Regions of contact
According to the analysis, the most intense exchanges between monastic and outer worlds are found in three areas of contact, which we describe below: (a) monasteries as cultural heritage, (b) monastic economy and (c) innovation of monastic values and spiritualities.
Monasteries as cultural heritage
We identified the first region of contact as based on monastic buildings which figure as symbols of higher culture and national heritage rather than
Figure 6.3 Several sisters of the Venio Community. Photograph published on community website.
of religion. As such, they play a vital role in local identities, and the monastic communities learn to work and build on these conceptions.
In this section, we attempt to construct a story about the somehow secularised perception of monasteries as (merely) cultural monuments and offer two examples of world-monastic dialogues which draw from those perceptions.
Excultured perception of monasteries
For me, it is just a building. Whether it is a monastery or a castle or a repaired factory. It is simply a building that is in the centre of the city, which has some attraction for tourists and which offers space for holding some of the events that happily take place there - so it has all the advantages. But whether it is a monastery or ... I don’t care. I have no feelings for it, and I firmly believe that 100 per cent of the population also has no feelings for it, because there is no reason to have any feelings for it.
(Mayor of Broumov, May 2018)
The mayor insisted that the former monastery building in his town has no special meaning for his constituents other than as a suitable place for hosting cultural events and as a source of tourist revenue. Nevertheless, despite the mayor’s emphatic declaration (reacting to what he saw as utterly nonsensical questions like “what does it mean for the city to be organised around the monastery?”), some of the monastery's neighbours did speak about their feelings about it and the monastic building itself is now a scene of an interesting quasi-secular project, which we further describe in the section about monastic value innovations.
Neighbours of other monastic sites also described their relationship with the monasteries; take, for example, the testimony of a resident of Vyssi Brod, where a Cistercian monastery - which is otherwise not part of our present discussion, but still an example emblematic of Czech society - is located:
For me it has the spirit of respect. The memory of my first visit - it was 35 years ago - is the memory of an organ concert in the monastery. Basically, it was at the time the main source of culture in Vyssi Brod. And it still is. It was a must for an outsider if he came to Vyssi Brod, to visit the monastery. So why do I go to the monastery? For me, it is an unusually important monument.
(Resident of Vyssi Brod, April 2018)
This example comes from an interview with a person who - although speaking about a strong relationship to the building - clearly avoids any religious connotations of the relationship (as also the mayor of Broumov does in the previous quotation). They speak of the importance of the monument, a spirit of respect which creates therefore its suitability for high culture.
We see this perception of monastic buildings as similar to what Isabelle Jonveaux describes, when speaking of Austria, as the perception of monasteries as cultural property. Monastic buildings are devoid of spiritual meaning because parts of Austrian society have ceased to observe the religious roots of its culture and origins, and thus, ‘more and more people coming to monasteries look primarily for cultural, not religious content’ (Jonveaux 2018, p. 61). Jonveaux sees this situation in the context of a more general trend towards the exculturation of Catholicism or, more generally, Christianity in Europe, which she describes as a process by which the material and immaterial elements of religious worlds cease to be able to communicate religious content and are freely used in other contexts (see Hervieu-Leger 1999, 2003).
The additional reason for this perception might lay in history. After the dissolution of the monasteries and the partial expulsion of their contemplative communities, the Communist government of the former Czechoslovakia took over the monastery buildings and deprived them of their original religious decoration and furnishings. Then they either left the monastery buildings to their fate or used them as a base for socialist agricultural cooperatives, the army or the police force. In some cases, ‘cultural’ institutions, such as the postal museum in Vyssi Brod, or monastic culture museums, have found refuge in the buildings. However, even monastic museums served as a way for the regime to consign consecrated life into the past and as something which is no longer relevant in today’s world.