Religious of the future

Marga Arendsen

More | Reflective articles

Religious of the future

Marga Arendsen

More | Reflective articles
Perspectives for Monastery Saint Agatha

1. Question

In 2016 Klooster Sint Agatha published its ‘concept’ for the future plans under the motto ‘Monastery of past, present and future’. Religious combine the daily life of living and working with reflection within a religious tradition. What the monastic life of the past looked like can be found in the Netherlands Dutch Heritage Centre Monastery Life. Today’s monastery life can be found in the existing monasteries, the number of which has become small. But what does monastery life of the future look like?

People who are interested in religious life today do not always become members of an order or congregation, but they do feel attracted by the way of life within it. How old and new can go together is a quest. New models for contemporary religious life are being developed at various locations in the Netherlands and in the surrounding countries. What is timeless and must remain? What is time-bound and can be adapted?

At the request of Paul Wennekes, who is investigating new monastic initiatives, I put my thoughts on ‘the religious of the future’ on paper below. The request was: How could lay people, who would settle in any form whatsoever in the Monastery of Saint Agatha, be linked to the (mission of) the Crosiers and at the same time preserve their freedom and independence? Personally, I do not think that the ‘religious of the future’ will always be orientated towards the mission of a particular order or congregation. What does this monastic life look like then?

2. The religious of the future

The purpose of religious life is to organise daily life in such a way that it promotes the deepening of a religious tradition. It is also essential for new initiatives that everyone who participates has a warm heart for the Christian tradition as a source of inspiration and wants to do something with it in his/her daily life. Monastic life dates back to the beginning of Christianity, long before it split into East and West. Since the split between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in the West, religious life has been practised almost exclusively by Catholics; however, interest on the Protestant side has been growing for some decades, at least in the Netherlands.

In recent centuries, monastery life has taken shape within mostly large religious institutions. Renewal, however, almost always starts on a small scale. My expectation is that in the future it will not so much be orders and congregations that form the organizational basis of religious life, but that it will often be local initiatives in which people commit themselves to a form of religious life for a short or longer period of time. The local initiatives are independent, although the residents are probably (hopefully) interested in other initiatives and in the exchange of information and experiences. Initiatives can arise in existing monasteries, as is the case in Saint Agatha, but also in other places. Where they originate in existing monasteries, they take along, at least at the start, the atmosphere that already characterizes this place.

Two elements seem to me to be indispensable for the viability of a monastic initiative: a religious living atmosphere and a common project. Both do not have to be put on super-heavy (‘our spirituality’, or ‘our mission’), but must be present. The religious sphere of life comes about through a concrete practice, in which people feel involved.

At the moment that many orders and congregations lost their familiar activities (1960s), the reason for joining became unclear. Since then they have refocused on their founders and their spirituality. Attention to their own spirituality as an identity-determining factor is often more self-evident to them than to outsiders. I don’t think it’s a problem to delve into the ideas of different traditions (Franciscan, Benedictine, Vincentian, etc.) at the same time. They do not exclude each other.

The way of life and activities in a ‘monastery of the future’ will partly be determined by the people who participate in it, partly by the typical elements and the (im)possibilities of the place, partly by the religious tradition. Religious are indebted to the past and contribute to passing on of a religious tradition to the future. Not everything is possible in every location. City monasteries can be found in the city. For contemplative monastic life, the rural area is the most appropriate environment. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in one place, feel free to look elsewhere; moving needn’t be a bigger problem within monastic life than outside. For an initiative to succeed, it is important that the possibilities of the location match the wishes of the ‘religious’ on the spot.

3. Choices to be made

There are issues in which every ‘monastery of the future’ has to make choices. These have to do with the dynamics, the activities and the relation to tradition. In the process of redevelopment of the monastery of  Saint Agatha, we discovered that lifestyles and activities each have their own dynamics. Not everything fits together or with everyone. And certain activities require certain facilities (rooms, accommodation, a garden…).

  • Where do choices have to be made?
  • What does the joint monastery initiative entail? It is important that this can be explained to everyone in a few sentences.
  • How do the residents give shape to the religious tradition in which they stand? How do they immerse themselves in it?
  • What is the need for silence and contemplation? Do you choose the city or the rural area?
  • Are the people involved single or do they (also) consist of couples? Are they adults or also children?
  • Which activities/responsibilities are common? During the day and/or in the evening? During the week and/or at weekends?
  • Is there reception of guests? If so, how and when?
  • How do decision making and division of tasks take place?
  • To what extent is there joint financing and how is it arranged?

