Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Problem with Contemplative Religious

Saint John Houhton, was the proto-martyr of the English Reformation, he was a silent, comtemplative monk, a Carthusian rather than outspoken friar preaching publicly at the market cross.  He was the Prior of the London house, with him were executed Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster, respectively Priors of Beauvale and Axholme, with a Bridgettine monk, Richard Reynolds of Syon Abbey and a secular priest John Haile.

For the most parts the Church in England followed the lead of their bishops, secular clergy acquiesced to the King's will, monks, nuns and friars for the most part took their pensions, took off their habits and left their monasteries but the Carthusians continued to suffer persecution, they remained loyal.

It is true that one of the questions going around, not just amongst Protestants but also Catholic reformers concerned the value of contemplatives in the Church. It was on the back of this that Henry began the suppression and despoliation of the monasteries. The Carthusians for the most part stood firm some were hanged, drawn and quartered like Saint John others simply imprisoned and left to starve to death in pison.

It was the Carthusians again that became the target of rage of the French Masonic government of Émile Loubet, above is a widely circulated postcard of the expulsion of the Carthusians from the Grand Chatreuese in 1903. Whilst other religious were tolerated contemplatives were expelled, the French Carthusians came the England founding their monastery at Cowfold, the Solesmes Bendictine came too building Quarr on the Isle of Wight.

Queen Victoria's remark about Carmelite nuns when being told that they spent their lives in prayer, 'Couldn't they be found something useful to do', marks an attitude to contemplative religious not only outside the Church but also within it. The Queen's views echoes Judas', 'couldn't this have been sold and the money given to the poor'.

There is a sense in which ordinary people are fascinated by the contemplative life but there is also a horror of it. A popular move of Henry's was to open the London Chartrhouse to the public, as sort of contemplative zoo. The more rationalistic the world or the Church becomes the more alien the contemplative is. I am sure that Henry would not have executed St John Houghton publicly unless it was considered to please some of the mob, the same could be said of the Carmelites of Compeigne during the French Revolution. The widespread distribution of postcards of the expulsion of the Carthusians shows it was not an unpopular move.
Why are contemplatives problematic? It is presumably something about the 'otherness' of their lives, for Henry it was their rootedness in Tradition and their consequent refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy, it is the nature of contemplatives to view the future whilst being rooted in the past. The other problem is that their values are not those of the contemporary world, they tend to stand still rather than go out to the peripheries of contemporary thought, stat crux dum volvitur orbis, which means they don't get 'with the programme'.

There is something about the transcendent and otherness of their lives that says some important things about God; that he is above and beyond us, that he is unknowable, ineffable, which means he is beyond the control of Kings and governments, or even Churchmen.

The war on Liturgy that speaks of the transcendent of the post-Concilliar period uses the same arguments, or lack of argument, as those who have difficulty with the contemplative life. Liturgy that is pure worship, that does not seek to teach, or build community or to 'celebrate' in the contemporary sense of the word is equally incomprehensible, it is about esse rather than agere.
This 'Otherness' says something about all of us; that we are capable of moving beyond ourselves. It is this that Masons, Communists, Fascists, Relativists, and yes Consumerists and Capitalists, Protestants and Liberals are terrified of, or at least see as their great enemy. What is really being said is that Man is more than the sum of his parts, more than what he consumes or produces. Such ideologies and movements want to keep man earth bound, they want to present a brotherhood of man without the Fatherhood of God, like Protestantism such ideologies want to subject Faith and God to the rule of the King or governments.

It isn't of course God that they want to control but man, ousting God means reducing man.

In England the result of Henry's reformation was the oppression of the poor and unproductive members of society, by the reign of Elizabeth rather than seeing the poor as alter Christi (remember the legends of those who entertained Christ or angels or saints disguised as a beggar, remember all those bequests for the poor in wills, those monastic schools, hospitals and  guest houses which were swept away) they were whipped from parish to parish, branded, mutilated, they were no longer an icon of Christ, they were unproductive, of no value.

Today it is no longer the whip and the branding iron, now it is abortion and euthanasia which deal with unproductive, unwanted members of society. Catholics should always be concerned whenever contemplative religious are threatened.


