As I’ve thought of making my way to St. Augustine House, America’s most noted Lutheran monastery, I have thought again of what I consider the great tragedy of the Reformation….the elimination of religious communities. I understood why the Reformers did not want monastic life on an intellectual level, but I also saw that their elimination brought with it a huge loss to religious life.
To understand why I feel Protestants would benefit from rediscovering monastic life, I will first address why they sought its abolition. Essentially the reason is twofold, though it does point to yet another reason that became part of cultural Protestantism and soon the cultural reality of the secular world.
By far the greatest reason for getting rid of the monasteries and convents was a theological one that ran against the grain of Protestantism. This is monastic life pointed to a “better way” of living. In Luther’s idea of vocation, no service to God sat above or below another. The idea that one could be more holy as a monk or nun than a husband or wife just had no place in his later thought. With the assurance of salvation you were either in or out (Calvinism put that thought on steroids) and you had a personal relationship with Jesus or you didn’t (today’s Evangelicals put that on steroids.) Essentially you were no closer to God cloistered than out in the world. I will say here that you can believe that and yet still not abolish religious communities, but it is where Protestantism took the thought.
This brings us to point number two because why abolish monastic life if it is only because the economy of salvation is no different for a monk or nun than anyone else. Luther’s exposition on the sixth commandment provides an explanation. Here in his explanation of adultery, Luther calls marriage humanity’s most honorable estate and a necessary state for everyone except those possessed with a supernatural gift to rise above what Protestants thought of as natural law….humans were meant to desire and love one another and from this children would be born. This was bolstered by what Protestants saw as God’s first directive: “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” It also created a religious community besides that of the monasteries and convents: the place Lutherans and the Reformed were fond of calling “the little church inside the church,” though I believe that title actually came from St. John Chrysostom more than 1100 years earlier.
With a renewed emphasis on the noble estate of marriage and family, I believe there is another reason that early Protestants moved to abolish the monasteries and convents….they simply wanted the property and capital they possessed to enter the economy for the benefit of the individual man and his need to support his wife and children. Essentially there would be the transfer of wealth from one type of community to another necessitated by the fact that Protestants viewed the household as a superior type of community to the monastery.
That is the history of the matter and the points are well taken, but they did leave Protestantism in a spiritually weaker place, which needs to be reexamined. I believe to do this one should look at the benefits of religious communities and what they could mean to Protestantism and to those who come into contact with it.
I have come up with four points as to why religious communities (I am avoiding talking strictly about monastic life at this point, but I am not excluding it) should be reconsidered:
- This is a big one. Religious communities are uniquely qualified to do very good mission. I won’t cite all the historical evidence to back this up, but you can go online and see it everywhere. By living together in intentional mission, a religious community can always put the Gospel at the center of its existence and in more viable ways than households.
- A community provides a collective life for the unmarried. I mention this knowing that some religious communities include families, but for those who are not in a family household there is the reward of having the support one normally garners from spouses, parents, and children.
- If more accepted by Protestants, religious communities would give us a place for ecumenical dialogue. I will point to no other example here than how the St. Augustine House I mentioned earlier brings its Lutheran brethren to consider Marian piety and a degree of friendship with its Benedictine neighbors that is sadly missing in all the learned dialogue and commissions that exist between the churches.
- It provides an alternate model for the acquisition of capital. It is true that the magisterial Protestants had a point about the amount of resource that was tied up in the Church, but that is not where the world is today as corporations and individuals possess much more than they need and in this keep capital out the hands of families more than monasteries ever did (and monasteries provided charity that far exceeded the donations from the wealthy to the less fortunate and they did so without the benefit of tax breaks.)
I think with the current state of the world and an acknowledgement that religious communities can exist without betraying the Protestant theology of vocation even as they improve mission, we come to a place where religious communities can give something to the life of the Protestant churches that is now missing. I also believe that convents and monasteries are the best places for this. I do not dismiss the other types of religious communities that have prospered in both Catholic and Protestant circles, but I do believe these half in community, half in the world places are best suited for young ideologues and do not have the effect of those who have a more complete life of prayer and contemplation. I also do not believe we can ever return again to a world where vast numbers came to be in these places thinking perhaps Luther is right, that there are only a few with this supernatural gift. But to those who have this gift, should they not have a place? Christianity and the world it seeks could only benefit from this.