The Third Age Career of the Cloistered Contemplative
“Up through about AD 1800, it was not uncommon for worldly men and women who had for one reason or another reached a point of closure in their mundane careers – the death of a beloved spouse, poverty, disgrace, retirement, or a profound metanoia and resulting revulsion for the mess and hurry and compromise of secular life, and a wish to be done with it – to retire in holy poverty to a monastery, a nunnery, or a hermitage, there to round out their days in prayer, fasting, worship, contemplation, and the humble work of the hands. It was understood that when one cut away all the inessential things in life, the monastic life would remain. Worship was the core and essence, the sine qua non, of a life that could aspire to propriety.
This ennobled and encouraged the whole society. When a noble lady or a peasant girl dedicated her life to a religious order, everyone was gladdened, and heartened; for it told them what their own lives were about, and for. “If she so small can be so valorous,” one could think, “why then I suppose I shall be able to manage my bit.”
The ostentatious presence in the midst of society of consecrated religious, then, illumines the rationality of social life, reinforcing the social order and nerving the organs of society to their duties under their proper ends.
Now it might seem that this is all some sort of reductionist account of monasticism. That monasticism has social utility, however, does not entail that its utility is at all specious. To think so is to labor under the unconscious, quintessentially modern presupposition that our convictions are all specious – a conviction that renders itself specious. On the contrary: that a thing is practically useful to us ought to suggest first that it is in fact quite likely to be really good for us in the ultimate scheme of things.
Thus the modern consequentialist approach to utility has it all backwards. Things are not good because they result in good consequences; this utilitarian explanation begs the question it purports to answer. Rather, things have generally good consequences when they are really good and beautiful in themselves. Things are useful because they are good, and not vice versa.
So far is this then from being a consequentialist or utilitarian account of monasticism, as to be the very opposite. Monasticism is not useful to us because it fools us all into thinking that our daily activities are important. No: our daily activities really are important, seeking the Good and devoting our lives ultimately to God really is the essence of goodness, value, spiritual and corporeal health, and of joy; and monasticism helps us remember these facts.
But yet, more than that, monastics really are the van of the general heavenward motion of humanity. They are blazing a trail for us, not just metaphorically, but in simple fact. Monasticism is useful to us in worldly life because it is important in the ultimate life of all the worlds. After all, we tend all in the end, willy nilly, toward the monk’s utter renunciation of all inferior values in favor of what matters most. We are all of us to be utterly impoverished, sooner or later, intentionally or not, nobly or not. We are all of us incipient monastics.
Monks then are as valuable to us as the van of our host in battle. Their spiritual warfare, of which all earthly wars are theaters, is the real struggle at the heart of all others.
So it is that, back when Israel was at war with the Canaanite idolaters of Moloch the devourer of children, the warriors at the bleeding edge of the Israelite army, first into battle, were priests in white linen, blowing shawms and singing Psalms of wrath and battle, angels of the Lord.”
See further: Eugene Stockton “Forest Dweller: An Alternative Life Style for Seniors” at
“The hermit way of life has a long tradition in the Christian Church, both east and west. But it could well borrow from the wisdom of Eastern religions, which provide for something lacking in the West, namely how to take account of retirement/old age. Are we to be just left on the shelf, waiting to die?
Hindu asceticism envisages four stages of life:
1. Student: a programme of learning after initiation (“undergraduate”)
2. Householder: engaged in family and work (“graduate”)
3. Forest dweller: free from responsibilities of family and work (recluse or semi-retired)
4. Saddhu or saint (union with God)
The third stage on retirement is not the end, but a new stage on the journey of life and one looking forward to the final graduation. Such a forest dweller corresponds to the hermit or recluse, living a virtually solitary life. The separation from the world, effected more or less obviously in a material sense, is at depth more crucially a mental or spiritual separation.”