Nicolas Bellord said...

Queen Victoria. When St Dominic's Priory of Contemplative Dominican Nuns was founded at Carisbrooke in the Isle of Wight they met considerable local opposition. Queen Victoria, being not far away at Osborne, put an end to this by inviting herself to tea with the Sisters. I have not heard of the remark you quote but perhaps she was just puzzled but she certainly did the right thing by them.

I remember visiting them with my father in about 1948 and the Mother Prioress kept a tame owl named John Henry after the Bishop. A source of wisdom no doubt.

M. Prodigal said...

Contemplatives and Institutes where members pray many hours a day are hated by the devil and also seem to be an affront to some of the hierarchy.

Gadfly said...

"it is the nature of contemplatives to view the future.." Strictly speaking, contemplatives view the world in the world in the light of the eternal, in which there is no past or future, that is why the worldly mistrust them.

John Vasc said...

From Chapter 1 of 'We Believe', Mgr Gilbey's guide to the Catechism:
'Each of us is brought into the world to establish the Kingdom of God in his own soul. If we do that, we shall fulfil the whole purpose of our being. I want to emphasise this, because so much of modern Christianity gives the impression that what we are here for is to put the world right...The primary province for each of us is not the Third World but our own hearts....
The achievement of sanctity is the complete fulfilment of each man's vocation....Consider the life of an enclosed contemplative whose effect on the world is literally immeasurable. We may not see the consequences, but the good a contemplative does is beyond our power to measure.'

Damask Rose said...

Beautiful post Fr Ray. Thank you. I find myself drawn to contemplatives. Don't know why.

NBW said...

Thank you for the excellent post Fr. Blake. Contemplatives are powerhouses of prayer!

From George said... This is a site that has the first two volumes of the novel Contemplatives by the Canadian writer KB Lamb. He bases his writing on the Spanish Carmelites, weaving a story about the laity as contemplatives too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Father . I couldn't agree more.

Pacificus said...

"It isn't of course God that they want to control but man, ousting God means reducing man."

Exquisite, Fr. Ray - your entire post - with the material following your above comment being particularly enlightening for me on a purely historical level.

I am an E. Orthodox Christian who follows your blog. As you know, Eastern monasticism doesn't have a multiplicity of monastic orders with differing charisms. There is only one monasticism, deeply steeped in "ora et labora", which in my experience would be considered highly contemplative in the West. Not precisely Carthusian, perhaps, but certainly sharing in the depth of faith shown by the Carthusians of Reformation England, and globally today.

Sorry, Queen Victoria. In the present state of things, contemplative monastics, Eastern or Western, male or female, dedicating their lives to Christ and to prayer for the entire world, are among the most "useful" people on the planet. We need so many more who are able hear the call through all the demonic confusion and noise!

Jacobi said...

'Otherness' says something about all of us”

Yes, and we have to ask ourselves to what extent this is a factor in the assault on the FFI, even in the Vatican?

oldconvert said...

Thank you for this wonderful post Fr Ray. It makes subtle and thought provoking connections like so much you write here.

oldconvert said...

Thank you for this wonderful post Fr Ray. It makes subtle and thought provoking connections like so much you write here.

Fr Ray Blake said...

I think that is unfair - poverty is their charism but for all contemplatives owning nothing in this world, yet living in the hope of possessing all in heaven is at the heart of the contemplative life.
If one is unable to sell everything, especially one's anger and presuppositions and desires, even the desire for a particular form of life, then one is not a contemplative.
Abandonment is everything for a contemplative, in or out of the cloister, 'baggage' stops contemplation.

Dom said...

In the silence of the desert or the enclosed cell, they explore the understanding of God. The features of this divine landscape they share with us through their prayers. However, to carry out this important work, their point of embarkation has to be somewhere that is lacking at least some of the physical joys of this world.

Dom said...

We need more of them. I don't understand the point of any order if its principal purpose isn't to engage in this deep life of prayer and exploration of the divine landscape.

Fr Ray Blake said...

