Cultus, Culture, and Counterculture: An Enlightened Monastic Response to Our Secular Dark Age
Editor’s note: On July 23, 2018 Father Cassian Folsom spoke at the Avila Summit sponsored by the Avila Institute in Hanceville, AL. An edited version of Father Cassian’s presentation follows.
The conference theme at this year’s Avila Summit is both interesting and provocative: “Worship animating culture.” In my talk, I will offer a monastic response to this conference theme. I will begin by asking a question: Does worship, in fact, animate culture? More particularly, does worship animate our culture?
Now let me ask the same question in a particularly different way: Does worship animate monastic culture? Yes, indeed, in a profound way, and I would like to describe that cultural world for you. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the monastic experience can serve as a corrective to a culture gone seriously astray.
I will guide you on a tour of this monastic culture by exploring three topics. The meaning of cultus, in general; the meaning of culture from a monastic point of view; and, finally, the meaning of counterculture, again from a monastic point of view.
Part I: Cultus
The word cultus in Latin comes from the verb colere (colo, colere, colui, cultum), which in its root sense means “to care for, guard, protect.” From this root grow two branches of meaning: first, to care for a field or a garden, and hence, to cultivate; second, to care for the gods, to protect the places where they are venerated, to guard their temples, and hence, to worship. The connection between cultus and culture is present already in the etymology of the word. (As we continue on this exploration, it would be good if we could use the expression “cult and culture.” There would be a nice ring to it. But since “cult” in English has come to have the very limited meaning of “deviant worship,” I prefer to retain the Latin word cultus.)
The great modern philosopher, Josef Pieper, explored the relationship between cultus and culture in his famous book Leisure the Basis of Culture, published in 1947. He argues that “the central element, the heart of leisure (otium), is a festive stance, the attitude of those who are celebrating a feast.” But the feast receives the very possibility of its existence and legitimization from worship. “There is no feast without the divinity; there is no feast that is not born from worship,” Pieper writes. “A feast only preserves its festal character because it continues to receive life from worship.” The same thing applies to leisure, or otium: its ultimate possibility and legitimacy has its origin and root in the festive repose of the cultus. In other words, otium requires sacred time reserved for the gods, and sacred space reserved for the gods. This space cannot be used for other purposes on principle, Pieper explains. It cannot be part of the totalitarian world of work—because in that world there can be no unproductive piece of ground, nor a period of time that is not used profitably.
The world of the “worker” is irremediably poor and shabby, he goes on to say, even when it wallows in the super-abundance of material goods. On the basis of the economic principle alone, such a world cannot give any real richness or prosperity. For wherever there is something left over, even that which is over-and-above is re-absorbed into the system, reused on the principle of rational utility. “Work doesn’t make you rich, but hunchbacked,” says an old Russian proverb. On the contrary, it is natural for worship to produce—even in the midst of extreme want—a portion that is super-abundant and rich, because at the center of worship is sacrifice. And what is the true meaning of sacrifice? According to Pieper, it is a spontaneous, gratuitous offering.
Pieper then makes an observation that is extremely obvious, but quite politically incorrect. In our Western Christian culture, he says, that sacrifice is above all the sacrifice of Christ, celebrated and realized in the Mass. Pieper’s conclusion logically follows: “Thus in the liturgical celebration, and only there, do we find the reserve of energy that the world of work cannot ever consume. An oasis of peace is formed, where the exhausting vortex of activity cannot penetrate: an area of true richness, of profusion, of extravagance detached from any functionalism—that is, the area of festive time. It is only in this space of festive time that leisure can realize itself and reach its full development.” But in our own culture, we have not set aside this time, either sufficiently or at all. There follows, Pieper notes, the inevitable consequence: detached from the world of worship, driven away from its sphere of influence, leisure (and the feast) remain paralyzed. Separated from worship, leisure becomes idleness, and work becomes inhuman.
We might push Pieper’s conclusion a bit further. Culture always comes from the worship of something, the veneration of what we care most deeply about. In Western civilization, a glorious culture of extraordinary beauty developed from the worship of God in the Catholic liturgy, in particular in the sacrifice of the Mass. Since that culture has gradually and progressively separated itself from its origins in the Catholic cultus, it is no longer sustainable. In many places in Europe, splendid cathedrals which once throbbed with life are now reduced to museums: empty shells of a past no longer understood, no longer loved—indeed, a past that is sometimes hated.
