Ultimately, marriage and monkdom not that different in terms of the Divine
Okay, here’s something that, at first blush, seems to be a certain oxymoron: monks on marriage. Incredible, right? I mean, what does Brother Celibacy down at St. Meinrad Archabbey know about marriage? I suppose there are monks who were once married, but after the death of their wives or obtaining an annulment, entered a monastery. I would venture, though, that such scenarios are few and far between.
Diocesan priests, though wife-less (for the most part), have a little better understanding of married life due to ministering to the married, but I don’t take too much stock in that nuance, either. The “I-came-from-a-loving-home-and-witnessed-first-hand-a-wonderful-marriage” defense smacks of arrogance and prelest. For a priest to say that ministering to married persons and growing up in a wonderful home makes him know marriage is like my saying that since I make retreats at monasteries, I’m a monk. Doesn’t hold water.
What sparked all this was a book I ran across back in June at, ironically, a monastery. The book is entitled, Monks on Marriage: A Twelfth-Century View, written by Jean Leclercq, a Benedictine monk, and published in 1982.
In monkdom, Leclercq is a legend. Though he died in 1993 at age 82, Leclercq’s massive body of work is still highly regard, heavily cited and often used. Furthermore, since I first read his classic The Love of Learning and the Desire for God many years ago, I fell in love with the man’s work. So when I saw this slim volume on the book shelf at the monastery I snatched it up. What would the old boy have to say?
Loved it. Read it all in one sitting.
Now, instead of me giving you a book report (Snore! Yawn!), allow me to opine on the issue of monks and marriage. After all, if Leclercq, a man who entered the monastery at 17, can write about marriage (albeit the 12th Century variety), I, who have been married since 22, can talk about monks. Tit for tat, so to speak.
Here’s the deal: monkdom and marriage are not that different.
A husband and wife take vows before God. So does a monk. For both, those vows are till death. A married couple commits to one spouse at a time. A monk commits to the stability of one monastery. Chaste to one’s state in life? That’s a ‘yes’ for both.
Obviously, though, the sexual component is the major difference. The married do, the monk doesn’t. Whereas the theology and practicality of a married diocesan priesthood is debatable, there is, as the Benedictine monk Terrence Kardong notes, “no controversy about the celibacy of monks and nuns. There is no such thing as a married monk or nun.”
Enter Leclercq. In his book Leclercq writes this about the Old Testament book the Song of Songs: “This nuptial song sings of conjugal love, and God found no other human affection which so aptly describes the love of the divine Word for the Church and for each single member.”
That’s radical stuff, people. Among other things here’s why. The married – by far encompassing most of humanity – experience the Divine through intimacy with their spouse. The monk forgoes a spouse, but nevertheless experiences the exact same Divine, but via a different channel: community, silence, and lectio. But both experience the Divine. One doesn’t experience it “more” than the other. As Lecclercq writes, “God must have the first place, in whatever state of life, and partners must render to God what is God’s and to each other what is due.”
You might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, well, so what?”
Here’s so what.
In the highly sexualized society in which we live we have created a dichotomy between body and soul that is all out of whack. In our world sex is an object, and totally a biological one at that. Consequently, we see sexual desire and the spiritual in opposition. When I brought in a monk to speak to my seniors one of my students asked him, “Do monks believe they are above sex?”
The question is quite telling. The question rests on the presumption that sex is something that needs to be surpassed in order to reach the heights of spiritual perfection.
The Bible (via the Old Testament book the Song of Songs, and Jesus in Matthew 19:5), St. Bernard of Claivaux (12th Century abbot) and Jean Leclercq all cry, “Not so!” The monk and the married person reach the same destination doing practically the same thing. The parallels are amazing.
“Love brings the two lovers together,” writes Leclercq, “and their commitment to fidelity marries them.” Love brings the monk and God together, and the commitment of the monk to obedience, stability and conversion of manners “marries” the monk to God.
Come on, is that cool or what?