You are contemplating yourself and your pain, not Christ and his Cross, that is what you have to "sell". The hurt you bear needs healing before anything can happen.

Begin by forgiving, and being merciful, as you expect mercy and forgiveness.

Supertradmum said...

I love St. John Houghton and I have stood in the Charterhouse grounds which are numinous for sure. Of course, as you all know, I tried Tyburn twice, but physically could not handle the regime, as much as I loved the contemplative prayer and the silence.

I am trying to do that in the world, as I felt God was calling me to go out and pray and write.

One of my friends told me today that those of us who pray are under attack. I know that very well.

May God bring many more young men and women into the contemplative orders. May the orders continue to grow.

We need them-they are the Marines on the beach before the rest of us hit land in the Church Militant.

Supertradmum said...

PS. I asked for entrance in 1985 to St. Cecilia's and was told I was too old at 36. So, I got married and had son. So, son is given back to God as sem in A and B. That must have been God's plan all along.

geoff kiernan said...

A timely piece....
In the Local Catholic Newspaper,(the Record Newspaper. Perth Diocese Western Australia dated the 21/5/14) was an article on the Carmelite nuns in Nedlands, West Aust. They lament the lack of vocations to the religious life even their own order.
A Priest stated to them that he couldn't seen and value in their lives...
They blame a 'loss of the sense of the Sacred' for the lack of vocations.
I will send a letter the Mother Superior and enclose a copy of your article.
They, the Carmelites, say how necessary the wearing of the Habit is to distinguish them from the world. The do not wear openly a Crucifix however, which to my way of thinking is more valuable in terms of setting them apart and I suggest drawing aspirants.
It is a more powerful outward expression of their consecration.
This penchant for not wearing the crucifix is wide spread in Australia. Why is this so and is it prevalent or otherwise in your part of the World? I cant seem to get a reason for this omission from anywhere. Perhaps some of your readers and or Fr Blake could comment

Physiocrat said...

Shouldn't the title have been something like "Our problem with contemplative religious"?

Fr Ray Blake said...

In most comtemplative orders the cross (or crucifix) is worn only by abbots/abbesses

JARay said...

Oh! a fellow Western Australian in Geoff Kiernan! Yes, I too buy The Record and I have read the article you refer to about the Carmelite nuns. I am very pleased that you intend sending this article to the same nuns. I too find it most impressive. Well written Fr. Blake!

Nicolas Bellord said...

Well actually Contemplatives do have to support themselves. They suffered from a very unfair tax system whereby they were regarded as corporations and paid corporation tax. This has been alleviated in recent years.

However most of them did engage in work to earn money. Carisbrooke were well known for their needlework. Many make altar breads and print Christmas Cards etc. Perhaps it was in that context that Queen Victoria was making her remark.

Terry Mushroom said...

A very, very perceptive piece.

English Catholic said...

They are an artillery strike on the forces of hell; you need them to do their work before the infantry can move in and begin hand-to-hand combat. You don't see the people operating the guns, but you certainly see the results of their efforts!

And it's not surprising they're hated. Marxist materialism has infected almost everybody on the planet, so it's quite natural that they're seen as 'not doing anything'.

Liam Ronan said...

I hesitate to offer this here but since your insights are so telling in respect of the problems with religious contemplatives, Father, and as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is now largely regarded to have withdrawn into a 'contemplative life' of sorts, I'd like to draw your attention to a posting of yesterday's date in 'Rorate Caeli' which offers English translations from the Italian of two different articles published within the past few days by Vittorio Messori and Antonio Socci.

The 'Rorate Caeli' piece is titled: " "Two Popes": Has the Papacy become a Diarchy? Messori enters into the picture, Socci stands his ground and questions Special double-article post".

It may be read here:

I daresay it is worth a read.

Jay said...

Some of us in the Protestant world are also catching on to the importance of the contemplative life. I wrote about the need for more people who devote their lives to prayer in a recent article on my blog.

Lepanto said...

A U.S. Bishop recently instructed parishes not to encourage (it may have been 'allow') Eucharistic Adoration, saying that those involved should spend the time doing something practical to help those in need instead of praying to what is only 'consecrated bread'. I have never read anything more depressing and worrying.

