Thomas Meton is probably the best known monk in America, but he was not beyond criticizing monasticism.
Franciscans follow the example of St Francis, but many of them will readily admit that their father Francis would be highly critical of the way they live.
Christians claim to follow Christ, but sometimes, in some cases, even Jesus would have a hard time seeing a reflection of his Gospel in what they say and do.
Merton said in his Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander that certain conceptions of monasticism "seem to me to be simply a fancy-dress adaptation of what we are claiming we have renounced."
Who can embrace Lady Poverty as Francis did? And wash the sores of lepers? And settle for the hermit's tunic, cord and sandals? And respond to life's troubles with "Peace and good!" as Francis did?
How can we take Jesus seriously when he instructs his followers to turn the other cheek, sell what we have and give the profits to the poor, and take no money or change of clothes when we are out on a missionary journey?
Some pundits explain that the example of the earliest monks, mendicants and missionaries was simply that --an example. It was not, these critics say, something to be slavishly imitated, but rather their example was an ideal to be pursued, a guide for direction --but always, always in moderation!
Those pundits may be right. But if monasticism and the dream of Francis and the Gospel of Jesus are to be effective today (in this 21st century), it means we have to keep coming back to them, keep re-visiting the ideal, keep judging our modus operandi in the light of these models.
One of the major efforts and benefits of the gathering of bishops at the Second Vatican Council was the insistence on looking back to the origins of the Church and the teachings of Christ.
There were some "new things" to merge from that Council, but in large measure the "changes," especially in liturgy and ecclesiology, were prompted by returning to the past. The overall mentality of the Council Fathers was not liberal but conservative. It was a conservative mindset that wanted to reclaim the ancient ways; it was a liberal mindset that wanted things to stay as they had developed during the Middle Ages.
Although the Vatican's interview (some call it inquisition) of the religious Sisters over the past few years was not always well-received, one postive result came from the encouragement that the Sisters should return to the charism of the founders of their orders.
The Sisters and Daughters of Charity reflected anew on the life and example of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. The Poor Clares revisted the model set by St. Clare. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament reviewed the ministry and spirituality of Mother Katharine Drexel.
Going back to the past is at the heart of recollection, reflection and retreat.
Going back to the past does not denigrate progress or undermine adapatation to current needs and circumstances. But going back to the past reminds us about where we came from and why we undertook the journey in the first place.
Look at the way the Church (the hierarchy) operates today. Look at the in-fighting between so-called theological traditionalists and progressives, between liturgical conservatives and liberals, between laity and clergy. Look at the personal and private ways you and I live our Christian commitment.
And then ask, "Is this what Jesus had in mind?"
Most of us will assess that the world is too much with us, that ego is in control, that the Gospel has been diluted to serve our own weaknesses and sense of well-being.
Periodically we must stop, go back, and re-assess. A return to our origins helps us re-capture the vision, and only in its light can we truly move forward.
It is still another paradox of the spiritual life: to advance you must go back.