Instead of the Pastor’s Column, this week we have the Parochial Vicar’s Column. Our Pastor, Fr. DeCelles, is out of town on a little vacation so he asked me to fill in for him. So I write a few words to you.
Last week we celebrated the Feast day for St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism. I thought it would be good to write a little bit about the great additions to the Church that he and the monastic life has had on our Church and our world, too. (A good History lesson as we try to grow in our Faith in the many areas that it covers (last week’s emphasis for my homily). St. Benedict was a big influence in establishing the monastic life in the Church. He was trying to bring a community life of dedicated religious priests, brothers, and sisters to have a more balanced life and a good spiritual life in community. Previously, the religious who desired a more cenobitic life (separation from the world to pray and serve God and not be distracted by the ways of the world) would do it as individuals (we know them as Hermits) or groups but they didn’t have clear cut direction and often didn’t separate from the world or they were just about praying all day. St. Benedict and the rules that he established for these communities established a motto – the underlying rule for all of the rules – Ora et labora, which means – to pray and to work. He wanted these communities to be monasteries that were well rounded. Praying – frequently at various times of the day as a community, but also to do the works that are needed to maintain the community and even more – to add to the world as they added to the secular community around them.
These Monastery communities of men, who we know as “monks”, and then also, separate women’s only communities who we know as “nuns” (“nuns” actually should be used to identify these religious women who live separately from the world and should not be used to identify religious “sisters” who work in the world) really added to the world both through the grace of prayers for the Church and the world, but also with the works that they did to advance the Church and the world in many ways. I mention this because these Monasteries which were established during the so-called Dark Ages continuing on through the Middle Ages and up to our present age, really helped the Church and Society as a whole.
The Church, through misinterpreted history, seemed to have somehow caused the Dark Ages, or at least to have suppressed any advancement of society, but we should know it actually did the opposite. We see that the Church didn’t bring about the down fall of Western Society – in particular the Roman Empire with all its advancements that it brought – was actually, brought down by the Pagan Romans themselves along with the Barbarians who destroyed the Empire by their invasions and ransacking of the Empire. The Church, the Pope in particular, stopped the Barbarians from totally annihilating Rome as they approached the city to finally level it to the ground. With this prevention, a lot of Roman influences, such as their written works, as well as Greek works, were saved. The Church, with the help of St. Benedict, went on to establish Monasteries which were places where they saved these works but also where they began to use the books'(both Roman and Greek) for advancements and to grow in the areas such as Education – philosophy and math and sciences – and agriculture. They also advanced our Faith, but that wasn’t the only influence they had. The monasteries advanced agriculture as they established various techniques for working the fields and growing practices and cultivating useless lands. They also helped with establishing work techniques that came from agriculture as they helped in developing mills powered by water, to grind grains, but also for other uses, and even in establishing factory techniques that we still use today. The Monasteries were also very instrumental in saving the ancient writings of the Romans and Greeks by copying them to expand the use of these writings, which weren’t always just spiritual writings but worldly writings, too. They established libraries with all these writings that are still with us today.
They were instrumental in establishing and advancing education when no one else was really ready to do it or no one else wanted to do it. The Kings and nobles were too interested in their lands and protecting them and just ruling over their people – and the less educated the people were – they thought – then the less resistant they would be to the Kings and nobles. The monasteries became the places where schools were established for the local children to learn not just about the Faith but also the other natural subjects as well. The monasteries and the Church, some scholars say, actually, saved Western Civilization from being lost or at least set back 100’s of years. The schools would later spring into higher schools of education, which we know as Universities. These Universities are the same models that we have today. The monasteries themselves didn’t establish Universities, but they laid the groundwork for our education systems as a whole.
Then we can see that together the agriculture advancement, the work techniques and the education actually were where the techniques of research and experimentation, which have become a big part of education and the growth of education and technology we know and practice today. You could say Monasteries were our first laboratories and research centers and places of learning. We see how their experimentation gave us some very well known products that we have today. It is believed that beer was first made by the monks as they took the process of making wine from grapes and then using it with grains which beers are made from. Also champagne was first developed by Dom Perignon – a monk – who took the wine process and different grapes and came up with a process to make champagne.
So I mention just a few areas and examples of how the monasteries that were established with the influence of St. Benedict, as actually being places that didn’t hold back the Church or society but were places that advanced the Faith and society. They established and advanced what we know and do today in many different areas of the Church and the world.
I, close, with a recommendation to find out about more of the monasteries influences but also the Church’s many other influences that you might not know about by reading a good book about it. One such book is titled “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” written by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. It is a book with a different approach to learn some Church history.
I hope all are having a good summer.
Ora et Labora
Fr. Joseph R. Kenna, Parochial Vicar