This evening (or rather, this morning) I finished reading the excellent novel Godric. It seemed well to record my reactions now while they are fresh than to wait until tomorrow when they are likely to have diminished somewhat. Godric is the 1980 work of Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and award-winning author. Godric itself was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps my sentiments on the book are best expressed in saying I consider it a great injustice it did not win.

Wrapped in an unusual but beautiful prose, the novel is a fictionalization of the life of Godric of Finchdale, who died in 1170 A.D. Thereafter he would come to be known as St. Godric, and it is with this treatment of himself as a holy man by others that the protagonist find his main concern. Well over one hundred years in age and nearing death, Godric finds himself joined by Brother Reginald who desires to record an account of his life. But the story he wishes to write is at great odds with that which Godric himself wishes to impart.

In the novel, Godric recounts his life, considering both the present and the past. “I’ve told my life from both its ends at once,” he explains near the end. The first half of his hundred years is his youth, it might be said. This is the story of a man who is not seeking God but is nevertheless being sought by him. The second half, his agedness, is the story of a man who, though still a sinner, is nonetheless one redeemed by God, and who tries to live his life accordingly. And these two aspects of his life are surely not the end of Godric’s story. “The third’s the Godric yet to be,” he confesses, “the Godric God will raise again to life and either burn in Hell as he deserves or caulk and patch until he’s fit to sail to Heaven at last.” Though a hermit for the latter fifty years of his life, he understands that salvation is not dependent on his works. “When I deserved it least, God gave me most,” he admits in humility. One can almost hear Paul’s words to Romans in this passage: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

In reading this book, one cannot help but contemplate again the concept of the monastic or hermitic life. It is certainly an unpopular idea among Protestants today. And yet I must wonder whether this is necessarily a fair judgement. To be sure, the monastic life is not a “better” or more “holy” life. The Confessions speak as much, and with them I do agree. But perhaps it is worth noting it is not a worse life. As in the desert lived John the Baptist, so too there may remain today those who would do well in a monastery or convent. While it is not a higher calling, perhaps it nevertheless remains a calling for some.

The Augsburg Confession (27) condemns the piling on of rules and vows in such institutions, to be sure. But it seems to have no problem with the idea of a “free association”, as monasteries were in Augustine’s time (meaning one could leave at will). It appears to me that the early reformers’ criticisms of monasteries and convents were primarily of the abuses of the institutions and not necessarily of the idea of the institutions themselves. It is worth noting, I think, to remember that the early reformers allowed a number of monasteries to continue to operate after becoming Protestant. In fact, two such German monasteries (Amelungsborn Abbey and Loccum Abbey) continue in uninterupted use to this very day.

What do you think? Is there room in Lutheranism (and Protestantism at large, for that matter) for such institutions? To what extent do modern day bible colleges among evangelicals (at least those that require students to live on campus) provide similar structures to such religious communities? Could a long-term contemporary Protestant order exist today in North America without being thought by the average Christian as a “holier” calling than their own?