Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43
If one were to take a broad sampling of photographs of monasteries from across the world, one might be surprised by the wide diversity–both architecturally and in virtue of location. Included among these are monasteries that exteriorly don’t have the appearance of a monastery at all but look more like ancient fortresses–Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai being an obvious example. In most instances such a fortress-like structure had a very practical purpose which was to protect the monks from would-be marauders often bent on murdering the monks and pillaging the monastery. However, the designs of other monasteries, with their formidable enclosure walls, can represent a mindset that views cloister walls as serving to shield monks and nuns from the evil influences of the world they have forsaken in pursuit of a life of union with God.
I speak of this because there is a sense in which a monastery can assume some of the characteristics of that vineyard described in today’s Gospel, of which we are told that there was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it and built a tower. Here was an enclosed and protected space with a very specific purpose and one that was soemwaht insulated and protected from the surrounding countryside. And, as we learn from the parable, the hedge planted around it, the wine press dug in it and the tower built to protect it, all contribute to its successful yield of good grapes. And thus, unlike the vine described in out first reading which yields wild and inedible grapes, this vineyard presumably yielded plentiful and good fruit and the only problem was that its tenants refused to surrender any of the harvest.
Monasticism, with its sometimes ambivalent relationship to the world, risks falling into a similar inward-looking tendency along with a self-centered and self-protective attitude towards those living beyond its protecting walls. And when it does so, it can unwittingly find itself imitating the attitudes and actions of the tenants in today’s gospel by withholding the fruit of the claustral vineyard that the divine Landowner desires to be offered to those he sends in quest of it. For, as Saint Paul make abundantly clear, all God’s graces and gifts are not only for the individual who receives them, but also for the building up of the Mystical Body. And so it is that the Church, especially in recent years, has encouraged monasteries to serve as welcoming oases of the spirit providing places of repose and renewal for those whose vocation is not monastic but who seek a deeper spiritual life and a closer union with God.
However, it is not only monastery walls and enclosures that causes a withholding of the fruits given to us to be shared with others; our individual hearts can also be surrounded with walls that not only close us off from those beyond the cloister, but also from our fellow monks. This phenomenon has its non-monastic counterpart in that not insignificant number of self-professed “spiritual people” who have left the Church and eschewed so-called “institutional religion” in order to pursue an individual and private spiritual life aimed at self-fulfillment, self-actualization and inner peace. And whereas these people–both monks and lay persons–may well be spiritual, but they are no longer Christian. For the Christian can never be that enclosed and self-protective vineyard whose tenants stubbornly refuse to share its fruits with others thereby isolating themselves from Christ the Head because they have severed themselves from his body.
Identifying this inauthentic and purely inward focusing tendency with spiritual Eros, Thomas Merton warns that to insist on the cultivation of total recollection for the sake of Eros and its consolations would be pure and simple selfishness, and would mean a failure to really deepen the true Christian dimensions of agape which are the real dimensions of the contemplative life. In a similar vein, Saint Bernard, in speaking of charity or agape, asks, who will doubt in prayer that [a monk] is speaking with God? But how often, at the call of charity, we are drawn away, torn away, for the sake of those who need to speak to us, or be helped! And in speaking of the fruits of our prayer and inner life, he cautions that the fruits of contemplation will spoil if I give them to nobody: and if I wish to enjoy them alone, I myself will be spoiled.
And because the fruits of contemplation are only possessed in ongoing relationship with Christ–and never apart from him–being closed off from others and from the world out there, results in the spiritual equivalent of the vineyard being wrested from us and leased to other tenants. This is less a punishment than a logical consequence of our self-centered misunderstanding of what it truly means to be in relation with a Christ who is inseparable from his Mystical Body. Therefore, was we continue with our re-founding of Holy Cross Abbey, and strive to renew our Cistercian life, let us guard against bearing those wild and bitter grapes of hollow, outward and legalistic monastic observance devoid of the inner core of charity. But let us also guard against selfishly clutching to ourselves the precious fruits of prayer and devotion because of an erroneous or too narrow understanding of what cloistered Cistercian life entails in this twenty-first century. And in reevaluating our place in the Church and in the contemporary world, let us heed Merton who reminds us that obviously a great deal of prudence will be required, but we should not be so afraid of mistakes that we fail to make necessary changes.