Lessons from the Carmelite monks


Friends in the beautiful Belgian city of Gent had reserved a room for us (my wife and myself)  in the local Carmelite monastery. The monastery of this ancient mendicant order is situated in the busy heart of the historic city of Gent, but nonetheless is an oasis of rest. The website of the monastery tells the visitor that the Carmelite monks of Gent continue to form a living community. Looking at the size of the historic buildings, the monumental eighteenth century church and the magnificent garden, it would appear that it is, indeed, still very much a ‘going concern’. But there is another side to it. Little is actually left of the real monastic community. Only some seven elderly monks remain.

The major part of the complex us presently in use as a conference center named ‘het Rustpunt’. After a significant renovation it offers excellent meeting facilities. A number of spacious rooms are very suitable for group meetings or seminars. The ‘Refter’ has been changed into a very comfortable breakfast room. On the second floor, along the monks’-corridor, the few remaining monks have their lodgings. One floor higher, along the Eliah-corridor, one finds a series of comfortable hotel rooms for a few dozen guests. One of these rooms had been reserved for us during the past weekend.

If one does not like rest and quiet, and finds it hard to be without television for a few days, this is not the place to stay. This is a place for those who appreciate this kind of environment. It seemed to me that this would be an eminently suitable place for someone who wants to write a book and is in search for a place where one can concentrate for a few weeks, while thinking and working . . .

It is a good things that the Carmelites of Gent have succeeded in giving their center a new purpose. However, at the same time, it also made me sad. Hardly anything is left of an idealistic initiative that for many centuries gave lots of people meaning to their lives and provided a long tradition of serving God in an intense manner.

The Carmelites in Gent are surely not the only ones who see how their tradition is about to end. This experience is shared by people in all kinds of faith communities—also within Protestantism and even in the Adventist sphere. Local church communities that once flourished decline and disappear. Organizations and forms of experiencing the faith and of translating faith into service fall into disuse. Buildings may have to be closed and sold. And people are left with the vexing question where this process of decay will eventually end.

Does not honesty force us to conclude that a major part of the problem is that often the church is so attached to the forms that the content has receded into the background? That as christians we have not succeeded in time to create new forms for living our faith and have not devised new strategies to give expression to our desire to serve the people in relevant ways? Unfortunately , we find in all faith communities—including the Adventist Church—too many instances where a small group of people try to hang on to traditions that have outlived themselves, while they have not succeeded in creating new forms before it was too late. As a result there may still be a monks’ corridor, with some activities that have been started to postpone the inevitable end for a little time. The experience of the Carmelites in Gent teach us a clear lesson.