Dear Father John, my question is “How does cloistering serve God at the highest level?” Let me explain the origin of my question. In college, I was introduced for the first time to Hasidic Jews. My initial impression was that I found it odd that they isolated themselves so much from others in their pursuit of faith-purity. Couldn’t it be considered odd to say one is devoted to God, creator of humanity, and then to separate oneself from 99% of humanity? Then, I was introduced to Buddhism and again, I wondered how God was served if I was sitting in the lotus position for hours on end. How do monks serve God by chanting in a mountain monastery of Tibet when people nearby might be starving or need a strapping young man to help them build a house? I can see how a cloistered life might serve ME and the deepening of MY faith, but if it is equated with a marriage, it would be like me never leaving my house because I was infatuated with my husband. In that case, who else profits from my being alive? And from my own perspective, since my family has stopped going to church mainly because of the sad state of homilies, Masses, and priests in American (in general), I can’t figure out why it wouldn’t make more sense to have more dedicated people take that route, rather than the cloister, in order to help with the most urgent needs of the Church.
Your broad inquiry includes more than one question. Let’s see if I can dissect and comment coherently.
First, what’s the use of a cloistered life? Or, to put the question in its starkest frame, a hermitical life? What a great question! There are at three basic uses for this kind of life. The first one is the most interesting.
The Mystical Body of Christ
As you know, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Together, the members of the Church extend Christ’s incarnation into every corner of time of space. In a sense, the Church as a whole embodies and reprises Christ’s own experience; we unfold in every age, culture, situation, and place the fullness of the mystery of Christ. And that mystery is multifaceted. Jesus, as we know from the Gospels, spent much time living with his family and working 9-to-5 (so to speak) in Nazareth. He also experienced poverty, rejection, suffering, injustice, and death. He also went into the desert to pray and discern for an extended period of time. He also cured the sick, liberated the possessed, taught the ignorant, instructed the spiritually thirsty, fed the hungry. He often would go off alone to pray… And I could go on and on.
By his incarnation, Jesus sanctified all these human experiences. And the Church continues to show forth this sanctification in the many different vocations that the Holy Spirit calls forth within her. And each of the individual vocations, from Blessed Mother Teresa’s nuns, to Trappist monks, to families who live a normal working life, to priests who preach, to missionaries who build schools – all of these vocations together, as a whole, reflect the full mystery of Christ, while each one individually glorifies God and contributes to the saving mission of the Church in a particular way. And only the Holy Spirit can really see the whole picture. We only get glimpses every once in awhile of how the different pieces fit together.
One of my favorite examples is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She was a cloistered nun whom God called to offer her prayers and sacrifices up for missionary priests. She was given supernatural knowledge of how many missionaries her prayers and sacrifices were sustaining, spiritually – it was around 20,000. She was “Christ in the desert” praying and sacrificing in reparation for sin, and her missionary brothers and sons were “Christ among the crowds” preaching and teaching and healing.
But there are other examples too, less dramatic. Think about all the non-cloistered people who benefit, spiritually, from being able to make retreats to convents, under the direction of nuns and monks who have dedicated themselves to growing in spiritual wisdom. Think of all the amazing spiritual books that have benefited thousands and thousands and thousands of people through the centuries, books that contain spiritual wisdom that could only have come through the special experience of God granted to those who seek him in the blooming deserts of the cloister. Etc.
In It Together
God wants us to need each other, and learn from each other, and show forth the magnificent variety of God’s spiritual glory (the variety of love) in this way. One could equally ask, “Why did God create so many flowers? What’s the use of so many different flowers, even the ones in the wilderness that no one sees?” The variety and the varied spectacle of all the many different vocations being lived out in intimate fidelity to God’s wisdom are an explosion of spiritual beauty that will be one of the main sources of the eternal joy of heaven.
This helps us understand the difference between Catholic cloistered spirituality and Buddhist monasticism or Hasidic Jewry. Ours is part of the Mystical Body, a response to a particular call from God, and plays into the bigger picture. It is not just a self-absorbed path to nirvana or a holy huddle used as a fortress against the big-bad-world. When it is used in that way, it is used wrongly, and causes problems.
Trouble at Sunday Mass
Then you vented about horrible homilies and ugly Masses. Well, I don’t have an easy answer for this one. (Though I did do a post on how to deal with these, on a personal level: https://spiritualdirection.com/2011/10/17/how-do-i-deal-with-dry-homilies.) But let me ask you to do a thought experiment.
Imagine that all the priests who were alive and working today were suddenly turned into saints – no more laziness, selfishness, irresponsibility; just wisdom, zeal, burning love… Things would be very different, right? The Church would still have a lot of work to do, but much of the venting you did in your question would be irrelevant. And many of the young men that God is surely calling the priesthood would have a better chance of hearing and heeding the call.
The Real Question
So, the real question is, why aren’t more priests holier? Why aren’t all priests saints? And if that’s the real question, then let’s pose another question. Why aren’t all Catholic moms and dads saints? Why aren’t all Catholic teenagers saints? After all, we have had holy priests through the ages, and holy moms and dads and teenagers, so we know it’s possible. So why do we have so many miserable sinners who make such a mediocre or downright counterproductive witness to the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith?
That’s the question you are really asking. At least, that’s how it seems to me. And there is no easy answer that I have been able to find. In the history of the Church, faithful Christians have been able to do a lot of good for a lot of people, but unfaithful Christians have impeded the Church’s work and even done horribly destructive things. This is the theme of the famous parable about the weeds and wheat (Matthew 13:24-30), though the parable of the sower is also relevant (Matthew 13:1-23). Why does God permit the weeds and the wheat to grow up side by side? Why does he allow his seed to fall on rocky ground? He has his reasons. His patience is, as St. Peter put it in 2 Peter 3:15, to be “considered as salvation.” God doesn’t fix everything right away; he patiently and mercifully puts up with our misery and somehow weaves it into his tapestry of redemption. In other words, he doesn’t approach salvation the way you and I would if we were all-powerful and all-knowing. And that, I truly believe, should give us a lot to meditate on.
I hope these thoughts are of some use. God bless you!
PS: If we have cloistered readers it would be great to get your perspective as well.
Art for this post on cloistering: Nonne Im Kreuzgang (Nun in Cloister), 1930, photographed by Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.