The Dutch Conference of Religious in the Netherlands (Konferentie Nederlandse Religieuzen) has tried, for several years, to accommodate a coordinated phasing out of the physical presence of the majority of Dutch orders and congregations, or their residences in the Netherlands (if they are part of an international monastic body). While this seems a paradoxical policy for a conference dedicated to the ‘mutual coordination’ of monastic endeavours in the Netherlands, but at the same time the secular and still secularizing social status quo demands a thoughtful and careful planned process of ending specific monastic residences and organizations in a way that pays homage to their honourable history and legacy, while ensuring the proper care for the monastic elderly and for the repurposing of their physical properties. While the Conference claims that ‘some communities are witnessing an influx of new members’ and that ‘in several places new forms of religious life have been established’, these new initiatives, thought spiritually fruitful and encouraging, will – in all probability – not be able to stop the decline of monasticism in the Netherlands on the whole.
None never the less, I want to argue, the monastic spaces and presence in the Netherland, or other secularized Western countries, could be the preferred, or perhaps only ones left in the near foreseeable future. The monastic ecclesiastical bodies, may they be of a contemplative or an active kind, have always been a double counter-forces in the Christian history. The religious orders, from Benedictines and Augustinians, from Franciscans to Jesuits, and from Norbertines to Dominicans, the priories, abbeys and convents have always formed a sociological, political, ideological, and financial independent domain, independent from and not unusually critical towards both secular and ecclesiastical powers, leading to fiery debates with popes, emperors, bishops, kings, cardinals, and princes, sometimes resulting in physical harm towards individual monks and sisters, and/or the confiscating or destruction of their properties.
Also, in the current secular and ecclesiastical political climates, the religious orders and congregations can still utilize this tradition of double independence. Through their combined spiritual heritage, history and practices, abbeys and convents have a proven strong attractive value towards (young) people, who seek for inspiration, catharsis, and a practical spirituality. And more than their colleagues of the ‘secular’ clergy, the Dutch monks and sisters have attained a favourable sentiment towards them from broader society, although the scandal surrounding the sexual abuse in pastoral relationships does indeed, still, cast a shadow on their public imago, to say the least. Never the less, religious orders are considered ‘mysterious’, ‘mystic’, ‘’spiritual’ and ‘authentic’, positive characteristics that the secular clergy and organizations lack.
In this regard, the Dutch convents, abbeys, and priories, can begin to self-identify as a very important bastion against religious analphabetism in the Netherlands and abroad. In my opinion, monasticism – or rather all the different kind of monastic tradition, the Christian tradition knows – has six characteristics that make the religious orders and congregations a self-explanatory locus for the continuous training of new generations to understand the (and their) existential dimension of the human individual and collective existence. In more or less random order, these six characteristics are the following.
In the first place, many religious orders and congregations have the ideal location to educate the new generations into the religious realm – again not in the sense of evangelisation, although that can have its own place, but in the sense of a process of religious sensibilization. Traditionally, convents, abbeys and priories are located either within the parameters of larger cities, or are located in rustic and often semi-secluded places. The secluded place, often in rural areas, surrounded by forests or meadows, is one of the most important reason, young people come to these places in the first place: it’s inherent tranquillity that contrasts so sharply with the perceived ‘noisiness’ of postmodern society.
The second monastic characteristic, is their educational, or more precisely, the mystagogical tradition. While certainly numerous orders and congregations have been responsible for the (higher) education of uncountable young people in and outside the Netherlands, sometimes even being the core of their mission statement, monasticism has also maintained the notion of and sensibility for a different kind of education, in which the ‘student’ is not only initiated into the realm of cognitive knowledge, but also in the experience of the divine-human interaction that is at the heart of the Christian tradition. While this seems paradoxical at first sight, since I have been arguing that the religious alphabetization should be foremost that of cultivation of the knowledge of and sensibility for the religious dimension and not on individual spiritual evolvement per se – although the later is not necessarily a bad thing, the mystagogical approach inherent to monasticism, appeals to more than the rational part of the human being. Monasticism can provide a ‘bodily’ form of religious education, that transcends the simple learning of exclusively rational knowledge.
On the third place, as I have argued before, the religious orders and congregations have a more pleasant and positive public image than many of their secular pendants.
Fourthly, monasticism provides a context in which extreme focus goes hand-in-hand with an apparent abundancy of time. The paradox of the, especially but certainly not exclusively, contemplative nature of the religious orders and congregations provides a strict and orderly division of the day into sets for sleep, study, work, and liturgy, while at the other side this rhythm gives am self-evident ‘place’ for relating experience and knowledge about the religious dimension of human existence.
This self-evidence quality is strengthened by the fifth characteristic of religious orders and congregations being apt to counter religious analphabetism: their communal and exemplary live. Even though there are religious orders whose monastic live is not, or not so much, focused on a community life per se, and even though I do not want to suggest that every monk or sister is necessarily immediately ready for canonization per se, the brothers and sisters of the various religious institutions present a way of spending one’s life that is both ancient and very modern at the same time, whether this example is given in a public sphere or in the context of a convent. The self-evident communal aspect of monastic live – to understand one another as given to one another with all one’s individual qualities and faults – has become a counter-example in the postmodern world in which short-term satisfaction is thought to be better than long-term relationships. Teaching by example is the keyword in this aspect. Of course, this exemplary way of conveying religious understanding is not reserved to only the monastic domain, but – as I explained, because of the counter-cultural quality – they are very adept to do so.
The sixth and last monastic characteristic is the experience of the world as sacramentum mundi, as a collection of loci theologici of God’s continuous self-revelation. May it be with the Jesuit notion of ‘searching God in all things’, the Franciscan idea of the world as singing praise to its creator, the Dominican slogan of laudare, benedicere et praedicare (‘praying, blessing and preaching’), monastic traditions, especially but not exclusively in their active forms, have always heralded the idea that God is to be found everywhere in the world He has created. This idea of cultural theology has been fuelled by theological notions as the spolia Aegyptiorum (Clemens of Alexandira, Irenaeus of Lyon, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo), the logoi spermatikoi (Justin the Martyr), the praeparatio Evangelica (Ambrose of Milan), the aforementioned ‘implicit theology’ of Motlmann and Tillich, and the idea of the ‘signs of the time’ from the text of the Second Vatican Council.