"By and large," Bonhoeffer concluded, "the fatal error of monasticism lay not so much in its rigorism... as in the extent to which it departed from genuine Christianity by setting up itself as the individual achievement of the select few... "I would be remiss to point out that is true of rather late medieval cenobitic monasticism, especially in Europe, not of early monasticism.
Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran, saw in Martin Luther's movement from the world to the cloister and back to the world as precisely the movement required for a needed correction
Last evening I came across a passage written by Paul Evdokimov, an exiled Russian who lived in Paris and who was a professor of theology at the L'Institut St. Serge, an Orthodox seminary and graduate school, and what Evidokimov writes, even keeping in mind that they are commenting on different eras. Evidokimov wrote extensively about monasticism and was cited by Pater Tom (Merton) in certain passages of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (my favorite of his many works):
After the concordat that established the Church in history and offered it its legal status and a peaceful existence, the testimony of the martyrs concerning the last things passed over into it monasticism and was transformed there into a mystery of ultimate eschatological commitmentAs anyone can clearly see, there is a tension between what Bonhoeffer, who loved monastic life, as his time as leader of the Confessing Church's school of pastoral ministry at Finkenwalde, which was the basis of his book on Christian communal life, Life Together, amply demonstrates, and what Evdokimov writes, even when accounting for the fact they are commenting on different historical periods. As a relevant side note, Life Together was published in Germany during Bonhoeffer's lifetime. In his biography of Bonhoeffer, Dr. Schlingensiepan noted that at the beginning of his stay with the Benedictines of Ettal, where he worked on his Ethics (a most amazing book, the potential of which even today remains all to unexplored- this is another convergence between Bonhoeffer and Pater Tom, interest in a meaningful ethics), while actively participating in the conspiracy against Hitler, the discovery of which would lead to his martyrdom, Bonhoeffer "was not completely unknown to his hosts, as the abbot and some of the monks had read Life Together and wanted to discuss it with him" (pg. 253).
Reading his latest book, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, Paul Tripp, while expounding on the necessity of Christian community for an authentically Christian life, mentions in passing, as a settled matter-of-fact, the failure of monasticism. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that we are perhaps turning full-circle, transitioning back to the time before the flight into the desert, when the Church's comfortable and even peaceful existence can no longer be taken for granted. This is starting to be noticeable even in the West, which is the product of Christianity (Europe is not really a geographic entity).
Among the most notable evidences of this are the failed attempt to have the Christian foundation of Europe acknowledged in the disastrous and (hopefully) now dead European Constitution, as well as the exaltation of a phrase from a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson to John Adams late in life, in which he mentions the "wall of separation" between Church and State" (at the time a rather eccentric view), to the status of infallible interpretation of the first liberty set forth in the Bill of Rights, as well as the on-going attempt to chip away at religious liberty, seeking to reduce it merely to the right to worship, limiting the Church to what we do within the walls of the Church.
Our current situation calls for a new synthesis, not unceasing political activism. It seems to me that this synthesis must arise from the tension between Evdokimov and Bonhoeffer. Perhaps this is why Pater Tom remains so relevant. This also helps us grasp Karl Rahner's insistence that unless all Christians became mystics, there will be no Christianity. We have lost sight of the fundamental fact that nothing can be accomplished without contemplation. Or, as Pater Tom stated, "action is the stream, and contemplation is the spring."
In this context I am tempted to continue, particularly writing about the (over)use and abuse of religious language, which is what made Bonhoeffer say, when he was a prisoner seeking to minister to his fellow prisoners, we must speak to people in a non-religious language.