This conversation is largely a response to my previous interview with Bruno Barnhart. Taking a decidedly different tack than Bruno’s vision of a new role for monasteries and the emergence of small, local experiments budding into new forms of monastic or quasi-monastic communities, Paula strongly defends the enduring validity and necessity of preserving ancient forms. In contrast to Bruno’s optimistic assessment of human creativity as a kind of revolutionary force unleashed by the Christ event, Paula sees, particularly in the Romantic Movement and the social upheavals of the mid-to-late 20th century, an unrestrained, destabilizing approach to both art and life that tends toward dissipation and broken relationships. Whereas Bruno suggests that the containment of the monastery often best serves as a period of training for a more creative kind of life, Paula sees the limitations imposed by a highly structured, disciplined life as the context wherein true creativity flowers. Not surprisingly, where Bruno sees the 1960s, and Vatican II in particular, as a time of grace, Paula paints a picture of the social fabric coming undone due to an exaggerated ideal of the good life as one without constraint or limitation. Paula also discusses her experience of the Oblate community of which she is a part, of how they’re held together in a bond akin to family with the monastery firmly at the center, and the liberating effects of learning to align their lives with the monastic values instilled by their relationship with the monastery. As regards the vocational crisis facing so many religious communities in the Christian West, Paula shares her belief that this is primarily a clash of cultures between modern and ancient prerogatives, a historical lull that actually gives monasteries greater opportunity to witness to something truly countercultural.
While these contrasting views might be caricatured as “liberal” and “conservative” (which I believe is an unfair simplification), I also see something else at play. The context for both interviews revolves around Bruno’s and Paula’s responses to the state of monastic institutions in the West, and New Camaldoli Hermitage in particular. As such, they appear to inhabit virtually opposite poles. I believe this kind of stalemate permeates much of the discourse around how to address what many see as a vocational crisis among monasteries today. Are changing cultural circumstances calling forth new forms of religious life? Do monastic institutions need to hold their ground as a countercultural witness and weather the crisis? Obviously, these are complex questions with no easy answers. What I find intriguing, however, is how different the context is among new evangelical communities that I’ve encountered. Because these communities have as yet no formal institutions of religious life of their own, there’s a spirit of freedom and spontaneity relatively unhindered by the kind of polarities one finds in Catholic circles. In other words, they’re able to draw from scripture, tradition, and human experience without bumping into overarching, longstanding structures, and hence do not suffer the kind of inertia that results from polarized reactions toward such structures. In fact, I would say that because of this freedom, the kind of small, local experiments Bruno foresees are actually happening now, though more often than not outside Catholicism.
My growing hope? That evangelical “new monastics” and Catholic monasteries forge stronger bonds, which would allow “new monastics” to establish deeper roots in history and tradition, and the “old monastics” to benefit from an infusion of youthful openness, enthusiasm, and spontaneity—the “many possibilities” of the beginner’s mind. This development leans more toward the less contentious idea put forward by Mary Forman, that we are entering a period of expanding diversity not unlike that which emerged in similar periods of cultural upheaval, a diversity fostered today by ecumenical dialogue and new relationships between monastics and laity.
Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.