Sarah Sands’ recent book, The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from Monastic Life, was reviewed in these pages last month. Elsewhere in the issue the author reflected on its creation, concluding that “I have learned how little I know, and how more wisdom is to be found among the monastic writers.” I recognised the sentiment immediately, having written on similar themes myself, and it spurred me on to further reflection on the subject.
One of the things about living in Oxford is that it sometimes seems impossible to move for religious communities. On St Giles’ alone there are the Benedictines at St Benet’s Hall, the Dominicans at Blackfriars, and the Oratorians at St Aloysius Gonzaga; the Jesuits occupy Campion Hall on Brewer Street, and the Capuchins are at Greyfriars on the Iffley Road. Meanwhile, the Conventual Franciscans (the actual Greyfriars) have established themselves in the former home of the Anglican All Saints Sisters of the Poor, just off the Cowley Road.
Given the rich history of the religious life at Oxford – the university’s own origins lie deep in the life of the cloister – perhaps it is not surprising that Oxford University Press has recently added the subject to its Oxford Handbook series. The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism appeared towards the end of last year, edited by Bernice M Kaczynski. It is a doorstopper volume that ranges impressively from the Desert Fathers to the present day, with an international scope.
Happily, monasticism is hardly the sole preserve of the academic. For centuries the religious life has been a source of inspiration for literature; more recently the same has also been true for the visual arts. Everyone who engages with this rich seam of material surely has a selection of favourite characters: from the holy and sleuthing medieval Cadfael to the fallible Sr Assumpta from Father Ted; from Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s to Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story; from the doomed Ambrosio in The Monk to the Reverend Mother in Sister Act.
One of the immediate outcomes of the box-office success of the last – in which Maggie Smith channelled gloriously the warm dignity of the Abbess in The Sound of Music and the dry hauteur of Mother Stephen in Bless Me, Father – was an increased awareness of the continuing existence of the religious life after many communities had adopted secular dress in the wake of Perfectæ Caritatis in 1965. That said, its broad theme was not unproblematic. To refute its implication that every convent requires a Deloris Van Cartier – Sister Act’s lead character played by Whoopi Goldberg – we have only to look at the recent upturn in vocations to the more traditional communities.
At the other end of the spectrum, Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, which charted life at the Grand Chartreuse, high above Grenoble, represented another perspective. More recently, in Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois told the story of the Cistercians of Tibhirine, evoking their heroic faith, their monstrous end, and their recent beatification by Pope Francis alongside the other martyrs of Algeria. Both are inspirational; neither is a feel-good film, and maybe that is the point.
In all three works there is an element of overlap for those with eyes to see; fully lived, the religious life is a heady combination of joy and sacrifice, of silence and song. It is not always without controversy; being in the world while not being of it is not an easy course to steer. From time to time eyebrows are raised at the financial portfolios retained by many religious orders, out of the canny management of which they fund their work and witness.
At the end of the day it is a fallen world; monks, nuns and friars can hardly be expected to live on air. It is only natural that if the Church values prayer then it must also encourage the long-term practical viability of the communities that are distinctively so dedicated. In such a situation it is worth reflecting on the jar of pure nard and the disciple who knew the cost of everything but, in the end, the value of nothing.
As a Dominican friend of mine observed, the religious life is “both thrilling and monotonous, heroic and mundane, a life that truly teaches you what it is to pray constantly for the needs of the Church and the world”. That gentle and untrumpeted rhythm of prayer surely underpins the Opus Dei, day by day and hour by hour; it is a ministry that the Church can scarcely do without.
Serenhedd James teaches Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. He is the author of The Cowley Fathers and a contributing editor of the Herald “Fully lived, the religious life is a heady combination of sacrifice, silence and song. But being in the world while not being of it is not easy”
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.