Proper 18: Monasticism

Cistercian Nun

Every week, as time permits, I look at the lectionary readings for that week and try to interpret them in the context of the Age of Limits.

Appointed Gospel

This week’s gospel (September 8th 2019, Year C) is from Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Monasticism

Benedict by Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)
Benedict. Hermann Nigg (1849-1928)

This is a tough passage. Are we really to hate our family members? Most of us would say, “No”. Yet there is one group of people who have given up their worldly life, including their families: those who live the monastic or “religious” life.

As the western Roman Empire declined we have seen how men such as Augustine provided a spiritual and theological foundation for the church. Another movement that became very important in the waning days of the Empire was monasticism. The name usually associated with this movement is Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE). The first Benedictine monastery was established at Monte Cassino in Italy in the year 529 CE., southeast of Rome

Although he did not found an order, as such, he did set up a system for the monastic life that was widely adopted. The monks live in community under the direction of their Abbot. But they also pursue their own personal, spiritual vocations. Benedict wrote the famous “rule” that still directs life in Benedictine monasteries. The rule is strict, but not harsh. Although deeply spiritual, the order was practical and sensible.

The Benedictine ideals are condensed into three principles: poverty, chastity and obedience. Their way of life is demanding, but not harsh; it is built around a spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness. It is also built around the discipline contained in the words ora et labora: pray and work.

It was these communities that did much to hold the civilization of the old western empire together for the next 500 years or so. They provided cultural continuity following the decline of the western Empire. In particular, they copied religious and secular texts, thus preventing the knowledge in these texts from disappearing.

Although very few people are called to the monastic vocation, Benedict’s guidance is useful for Christians living now in our world — a world that is slowly, but irreversibly slipping into material decline. We are not going to jump from our SUVs to a Cistercian monastery all at once, point that is made by Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option.  Dreher recognizes that the church is no longer at the center of western civilization. Indeed, he refers to the modern church as a, “chaplaincy to a consumer culture”. The book’s sub-title is ‘A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation’. He uses the Benedictine way of life as guidance for all Christians, including those who are not formally part of a monastic community.  (As the Age of Limits starts to bite I anticipate a revival of the monastic movement within the Christian church.)

One of the fundamental challenges faced by Christians when confronted with climate change and all the other issues that we talk about is whether to respond by modifying one’s personal life, or whether to work top-down, i.e., with political systems at national and international levels.  In practice, most of us will do some of each. We will also gravitate to the area that best fits our talents and personalities. The monastic idea provides a good example. The monks lived a strict lifestyle, but they were also part of the larger world.

Theology

In the book that I am writing, and at this blog site, I am trying to work out a theology that is appropriate for our time. It can be based on the following three points:

  1. Understand and tell the truth.
  2. Accept and adapt.
  3. Live within the biosphere both material and spiritually.

I have highlighted the third point to do with living within the biosphere. By living simply, those in the monastic community give us an example of how to live well without dominating the world around us.


Article: Climate Change and the Gospel

There is not a lot of literature to do with the theology of climate change, and even less to do with other Age of Limits issues such as resource depletion. However, the article Climate Change and the Gospel written by David Atkinson provides some interesting thoughts and guidance on these lines.

The following quotation will probably resonate with busy church parishioners.

I suspect that underneath some of the lack of urgency among Christians, is a belief that environmental concern, or ‘creation care’ if you prefer, is not really a Christian priority. It is not central to the gospel of Jesus Christ, though it is a worthy thing to do if you have time. So we may have an ‘Environment Sunday’ once a year to ‘do our bit’. Or maybe an extra hour on the already overloaded theological college curriculum to discuss climate change. Perhaps we may try to get the idea of solar panels on our church roof past the Diocesan Advisory Committee, the Victorian Society, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the local brigadier who lives next to the church. But, please, with endless diocesan initiatives  for mission, with assemblies to take in the church school, with a couple of funerals a week, with trying to keep alive our Partnership Link with an overseas diocese, with constant pressure to up our diocesan quota, and with dwindling numbers in the congregation, please do not ask us to do any more!

 I believe that Christian people ought to be leading players in debates and in taking action about climate change. Because what ultimately matters is not scientific knowledge, or technology, or a change to our economic system – vitally important though all those are. What matters is how we see ourselves in God’s world, how we humans relate to the rest of God’s creation. It is about what makes for human flourishing and the wellbeing of all God’s creation, on which our life depends. This is about morality, and spirituality.

David Atkinson refers to the theological concept of the ‘Cosmic Covenant’ (Atkinson, 2015). It is a triangle consisting of God, humanity and the Earth. He says that is implicit in the first chapter of the Bible, when, after the emergence of all other creatures, humanity is created in ‘the image of God’.


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Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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