the monks’ private quarters. A young brother approached me to politely point out my indiscretion and guide me back to the official route. He spoke good English and, on the way, as we passed giant stone staircases and hallways, he described that there were nine monks living in the sprawling monastery; there were 150 in its heyday. A 2018 New York Times article notes that the number of Catholic brothers in the U.S. has declined by more than two-thirds since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The monastic shrinkage I saw in Oseira had already been on my mind. I had just led a group of ten pilgrims on a week-long mini-Camino organized by the U.K.’s Catholic Herald magazine, one of the world’s oldest Catholic publications. During our hike toward Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of Saint James, our group stayed at and passed former monasteries and convents converted to hotels. On top of this, when I did an extended Camino across the Iberian Peninsula during the pandemic, I encountered the same thing in almost every city I passed: grand monasteries and nunneries, either empty, converted to fancy hotels, or containing a small religious order holding out amid crumbling, cavernous interiors.
I have a soft spot for monasteries and monks. Ten years of my schooling occurred at monastic boarding schools run by Benedictine monks, including Ampleforth College, known as the U.K.’s Catholic Eton. While aspects of life under the monks’ charge were grating—teenage years spent in a dank, cold North Yorkshire valley with no girls in sight, not to mention a child-abuse scandal that emerged after I left—the vast majority of the monks struck me as good, holy men. Their sharp intellects meant the religious-studies classes they taught were superb. The monks espoused a school ethos that sought to recognize each individual’s unique talents and nurture that individuality while also enabling it to be part of a community rooted in the practical and proactive moral values of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. Given current examples of the state of education providers—especially during the pandemic—I consider myself very lucky to have had my education entrusted in such hands.
It’s easy to mock monks and nuns and their closeted lifestyles. Most people are cynical about the utility of a group of men and women spending celibate lives secluded from the rest of society in one building, each day saying the same prayers for hours on end. There’s a great short story by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov in which a group of monks are lambasted by a townsperson who turns up at the secluded monastery. The man decries:
You don’t do anything, you monks. You are good for nothing but eating and drinking. Is that the way to save one’s soul? Only think, while you sit here in peace, eat and drink and dream of beatitude, your neighbors are perishing and going to hell. You should see what is going on in the town! Some are dying of hunger, others, not knowing what to do with their gold, sink into profligacy and perish like flies stuck in honey. There is no faith, no truth in men. Whose task is it to save them? Whose work is it to preach to them? It is not for me, drunk from morning till night as I am. Can a meek spirit, a loving heart, and faith in God have been given you for you to sit here within four walls doing nothing?
But the restrained and dogged persistence of monks is a useful attribute at times: medieval monasticism helped preserve Western civilization through a dark age. At the micro-level, my time at Ampleforth left me with a grasp on the spiritual and philosophical dimension that, no matter how tenuous or confused, helped sustain me during the darkest days in the military and afterwards when grappling with the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. Others I served with who survived the immediate battle then lost it when they returned home and encountered similar demons.
Theologians and the likes of Fulton J. Sheen, the American bishop who became known for his preaching and work on television and radio during the second half of the 20th century, have long argued for the vital power of prayer and the importance to the Church’s spiritual tradition of a vocation to a life of prayer. Monasteries and convents have always provided a crucial crucible of concentrated and continual prayer offered up for the rest of society going about its daily trials and tribulations.
But today this role of providing “spiritual fighting power,” to quote the priest accompanying the Catholic Herald pilgrimage, is dying out in the West. Who knows what the metaphysical consequences for society will be once there are no monasteries left, once those centers of dedicated prayer and spiritual devotion, offered on behalf of the rest of us distracted by our temporal problems, are no longer functioning.
As Aldous Huxley discussed widely throughout his writings, the modern era is increasingly obsessed with the rational and what can be “proven”, to the detriment of the metaphysical realm and those hidden dimensions deep inside our hearts and souls. As we lose touch with that imperceptible dimension that is the focus of those who take monastic vows, despair and fear are left in its place.
“Why are modern hearts haunted today by death and sex?” Sheen wrote in Love, Marriage and Children. “Why are the two linked together? First of all, because modern man, denying immortality, has no hope beyond the grave. Since this world is all, he must derive from it all the pleasure that he can. But, in the midst of his pleasure, he always sees death hovering over him as a shadow and threatening a moment when the pleasures will disappear.”
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In Chekhov’s story, the Father Superior is deeply moved by the townsperson’s criticism and sets off at once to the town to see matters for himself. He finds a debauched spectacle. Appalled, he returns to the monastery to report to the other monks: “…the old man, wrathfully brandishing his arms, described the horse-races, the bullfights, the theatres, the artists’ studios where they painted naked women or molded them of clay.… After describing all the charms of the devil, the beauty of evil, and the fascinating grace of the dreadful female form, the old man cursed the devil, turned and shut himself up in his cell.”
When he comes out of his cell in the morning, he finds not a monk left in the monastery: “They had all fled to the town.”
At least, as a consequence, we now have some lovely hotels.