What the modern world could learn about compassion from monks

A British writer just back from a monastic retreat shares some insight into welfare and charity that he learned from the world of monks:

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” … 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.

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6 responses to “What the modern world could learn about compassion from monks”

  1. As it happens, I’ve been studying the Dissolution of the Monasteries recently. Yes, the abolition of the monasteries in England took away a key part of the medieval “safety net” for the poor. However, the author leaves out a large swathe of history, during which the various Elizabethan “Poor Laws” were passed. These laws set up a welfare system based in the parishes (while the monasteries were indeed abolishes, the parishes were not, and indeed, documents of the era show that quite a few of the monks who were also ordained priests became parish priests). So, the welfare system was not secular in the time between the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the coming of the Industrial Revolution, which caused dislocations that made the Poor Law system obsolete.

  2. I should add that I love monasteries, spend my summer vacations in the part of Southwest England that once belonged (literally, as property) to Glastonbury Abbey, and spend hours just wandering among the ruins of the various abbeys in the region. The sad thing is that there was corruption in many of the monasteries of the period — not as much as Thomas Cromwell claimed, but more than there should have been. Still, the Dissolution was a great tragedy, for monks, nuns (especially nuns — they generally had no way to make a living when they were pitched out of their convents in 1539), and laity alike.

  3. This is brilliant!! This is exactly what I’ve been saying about charity and the state.

    “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.”

    True charity is not taking from other people to give to others. True charity is a one to one contact, flesh to flesh, and not through some abstract state. Flesh to flesh contact is contact through Christ as he says in Matthew 25:35-36, the parable of the sheep and goats.

    Has anyone noticed that the more responsibility we off load to the state, the greater the trend toward atheism? You do not meet Christ when you let “society” take care of the poor, and therefore the heart of the average person in society becomes numb.

  4. There are so many holes in the American “safety net” that there is still vast scope for private Christian charity. I think that the two can, and do, operate in tandem. Medicare and Medicaid may pay for the hospital costs of the elderly or poor, but they still need to receive human compassion. I have to return to the point that I don’t think the author of the article understands how the monastic system worked in England before the Reformation, and he gives a simplistic picture. The big abbeys actually owned much of the land around them — Glastonbury Abbey alone owned a huge portion of Southwest England. The abbeys’ revenues came largely from the rents paid by those who worked the land they owned. Yes, they also received charitable bequests and donations as well. Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries because he wanted their property and revenues. After the destruction of the monasteries, there was a long period of pre-industrial history in which England relied on a parish-based safety net. The Industrial Revolution led to great economic growth, but also to much suffering, particularly in the cities. Compassionate people differed on how to cope with the problems that arose. There was a great deal of private philanthropy in the ninetheen century, and Britain did not put in place a full-blown state welfare system until almost 200 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution. That does not undercut the author’s basic argument for the practice of Christian charity, but I don’t think much of his knowledge of history.

  5. The language of human compassion and charity made me remember the most important aspect of our Christian faith– that in the Incarnation, God himself came to be one of us. To suffer with, to heal, to comfort, and to know that there is more than just a life of pain and deprivation.

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