I’ve spent the last couple of weeks living in a monastery, largely to complete a book chapter (now uncompleted) but also to commune with God in the run up to Christmas. The guest house is about 300 yards from the chapel, yet that hasn’t stopped me from never entering it. I’ve spent most of the time curled up in a warm bed reading Margaret Atwood’s latest novel and watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond (I love that guy). The monks tell me that this is nothing to be ashamed of, that I’m here to rest as well as worship. But monks are like that: they never complain, never criticize.
At least, that’s how Benedictine monks behave. I’ve stayed with the Dominicans and it wasn’t such an easy ride. It was a silent order and services began at 5 in the morning. Conversation was restricted to an hour after lunch, accompanied by some bitter coffee and leaf raking. I managed to make one Mass at 7 am. The guest master came to my cell afterwards to invite me to breakfast only to discover that I had got straight back into my pajamas and into bed. It was a miserable week and, because I presumed they’d have internet (who doesn’t?!) I didn’t bring any entertainment. The result: seven silent days in the company of an Italian novel (unread) and a 1,200 piece jigsaw puzzle (unfinished). Needless to say, I never touched the Bible in the bedside drawer. Thankfully, the Benedictines are far more clubbable than that (and they drink wine).
My Protestant friends and family find my frequent stays in monasteries odd. They ask, why do you go and why do they let you in? I go because I can and they let me in because they should. There’s nothing contractual about it, no exchange of material things. Of course, I give whatever donation I can afford (not very much, thankyou George Osborne) but we approach the arrangement as autonomous individuals. I go because it is good for my soul. They let me in because they think it is good for theirs.
It occurred to me while on my retreat that the modern welfare system could learn a lot from the abbeys. Until the Reformation, the monastery offered alms to the poor and somewhere for people fleeing tyranny to hide. Post Reformation, the safety net was undone and people threw themselves on the charity of the local lay community. With the coming of the industrial era, the state started to take up the burden of poor relief. Dealing with ever bigger numbers, they resorted to systematization and control. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon provided the literal and mental architecture of the new age. Bentham conceived a structure that would allow an official to observe ("opticon") all ("pan") inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. He settled on a circular structure with an inspection house at the center – from which said officials watch the inmates stationed around the perimeter. Bentham wanted his design to be used in hospitals, schools, poorhouses, and madhouses. Today it is still used to plan prisons.
Sociologist Michel Foucault correctly surmised that the Panopitcon represented the West’s evolution from a culture that punished the body to one that controlled it through subtle, but non-invasive, fascisms. What applied to penal reform also applied to welfare. Consider that the charity found in a Medieval monastery was personal: a beggar approached a monk and the monk made the individual choice to care for him. Today's Benthamite welfare state is impersonal: people “sign on” and collect benefits from employed civil servants. Visits from social workers are centrally coordinated (and sometimes unwelcome). Moreover, the Medieval monk never demanded anything of the beggar. In contrast, the welfare state has evolved from "contract" to tool of personal reform – the state expects dole recipients to kick the drugs, look for work, do a training course etc. Even our beloved NHS is now being used as leverage to get people to stop eating or smoking.
Fr Ray Blake has posted on his website some etches by Pugin illustrating the differences between Medieval and industrial public life. The most striking is his “contrasted residences for the poor” (see picture above). At the bottom is a monastery that is really a self-contained village: church, vegetable garden, place to eat, place to sleep, burial ground with Last Rites. At the top is a modern poor house that looks a lot like Bentham’s Panopticon. Residences are now cells, men are clapped in irons, food is meager, and inmates are buried in unmarked graves. Tellingly, the church is some miles from the poor house. This model of charity is really a method of control and reform. It is hard to believe that anyone’s soul benefits from it, including that of the wider society that tolerates it.
True charity must surely display "compassion", which means "to suffer with". Again, it is the personalized nature of monasteries which enabled them to show the appropriate degree of compassion. When the countryside was hit by famine, the monks starved with their flock. When plague came, they exposed themselves to the pestilence by taking in sufferers; whole monasteries were wiped out this way. What they could not offer in physical sacrifice, they provided in existential comfort. Plague bearers could pray to Saint Sebastian for relief. This was not a distraction for the gullible, but a way of reinforcing the physical reality that the Church suffered with its people. Sebastian was tied to a post and shot full of arrows. Like other martyrs, his story brings the comfort of knowing that pain is a universal condition – and that relief is available in the life to come. A lot of people think that the ritual of Catholicism creates distance from the laity. On the contrary, it is a very human faith.
I am not proposing that our welfare system is completely broken or that it should be replaced with the meager means of the modern Catholic Church. But across the West, there is a sense that social security has become detached from its original intention. Such a moral enterprise can easily descend into a tool of bureaucratic control. It is certainly no replacement for the unquestioning, boundless love of one brother for another.