Shrine of St. Frideswide, Christ Church Cathedral Oxford.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Early Medieval Monasticism and the revival of the Church.

St. Ninian at Whithorn
St. Columba and his monks land on Iona.
     If the Church, is ever to once again be the center of attention for communities and to stay that way, then it will have to look back towards the methods it used to spread Christianity when it did completely dominate society. I do not mean the methods of the inquisition or of other ecclesiastical courts of the later Middle Ages but the monastic missionaries of the 6th, 7th or 8th centuries, who often brought people Christianity not by force but by comfort.

     The parish system of today’s Church is a system that was designed not to expand Christianity but to maintain it. (Originally it is derived from the system of local churches established around the diocese of Tours by St. Martin the the 5th century to keep the converted pagans Christian.) The fact that parish Churches have lost many members shows that the parish system has been unable to maintain Christianity and that the Church needs to revert back to a system of evangelization. I think that the answer to rebuilding the Church lies in the revival of monastic missionaries, whose duty it is,  not to meditate within the walls of great abbey churches, but to establish themselves in small communities everywhere, and draw people into the parish churches. The way that the islands of Great Britian and Ireland, Frisia and Germany were turned Christian in just a couple centuries was by the establishment of monasteries. St. Patrick began the conversion of Ireland by the establishment of semi-monastic colleges of bishops in the 5th century. St. Comgall and St. Coemgan strengthened Christianity there by establishing monasteries based on the abbey of St. Martin at Whithorn in Galloway, established by St. Ninian. St. Columba began the conversion of the Picts with the establishment of Iona Abbey, St. Boniface the same for the Germans at Fulda, St. Augustine for the English at Canterbury, St. Aidan the Northumbrians at Lindisfarne, St. Piran in Cornwall, St. Wilfred at Echternach and the list goes on. If the Church is to bring Christianity to as many people and communities as these saints did then it must revive the same methods that they used.

     My idea for a revival of missionary monasticism includes a model where the order would draw members from the dispossessed; the poor, the homeless, the lonely, the addicted, the unemployed or those who are looking for new meaning in their life...of course anybody could join the order. The order would educate new members in monasteries before they took either term (a period of a few years like a service commitment) or life vows. The 'monasteries' would probably be parish churches that provided for the relatively comfortable shelter of the brothers and sisters, who during the day would go out into the community to help people in any way from acting as nurses, to musicians, to after-school care, to parish-based charity-anything for the good of the community. All of the work would be in the name of Christ and the members would make sure the people who they helped knew this and would provide additional instruction in the be overseen by the local parish priest or local priors and prioresses. The monasteries where new members would be educated would not be associated with parishes but would be their own institutions, designed for the very purpose of educating candidates for religious orders in the Anglican faith, and then sending them to various places to help communities and draw members into the comfort of Christ. The order would hope to eventually begin to establish its own parishes, where small 'colleges' of brothers and sisters were based (somewhat like civic chantry chapels) and could begin new congregations by drawing the people they helped to the chapels where the order lived...previous houses or apartments.

     Contemplative monastic orders have given a lot of meaning to devoted individuals during and after the Middle Ages, but while so much of society has, as many of these early saints might have said, "relapsed into paganism"(though deism or atheism would be more appropriate for today), those who want to dedicate their lives to God's work rework their monastic rules around the spreading and strengthening of Christianity in specific communities.

     The point here is that such an order would provide for the comfort and betterment of people's lives where ever it was established, and that it would renew the Church's mission to continue to spread the blessing of Christ in new places and to make it stronger in the places where it already is. 

     If Christianity is ever to bee as meaningful to people and to whole communities as it was under the leadership and successors of these early saints, then the Church needs to revive their methods and zeal in spreading the faith so that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, can reach out to, comfort, aid and included as many people in as many places as possible. 

Almighty God, for love of your Son Jesus Christ, alight in us the missionary zeal of the ancient saints, who dedicated their lives to the spreading of your comforting word, so that the Church, which is the Body of Our Savior, can revive its holy mission in all places and among all peoples in this world, in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.