Wednesday, May 25, 2011

(2) Death & Dissolution

So I set out, focusing on those ancient ruined abbeys and those
still standing great cathedrals that were once Benedictine. I started
with Canterbury Cathedral, went to nearby ruined abbeys, and also
visited Ely Cathedral, St. Alban's Cathedral, Wells Cathedral,
Bath Abbey, and Tewkesbury Abbey. These are still living churches,
under the Anglican Communion. As I browsed through these
religious edifices, I had occasion to hear the beautiful choirs of
both Wells Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral. At Canterbury
I actually was able to sit in the ancient monks' stalls as I joined in
Vespers. And at Ely Cathedral, I later discovered a paper by Peter
Sills--then Vice-Dean of Ely--entitled "A Spirituality for Everyday Life
& Work," which is a beautifully thorough account of the Benedictine

So I had visited the crucible(s) of the Medieval Benedictines in
England. Yes, they were gone from these ancient abbeys and
cathedrals, but their spirit seemed to have flared-up in recent times.
The Anglicans were fanning the coals.

In the midst of this English journey, I did stop off at my late abbot's
monastery and paid my respects. After a hiatus of nearly three
centuries, the Benedictines did return to England. However, their
more recent abbeys are once again bordering on being old, along
with a dwindling membership.

Now more than 1500-years old, I suppose it is not surprising that the
Benedictines would see destruction and dissolution over their long
lifetime. On the other hand, *rebirth* also seems to loom big in the
Benedictine horizon. This put to mind my late abbot's crest. His
overall crest was spliced into three parts: two of these were historical
crests of the two abbeys where he was abbot; and the third section of
his crest consisted of the Benedictine Tree, which is depicted as a
tree once struck down that somehow always grows back. So the Tree
represents this positive idea of rebirth, which is well taken since it
comes from the Benedictine experience.

I pondered over this issue of a Benedictine rebirth during my long
flight home. Today the threat isn't some king who kills off monks, but
rather the threat is far less transparent. Perhaps it is a malaise, a
general feeling amongst the populous that institutional monasticism,
even institutional religion, no longer seems to apply to the issues we
moderns now face? It is hard to put your finger on it, but the sad
statistics are like a barometer that tests the climate.

A number of years ago I had read there there were only some
10,000 Benedictine monks in the world. There were more Benedictine
Sisters. But in both cases their numbers were falling, and the average
age in the monasteries was beginning to creep upwards due to the
lack of current vocations. I know for a fact that some Benedictine
monasteries have had to sell their property and double-up in order
to make ends meet. Others have sadly had to sell their schools, in
that they were no longer able to maintain them.

So life is definitely changing for the Benedictine world. Still, there's
considerable interest amongst some laity--and this is reflected by
yet another statistic I saw, that noted there were at least 40,000
Benedictine Oblates in the world. These Oblates are considered a
"Secular Order," the Benedictine Arm out in the world. According to
the dictionary, an "oblate" is a person dedicated to the monastic or
religious life but has not taken full monastic vows. As for the future,
I do wonder if eventually that the transmission of the Benedictine
Tradition may ultimately fall on the shoulders of the Oblates.