Monday, July 1, 2024

Coming out of our monastery


A smart person, in wisdom, would hesitate to write about something they are just beginning to comprehend, but, alas, I have not claimed to be smart or have wisdom, so here goes . . . I hope you will stick with me.

As I continue my way through "The Cost of Discipleship" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945) I am simply floored by his observation about monasticism.  Keep in mind that he was a Lutheran pastor who founded what was called the Confessing Church, and he rose up against the Nazis.

Speaking about Martin Luther returning to the world and coming out of the monastery, Bonhoeffer makes this observation:

"the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favourable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world."

And before that, he writes:

"By thus limiting the application of the commandments of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard--a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience."


I couldn't help but make a comparison of his observation, to that of the wider Church today.  I discovered a warning we should all very carefully take under consideration.

Let me first say, I believe in the value of monks and this is not to dismiss their important work.  In fact, let's remove Bonhoeffer's reference to monasticism altogether and replace it with any group of extremely pious, overtly religious, people.

The question that arises is whether we have created the notion that the work of evangelization and discipleship should be left to "those people" who are more righteous, reverent and holy than the rest of us, and it further leaves us with the implication that the rest of us can never expect to achieve such heights.

I think the greater point here is that, as Bonhoeffer says:

"Only in so far as the Christian's secular calling is exercised in the following of Jesus does it receive from the gospel new sanction and justification."

Our "secular calling" could be seen as what you and I do every day, to make a living, or vocationally, perhaps at home.  He is saying that our calling should be founded on following Jesus.

You see, for most of us, we're not going to be tucked away somewhere, but the potential for us to practice our discipleship is reached in the ordinary, everyday work of our life.

We simply should not--cannot--leave spiritual work to a chosen few.

Now, the final point to be made here, is that in order for us to "exercise" our calling by following Jesus, we need to be constantly renewed.  Our renewal, of course, comes from steeping ourselves in prayer, the Mass, community relationships and so forth.

To try to be a disciple on our own, without the grace and strength of Jesus, is futile. 

Balance is key. It is only from a place of renewal that we can move forward.

Where do you get the strength to continue on your journey of faith? 

Try living out the call that God has given you, and do not compare yourself to others who appear further along the path. If they are useful mentors, great, but if they cause you to berate yourself because you feel inadequate, that does no one any good.

The reality is that those you admire, who give off the appearance of holiness, may, in fact, need, as Martin Luther did, to come out from behind the comfort of their well-defined walls, and exercise their call in a world desperately in need of their presence.

Only God knows.

Bonhoeffer talked about "cheap grace" and "costly grace," noting that we, the ordinary people of the world, seem to have lost our sense that following Jesus will cost us something. 

Be careful not to be too content in your comfort zone.

Janet Cassidy
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