Today's gift of the Spirit in the traditional novena is fortitude, and if you read and pray the psalms, you will constantly come across images of 'building up the walls' that protect us, and of God as our fortress.
The most visible symbols of that concept in the Church have long been our monasteries, with their carefully guarded enclosures.
Unfortunately, in the wake of Gaudium et Spes, many Catholics suddenly became convinced that those those protective walls, those fortresses for the faith that were our monasteries and convents, were actually ghettos not fortresses, and set about systematically tearing down the walls and destroying what lay inside.
We've been living with the consequences ever since.
Today I want to suggest to you that rebuilding the spiritual walls of our monasteries, the single most important element of the Catholic sub-culture that used to exist, is one of the most crucial steps, indeed perhaps the single most important one, to reviving the Church in Australia and elsewhere in the West.
What can we do?
The problem with the dreadful state of religious life today, as for many other aspects of current Church life, the laity, on the face of it powerless: doesn't reform have to come from within the monasteries themselves; or from the bishops?
I want to suggest, though, that there are things each of we can and should do.
First, consider what you can do to lend your support and encourage the better Australian monasteries. We don't yet have any traditionalist monasteries here, but we do have some faithful orders (think for example of the Tyburn Nuns at Parramatta, and Mother Teresa's sisters; and there are several others). All Catholics should make regular retreats, and as there aren't many traditionalist oriented options, consider seriously what is available.
Secondly, encourage vocations. Proper vocational discernment - starting from the traditional perspective that the religious life is objectively the highest state of life we can adopt - is something that mostly hasn't happened in the recent past. So we need to encourage all young Catholics to think about and preferably visit a real monastery, and test out their vocation for this life before they think about any other options. And there are practical things that can be done. Traditional monks and nuns do visit this country from time to time, so encourage your priest to include your town on their itinerary. Similarly, take advantage of retreats and other events when they are offered.
Thirdly, support emerging new communities. The hard reality is that most will fail in the end. But history shows that it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge which ones will thrive and which one's won't from the outside. There have been some very odd monastic founders in the past who proved to be extremely successful, indeed, have been canonised. And there are some great monasteries like Solesmes that had very unusual and troubled early years. The first abbot of Solesmes, Dom Gueranger, for example, didn't even meet his first monk - the Englishman Dom Ullathorne, reporting in on his Australian visit - until his monastery had been operating for several years and he was on his way to the Rome to get the Pope's approval for his appointment as abbot. His formal 'noviciate' consisted of a few days retreat in St Paul's outside the walls. And on one early occasion, he left the monastery on a business trip to Paris - and returned to find he had been 'deposed' by his monks. So give those trying here the benefit of the doubt!
Fourthly, support the traditional communities elsewhere around the world. Though monasteries do try and earn their own living, that is an enormous challenge. And they typically face huge costs in building a suitable monastery and much more. Monasteries rely on the laity for financial support as well as prayers. So find a monastery that lines up with your spirituality, affiliate with it if possible, buy their products, and donate. All the better if they happen to have a few Australians in their ranks, since you can be sure they are praying for us, and can in turn pray that they might eventually make a foundation here...
Finally, lobby your bishop. If your diocese doesn't have sisters who can teach in the schools, perhaps he should be thinking about trying to establish a new order! If your diocese doesn't have a contemplative monastery to pray for it, perhaps he might try and find an existing monastery prepared to make a foundation. If your monastery does have a young community struggling to get started, or an overseas group willing to come, perhaps he might allow them to use one of those many diocesan properties currently sitting empty, rather than trying to sell those buildings off.
Why should we think about doing any of this? Read on.
The difference between a fortress and a ghetto...
The walls of a fortress are intended to defend those who sit inside it: the gates admit only those approved by by those within its walls. For the Catholics of a previous generation, religious - sisters and nuns; monks and brothers - were crucial defenders of the walls of the faith.
Their presence as teachers and nurses in our schools and hospitals helped ensure that those institutions maintained a genuinely Catholic ethos; their habits provided a constant reminder of the ideal of total commitment to God and the holocaust of self.
Contemplative religious prayed on behalf of the rest of us,an invisible but very real shield against the enemy whose absence is all too obvious in its effects.
In many places in times past, monasteries provided a network of oases where Catholics could go on retreat; a source of friendship and support for those who would otherwise have been isolated in our communities; and an important source of genuine feminine influence and visible power within the system.
Monastic life has taken many different forms down the centuries - from the brotherhood of the Apostles and the orders of widows and virgins of the early Church, to the hermits and anchorites of the desert, to the many forms of cenobitic life, the mendicant orders and more.
The particular form of the religious life has changed in line with the times - but its existence has been a constant, an element of the life of the Church which many Popes have said over and over is essential to its health.
The crisis of religious life
In the wake of Vatican II the instruction to return to the charism of the founder turned into anything but that!
Today, right across the world, the number of religious continues to decline sharply. In Australia today the situation is dire.
The numbers of religious has collapsed to the point where many of our orders are in the process of finally packing up their bags and handing over their remaining assets to lay-run organisations bearing their name.
Novices are few and far between - in Australia in 2011, a grand total of 15 women, and 24 men.
And many of those Orders that do remain follow a form of life so debased as to be utterly unrecognisable to their founders.
We don't have, for example, to imagine what St Benedict would have thought of many of those claiming to be of his Order today, for he tells us exactly what he thought in his Rule.
Of those who have abandoned their monasteries for apartments he says for example:
"The third kind of monks is that detestable one of the Sarabaites, who not having been tested, as gold in the furnace, by any rule or by the lessons of experience, are as soft and yielding as lead. In their actions they still conform to the standards of the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God. They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord's. Their law is their own good pleasure: whatever they think of or choose to do, that they call holy; what they like not, that they regard as unlawful." (RB 1)
Of those who have ditched the traditional weekly Benedictine psalter for some two, three or even four week arrangement he says:
For those monks show themselves very slothful in their sacred service, who in the course of the week sing less than the psalter and the customary canticles..."(RB 18)
And of those who have decided that to work in the world rather than the cloister he instructed that:
"The monastery should, if possible, be so arranged that all necessary things, such as water, mill, garden, and various crafts may be within the enclosure, so that the monks may not be compelled to wander outside it, for that is not at all expedient for their souls." (RB 50)
For St Benedict, the monastery was a fortress for the faith, and guests were only to be admitted and given the kiss of peace after their bona fides have been proven by praying together with the monks in the chapel (RB 53). Visiting monks who proved to be too exacting or depraved were to be told politely to depart (RB 61).
Signs of life?
In the wake of Vatican II, many religious jumped off the cliff and left; others became new age heretics; still others persist in propagating the line that religious life is no longer necessary, the collapse in numbers a 'sign of the times'.
Yet there are signs of revival, albeit not yet on a sufficient scale to counter the effects of several decades of decay and destruction.
The Father of Western Monasticism, St Benedict, founded of Monte Cassino, pictured above, and that monastery provides us, perhaps, with a suitable symbol of hope. Monte Cassino has been destroyed many times in its history. Yet each time it has been destroyed it has arisen anew.
The first time, was but fifty years after its foundation - yet the scattering of the monks by the Lombards helped spread Benedictine monasticism to Rome, influencing many including the monk who became pope, St Gregory the Great. The last time, in World War II, enabled important archaeological work to be carried out that uncovered the original chapels built by St Benedict, and his and his twin St Scholastica's tomb.
We need to pray that new saints will arise to rebuild once more from the ruins - and indeed, we need to strive to become those new saints, whether our call is to work in the monastery or in support of it from the outside.
You can find the next part of this series here.