Yesterday I was reading a book on monastic history by a well-regarded historian. No names, no pack-drill, as they say; but the more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. The monastic life the historian was describing and interpreting was so far removed from the reality I have experienced that I found it unrecognizable. Now, you may say that the monastic life of the twenty-first century is a world away from that of the tenth or twelfth, and you would be right; but as Georges Duby argued so persuasively when writing about medieval marriage, many things do not change. There is a commonalty of experience that enables the married person of today to understand much of the life of his/her medieval forebear. But when we come to a life we have not ourselves lived, we have to put our imagination to work very intensely; and that isn’t always easy.
Most people know what it is like to live in a family; comparatively few know what it is like to live in a monastic community. That can affect how we view things and, more important, how we interpret them. So, for example, unless we have experienced the liturgy day after day for years on end, we may mistake how formative it is in the life of the monk. Unless we have actually lived enclosure, we may fundamentally misinterpret how it is understood in the life of the nun. If we do not see how feast and fast flow together, we may stumble in our interpretation of diet. Above all, we may forget that most people, most of the time, are quite sincere about what they do and the reasons for which they do it. They may be mistaken; they may, at times, be unwilling; but, on the whole, I don’t think most people are cynical. Men and women in the Middle Ages didn’t see autonomy in the way we do; a parent’s right to choose one’s husband or wife or determine one’s occupation in life was more generally accepted than it is in the West today.
Therefore, my dear monastic historian, may I ask a favour of you? Before you start writing about monasticism in terms of liminality or achieved status or power elites, please would you familiarise yourself with some of the basic texts and practices of monastic life itself? Read the bible, all the bible (monks and nuns have a quite depressing familiarity with even the most obscure parts of it, and always have had); read the Rule of St Benedict and, if possible, learn it by heart as they do and did; immerse yourself in the silence in which monks and nuns pass the greater part of their day; think long and deeply about the role of the abbot or abbess and a life of single chastity, not as something to be resented or resisted but as that which is intrinsic to the monastic understanding of conformity to Christ. It won’t be time wasted, because it will give you some insight into a life that is, to be frank, a bit odd, a bit difficult to understand. Without God at its centre, monastic life makes no sense at all. Failure to see that makes pretty poor history, too.