Why is monastic life so appealing?
Call the Midwife is set in impoverished streets the post-war east end (of London). It follows a small group of secular women trained as midwives, who work and live with a small order of nuns whose calling is the practice of nursing, specifically midwifery. The show features grinding poverty, childbirth, and fixed hour prayer regular. It’s a surprise hit. It’s one thing for viewers to lose themselves in the gilded grandeur of Downtown Abbey, but quite another thing to enter into the tenements of the docklands.
Among other things, Call the Midwife–there probably should be an exclamation mark at the end–suggests that there is something appealing about the ordered life of religious communities like the one featured on the show. What is it about monastic life that is so very appealing in our modern world?
In his book, How to be a Monastic and Not Leave your Day Job (Paraclete 2006) Benedictine brother Benet Tvedten reflects on the growing popularity of oblation.
An oblate is someone who has established a formal relationship to a religious order and/or to a nearby monastic community.* Some surprising people where oblates: Jacques Maritain, Sir Alec Guinness, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day.
Many people experience their lives as a sheet of paper filled with text from top to bottom. The margins of the sheet are crammed with hand-written notes. Responsibilities. Errands. Texts. Tweets. Noise. Hurry. Frustration. Accomplishment.
The opportunity to intentionally establish an ordered life of prayer, study, and spiritual practice is a like a drink of cold water on a hot day. And for this reason, the number of oblates has grown significantly in recent years.
As Alisdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue (1984) we’re not waiting for Godot; in reality, we’re waiting for a new St. Benedict. We’re looking for a way to live a Christian life in community in the midst of a world that’s increasingly inhospitable to our Christian beliefs and practices.