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Listening at last week’s International Conference at Bose to five heads of monasteries, four of them Orthodox, one Roman Catholic, describing the situation of modern-day monasticism, I couldn’t help wondering whether Russian monastic experience is not about to parallel that of Catholic monastic experience.

Catholic monasticism in Europe was nearly wiped out by the French revolution. While the really anti-Church period was much more short-lived, than the Russian one, lasting only some 10 years from around 1791 to the Concordat of 1801, it was enough to empty the monasteries, very few of which it ever got back (Cîteaux, the most famous, even today is a penitentiary).

What happened in France and Belgium was a revival movement from the 1830s onwards (Solemnes 1833), La Pierre qui Vire (1850), Maredsous (1872), Keisersberg (1888), etc. etc.  These communities built massively, mostly in a neo-Gothic style. As far as I can make out, the inspiration was largely the big medieval communities, rather than picking up the remains of the monastic tradition as it was in 1791. I also suspect many of them served, like certain royal abbeys, as a refuge for the surplus offspring of large Catholic families in pre-contraception days, especially those with a studious bent.  In any event, since the post-Vatican II tumult, numbers have been in free fall. In Belgium, which I know best, Maredsous is down from 100 monks at its heyday to 20 or so, average age over 70. Keisersberg, with its huge property on the edge of the university city of Leuven, is down to just 10. The Trappist monastery at Scourmont, well known for its Chimay beer, was unkindly described to me recently as ‘a brewery looking for monks to maintain the trademark’.

From the early 1970s onwards, their place has largely been taken by a series of new communities, many from the charismatic movement, like La Verbe de Vie or the Beatitudes, but also others like the Monastic Community of Jerusalem, of the Community of Saint John. And of course, Bose and Taizé. There has also been a renascence of consecrated living outside of constituted communities.  In each case, what we have is groups which, while drawing inspiration from earlier monasticism, have felt free enough to tread fresh paths, more appropriate to the environment in which they live.  They have not been without their vicissitudes, and when certain phenomena such as a sect-like focus on the founder-leader appeared in the more charismatic ones a few years ago, the Vatican took strong measures to bring them into line with the rest of the Roman church. But it is here that one senses the real spiritual movement and future.

Is, I wonder, the same thing going to happen to Russian monasticism? As far as I can see the main Russian & Ukrainian monasteries are rather hurried reconstructions (Optina, Valaam…) of previously famous but then closed monasteries, or rapid expansions of not-closed ones (Pskov, Pochaev). But I wonder: are these really the answer to the spiritual needs of the 21st century? Do they not risk being trapped, as were their RC brothers, in a sort of historic revival, with the outer buildings and trappings, but inwardly a bit hollow, plus the temptations of status, relatively easy money and kudos?

Certainly the amount of money being poured into them is frightening. I need someone to check the figures for me, but if I take Optina, Valaam and Panteleimon (Mount Athos) together, my guess is that we are talking over a million euros per monk….  

Could it be, I wonder, that in 20 or 50 years these monasteries will be nearly as empty as Maredsous or Scourmont, and that instead there will be a ‘new monasticism’, much more discreet, but with at least as strong a prayer…..?


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October 2015

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