Philokalic Friday: The monastery and ‘the world’

Today I read John of Karpathos’ second text in The Philokalia, the ‘ascetic discourse’, also addressed to encourage the despondent monks of India (Ethiopia). Frankly, this work is an example of what is wrong with much in the monastic movement. John’s way of encouraging them to stay in the monastery is to argue that life in the world, with marriage and children, is lesser, that has less merit before God, that people ‘in the world’ live according to the passions, whereas the monastery is where asceticism happens and where true blessedness is found.

As a husband and father, I can assure this ascetic that there is an asceticism of marriage and an asceticism of parenthood.

Is not the heart of ascetic labour, ‘Take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and come, follow me’?

How is the married estate excluded?

Now, if you are a newcomer, fear not: I don’t hate monasticism, and I know that not all monks think that they’re holier than us. I have no doubt many of them are, but not because of their monastic profession. Rather, it is their faithfulness in discipleship in their vocation, just as it would be for a holy married person.

But it still rankles when I read it.


Blogging Benedict: Entering the monastery

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

According to the Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58, entry into the monastery goes as follows:

  • A few days at the guest house for the persistent
  • Two months as a novice
  • Read the Rule. Can leave if they don’t like it.
  • Six more months. Read the Rule as above.
  • Another four-month testing period.
  • Finally admitted

The three central (famous!) vows:

  • Stability
  • Poverty
  • Obedience

In making these vows, the new monk is stripped in the oratory and clothed in monastic garb. Thus everything he was is gone and everything he is is now invested in the community. He has not even his own clothing. He has no money to provide for himself. He has vowed not to leave. And he has vowed to surrender his own disordered will to that of the community under its abbot.

This is a radical commitment.

Few non-monastic Christian communities today have such radical commitment. Varieties exist in some Anabaptist communities, of course. Most of us don’t belong to those. Most of us belong to congregations that would barely notice if we were gone.

What if we were to invest in stability? This is certainly part of the Benedictine freedom of simplicity, isn’t it? Force yourself to stick with your local church, not merely in spite of the people who annoy you or the preaching that you dislike for one reason or another or the hymns/songs that aren’t your favourites, but specifically to fall in love with those people, that preacher, and find Jesus in that music.

That would take humility, as opposed to just leaving. Not that we should never go, but that we should more often stay instead.

What if we were to invest in the ideal of poverty? This one is possibly harder. Imagine that all your goods belong to the whole Christian community (cf. Acts 2). Then give cheerfully in the collection plate. Share with others. Look for opportunities to do good. Have people over to your house in rich hospitality. Living like that (which I certainly don’t do!) would probably revolutionise how we love others.

What if we were to invest in obedience? This one is probably hardest for our culture. Obedience has been abused, certainly. But Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, makes the point in his chapter about service that choosing to serve others means they can’t walk all over you because you have already willed your act of service. Their own evil hearts may seek to abuse you, but you cannot be abused, for you already wish to serve. That said, I actually do believe in boundaries; if your acts of service for others are harming your family life, for example, you need to find new ways of serving.

What if we were this radically invested in our churches?

Would it make us into better disciples? Would it make more disciples? These are the two questions I am now considering as I read through my notes on Benedict.

The Four Kinds of Monks

When I blogged about Benedict, Rule ch. 1, I had forgotten that John Cassian (subject of my MA dissertation!) had also discussed the different kinds of monks (Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism has reminded me). As you will recall, Benedict lists the four kinds of monks as coenobites, anchorites/hermits, sarabaites, and gyrovagues. He gets this from the Rule of the Master, and the Master (not a Timelord) gets it from Cassian about a century before.

