As a cloistered nun in the Dominican order makes her first profession, her white veil is replaced with a black one and her superior declares that she has become “recognized as a house of prayer . . . and a temple of intercession for all people.” The expectation and desire of her life, from that moment on, will be to spend the rest of her days in monastic enclosure, unseen by most but—in the mysterious way of prayer—deeply and efficaciously connected to the world through the near-constant praise, supplication, and penance she offers for its sake.
When Pope Benedict XVI departs from the Chair of Peter on the evening of February 28, he will remain briefly at Castel Gandolfo while his new quarters are readied, and will then take on the gift and burden of monastic enclosure, which he has called “that which is essential and has primacy in the life of all the baptized: to seek Christ and place nothing before his love.”
One of his last acts as pope this week has been to accept the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland; it was one more drop in the overflowing bucket of shame and—to use the pope’s own word—“filth” that has made the Church’s moral authority a slippery thing and contributed to the “questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” that Benedict cited in his resignation statement.
He says he is tired, and we can’t doubt it. An introvert’s energy is quickly depleted by social interaction, be it celebratory, diplomatic, or grimly administrative. Spare hours of solitude were unlikely to have brought the pope to full re-charge if passed (as they probably were) in contemplation of the Church’s failure in its primary duty to Christ: demonstrating the gospel to a world sorely in need.
The failure is heard in the shrieks of pain, ignorance, and hatred directed at the Church throughout the chambers of mainstream and social media; it is seen in the faithful priests and laypeople who read one awful headline after another and continue on, but with increasingly slumped shoulders; it stands before the pope’s very eyes, in the form of priests and religious who have served idols and theologies formed within themselves, and in the bishops and cardinals who have handed in their resignations, or who should bow out and won’t.
Noting the glimmers of promise coming from Africa and Asia, anyone looking with honest eyes must also acknowledge the worldwide social and institutional wreckage that threatens the Church from the West. Benedict, having faced it, realized that the Church’s disorientation—and thus the world’s—would not be righted by yet another professorial speech, or another pilgrimage. A ship in profound danger requires a profound action, and Benedict has taken it. He is throwing all of us into the arms of the Lord in the belief that, as he said after his announcement, “the Church belongs to Christ, whose care and guidance will never be lacking.”
At the final Sunday Angelus of his pontificate, Benedict said, “The Lord is calling me to ‘climb the mountain,’ to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation . . . so I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength.”
In Rome, a cloistered prioress tried to explain what Benedict is doing: “When he lives this monastic lifestyle, his prayers will reach those who maybe were unbelievers during his papacy,” said Mother Maria Angelica, of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria del Rosario. “I’m absolutely sure of this, of the value of his prayer and of his silence. And it will reach the whole world, even where it wasn’t previously able to reach. . . . [Even unbelievers] will feel the effects of [a cloistered person’s] prayer.”
As Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope sometimes retreated at the Benedictine Monastery of Subiaco, which was founded by St. Benedict of Nursia—the Patron of Europe and father of Western monasticism. In embracing monasticism, the Bishop Emeritus of Rome is perhaps looking at history—at how that other Benedict’s Rule and example once reordered a world that seemed ready to plunge into an abyss of darkness and ignorance—and making a supernatural gambit. In faith he will have delivered the powerful lesson that a life of faith is never without resources, because prayer extends beyond time and space, through darkness and into light.
And perhaps we will need to learn that lesson well, to face our future, together.
A monastery is a kind of powerhouse of prayer, but with distractions and impediments removed from its functioning; in enclosure, Benedict will become “a house of prayer and a temple of intercession” for us all. His hope and ours may reside, as it has before, in the simple yet profound reach of a monk.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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