What does monastic culture mean?
by Martin Erdmann
Historically, monastic culture reveals itself as a horizon of experience, which, despite all the wave movements, shows great consistency, and also as an experimental space, because in the course of history – yesterday as today – monasteries have reacted to and interacted with their times. Thus, social developments can still be viewed against this horizon of experience and within this experimental space. Many of the things that people who are living consciously are concerned with today can be rediscovered in monasteries and can be discovered as something intensely lived. Here, the indispensable social relevance of monastic culture manifests itself.
The way we look upon monasteries today, the enthusiasm for them and their appeal not least spring from a romantic approach. Undoubtedly, the great achievements of monastic architecture, art and science are worth admiring and they set styles. Everyone will in many cases probably recognise a monastery right away, even from a distance. But this historical, aesthetic perspective only captures one form of monastic culture. Yet, without a doubt it is a very important one, because it refers to the fact that monastic life is a shaped way of life. And this can already be discovered in the fact that even former monasteries, which today function as museums and cultural centres, are still perceived primarily as monasteries by visitors.
Monastic culture can be understood very well by considering the term itself: monastery = cloister = claustrum = the enclosed. Culture = the cultivated. In other words, a way of life that is cultivated in an enclosure, behind monastery walls. In his monastic set of rules, Father Benedict writes that, if possible, everything one needs to live should be located within the monastery walls. Because walking about outside, he states, is never good for monks. Thus monastic culture manifests itself as a critical distance from the world, as a way of life that draws a distinction between the monastery and the world. However, it isn’t so much the element of rejection that works here, but rather that of choice. For monasteries themselves naturally are part of the world, too.
This stance has always given monastic culture its own character, one of being an internal culture with certain behaviours and ways, but at the same time it has also had an impact on the world as part of a dialogue that is essentially determined by the motive of searching. A way of searching that within monasteries is more closely defined as a quest for God and in the outside world as a search for life’s “whence” and “whither”. Ultimately, a search for an authentic life and with the desire to accomplish the purpose for which one was brought into being. This is what connects all people, whether consciously or unconsciously.