It would be over two hundred years before monks and nuns reappeared in British communities. Not until Emancipation and the restoration of the hierarchy in the nineteenth century could Catholics once again take up the monastic vocation in large numbers in their home country. There was something of a “boom” in monasticism between 1850 and the First World War, with many of the leading architects of the day designing magnificent Gothic Revival buildings. This was in some respects a precursor to the flowering of Catholic culture which occurred in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.
Sadly, however, we are now once again on the downslope. Although there are bright spots, most British monasteries face the problem of shrinking numbers and ageing members. This was brought home to me recently by the news that the remaining Benedictines of Downside are to move to Buckfast Abbey in Devon as an interim measure before they find themselves a new community. Not long ago, the Downside community was a thriving one, with responsibility for the famous school. But the dwindling of the faith, and the horrors of the abuse scandal, brought that association to an end.
The question is, what happens next, not only in the specific case of the Downside brothers but for monasticism as a whole? It’s not always easy to find reliable, up-to-date statistics, but it would appear that are only a few thousand monks and nuns in England and Wales, compared to tens of thousands in the immediate post-war years. Communities are struggling to “recruit” novices for all sorts of reasons, and further decline is probably inevitable.
This is a terrible shame for the Church, because we need the monastic vocation more than ever. First and foremost, there is a deep value in the constant and unceasing prayer offered. Alongside this, in the modern world religious houses also have a role as icons of a different kind of life to that experienced by most people in the modern world. There is a good line about this from the US priest Fr Dwight Longenecker, whose own conversion from Anglicanism was encouraged by his experiences at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. He said once that the typical (albeit not universal) monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were a powerful symbolic counter to a world obsessed by money, sex and power. There is a very striking prayer in the Breviary expressing a similar sentiment about consecrated religious, asking God to “enrich them in their poverty, love them in their chastity, lighten their hearts in obedience to you”.
We should not underestimate the potential power of the example of Christians choosing a life of quiet humility and devotion, and service to others. Many years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote a reflection called ‘The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty’. In it, he noted: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth…are the saints and the beauty that the faith has generated.” We can debate and demonstrate until we are blue in the face – and that is my natural tendency, argument being so much easier than holiness – but ultimately we need to be able to model truly Christlike behaviour and attitudes if we are to draw people into the faith. So, even as monastic life appears to dwindle, let’s work and pray for a revival.
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