Canto 22: Rebuilding the Monastic Ideal

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By Joel Morehouse

One of the greatest losses of World War II was the historic monastery of Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied forces during the early months of 1944. Despite lack of evidence, Allied forces dropped 1,400 tons of heavy explosives on the fifteen-century-old monastery, being convinced that the German front was using the structure for observation. After the tragedy of this loss, the monastery complex was entirely rebuilt according to the original plans and remains today an active and thriving Benedictine community.

In Paradiso, Canto 22, we encounter St. Benedict, who first established this very monastery in Monte Cassino in AD 529. When we meet him, he is disappointed by the state of monastic life in Dante’s day: “No one now lifts his feet from the ground to climb [Jacob’s ladder], and the rule of my order is left there simply as so much wasted parchment.” [lines 73-75]

Benedictine Monasticism has a long history in the West, and it would be easy to identify the moral faults and failings which led to its decline in certain areas and at certain times. Human nature, greed, and nepotism, all take their toll; as Dante writes, “…the flesh of mortals is so susceptible that down there a good beginning does not last from the oak’s first leaf to when it bears an acorn.” [lines 85-87]

Today, however, we have at least two good examples of Benedictine monastic communities which are growing and thriving, both of which need our support and prayer: Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey, or “Clear Creek” Abbey in Oklahoma, and the Monks of Norcia, Italy.

What is the secret behind the success of these communities? The Great Books! The abbots and founders of both communities received a classical education, an education that brings a mind into contact with the greatest thinkers in the history of the world—Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Dante, Copernicus, Leibniz, Darwin, Einstein and more. Their education was broad and rich. It was not based on practical, political, or skeptical models. It was not an education that reduces to an instrument for forming cogs in the great machine of a capitalist economy. It was a true “liberal arts” education, an education that pertains to the arts that liberate the mind from error by inspiring it to ask and find answers to life’s most significant questions. It is through such an education that the founders of these communities discovered their vocations. Interestingly, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, was also educated at the University of Kansas in the same Great Books program as the founders of Clear Creek. And his diocese is thriving like the monks of Clear Creek. Also, I have the personal honor of saying that many of the monks at Norcia were my classmates at Thomas Aquinas College which is known for its classical approach to education. It is through such an education that the founders of these two communities were able to penetrate into the heart of things and discover the monastic ideal.

As Aristotle would conclude in the Physics, the “form” or “idea” of a thing is more important than its material. The form or intellectual idea of the chair is what makes it a chair, more than the lumber used to construct it. In monastic communities, prayer, the spiritual life, and the faithful observance of the “rule” is precisely what builds the monastery. Neither the stones, nor the beautiful setting, nor the wealth of nations can make a monastery, but rather the true idea of monasticism and the true monastery are constituted by prayer and community life. When prayer and community spirit are destroyed, the monastery becomes a mere museum. When prayer and community spirit are healthy, not even a bomb can keep a monastery from thriving.

And yet this is not to belittle the material reality of a monastery which, as was the case with the original Monte Cassino, can testify to the spirit of those who have lived in it. And even monks who turn away from worldly wealth must nonetheless still manage it. There must be rooms to sleep in, libraries and classrooms for the education of novices, chapels for the prayers of the liturgy, and guesthouses to offer hospitality. Nonetheless, it’s the higher goals that ennoble and direct the lower ones. The monks at Norcia brew and sell delicious beer, but they do it for the sake of their prayer. They aren’t brewers who pray, they are monks who brew.

The monks at Clear Creek are growing rapidly, and have been building a monastery complex “to last for 1000 years.” Their spiritual foundations are perennial. They want the foundations of their monastery to reflect this. Should you wish to learn more or donate to their efforts, visit www.clearcreekmonks.org. I also recommend their Gregorian Chant CDs, which are excellent.

I would like to conclude the article with perhaps a more pressing need, though, brought about by the recent earthquakes in Italy. The monks of Norcia have been steadily restoring the ancient monastery of Norcia (Nursia), the foundations of which date back to the 1st century. According to tradition, it is also the birthplace of Saints Benedict and his sister Scholastica. The roots of this community are deep, and the courage and strength of these monks’ faith is an example for all of us. Recent earthquakes have caused significant damage to the monastery and basilica in Norcia, which the monks have been restoring at great effort since 2000. Until the monastery and basilica are stabilized, the monks are living in tents and temporary structures. Please consider sending a donation to this community as a sign of your prayers and support. For more information, visit en.norcia.org.

Joel Morehouse is a musician and educator, and resides with his wife Julia Tucker in Syracuse, NY. He holds Bachelors degrees in history and music, and a Masters degree in Secondary Education, from Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, NY. He also completed further study in classical liberal arts, sciences, and languages at Augustine College in Ottawa and Thomas Aquinas College in California. He currently serves as director of music at St. Ann Church in Syracuse, NY, and is completing further graduate study in pipe organ performance and choral conducting at Syracuse University’s Setnor School of Music.

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