Book Review: The Lord as Their Portion, by Elizabeth Rapley

The Lord as Their Portion, The Story of Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World, by Elizabeth Rapley.

Elizabeth Rapley takes on the monumental task of presenting a comprehensive overview of Catholic religious orders from their roots in Christian monasticism in the fourth century all the way through the end of the nineteenth century.

She does an amazing job, considering each individual order could fill a book of equal length (about 300 pages). And not only are the internal developments of these orders rich stories in themselves, but the impact orders had (and continue to have) on history is sweeping in its scope.

If like me you don’t know the difference between a Carthusian and a Cistercian and a Franciscan and a Dominican and a Jesuit, this book will give you a good understanding. If you’re interested in world political, military, and religious history, again, this book is for you.

Rather than try to consider the finer points of the book as a whole, I’ll just stick to a couple observations that surprised and enlightened me.

First, religious orders have splintered like Protestant sects and sprouted like plants over the centuries. Usually the cause of a split was either theological and/or practical. Franciscans, for instance, experienced many splits because some wanted to stay true to St. Francis’s ultra simplicity and ultra poverty, whereas others in the order felt some loosening was required to survive and thrive with larger numbers. As society changed, orders changed or were created to fill various practical and societal needs. Urbanization, for instance, created a need and opportunity for schools, and Jesuits came to dominate that arena. When society needed nurses, orders rose to the occasion. When missionaries were needed at home or in far flung discovered lands, orders rose to the occasion.

The multiplication of orders is in some respects thus like the multiplication of loaves, providing sustenance to the world from seemingly nothing. This phenomenon also discredits the idea of a monolithic Catholicism: Reactionary, moderate, and liberalizing orders peacefully (and at times not so peacefully) coexisted all throughout history.

Second, Ripley explains something that has always perplexed me, how it came to be that certain orders do little but pray 24/7/365, even to this day. The answer is that in the Middle Ages, people had strict roles: there were people who labored, people who fought, and people who prayed. Prayer was considered essential, as essential as food and defense. But it was only the prayers of the religious that were thought to reach God, so orders became processing plants, so to speak, for the intercessory prayers (and other types of prayers) for nobles and eventually laborers and soldiers. The high demand for prayer led to rapid growth of these orders, orders as indispensable to society as food producers and armies.

The book is easy to read; you don’t have to be an historian. Given the scope of her subject, Ripley does jump around a bit from country to country, order to order, event to event. There is a lot of ebb and flow in the fortunes of the orders, and that much is presented clearly enough throughout the course of the centuries.

If this book sounds to daunting, try St. Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton. It’s a lengthy essay and a profoundly enlightening account of the saint’s life, his order, and the impact he had on our entire world.