No Small Task
Once upon a time, men and women separated themselves from society in order to pray. Often, their piety attracted like-minded individuals to join them. Among early Christians, the practice became fairly common, and continued through the middle ages and even after the Reformation. While that may not be an official definition of monasticism, it fits.
One can only imagine that forming a new religious order was easier in the days of the great kings of Europe than it would be today. Monarchs were by and large Catholic and in close allegiance with the Church. Non-ascetic life was a drudgery, and while the ascetics gave up worldly pleasures, the worldly pleasures of first century Europe were not all the great. One thinks of plowing fields by hand, milking goats, and dying of common colds, . In the monastery, he plowed fields by hand, milked goats, died of common colds, and prayed often. (Were a modern sentenced to a life of the first three, he would almost certainly add the third if, for no other reason, escape.)
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, monasticism finds its roots in the New Testament:
I John, ii, 15-17: “Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the father but is of the world. And the world passeth away and the concupiscence thereof. But he that doeth the will of God abideth forever”
Since August, I have grown spiritually closer and closer to an organization called the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem. The reasons for this gravitation are manifold, but the boldness of the task taken on by Dom Daniel Oppenheimer is most impressive. He has founded a new religious order dedicated to some traditions that most Catholics in America consider anachronistic and unnecessary.
The Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem (CRNJ) is a clerical institute of consecrated life whose members (known as canons) pursue the proper apostolic ends of their religious society. By pronouncing the ancient vows of Stability, Conversion of Life and Obedience and living a common life according to the specific form of the institute, each member consciously strives towards the perfection of charity.
At each Sunday’s Mass, the personable Oppenheimer reminds us that founding an order is no easy task, reminding me of Chesterton’s defense of rash vows.
If a prosperous modern man, with a high hat and a frock-coat, were to solemnly pledge himself before all his clerks and friends to count the leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, to hop up to the City on one leg every Thursday, to repeat the whole of Mill’s ‘Liberty’ seventy-six times, to collect 300 dandelions in fields belonging to anyone of the name of Brown, to remain for thirty-one hours holding his left ear in his right hand, to sing the names of all his aunts in order of age on the top of an omnibus, or make any such unusual undertaking, we should immediately conclude that the man was mad, or, as it is sometimes expressed, was ‘an artist in life.’ Yet these vows are not more extraordinary than the vows which in the Middle Ages and in similar periods were made, not by fanatics merely, but by the greatest figures in civic and national civilization – by kings, judges, poets, and priests. One man swore to chain two mountains together, and the great chain hung there, it was said, for ages as a monument of that mystical folly. Another swore that he would find his way to Jerusalem with a patch over his eyes, and died looking for it. It is not easy to see that these two exploits, judged from a strictly rational standpoint, are any saner than the acts above suggested. A mountain is commonly a stationary and reliable object which it is not necessary to chain up at night like a dog. And it is not easy at first sight to see that a man pays a very high compliment to the Holy City by setting out for it under conditions which render it to the last degree improbable that he will ever get there.
Like me, Chesterton, though writing a century ago, recognized that modern man is less accepting of these kinds of things. Like me, he laments this fact.
The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one’s self, of the weakness and mutability of one’s self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind. A modern man refrains from swearing to count the leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, not because it is silly to do so (he does many sillier things), but because he has a profound conviction that before he had got to the three hundred and seventy-ninth leaf on the first tree he would be excessively tired of the subject and want to go home to tea.
The Canons make rash vows to divorce themselves, in key ways, from the decadence of modern man. Such vows are risky, as Al Gore might say. Consider the life the young novitiate vows to live:
a life-long commitment to asceticism and virtue, community life and the exercise of a faithful and authentic Roman Catholic priestly life (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis) in the perfection of charity. The entire work is undertaken for the greater glory of God and the sanctification of the Church and the world.
These young men escape nothing, really. The decadent world surrounds them still, just as the goat, the field, and the virus surrounded the 8th century monk. To me, though, the Internet, video games, sex, fast cars, and leisure are more attractive than the diversions available to St. Francis. Thus, the Canons of the New Jerusalem are giving up much, though they don’t see it that way.
Vows are not a repudiation of things material because they are evil but freely chosen means by which one abandons lesser goods for those which are eternal. Through his vows the religious priest freely engages himself to a lifelong pursuit of charity in its every dimension.
Thus, thus votive life moves toward Christ and Heaven, greedily devouring the meals of holiness and charity. They do not turn away from the world except so as to turn more squarely toward God. In this sense, it is the world that divorces itself from the truth these men know, thus taking itself out of their line of sight–or at least moving itself to the periphery.
Among modern language’s many flaws is the tendency to abuse superlatives and praise. Still, the ambition required to start such a movement in 21st century America must be considered heroic in the Homeric sense. One person vowing to surrender his life to the service of God is dramatic. One man and one bishop vowing to found an order of men who will take and practice such vows is a true mystery which demands returning to Chesterton.
There are thrilling moments, doubtless, for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete; but there is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the aesthetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. It must have satisfied even the giant hunger of the soul of a lover or a poet to know that in consequence of some one instant of decision that strange chain would hang for centuries in the Alps among the silences of stars and snows. All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.
In Chesterfield, Missouri, atop a forested hill, sits a little house containing three men who know this thrill, men who have burnt or are burning their ships. Their cowardice is behind them, as they have dared to turn their eyes away from Playboy and toward the Light that was in the beginning and with God and was God and remains God. Perhaps their blindness to worldly things, then, is not so much a matter of position but of perception. Once having seen the true Light, how dark the material objects under artificial luminescence must appear.
Father Oppenheimer’s ambitions deserve great respect, not only from serious Catholics, but from anyone who admires heroic sacrifice. His ambition is to build a strict and holy religious order that will turn the attentions of many, many people toward the eternal Light of God, to turn their little house in the woods into shining City on the Hill which modulates that light for us until our eyes adjust to its indescribable brilliance. Even an ardent atheist must appreciate such devotion to a cause.
Readers are encouraged to visit the Canons' web site. More importantly, Catholics and those interested in the faith need to attend their beautiful Latin Mass, and soon. Until the new chapel is complete, Sunday Mass is celebrated at the Passionist Nuns Chapel on Clayton Rd. in Ellisville, Missouri, just east of Clarkson. Fr. Oppenheimer will soon begin a catechism course, details to be posted when classroom space becomes available.
St. Louisans should register now for the Canons Regular symposium on conversion. The list of speakers is a gift from God, including Alice von Hildebrand, Dr. Lawrence Feingold, Dom Daniel Oppenheimer, and Roy Shoeman, author of Salvation is From the Jews. To register, call 636-536-3229 See Rome of the West for more details. RomanCatholicBlog has this story on energizing the Church Militant.
I can’t imagine a CRNJ doing these kinds of things, brought to us by Angry Twins.
Read the Beltway Traffic Jam religiously.