Personally, I think that the orders and congregations as we know them in our regions are ‘overorganized’. Many Dutch religious communities are scarcely larger than a family, but know the degree of organisation of a multinational. This is because they are part of an often large (international) religious institute, which in turn is part of the official structures of the RC Church. For the future, I would like to keep it a practical and functional organisation: you have to agree on the living atmosphere and on its joint activities, and there has to be a division of tasks within it. For the rest, everyone is in principle independent, as is customary outside the monastery. In this way, it seems to me that the initiative is more likely to remain open to other people who may or may not want to contribute in a new way. And: doing more together and/or helping each other can of course always be done.

4. The monastery as a 'private place’

The word ‘monastery’ is derived from the Latin ‘claustrum’ and literally means ‘private place’: a place separated from its surroundings. A monastery needs a certain protection, bearing in mind the verse ‘Everything of value is defenseless’. Places of silence, places of deepening, are not self-evident these days, and apparently this was also the case in the past. However, this does not mean that a monastery is an island or that religious have to keep habits that are (have become) unusual in the surrounding society.

Monastic life develops in interaction with the environment. The monastery can only occupy its ‘own place’ as long as long as it is in contact with other places. Even the eremites in the desert maintained relationships with the world around them and wanted to contribute to this.

The ‘seclusion’ of a monastery has meaning insofar as it contributes to its purpose. My thoughts about monastic life have increasingly gone in the direction of ‘as few peculiarities as possible’. No division between men and women, no compulsory celibacy, no year-long procedure of entry, no need for a choice for life, no institutional order, no clothing designed in the Middle Ages, no authority structure as between parents and children, no economic dependence.

5. Concretion in Monastery Saint Agatha

A ‘monastery of the future’ must make choices with regard to lifestyle, activities and relationship to tradition. How does this work out for Klooster Sint Agatha? The oldest monastery in the Netherlands is located in the outlying area; Klooster Sint Agatha is especially appreciated for its silence and simplicity. The chapel has been a place of prayer within the Christian tradition since 1300. Klooster Sint Agatha was a training house for the Crosiers and owns the only monastery library in the Netherlands that has remained there since the Middle Ages. The monastery had income from the garden and the farm and played a role in the landscape management in the area.

The aim of the future plans is to continue the monastic way of life in a contemporary form. This means concretely the realisation of a religious living atmosphere, of which silence, simplicity, communion with nature, monastic prayer tradition and study are part. This is what binds all users of the monastery complex. They offer third parties the opportunity to share in it. Visitors are welcome in the monastery garden, the reading room and at the exhibitions of the Netherlands Monastery Life Heritage Centre, the monastery church and the gatehouse. There are no accommodation facilities.

The residents play an important role in the living atmosphere of the monastery; they are the most continuous factor and therefore bearers. Each resident has its own living unit with living room, bedroom, kitchen and sanitary facilities. There are twelve living units. Considering the size of the living spaces and the dynamics of the building and its surroundings, habitation by single adults is the most appropriate. The building complex has some large spaces that can be used communally. The tenancy agreements state that each occupant is a member of the residents’ association. Everyone contributes in his or her own way to the maintenance of the monastery and is thus involved in the whole. In Klooster Sint Agatha volunteers work in many places: as host/hostess or tour guide, in the heritage management in the Heritage Centre, the maintenance of the garden and of the buildings, etc.

Together, the residents ensure the continuation of the prayer tradition of the monastery. Characteristic of the prayer of the hours are psalm singing, Bible reading and silence. The roles of men and women are equal. Residents jointly choose frequency and times. Monastery Saint Agatha was already there before there was a split between Catholic and Protestant, and in that sense it is ecumenical in origin. Considering the location of the monastery (in Catholic Brabant) and its development, the orientation at the moment is primarily Catholic. For the time being, the celebrations of the Crosiers form the basis for the prayer tradition, but can be complemented by other initiatives.

Residents and organisations on the monastery grounds are working together towards the objective. The management of the real estate is taken care of by the Sint Aegten Foundation. The Heritage Centre is managed by the Dutch Heritage Centre Monastery Life. Periodic consultations take place between all users of the monastery grounds, whereby activities and tasks are attuned to one another.

About the author

Marga Arendsen

Marga Arendsen is the director of the Erfgoedcentrum Nederlands Kloosterleven, located in the monastery of the Crosiers in Sint-Agatha. Together with the members of this Order, the possibilities of housing lay people in the monastery are being exploited. Marga Arendsen in her article develops some challenging thoughts about possible forms of religious life in the future.