Yet, for what it’s worth, our present age still has a culture—which leads us to a question: If culture is always based on worship, and our culture is no longer based on the liturgical worship of the sacrifice of the Mass, on what is it now based? The culture has simply chosen new gods: they are worshipped in shopping malls, banks, and centers of political power. Every family has an altar—or several altars—in the home, where the divinities can be worshipped on flickering screens. In the last decade or so, devotion to these divinities has so increased that everyone, even the youngest child, has a hand-held worshipping device, so as to be connected to the new divinities at all times.
Given such a remarkable state of affairs, the monastic culture, in contrast, is truly a shock to the system.
Part II: Culture
In the monastery, the cultus is the heart of everything. For St. Benedict, this means the Opus Dei, the Work of God, or the Divine Office. The Opus Dei is the heart of the matter, and this is demonstrated clearly by the space and the time dedicated to it. The oratory is the sacred space, and “nothing else is to be done or stored there.” In time, the modest oratory of St. Benedict developed into splendid churches, to the extent that the monastic church of Cluny III was the largest church in Christendom, surpassing even the old St. Peter’s in Rome. As these church-building efforts indicate, the cultus requires sacred time as well as sacred space, and in St. Benedict’s schema about five hours a day are dedicated to the Opus Dei (including Mass) and two to three hours given to lectio divina. Compare this to the modern eight-hour work day, and the huge importance given to the cultus is clearly seen.
But divine worship in the monastery doesn’t happen automatically. In addition to brick and mortar and an open calendar, it requires three areas of preparation: the formation of the mens (mind), the exercise of the artes (arts), and the program of conversatio (the monastic way of life).
Mens at Work
When describing the chanting of the Divine Office, St. Benedict urges that the mind (mens) be in harmony with the voice. To form the mind for the central act of worship, the Opus Dei, it was necessary to memorize the psalter. Other reading material consisted of “the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments” and “explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox catholic Fathers.” It is clear that the humus (ground) of monastic culture was made up of the liturgy, the Bible, and the Fathers. During Lent, each monk was to receive a book from the library (probably a volume containing a part of the Scriptures) and read it straight through.
St. Benedict’s primary source, the Rule of the Master, describes in practical terms just how the formation of the mind was to take place. During the afternoon period before Vespers, “the various deaneries having been separated from one another in different places, some as directed by their deans are to read, others listen, others learn and teach letters, others study psalms which they have transcribed. When they have mastered and memorized them perfectly, let their deans take them to the abbot to recite by heart the psalm or canticle or lesson of any kind. And as soon as he has recited it in its entirety, let him ask prayers for himself. Then when those present have prayed for him, the abbot concludes and the one who has done the reciting kisses the abbot’s knees. Either the abbot or the deans immediately order something new to be transcribed, and after anything has been transcribed, before he studies it, let him again ask those present to pray for him; and in this way the learning of it is to be undertaken.”
Note that the learning of the entire psalter by heart was the expected norm. Would that our memories today were as retentive and agile as those of our forefathers!
State of the Artes
But intellectual formation of the individual monk for the act of worship is not enough. The full range of the arts and professional skills (artes) are also necessary. When speaking of the artisans of the monastery, St. Benedict clearly expresses the goal of all such activity: so that in all things God may be glorified. These artes are numerous: architecture, the fine arts, stone, glass, textiles, precious metals, candles, book production, copying, agriculture, and so on. The monuments to the beauty of monastic architecture are too many to be counted. Most of these churches and monastic buildings are of stone. In northern Europe, stained glass beautified many churches. Work in cloth and fabric is necessary for liturgical vestments. Gold and silver are used for the chalice and other vessels of the altar. Beekeeping is necessary for the production of candles, animal husbandry for raising the many sheep needed for parchment. The monastic economy was usually based on agriculture, and monasteries always strove to be self-sufficient. All of these artes are united in their primary objective: the glorification of God in the Opus Dei.
