We were out on a family walk recently and our route took us past a monastery. This prompted our youngest daughter, always hungry for information, to ask what is the point of monasteries; what are monks and nuns, what do they actually do.
That's an interesting set of questions, especially these days. In years gone by, the answer to these questions was much more clear cut. The religious life could provide refuge from disgrace (inability to find a husband, birth outside wedlock, homosexuality), from poverty, from ill health. And once there, a religious house could provide opportunities that were perhaps not available to such people in the outside world--board and lodging for a start, a good education, a structured life, even a career for the ambitious. Of course, some degree of religious faith was also required--or at least the ability and willingness to go along with a religious life.
Yet nowadays, these kinds of advantages are widely available on the outside. Unmarried women are able to support themselves. Birth out of wedlock and sexual orientation are no longer an issue. The state keeps its people out of abject poverty.
So why do people become monks and nuns in the twenty-first century? The short answer is that far fewer do. According to a Guardian article, in 2000 there were roughly 710 nuns and 230 monks in Anglican religious orders in Britain and Ireland, but by 2008 those numbers had dropped by over a third--to 470 nuns and 135 monks. Some religious houses have even taken to running 'taster weekends' in an attempt to attract new recruits. One assumes that, for those who do take the habit, one of the overriding motivators must be religious faith, given that the other advantages of religious life are no longer apparent. Yet, as we all know, religiosity is on a downward spiral (in the UK, at least), with secularism being the order of the day.
I have some experience in this area. I grew up as a vicar's daughter and, when I was travelling with my father, we often used to stay in the guesthouse of the local nunnery. My overriding memories are of large gardens in which fruit and vegetables were grown, of meals eaten in companionable silence, of a quiet and slow moving life. I haven't stayed in one of those guesthouses for over three decades now--in fact, I have no idea whether such facilities still exist--but it seems a pity that they might not due to the lack of a religious 'workforce'.
Of course, the tables may turn again, I suppose. I am currently reading a book by Penelope Lively in which she points out that although we in the UK now live in a very open society in which all manner of things are talked about and done quite freely, social mores have changed more than once throughout history. The eighteenth century was similarly unfettered (debauched, some might say), yet the Victorian age of modesty was a direct reaction to the liberality of that time. And now we have come full circle.
Perhaps the religious tables will similarly turn, and ours will revert to a a much more spiritual society in which the youth are falling over one another to make it to the front of the religious order entrance queue. That's hard to imagine, though, from where we currently stand.