Would you be happy for your church to be called, “a school of the love of God”? Certainly our local churches often fall short of this goal; nevertheless, “a school of the love of God” is a noble description of the Church. Of course it is different from the classical definition of John Calvin, “wherever the Word is properly preached and the Sacraments correctly administered, there you can be sure the true Church is present”, but surely he would have embraced “a school of the love of God” as a useful amplification. The divine cannot be captured in any wooden definition no matter how finely crafted. Combining the two, “a school of the love of God where Word and Sacrament are correctly administered,” makes a robust definition of the Church that brings many joyful images to mind.
“A school of the love of God” is what Benedict of Nursia declared as the purpose of the monastery he built. Having combined “a school of love” with “Word and Sacrament,” we have joined Presbyterians with monasticism! And thus the robust definition, which just a moment ago seemed like a comfortable slipper, may now seem like a stiff shoe that does not fit. Presbyterian monasticism is simply not something we are used to imagining. And if we do, the images of a monastery that pass through our minds are likely to be: too much isolation from real life, too much medieval world, too much Romanism, too much regimentation! The common thread of these images is that the monastery is too much, too extreme, too radical, too exaggerated so Presbyterians have difficulty recognizing it as a part of the Church.
When we think about an unfamiliar subject, often the first ideas that come to mind tell us more about ourselves than the subject. In this case, when we protest the monastery is “too much,” are we not picturing our reluctance to consider something that apparently has no immediate usefulness in our lives? How could a monastery possibly be a part of the lives of the very, very busy Presbyterians, the Christmas and Easter Presbyterians, the lets not take religion too far Presbyterians and, the we do all we can for the local church Presbyterians? The dismissal of the monastery as too extreme is simply our way to avoid becoming educated about the subject. Education, after all, means a change in both thought and behavior and, because both are difficult, we generally would rather avoid it! Still, if a “school of God’s love” is a useful image, it is worth pursuing even at the risk of education. What then can monasteries mean to the Presbyterian Church?
To answer lets return again to our view of the Church. Certainly we recognize the basic outline in John Calvin’s definition of “Word and Sacrament.” The details become even clearer with the addition of St. Benedict, “school of God’s love.” The picture is finished when we add Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation, “the church is a community where sins are confessed and forgiven.” With these three theologians a marvelous picture of the Church is painted: “The Church is a community and school of Word and Sacrament.” Both community and school are highly mobile words, their meanings move from tight and specific to elastic and general. There are schools that receive students for a few hours a day, then they go home again; and there are resident schools that keep both teachers and students living on a campus for many years. In the same way there are communities that gather at a specific time and place, and then the members separate to their homes, while other communities may share a living place for a hundred generations.
We are most familiar with the local church as a community that assembles for a few hours and then disperses atomically into the larger society from which it came. But could there be an objection to a church community that assembles for worship and does not disperse atomically, rather it becomes a stable molecule in the surrounding society? A view of the Church that is broad enough for both atoms and molecules, communities that unite and disperse to serve and communities that unite and remain united to serve, clarifies how what we thought was the “isolated, regimented and medieval” monastery is in fact as much a building block of the Church as are the local churches so familiar to us.
The two forms of being the Church in fact are on a continuum; both serve to complement each other. The local church and the monastery are models of how Christian community, school, Word and Sacrament work out in practice. Together they live out different but complementary aspects of our Lord’s life and teachings.
The monastery extends the life of our Lord with his followers gathered around a Galilean campfire in a continual life together. With the warmth of the fire, the monastery is a school and community that lives to continuously extend to believers and non-believers Christ’s invitation: “come unto me all who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
The local church continues the life of our Lord as a pilgrim and obeys His command “to go into all the world, teaching and baptizing in His name.” With the commission as His ambassadors of peace and good will, the local church gathers for Word and Sacrament, then disperses to continually proclaim, “Repent and be baptized for the Lord is near.” Both monastery and local church are the Church; each does its part to share the Gospel.
So, when the Presbyterian Church confesses in the Nicene Creed to be part of “the one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” we must be speaking of both the local church and monastery. The fact that for nearly 250 years American Presbyterians have ignored the form of church community that does not disperse is not a result of our theological foundations. The Scriptures, the writings of John Calvin, and all the Reformed Confessions are broad enough to include both the dispersed and residential models of the Church. The purpose of Christ, Christians and the Church is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever! Forever is not just an addendum but the context in which we live. To glorify God in the context of eternity is anything but domestic or tame; it is universal and revolutionary action that is restoring all creation to the Kingdom of God. Both the local church and monastery work towards this common goal.
Having said this, should the Presbyterian Church then consider monasteries as an option for living the Christian life? Absolutely! The local church and monasteries complement each other. At present the local church has no “sister” institution in which it can confide. The local church and monastery-each-has a calling. It is true that the calling of the monastery has been excluded from American Presbyterian life but only because for the past 250 years the local church gathered and dispersed in a sympathetic society that helped to preserve many of the virtues of a Christian community. Today this is not the case. We are again in the more ordinary ministry context in which the Church has lived for two thousand years! Today we gather for nurture by Word and Sacrament and then separate among a hostile social environment of narcissist materialism. In such a context the Gospel is often interpreted as a religion of private individuals. The monastery is a powerful witness for believers and non-believers of the continuous unity of the Church. Furthermore the local church and the monastery provide balance to each other; one offers continuous hospitality and the other community involvement. Together they are a living demonstration that the Gospel is not a private individualistic faith but a way of life that leads to and is part of the Kingdom of God.
It is time for Presbyterians to realize the monastery is part of the Church and not to be dismissed as being isolated, regimented, antiquated or extreme. It is no more extreme than a community of faithful who practice what our Lord taught, “Come unto me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest!”
Don Wehmeyer has been a PC(USA) missionary co-worker serving in Southern Mexico since 1981. He teaches at the San Pablo Seminary in Mérida, part of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, and is interested in the formation of a Benedictine order within the Reformed tradition. He earned his D.Min. in spiritual formation in 1995 from Columbia Theological Seminary.