Saturday, March 6, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Seven


The Monks of St. Benedict serve as a salient example of good that has come from religious faith. In fact, there is a very strong argument that much of modern Western Europe was created by them. Everyone knows about the role that Benedictines served in preserving the learning of the Greeks and Romans. But far fewer are aware that when the order was first formed much of European geography had declined into a howling wilderness because of the centuries of barbarian invasions and genocidal wars that brought the end of the Western Roman Empire. St. Benedict's rule ordained that men (and eventually women) should live together under a regime that was not so strict as to styfle their interest in bettering themselves, but with an emphasis on physical labour that ensured that the monks did not isolate themselves from the world around them.

Monks would move into an area of desolation, drain swamps, clear forests, and, eventually build an abbey with strong stone walls. This would be a place of refuge from brigands, which meant that people would have a chance that the fruits of their labour would not simply be stolen from them at first opportunity. The monastery would also have an infirmary for the sick and a herb-garden where trained monks would grow medicine. These would attract peasants in search of land, then craftsmen, then merchants, which would eventually lead to the creation of a new town or city. Create enough towns and cities, and you have a nation instead of a wilderness.

Bound together in a network with other abbeys, important technical information would be shared between monasteries on new agricultural methods, and, varieties of crop and livestock, which in turn would be shared with the surrounding peasants. In effect, each Benedictine Abbey served the same role as a modern agricultural college. Later on, they also became centres of excellence for metallurgy and industrial machinery. (The first really large scale uses of water power were all at abbeys.) Even into the modern era Benedictines still continue this tradition. For example, the famous Brother Adam (the “Bee Monk”) at the Buckfast Abbey in England devoted his entire life to breeding varieties of bees resistant to trachea mites. And Sister Noella Marcellino (the “Cheese Nun”) at Regina Laudis in the USA, has become equally important in the world of cheese making through her work recording and reviving traditional artisanal methods.

The Benedictine “movement” simply made sense in the context of Dark Age and Medieval Europe. But practicality doesn't explain why it thrived then and continues to exist to this day.

Anyone who has attempted to live in a communal situation realizes how quickly the petty squabbles and different agendas of any group of people can blow apart any project based on simple self-interest. These men and women were able to work and live together because they believed that what they were doing was not just serving their own personal needs, or even the needs of society---but because they thought that they were serving their God. The glue that held these orders of monks or nuns together was faith.

But it needs to be said that this type of faith was and is probably quite different from the “faith” of ordinary believers. Put most ordinary Christians---or even most ordinary Catholics---in a monastery and chaos would result. What inspired the solidarity that drained the swamps, created a new type of agriculture and built Europe? I would argue that it came from the monastic structures, rituals and routines that governed life in Benedictine communities. The Benedictine life re-arranged the “common sense” worldview of the monks in a way that allowed them to live together in a shared purpose. As such, they created a new and special type of “faith” that was different from both the one held by ordinary believers and even non-monastic clergy during the Middle Ages. Moreover, it was and is significantly different from the faiths that sustain most moderns—even fundamentalists.

First of all, all the communities were celibate. It is true that sexual relations are a release of pent up energy, but it is far more true that sexual relationships usually create far more tension between people. Moreover, where there are relationships, there are children. And children always cause problems because they are not voluntary members of the community and must be provided for in terms of education, employment, etc.

Secondly, while it is true that the Abbeys were (at least in the begining) governed by democratic decision-making through “chapterhouse” meetings, this democratic rule was limited to ensure stability in the community. The membership of the community was segregated into two groups: “postulants”---people who were interested in joining the community but had not yet been formally accepted---and full-fledged brothers who had voting rights. Moreover, the decision to accept a member was made by the already existing members through a process of voting. In most communities a small minority in opposition (and in some, even one vote) to accepting a postulant as a brother was enough to “black ball” the person. This meant that the community didn't bring in new members that grated excessively on the existing community.

Secondly, the Abbot of the community was generally elected for life. This meant that while there could be, and probably was, a lot of politics involved in the process of electing the Abbot, this generally happened at very infrequent intervals. And while the power of an Abbot was theoretically immense, in actual fact these tight-knit communities could only function properly on the basis of consensus-building anyway. In fact, an Abbot tended to have a group of trusted advisors that helped him with his work. As a result, while innovation was accepted from time to time, there were no wild changes in Abbeys as one faction versus another gained power due to shifting support amongst the brothers.

Beyond these structural factors, there were also cultural ones that build a strong sense of solidarity. First of all, the lives that the monks lived were very structured. Every day, all the monks were expected to drop whatever they were doing at regular intervals and head off to the chapel to sing the Gregorian Chants. Not only did this break up the work day, it even occurred in the middle of the night, where monks would rise from their beds, sing the Gregorian chants, and then go back to get a few more hours sleep before it was time to get at the day's labours. This externally-imposed discipline (plus the celibacy) tended to select for people who were really committed to the monastic life. More importantly, it created a sense of routine that would get monks over the petty problems that often break up intentional communities. Even more to the point, the beautiful music that the monks participated in through the long hours of practice (which people still experience today when listening to recorded chants) brought the monks together and gave them a sense of exaltation as a community.

This last point needs to be emphasized because it can easily be missed by people who live in our current world. Before the time of recorded music---let alone Ipods---people did not live their lives in a pool of recorded sound. Musical instruments were very expensive and trained musicians very rare. Only the very wealthy, who could afford to support court musicians, could listen to music when the mood struck. For everyone else music was a very rare treat that usually didn't go much further than the odd bagpiper at the village fete or, if they lived near a relatively big church, a pipe organ on Sundays. Walking into an abbey and hearing the monks---some of whom had been practicing daily for decades---probably seemed like gate-crashing heaven. Not only would this create a bond between the community and the abbey that would go beyond the practical benefits describe above, it would also create a strong bond between the brothers, one that would go a long way to minimizing petty squabbles.

Even more to the point, the plainsong liturgy that the Monks and Nuns followed on a regular basis is a form of meditation. And the goal of meditation is ultimately that of learning to control the way that one's mind operates. In the case of these religious people, one of the goals of the plainsong method of meditation is to learn to control the individual's passions so they do not harm the good of the group. A choir only works if the individuals are willing to sing specific parts of a collective good. If you are part of a Monastic choir singing like a group of angels, this subversion of the individual in favour of the collective seems a fair trade. Similarly, life in a monastery can seem like a good thing if you also believe in the result.

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