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

It would seem that the Contemplatives must be, along with front line priests who are the first port of call for all Catholics and therefore the contemplative vocation, the real granite in the Rock of the Church that will never fall. The centre of gravity of the Church in a way. So they are always gonna be the target of the satan's cannon blast; and a hierarchy that wants to be part of that cannon blast (or canon blast) has lost its way, or lost The Way.

Father said, "The more rationalistic the world or the Church becomes the more alien the contemplative is...[rationalist] ideologies and movements want to keep man earth bound, they want to present a brotherhood of man without the Fatherhood of God, like Protestantism such ideologies want to subject Faith and God to the rule of the King or governments." Thanks for another important lesson about the True Church, Father.

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

p.s. I should add that the front line priests who are part of the granite and not the cannon blast cannot be those who have bought the protestant presider role hook line and sinker promulgated by the GIRM.

geoff kiernan said...

I take it from the lack of a response( except Fr Blake's rather perfunctory comment and JARay)That in fact the non wearing of a Crucifix openly by Religious (Even some Priests)is a non issue. If that is so I will cease talking to brick walls and battering my head and turn my attention to something 'worthwhile' Silly me for thinking I was on to something, a cause perhaps as to why the Church and religious orders are in such a state...Perhaps it is only a Australian problem

Physiocrat said...

We should not leave it to the professionals to be the granite in the rock. We can all be contemplatives for a few minutes a day - even while waiting for a bus or train or standing in a queue. It depends on us all.

Aussie said...

What you have written Father about contemplatives is very insightful, thank you, and so too what Lapanto has written re US bishops and Eucharistic Adoration. When Catholic bishops discourage Eucharistic Adoration, referring to Our Eucharistic Lord as "only 'consecrated bread'," it's not only those outside the Church who have lost their way. I hope Lepanto is mistaken. If not, I, likewise, "have never read anything more depressing and worrying."

George said...

The trouble with contemplatives is that they cannot be reasoned with. There are various situations which arrive within life which require prudence and moderation. Contemplatives tend to have little ability to think and act with the nuance required.

It takes great faith to trust comtemplatives.

It takes extraordinary faith to put them into positions of great power.

"I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, I die in exile"

Anonymous said...

Mr Kiernan, the disappearance of the Crucifix is a very serious issue. It goes hand-in-hand with denial of Christ and His Commandments and the adoption of a worldly relativism.

Long-Skirts said...


My church she is a Catholic
Can see King Henry’s view
It really doesn't matter that
Hank killed some Saints, a few.

He also had oh, several wives
And took some of their heads
But Church of England called him first
That stallion of all beds.

Carthusians, smarthusians
In habits hung around
Quiet not like Campion
Beth brought that braggart down.

And merry, Margaret Clitherow
Oh, what a cheeky dame
Hiding priests behind her skirts
Liz crushed her little game.

Then Thomas More, oh what a bore
They pleaded some did cry,
"Let horny Hank play his bed prank
Just nod and wink an eye!"

Some Bishops say, "That's long ago.
Those times are of past scene."
Now, “Who are we to judge?” They ask
“Just make sure you go green!”

And on some Altars relics
From martyred by Hank's lust –
Bishops bent with sin’s intent
Will burn us, ashes to dust.

Mary Kay said...

Long Skirts, I don't have much of an ear for rhyming, but I liked this one.

Thank you, Fr. Blake. I had just watched, moments before, a video of an Irish hermit, Sister Irene, that was linked on 'Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican Council II.blogspot'. Our world needs contemplatives! Most of us can't (or won't) pray all day, and it desperately needs to be done.

As for the non-wearing of crucifixes, I do sympathise with those comments. We see so little of a demonstration of Faith today---most strikingly in our senior hierarchy. It seems like someone should not want to 'hide' our Lord, and would want to wear His symbol as a badge of courage. (I am a West-coastie---US, though my husband was a Perth boy.)

Thank you, again, Father!

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

"The problem with contemplative religious"? Is they see Truth for Truth and lies for lies, at least Sr. Irene certainly did.

"Selling God's House - Hermit Nun"

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