Are we modern men making medieval palaces to live in? It’s natural for us to want a return of the greatness of Christendom of the 13th century. But do we deserve it in our current condition? How did we get to the stage of Scholasticism and flying buttresses?
I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t build great physical structures where we can, or that money shouldn’t be spent on beautiful things; far from it. But maybe we should pull the camera back a little. Where did these great cultural, social and philosophical treasures come from? How did we get Chartres and Notre Dame cathedrals? From what culture did Gregorian Chant derive? It took 182 years to build Notre Dame. What was the cultural condition of Christendom in 1163 that allowed the decision to be made to allocate such incredible resources in the first place? Are we in a situation now that is in any way comparable to that of the 11th or 12th century? The answer is obvious.
But then we have to ask, if we do want to return our entire civilisation to that level, if we want to see a revival of the great age of Faith, how did they get there? Where should we start? What historical Christian period most closely matches our own, an age of great achievement, strength and confidence, or an age of weakness and persecution? The answer is perhaps not going to be much to anyone’s liking. The revival of Christendom can only be achieved the same way it was created in the first place.
Where did Christendom really come from? The “propositum monasticum”
In a conversation by email this weekend, a well known Traditionalist monastic told me that whatever might come of these recent efforts to build neo-gothic monasteries, in our fierce longing for the age of Christianity’s greatness we could be putting the Gothic cart before the desert monastic horse. He said we are in such a state of degradation we must go past even the roots of Christendom to the very seeds.
What did they have in 1163 that we don’t? Christendom was not built from nothing in the 12th century. It was a development from foundations laid centuries before in the ages of persecution and monastic heroism. Maybe it is not to Chartres and Notre Dame we should look, but to the Thebaid. With our eyes full of the romantic glamour of the High Middle Ages we may have forgotten that the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century were peopled with thousands of monks and nuns. These were Christians who had fled the consolations and protections of the world – including an abruptly legalised religion suddenly elevated to a State Church – to strive for a heavenly way of living.
When, a few centuries later, a revival of persecution pushed these men and women out of their desert monastic cities they came providentially to spread that heavenly way of life into the rest of the Christian world of late antiquity. It was this, much more than the chaotic imperial politics of the early papacy, that brought the living water to a European people thirsting desperately for Christ.
The foundation of that monastic principle is the personal dedication to union with Christ above all other things, an idea that would later be called the “propositum monasticum” – the radical, singular and irrevocable choice of a life dedicated wholly to Christ. Their idea was revolutionary for the ancient world, it must have looked to the pagan mind like a kind of mania, a godly madness that nothing could overcome.
A semi-converted Emperor may have decided to simply replace classical paganism with Christianity as the official state religion, but the two religious ideas are at root incompatible. Paganism never had anything to say to the individual about the moral life or salvation; Christianity had much to say to the state, but only gained that power through its prior claims on individual souls.
This inversion of the nature of religion was so radical, so completely unprecedented in all of known human history that it re-made the whole world. Christ does not want the cold, official worship of the state. He speaks only to the human soul, to woo her, to “allure her… and lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her,” and to convince her to give up her idols. No pagan god in any Classical myth ever spoke to humanity thus.
Christendom was built not by the popes or emperors but on a prior foundation of the individual commitment of each Catholic in the age of persecution amid a pagan society, the determination to turn away from the world and toward Christ at any cost.
The intense mystical love of the dedicated Christian for the person of Christ made the terrors of the arena, wild beasts, grilles and all tortures, and all worldly temptations, as nothing. It was this high romance of the individual soul with the beloved that overcame and transformed the cruelties and barbarism of Classical paganism, not the Edict of Milan. Anyone who wants to know how truly useless for building Christian civilisation the papacy can be must read the story of Marozia, the Theophylacti and the Pornocracy of the 10th century.
If the Novusordoist structures won’t have us because we are Traditionalists, why do we want them?
My friend adds the rather pertinent observation that if the classical monastic life refuses you entry, it “shows that it is not making itself available to souls who want to answer the universal invitation of Our Lord given to all to follow him in poverty, chastity and obedience.”
It may seem an odd comment until you start investigating closely the condition even of the better-known “conservative” contemporary monastic communities. In one celebrated house of contemplative nuns, famed for their “traditional” flavour of liturgy and vita communis, a candidate who shows a preference for the “extraordinary form” of Mass or Divine Office will be assigned a particular sister whose job it is to correct that candidate’s erring ideas. Close inspection of “conservative” religious life is what taught me the difference, and that this is often where the most virulent hostility against Tradition can be found.
“The essential is not the classical dream” of monasticism, “although it can be found there,” my friend said. What is essential is “seeking His face,” the “fuga mundi and saving souls (all the while surviving this desert world).”
In our time the Church’s leadership has locked the gates of the monastic life: “The hierarchy, ever seeking to control and domesticate whatever moves in the Church by their giving or refusing recognition, has all but left the Church without consecrated souls at all, and very few prophets for all the documents that have been written since 1965.”
My friend, however, moves past this saying simply that if we lament that there are no monasteries to join – none that would have us because of our refusal to give up certain aspects of the ancient Catholic Faith in favour of a supposed “New Paradigm” – we might not need them, strictly speaking. The life of devotion, of consecration to Christ, does not require marbled halls; it requires only the will to live it.
Following the example of the earliest recorded monastics, we remember that “the monastic life is adaptable, just like infants’ stem cells that adapt to all the needs of the body.” Where a young would-be saint of the 13th century had the luxury of simply joining the monastery down the road, a Christian of the 4th century had to be a pioneer; but the result was the same.
“If living the vows we flee the world, seek His face and seek to save souls by prayer or by labour, what more is needed to be truly a monk or a nun?”
