American-Cassinese Congregation

Renew and Create

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Problems

Part 3 - Life
Part 4 - Conclusion

Catalysts of Crisis

The last decade has witnessed the rise of an amazing ferment in religious communities and in the Church at large. This ferment appears to stem from the sudden convergence and interaction of many religious and cultural factors that had been developing over a long period of time. Most obvious of the factors releasing new energies and bringing to a head long latent problems has been the Second Vatican Council itself. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Council and the theological and pastoral initiatives inspired by it have been significant not only because of their directly religious concerns; perhaps their major impact has come from their influence in opening up the Church in all sectors of her life to a world in full cultural transition. It is our conviction that the confrontation of this rapidly evolving culture with the traditional forms of religious life has been a major catalyst for the tensions and problems so keenly felt today in our monasteries.

It will be helpful to enumerate some of the more important cultural factors in this confrontation. If they are compared with the ordinary conception and style of Catholic religious and Benedictine life just ten years ago, their catalytic nature becomes immediately apparent. No value judgment on these factors is intended here, and it should be noted that they frequently stimulate countercurrents in contemporary culture.

(1) The ever-increasing technological ability of men to control the conditions in which they live in the world is a major cause of the changed style of living and thinking characteristic of contemporary culture. Especially in the last half century the rapidity, multiplicity, and complexity of humanly induced changes in the conditions of human living have contributed to a transformation in the way men experience and think of themselves. One need only reflect on the impact on human living made by greatly increased mobility over and above the earth, the development of mass media, intricate systems of long-distance communication, the increased mechanization of labor, urbanization, and so on. Human intelligence and energy are concentrated in an always more sophisticated and intense way upon improved control of man's environment and of man himself, and the human mind is shaped by this effort. Men experience themselves now more in terms of an improved future towards which they strive than in terms of the past from which they have come. This great concentration of mind and effort on technical know-how has produced vastly improved means for better human living. It has also tended to draw attention away from more fundamental questions of purpose in human existence. Technological culture makes it more difficult to cope with problems of ultimate meanings and ends and at the same time arouses in some sectors of society an almost desperate need to probe precisely these questions.

(2) Men have articulated their evolving sense of personal freedom and control of the material world in philosophies running counter to the classical view of human existence. Whereas in the nontechnological past, nature appeared more as a given in which the eternally good, true, and beautiful were to be contemplated, the world now appears as the raw material from which men construct, by free decision, the direction of their future. In the past, nontechnological man viewed reality as structured according to the essential, universal, and necessary, in an immutable hierarchical order reaching from heaven to earth; in this structure each being found its proper place, and the meaning of life was mediated by the structure itself. Today men tend to view themselves as a freedom which must define itself and give meaning to the world. The past nontechnological view of man was founded on the eternally valid in human nature and experience; today men express their self-understanding on the basis of an always shifting historical experience of themselves: man is enfleshed spirit, called to free interpersonal relationships in an evolving and constantly more humanized world.

(3) The process of technological concentration has also been a process of secularization. As men began to achieve by technology what formerly appeared possible only by prayer, miracles, or personal charity, Church and religion certain functional roles in society. As men discovered intellectually and practically the value of this world's realities in themselves, political and social structures broke out of their framework of explicitly religious and other-worldly values. In their effort to control the conditions of human living, men have directed their vision more and more towards, but not above, the horizon of this world. Thus, in a world which they manipulate so efficiently many men today find it difficult or impossible to experience the sacred and transcendent as these were experienced in the past. At the same time a growing need is felt for a theology of the secular.

(4) A heightened awareness of the historically conditioned character of human thought and institutions has both grown from, and in turn nourished, man's preoccupation with the dimensions of this world. Growing concern for the concrete, particular, and contingent aspects of human existence has led men to see more clearly how profoundly the ever-changing conditions of time and space have affected men's outer and inner life. History, then, is not so much a record of the struggle for and transmission of unchangeable values and structures as it is a testimony to the birth, growth, and decline of innumerable and competing human doctrines and institutions. In such a climate an appeal to a venerable past can no longer be a guarantee of contemporary relevance. One of the effects of this heightened historical consciousness is a keener sense of the relativity of historical phenomena and a certain detachment from those currently occupying the scene.

(5) The evolution in human self-understanding just sketched has meant an evolution in ethical thinking. Against a background of barbaric modern wars, the massacre of the Jews, persistent racial discrimination, and other attacks on human dignity and rights, past ethical systems have appeared discredited in the eyes of many. Past appeals to static systems whether political, social, economic, religious, or moral as though they could be substitutes for personal responsibility, are rejected as a sign of moral bankruptcy. In reaction, personalist and existential currents of thought stress the historically conditioned character of each human situation and make an impassioned appeal to the values of authenticity, honesty, and freedom of conscience; in place of a system of abstract moral principles, they encourage an ethics considered more responsive to the human demands of each concrete situation.

(6) The accelerated pace of human mobility and social communication has contributed to the breaking down of many barriers among men and encouraged an ecumenical spirit. Much more easily now, men discover at first hand the cultural and religious world of other men, who are found to be not less intelligent or virtuous than oneself and who reveal the real limitations of one's own values and outlook. This experience promotes the willingness to affirm worth and value wherever they may be found. Paradoxically in a culture which has produced the anonymity of our great cities and social and economic ghettos the isolated, the parochial, the withdrawn are all felt to be anachronistic as the web of human communication spreads out more densely over the face of the earth.

(7) Increased mobility and the communications media have had a profound effect on the family and particularly on the emotional growth of children. Traditionally the family has been the natural context for the child's emotional growth. Now the removal of children from the family at an early age for education in the school, and the channeling of an endless stream of stimulations and situations from the outside world into the midst of the family have reduced the role of the parents as the primary shapers of the child's expectations, values, and affective satisfaction. As the decrease of family influence makes the primary source of affection less available, and as daily life appears to fall more and more under the impersonal control of technological systems, people search for new kinds of interpersonal structures which will satisfy their needs for affection. They often seek to form within larger societies or communities smaller subgroups, which allow for more intimate personal relationships. Perhaps hippie communities grow out of this search; in any case, this primary need for personal affection appears much more strongly today as a predominant factor in young people's search for community.

In sum, we are taking part in a cultural evolution so rapid in its present stage and so profound that to many it appears to be a revolution. Experiencing themselves and their world in a radically new way, men anxiously probe for new answers to the most fundamental questions: "What does it mean to be a human being?" "What does it mean for a man to be a Christian?" It is within the context of this most basic questioning that questions about the meaning of Benedictine life are being raised and will be raised more and more by those who are the future of our monasteries. No doubt, too, the answers will be given not simply in terms of contemporary culture in general, but also in terms of that culture as it shapes the American scene.

It is to be expected that the presently emerging culture, like those of the past, will bring important new insights and values to the fore and have its own prejudices and limitations. At the moment our aim is not to show what an authentic Benedictine life might offer to men in such a culture. Here we only wish to encourage a serious comparison between past conceptions of religious life and present cultural influences. On the one hand, until the very recent past our communities have been characterized by a fixed and highly structured form of life, rooted in tradition and centered on a certain culturally conditioned sense of the sacred and transcendent. On the other hand, contemporary cultural currents stress the evolving dynamism of the world, are future-orientated, and are preoccupied with the secular. It is not hard to see why these cultural currents have been a major catalyst for the tensions and problems our communities are experiencing. We now turn to consider these problems.

Some Problems Shared with Others - Next >

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