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What do you say to an ignorant, greedy world? Nothing

The English are not much accustomed to monks treading the public stage. An exception in our time was the remarkable figure of Trevor Huddleston, the man who did more than any other individual to alert the world to the absurdities and evil of the apartheid system in South Africa. Hollow-eyed and lantern-jawed, Huddleston embodied a certain strand of Anglo-Catholic contemptus mundi. But it could be said that once expelled from the African scene, he had too little sympathy with his fellow middle-class white men to make much impact in England.

Less prickly than Huddleston, less vain, less flawed and less gifted, Basil Hume was easier for us to absorb. The tributes to this amiable former Abbot have rightly emphasised his qualities of sympathy, his appeal to all sorts and conditions, to people of his own faith, and those of other traditions. Some have linked his appeal to his undoubted personal holiness, and the holiness to the fact that he was a monk of Ampleforth. But for most purposes, the subversive implications of Hume's monastic life and career were downplayed. Many of the tributes have been happy to go along with the media-picture of a sports-loving Catholic bishop who supposedly presided over a golden age of English Roman Catholicism.

True, in the 23 years of his pontificate, Basil Hume received hundreds of discontented Anglicans into his church. But he watched priestly vocations plummet and attendances at mass fall by thousands.

Little by little, the world grew more worldly in the last 25 years, consumerism grew that little bit more greedy, and each younger generation that little bit more ignorant, more cut off from the Christian past.

When a decent period of mourning has passed, the Roman Catholics themselves might decide that this good, saintly, charming man had been as incapable as anyone else of stopping the inexorable, trivialising tide.

Those of us of a sceptical, or sensuous, disposition, whose minds are as incapable as our bodies are unwilling to submit to the Gospel's stern commands, might, however, take a different view of Basil Hume's period as Archbishop of Westminster. Whatever his qualities as a person, we have been pleased that for a quarter of a century a monk has been at the centre of public life.

It is mad ages, rather than periods of sanity, which have need of monks. In the comparatively sane eighteenth century, the deeply Christian Doctor Johnson could agree with the mocking sceptic Edward Gibbon, that monasticism was absurd. We should have expected Gibbon to say that "the monastic saints ... excite only the contempt and pity of the philosopher". But it is more surprising that Johnson, with his profound piety and his reverence for the ruins of Iona, for example, should have felt that monks had no place in modern life. "Their silence" is absurd, he said. "We read in the Gospel of the apostles being sent to preach, not to hold their tongues." And to a Lady Abbess he impertinently said: "Madam, you are here, not for the love of virtue, but the fear of vice."

Much of this "common-sense" attitude to monks and nuns persists in the English psyche. It extends to our essentially anti-religious, condescending belief that the God Squad should be patted on the head only for their good works. Thus - while we should hold the thought- processes of a Salvationist in derision, we single out the Salvation Army, of all Christian bodies, for special praise because they provide refuge for the urban dispossessed.

Monks and nuns can be similarly patronised if they do "good works". But - as we know really in our heart of hearts - that isn't the point of them. Their raison d'etre is something much more challenging and much crazier than that.

It may well be the case that future historians will consider that the abrasive, conceited Huddleston - pursued by demons - was a greater man than the modest public school housemaster Hume.

In our age of show, the inner character of either man is in some ways less important than the simple fact of their religious profession as monks. We can be less confident than Doctor Johnson or Gibbon that common sense and virtue go hand in hand, or that either will prevail against the madness on the one hand, the sheer shallowness on the other, of our times. The decision by some men and women in our midst to stand out against the pursuit of material and sexual gratification, or of wealth or success, is a perpetual reminder to us of an older wisdom we are too muddled to understand, of silence we are too noisy to catch.

It may be that the apostles were taught to preach to all nations. But what Johnson deliberately forgot was that monasticism recovered the sense, which philosophers such as Wittgenstein have also emphasised, that some truths are arrived at by silence. In any human society, there have always been those who - whether in Pythagorean communes or Tibetan monasteries - withdrew from the world, and stood the natural Darwinian urges of humanity on their head. From such places of "elected silence", which appeared to exist in contradiction of the world's values, the world has paradoxically derived strength.

I was talking to a young bookseller last week who said that, in the huge shop where he worked, the most popular religious or philosophical works were Buddhist, and that by far the most popular religious book was that of the Dalai Lama. The Western Church, which has so vacuously and foolishly absorbed so much modern claptrap, so many cliche-ridden notions and community, has at least held on to the monastic houses. In small patches they flourish - because we need them.

AN Wilson's `God's Funeral' is published by John Murray (pounds 20).