Join the Conversatio
Both intellectual formation and training in the arts presuppose the monastic subject and his entire way of life. This complex of spirituality, customs, practices, and relationships is called conversatio in Latin, or politeia in Greek. It includes the primary interior work of the monk, that is, the eradication of vices and the acquiring of virtues. This life of discipline and asceticism takes place in community, where the monk strives for obedience, mutual service, and charity. The monk’s offering of himself in this way of life, this conversatio, is best expressed by the profession ritual, in which the monk places his vow chart on the altar at the moment of the Offertory, to symbolize the offering of his life to God.
In the monastic culture, intellectual formation (the mens), training in the arts (artes), and the whole complex of usages and practices (conversatio) are clearly ordered to the cultus, the worship of God.
Part III: Counterculture
In the Middle Ages, the monastic culture was perhaps the highest expression of what the Catholic culture in general aspired to be: a holy order with God as the center. In the Renaissance period, on the other hand (from the 14th to the 17th centuries), there was a gradual shift: the boast now was that man was the center of a new order. This fundamental shift was given philosophical backing in the Enlightenment, with the relegation of God to the periphery of things, excluded from the public square if not denied completely. There are a number of recent studies which trace this progressive decline.
For a long time, the Church fought against these cultural shifts, especially in the 19th- and 20th-century battles against Modernism. But in the Vatican II period and the succeeding decades, the Church decided to embrace society, and ended up being absorbed by it. The result is the death of Christian culture, as John Senior so eloquently put it. Of course, this state of affairs differs considerably from one place to another, but the process of secularization continues apace and the institutional structures of the Church, willy-nilly, tend to aid and abet this secularization. So the young Catholic who, courageously searching for life’s meaning, stumbles upon a classical monastery and experiences a serious cultural shock. Because our society is so aggressively secularized, the monastic way cannot be other than countercultural. In fact, this countercultural stance, this going against the stream, is perhaps one of the most important contributions that monks can make to the Church today.
What would this young man experience? After many conversations with such seekers, I would like to present a synthesis of their experience in a series of contrasts. I have drawn them sharply, in order to make the point, although in real life, things are usually not quite so black and white.
Monastic life is God-centered, theocentric. Our society is anthropocentric, with the focus on the individual. This contrast is often experienced in the liturgy. As I have argued elsewhere, many of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms were based on an Enlightenment anthropology, and when young people (with no nostalgic baggage of any kind) experience the traditional Mass in the Extraordinary Form, they see at once that this action, in the first place, is about God. Since monks spend so much time engaged in the Divine Office, they even tell time by the canonical hours. “When shall we meet?” the young man might ask. “Right after None,” might be the response. The cultus is at the core.
In the monastery, the emphasis is on brotherhood, not on individualism. If a monk is using a book, he might write (in pencil) on the cover page only a collective claim to ownership: ad usum fratris Benedicti (“for the use of a Benedictine brother”). This book is not his, but for his use. We do things together. St. Benedict insists that everyone be at the common meals, and on time. In our fragmented society, rarely does a family sit down for a meal together—let alone find their identity in the family unit. The question a monk asks himself is not “What is best for me?” but “What is best for the common good?”
Our young friend would experience silence. The monk lives in silence the way a fish lives in water. He thrives in it. Our world, in contrast, is a place of constant noise, and our liturgies tend to be nothing but a barrage of words. Read Cardinal Sarah’s wonderful book called The Power of Silence. Sometimes when guests come to the monastery, the silence frightens them, because with all distractions removed, they are forced to listen to their own interior noise. Silence makes you face yourself.
A corollary of silence is the deliberate reduction of stimuli. We don’t listen to the radio, we don’t watch television, we don’t read the newspaper. Internet use is strictly regulated—and we don’t have iPhones. This is not an oppressive imposition, but a free choice in order to reduce images, because images make an impression on the memory and cannot be easily erased. Our society is over-stimulated, at every moment, from morning to night. The young man who comes to the monastery experiences a period of detoxification.