Any person with the desire for sanctity could be as good a monk or a nun “as any who entered as 18 year old and made it to the golden jubilee! Because it is a matter of answering the universal call of Our Lord.”
My friend continues with a DIY proposal: “In Egypt and Syria and everywhere else monasteries were nothing like the great Abbeys of Mont St. Michel, Kelso and Cluny. Our monastic stem-cell can build abbeys but just as well can find us a life like the eremitical lauras of St. Romuald or as itinerants like the Little Sisters of Jesus of Blessed Charles de Foucauld did in Chinese Junks and gypsy caravans.
“We’ve had 2000 years of all kinds of social structures to protect the propositum: look to the East and to the West. You name it we’ve had it. Caves; recluses; abbeys; priories; lauras; hermitages, huts, pillars, open-roofed enclosures. St. Simon Stock had an oak tree, Mother Potter had a hospice, and pious women lived together in houses in private vows or none. There has been no shortage of structures.”
“From the propositum we move to social structures. But the propositum is first. Then social structure. Any social structures that will protect and nurture the propositum, make it flower, is valid.” And this means that in the absence of support from the hierarchy or existing structures we enjoy a divine freedom to re-create whatever old forms that will serve us now, in our rather straightened circumstances.
The propositum for all Christians
And this observation can easily be extended past the worries about vocational prospects for the religious life to the rest of the Church’s structures, locked in the deadly tar pit of the Novusordoist New Paradigm.
At its very core, with all external things stripped away, the life of the Christian, in any state of life, “is a matter of making the propositum, making that act of holy resolve, of self-consecration of your life and entire being to Our Lord. Nobody can stop you. No order has control of it. No bishop. No Pope. Jesus gave every person the power and right to do it. It was the way of the early consecrated virgin martyrs, and they truly shine in every Canon of the Mass and are there remembered every day, hundreds of times a day all over the world.”
“If you have made a propositum all you need is a social structure to keep your consecration.” The requirement is only the consecration – the dedication of self, of family, of work, of prayer, of all of life’s goals, difficulties, struggles and sufferings.
Check out Hilary White's mega 3-part article on Freemasonry's role in the fall of monastic life (in the June 15, 30, and July 31st issues of The Remnant Newspaper!)
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And this is how Christendom was built: the radical choice of total dedication, consecration, to Christ for life is the prior requirement for any hope of restoration.
The time of the desert has returned. We have ground old Christendom to the dust. The physical structures might still stand for now (and we all saw in April how easily and quickly they can be gone) but the social, cultural, spiritual structures that created them are already completely gone, razed to the ground by 450 years of rampant hatred for Christ and His holy Church. If we are to start rebuilding, we have no choice now but to look to the earliest centuries and the Catholics who started with nothing. Nothing but Christ who is all in all.
What did Catholics do under pagan (…and Arian and Nestorian…) persecution? It’s true they hid in the catacombs, but perhaps more importantly to history, they went to the deserts either literally in space or interiorly at home. They gave their lives – and their deaths – completely to God. They devoted their every waking moment to Christ, to seeking His will and His Face, until it became a matter of indifference to them if they were persecuted, if they were arrested and tortured, if they lost their property or were exiled.
It was out of this voluntary embrace of spiritual poverty, indifference to the world and its fury, that Christendom grew to the extraordinary heights of the 12th and 13th centuries. When Catholics had nothing, when there was no Christendom, no human law protecting them, no monasteries, no universities, nothing earthly to call their own, no glorious medieval past to look to, they turned to Christ Himself as all their wealth.
What do we have that they didn’t?
In such dark times as ours, in which violent physical persecution of Christians has surpassed even the early centuries in ferocity, my monastic friend said, we must be aware that “anything that survives, and the conditions we all try to survive in, are never going to give us the pristine or classical forms of monastic and ecclesial life we have always dreamed of, because it is all gone,” and for this terrible loss, “we should weep”.
But we have one thing that our distant ancestors in the Faith did not. “We do not weep for the one thing we do have, and that in the greatest abundance, which is the length of timeline. No others have had the length of timeline that we have.”
Just as we now have the architectural and engineering knowledge to build pointed arches and flying buttresses if we want to, we equally have the spiritual and intellectual advantage of 2000 years of saints – the real treasures of Christendom, the kind that lead us to an everlasting crown. The theological questions that vexed and rent the Catholic community of the 3rd and 4th centuries are definitively answered – even if they are being asked again by the foolish who refuse to hear the answers. At least we can be grateful that we don’t need to start from scratch. We can know with absolute certainty what is and is not true about God, and our duties to Him, however reluctant we may be to grapple with them.
And we all have access to it. Every single one of us. The internet is certainly fraught with dangers but it is still the greatest single public-access library of classical Christian thought of all time. And if the internet doesn’t have it posted for free, you can buy it online and have it shipped to your house. With this extraordinary resource we have access to so much about how our ancestors lived their call to seek His face and to flee the world to save souls.
We don’t have a larger Christian social context, a great living civilisation, in which to recreate the monastic culture that went with the buildings. In our time we all know the names of Clear Creek, Fontgombault and Le Barroux precisely because they are rare and precious outliers – and now all under siege. They are the rare and magnificent exceptions, founded (or revived) 20 or 30 or 40 years ago by exceptionally gifted people, and under quite different circumstances than we currently experience. To put it mildly, more of this kind of thing is not likely to be achieved under the current pontificate, or under the Vatican regime that is likely to come from it for the rest of our lifetimes. But we have a power that can’t be taken away; to devote our lives to Christ. And from that, grand miracles flow.
 In fact, the young Benedict of Nursia arrived in Rome for his studies at exactly the moment a papal schism broke out between two rival political factions. It seems reasonable to think this worldliness was part of what prompted his fleeing the world to live as a hermit in a cave.