Monasticism's Deep Roots in European Christianity

Interview with Juan María Laboa, Professor of Church History

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MADRID, Spain, DEC. 19, 2002 ( To apply historical relativism to Europe’s spiritual traditions would cause «absolute disarray,» one of the Continent’s most distinguished Christian historians says.

Juan María Laboa, professor of Church history in the theology school of the Pontifical University of Comillas, edited the recently published «Historical Atlas of Monasticism,» carried out with 11 specialists from around the world.

Through texts, illustrations, maps and photographs, the volume explains one of the principal gold mines of humanity’s religious experience, especially Christianity.

Chapters dedicated to Orthodox monasticism have been written in the main by Orthodox authors of Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia.

In the context of the debate over the future European Constitution and the consideration of the Christian roots of the Continent, Laboa analyzed the importance of monasticism in the life of the Church and in the history of Europe.

ZENIT: Have monasteries contributed to the history and evolution of Europe or is their contribution reduced to the cultural realm?

Laboa: The Europe we know is very much connected with monasteries, both at the time of its foundation as well as in subsequent centuries.

It is not just about a specific way of life or religious, moral and humanist values shared by European peoples, but also about the active collaboration of monks and monasteries in the very social structure of Europe: the repopulation of its lands, the different forms of social reorganization, the implementation of different systems of cultivation, of primary and university education, of rites and customs that have formed the individuality of the different nations.

Q: What does monasticism have to say to a Europe which today, when it comes to writing its Constitution, may be forgetting its Christian roots?

Laboa: The survival of a civilization depends to a great extent on the continuity of its cultural tradition. Today, an historical relativism exists that not only embraces the material and political aspects of culture, but extends to its spiritual traditions. I don’t think we can simply accept this relativism without running the risk of falling into absolute disarray.

Our civilization stems from the interaction of Greco-Roman philosophy and tradition with the mentality and habit of Christian life, and the monasteries have represented, precisely, the integration of both traditions, present in some of the best periods of our history.

Moreover, in our day too, as well as throughout the history of Christianity, men and women have believed that the profound meaning of their spiritual life can only develop properly in silence and absolute solitude.

The peculiar task of the monk in the present-day world consists in keeping the contemplative experience alive and in keeping open the way by which modern man can recover the integrity of his inner depth. The mystical necessity of a personal encounter with transcendence seems to have greater meaning in an era dominated by technology.

Q: Often terms, like contemplation and action, are opposed to one another, and the monk is judged for isolating himself from the world and not spending his life in useful work. Is it simply an anachronism to speak of monastic life in the 21st century?

Laboa: It is sterile and meaningless to oppose contemplation and action. There are mentalities and talents more suited to action or to thought, but all are necessary. Society needs both, and so does the ecclesial community. Moreover, in reality the majority of human beings combine both, at least at their highest levels.

Action without reflection and evangelization without prayer and meditation are limited and incomplete. The greatest men of prayer, like the great philosophers, have influenced and enriched life in a marked way. The desert fathers, monks, hermits have ruminated in depth on the word of God and have transmitted their experiences to others who, in turn, have enriched believers and nourished their faith. A Christian without mysticism, and a saint without the yearning to evangelize, is unthinkable.

Q: The man of today, whether believer or nonbeliever, at times seeks refuge in cloisters to find interior peace. Do you think this is a new tourism, a mere fashion? Or does it reach for some a higher level in the life of faith, and for others conversion?

Laboa: More or less consciously, there is an attempt to repeat the centuries-old experience of the desert. Nothing in our world helps us to know ourselves profoundly and to encounter God, who speaks in our heart, and is intuited in inner silence, which dazzles in beauty and in nature.

To seek solitude is not only a necessary therapeutic remedy but, above all, a courageous confrontation with the reality of oneself and a placing of oneself in a position to listen to God. We need times of silence, of interior desert, of serene seeking to nourish our faith.

Q: To go to a monastery just because we feel like it is very different from having a vocation to live like that always. How can a Christian discern this, in a society that rejects commitment? Are monasteries in Europe doomed to extinction because of the lack of vocations?

Laboa: A vocation, like love and friendship, is not the fruit of planning. It arises unexpectedly. God speaks when he wishes and not when we say so. «You wounded my heart with your word, Lord, and it is restless until it rests in you,» St. Augustine said, and not a few in the course of the centuries have had the same experience.

Numbers may increase or decrease, but I certainly don’t think that these ineffable encounters will disappear — this need to opt only for Christ, to love our brothers in this way of life. We don’t have to worry so much about the lack of vocations, but we must invest more in our experience of love and faith. The rest will be given to us in added measure.

Q: What can the new ecclesial movements and realities learn from monasticism? Might these two realities enrich one another mutually?

Laboa: In reality, monasticism in its different forms limits itself to putting into practice in their radicalism some fundamental options proper to Christianity of all times: continuous prayer, meditation on sacred Scripture, community life, austerity, the poverty of the apostles, untiring and constant charity toward brothers.

Monks have sought with constancy to know and love God, rejecting and abandoning whatever might divert them from this objective. The new movements respond to the characteristics of contemporary society, much as the mendicants and regulars were a fruit of their time, but all, in turn, will have to assume those options of life, which, in reality, were those of Christ.

Q: Do monks live apart from the Church?

Laboa: Consecrated life has always been at the service of the mission of the Church, or better yet, at the service of the mission of Jesus, which the Church continues in time until the second coming of the Lord. Therefore, the monk develops a double relation: one with Christ, and the other with the Church.

In his most absolute solitude or on top of a column, the monk has a strong consciousness of the Church and of his duty to evangelize, to be a witness to Christ, to help his brothers in their spiritual and temporal needs. The amazing scenes of monks proclaiming the Good News to peoples who are ignorant of the Christian tradition constitute some of the most extraordinary pages of the history of Christianity.

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