My friend BJ (and a newly-minted dad) asked a great question regarding my last post, “Ten Things the Church Should Learn From a Monastery”. He asked: “What do you think a church (Episcopal or otherwise) would look like if they learned some of these lessons from monasteries?”
Do y’all know the story of “Into Great Silence” (2005)? It’s a lengthy documentary showing monastic life in the Grande Chartreuse. The only sounds in the movie are those of the monastery: creaking floorboards, the silent steps of monks, the snipping of fabric, ringing bells, and the chanting the hours, of course. There’s no narration, just a series of images of their daily routine. After a while, it turns into a meditation. (It’s now on Netflix instant, so check it out if you get a chance.)
What interests me most is the story of how it came to be. The director first approached the monks with the idea in 1984. The monks said, essentially, “Sure. Can we have some time to think about it?” The director waited a week. No word from the monks. He waited a few months. Still no word. Years rolled by. Then, more than a decade passed. They never wrote or called.
The monks finally got in touch with the director sixteen years later. They asked him if he was still interested. Sixteen years, though. Sixteen years! Any child who was born when the offer was first made, would — sixteen years later — be an awkward teenager, laden with pimples. Sixteen years to consider whether a film director should unobtrusively film their lives! It’s the stuff of legends, isn’t it?
Do y’all know the story of Little Gidding? Founded by Nicholas Ferrar in the early seventeenth century, he and his family retreated to a secluded property with an abandoned Church on it. Setting up a strict schedule, they prayed the hours together; there was always at least one person at prayer in the Chapel at all times. As fame spread about the community at Little Gidding, St. Charles (King and Martyr) stayed there several times. Meanwhile, those dastardly heretical Puritans decried it as a “Protestant Nunnery”. It is considered the first revival of Monastic life in the Church of England. It is really quite inspirational.
Now, obviously, an average Parish Church cannot become, act like, or pretend to be a Carthusian Monastery. Or, imitate Little Gidding’s success. So, any imitation of monastic life will have to be in shades and in small steps towards a greater direction. Yes, I know: apart from clergy, it is doubtful whether a large group of people would commit to chanting the Hours together in one place (although Dr. Olsen has some great ideas about changing this). Parish Churches do not have the luxury of a nearly-eternal concept of time like at the Grand Chartreuse: we don’t have the luxury of sixteen years to make a decision.
But, here’s the truth: a Parish Church cannot become Apple or Coca-Cola or any of those large corporations that all those lists think we should be imitating. Any implementation of a brand, or another MBA buzzword will have to be filtered down into a model that can be manageable for a Parish Church to imitate. Churches, after all, should have ethics. All those things we “should” be learning from these emotionally-manipulative empires can only be inhabited in steps.
My question, and the reason why I wrote that list, is: which one will we imitate? Which one will we hold up as a goal? Will we walk in small, incremental steps towards a corporation that proclaims purchasing as your way to fulfillment? Or, will we walk in small, incremental steps towards a life of obedience in one long direction of faith? Which one will the Church hold up as her goal? To what end are we working?
Should it bother us that we can’t get a small group of people to pray the hours together in our Churches? Should it bother us that we think — as I wrote above — that Parish Churches do not have the luxury of nearly-eternal concept of time? Should it bother us that we think taking sixteen years to decide something is the stuff of legends? Should it bother us that a group of dedicated laypersons committed to prayer is considered a relic of the early seventeenth century? Should it bother us that priests are considered more like managers and less like spiritual fathers? Should it bother us that bishops are treated as CEO’s and paid like it, too? Should it bother us that we think the world has spun so quickly into contemporary times that we think the human heart has changed and has no need for beauty, for mystery, for love? Should it bother us that all of this sounds entirely too idealistic?
To what end are we working?
What would a Church that imitated a monastery look like? I’m not exactly sure, to be honest. But I know that it would be walking by steps towards that direction. It would walk towards deeper prayer, deeper commitment, deeper obedience and a deeper love for God and for our fellow man. It would walk towards making Saints out of us, not putting more people in the pews. It would not be in the business of pseudo-spiritual fulfillment.
But, what do I know? Little, if nothing. Do y’all have any thoughts?