There is a corollary to the labor of reducing external stimuli. That is, the monk tries to purify his memory bank and fill it with good images by accepting beneficial stimuli. In other words, the monk remakes his symbolic imagination. In earlier centuries before electronic images existed, the human imagination was filled with scenes of daily life. In monastic culture, the stimuli came especially from the Bible and the liturgy. St. Benedict knew that not all images, even from the Bible, were positive, and so for the common reading before bedtime, he excludes “the Heptateuch (the first seven books of the Bible) and the Books of Kings, because it will not be good for those of weak understanding to hear these writings at that hour; they should be read at other times.” Images of sex and violence (even in scripture) are not helpful before going to sleep. What would St. Benedict say today, when children are exposed to these things on TV from the tenderest age? On the one hand, stimuli must be controlled and reduced. On the other hand, the human imagination, which is the seat of so much creativity, must feast upon good things. In some of my past conversations with some of our monks, it soon became apparent that their symbolic imaginations were formed by the TV shows and movies they watched during their youth.
What do monks do all day, when they’re not in church? They work. There is a wonderful word from the patristic tradition called philergia, which Pope Benedict XVI used in one of his Wednesday catecheses when describing the life of St. Theodore the Studite. Philergia means “the love of work.” Monks love to work. In fact, the monastic tradition has a rather refined theology of work, making distinctions between negotium (excessive work), otium (the paradox of busy leisure), and otiositas (idleness). Our society both hates work and is addicted to work. The very construct of a 40-hour work week and the Saturday-Sunday weekend is a modern notion, completely unknown to the ancients and unheard of in monastic culture. Even when we grow older, we don’t stop working, but are given an assignment that is less strenuous. One of the abbots of my early monastic life was fond of saying: “Monks don’t retire; they just die.”
Which brings us to the topic of suffering and death. In the monastic culture, suffering is expected and death is a door to the next life. In the Rule, St. Benedict describes in one brief sentence what the monk can hope for in his monastic life: “Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” He also says: “Keep death daily before your eyes.” This calm acceptance of suffering and death is in marked contrast to our contemporary society, where the slightest suffering is to be avoided if at all possible, and the reality of death is simply denied.
In our throw-away culture, material things are so abundant as to have little value. In the Rule of St. Benedict, on the other hand, even the tools of the monastery are to be treated as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar. In other words, material things have a sacramental value, in that they point to a spiritual reality. Put very simply, creation points to the Creator. The monk is careful, however, to put his hope in God, not in the creation which God has made. God is the primary good, and all other goods are secondary. That allows the monk to make use of created things with a spirit of detachment. For example, in the recent earthquakes in Norcia, we lost everything: church, monastery, books, artwork—but we escaped with our lives. It was hard, but I think the monks dealt with this tragedy more easily than the townspeople, because we know that all is fleeting: sic transit gloria mundi. This detachment gives us a certain freedom. In this regard, we find in the writings of St. Augustine a very useful distinction that entered into the orations of the Church’s liturgy: I mean the distinction between utor (to make use of) and fruor (to enjoy for its own sake). We make use of the material things of this world and we take care of them lovingly. If we try to enjoy them as if they were a primary good, we will inevitably be disappointed. Only God can be enjoyed in that way. All this our young vocation visitor finds different and intriguing.
In order to detach himself from material things, the monk needs a strong dose of asceticism. Askesis is the Greek word for the strenuous training of an athlete, and the monks are athletes of God. The classic forms of asceticism—prayer, fasting, and vigils—are woven into the fabric of monastic life. Self-discipline and self-denial are the daily tools of our craft, and they produce an interior freedom that is gloriously liberating. Our Western society, on the other hand, is pampered, soft, flabby. The great ideals are comfort and wellness. Advertisement blatantly promotes self-indulgence. Many young people today have no sense of sacrifice. Let me give another earthquake example. Those who suffered most because of the earthquake were the people in their 40’s and 50’s, who were raised with plenty of everything. The older generation, on the other hand, those who had lived lives of great sacrifice and often material poverty, handled the earthquake with greater fortitude.
The monk strives to strip away illusion and live in reality. Even when that reality is difficult or harsh or ugly, it’s better to face it than to live in a dream world. Only if we are honest with ourselves can we learn humility, a virtue that St. Benedict prizes over all others. The young man who comes to the monastery from our secular society comes from a world of virtual reality, where hours and hours are spent on Facebook or the iPhone or whatever device has been most recently invented. I have sat at table with Italian friends—who place a high value on table fellowship—and waited in vain to start a conversation, because the person across from me spent 20 minutes on his iPhone, trying to find a photo to send to someone else in the same room. The absurdity of the situation is extreme. The person across from me is real; the photo in the iPhone is not real. How many people have come to the monastery for spiritual direction, suffering greatly because of the difficult situations of their lives! Often the monk can patiently show them how to accept the reality of things, and they feel that a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. Reality is wonderful therapy, but not everyone can take it.
One last element of monastic culture is stability. Monks make a vow of stability: to live and die with this particular group of people in this specific place. Stability brings with it love of the place, so monks tend to beautify their surroundings and make their monastery an oasis of peace. But even more important, stability forges lasting fraternal bonds. Stability means you can’t run away when things get tough, when situations of conflict develop, when real or perceived offenses weigh heavily upon you. Often, by persevering through difficult times, the monk grows stronger—he has been tried in the furnace of affliction like silver seven-times refined. When life becomes monotonous, he learns how to go deeper. When relationships become difficult, he learns what real charity means. He puts down roots like an oak tree. All this is in marked contrast to our contemporary society, where everything is in flux, permanent commitments are avoided like the plague, marriages are broken and families are scattered. If our young man should go away and come back twenty years from now, by the grace of God he would find the same monks there, greyer perhaps, but flourishing like a cedar, planted in the house of God.
The monastic counterculture tends to produce this remarkable result: it makes the monks joyful. In addition, they acquire that quality which belongs properly to Christ, who in the Byzantine tradition is called Philanthropos, the Lover of Men. The monk, as a result of his formation in this way of life, likewise becomes a lover of men. He knows his own frailty and so can accept the frailty of others. He knows human nature, and so experiences a special unity with all men, to whom he is united in that same human nature. In short, he can say Yes to all that is authentic and good, because he has said No to falsehood and evil—within himself, in the first place, and then in the crazy world in which we live.
Worship animating culture—if it were only so! In the larger scale of things in our modern secularized society, it is most certainly not so. But it can be so—indeed, I know from experience that it is so—in the creative minority of small Christian communities. Don’t be afraid to go against the current. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”
I pray that the monastic counter-culture may be a source of hope for your family counterculture, your parish counterculture, your school counterculture. Don’t misunderstand me. We can’t simply be against what is bad, but we have to work with all our strength to build what is good, both for ourselves and for future generations.
The key is being God-centered, and that means being focused on our primary act of worship, the sacrifice of Christ as manifested in the Mass and in the Divine Office. The best remedy for a world that is sick from living as though God did not exist is to live passionately in the conviction that God does indeed exist. What is the alternative? To borrow a word of salvation from Cardinal Sarah, there are only two possibilities: God—or nothing!
 I am using the Italian translation of this book, “Otium” e Culto, Siena, Cantagalli, 2010.
 Pieper, 77.
 cf. Pieper, 79.
 Pieper, 79.
 The Rule of St. Benedict (RB 1980), ed. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1981), 52:1.
 Ibid., 9:8.
 Ibid., 48:15.
 The Rule of the Master, trans. Luke Eberle, Cistercian Studies 6 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 50:62-69
 RB 57:9.
 cf. RB 58:20; 59:2.
 For example, H.J.A. Sire, Phoenix from the Ashes (Kettering OH: The Angelico Press, 2015) and Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel 2017), chapter 2, 21-47.
 John Senior, The Death of Christian Culture (Harrison NY: RC Books, 1978). (cf. also Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Washington DC, Regnery Publishing, 2017)).
 Cassian Folsom, “The Great Divorce: The Reason for our Liturgical Malaise,” Antiphon 22/1 (2018) 2-15.
 Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017).
 RB 42:4.
 Benedict XVI, “General Audience on St. Theodore the Studite,” L’Osservatore Romano: English edition, Wednesday, 3 June 2009, 15.
 RB, prologue 50.
 Ibid., 4:47.
 Ibid., 31:10.
 G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 256.
 Robert Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015).