Here’s John Cassian, Conferences 18.4, in the old Victorian translation:

Wherefore you should first hear how or whence the system and beginning of our order took its rise. For only then can a man at all effectually be trained in any art he may wish, and be urged on to practise it diligently, when he has learnt the glory of its authors and founders. There are three kinds of monks in Egypt, of which two are admirable, the third is a poor sort of thing and by all means to be avoided. The first is that of the Cœnobites, who live together in a congregation and are governed by the direction of a single Elder: and of this kind there is the largest number of monks dwelling throughout the whole of Egypt. The second is that of the anchorites, who were first trained in the Cœnobium and then being made perfect in practical life chose the recesses of the desert: and in this order we also hope to gain a place. The third is the reprehensible one of the Sarabaites. And of these we will discourse more fully one by one in order. Of these three orders then you ought, as we said, first to know about the founders. For at once from this there may arise either a hatred for the order which is to be avoided, or a longing for that which is to be followed, because each way is sure to carry the man who follows it, to that end which its author and discoverer has reached.

Cassian (in the guise of Abba ) goes on to discuss these three types of monk in turn. Coenobites are obvious, it seems to me, as are anchorites/hermits. Sarabaites are a bit harder to pin down. They are basically ‘monks so-called’ when you consider Cassian’s description in Conf. 18.7. They settle where they please and do what they please — so long as it is loud and clear to everyone that they are monks. That is, they are vainglorious about their monastic profession but fail to live by the monastic way in actual fact.

If I remember correctly, besides real references to Egypt, Cassian has in his sights (as argued in Richard J. Goodrich, Contextualizing Cassian) those Gallo-Roman and Italian aristocrats who retire to their villas to lead the contemplative life, but are still served by their slaves and hang out with their aristocratic friends to have deep conversations. As monasticism becomes more regularised in Gaul, aristocratic monks and nuns prove a problem because they resist the spiritual headship of their abbots and abbesses, especially if they or their families had been donors to the monasteries before making solemn profession. (This is a recollection of mine from Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks.)

Funny how these things go.

Anyway, what of Benedict’s gyrovagues? It should be clear from the above that since Benedict and the Master are using Cassian as a source, they do not have the Irish in mind for any of this, since Cassian pre-dates both Palladius and Patrick, even if early to mid-sixth-century Italy was aware of Ireland and wandering Irish monks (which I sincerely doubt; we overplay the importance of the Irish on the continent before Columbanus and even then overplay Columbanus’ importance).

Cassian doesn’t mention gyrovagues. He and Germanus, in fact, look suspiciously like gyrovagues. He does give us a fourth kind of monk (18.8), but these are false anchorites — monks who joined a coenobium but were too proud and hardheaded and hardhearted to submit to the community and the abbot, so they left on the pretence of needing to become hermits. But their hearts are not truly those of solitaries.

Elsewhere, Cassian warns against seeking the solitary life because you don’t get along with people. He points out that you will bring along your own dark heart when you go. If your great demon is anger, you cannot think you’ve progressed in virtue by not being angry when there is no one to anger you. You must overcome such passions only by living amongst others.

Benedict’s gyrovagues come from The Rule of the Master. As summarised by Peters, the Master says of gyrovagues:

They take advantage of others’ hospitality by eating sumptuous meals and abusing charity, acting as if they are faithful monks whose journey has been hard and are therefore worthy of gracious hospitality. They feign humility and essentially act as thieves, robbing the hosts to satiate their gluttonous habits. (p. 62)

If Irish exile/pilgrim-monks had made their way to Italy, I admit the possibility of them being the Master’s target. There is probably also a local kind of abuse going on here, though. Over the fifth and sixth centuries, monasticism became a regularised feature of life in the western Mediterranean. Why not become a wandering ‘monk’ and enjoy the hospitality of the various monasteries rather than settle down and live the hard life of obedience to a rule?

Obedience to a rule, to an abbot, or to a spiritual father (‘abba’) is a common feature of early eastern and western monasticism. The gyrovagues and Sarabaites lack this. I find it unsurprising, then, that Cassian, the Master, and Benedict reject these monks.

St Cuthbert: Action & contemplation in Northumbria

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

Today is the Feast of St Cuthbert. Not only is my office a two-minute walk from the tomb of the Venerable Bede (d. 735), it is also about the same distance from that of St Cuthbert (d. 687),* whose life Bede wrote a few times — once in verse, once in prose, and once as part of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. So before my thoughts on contemplation and action really get biblical, they’re going to be historical.

I’ve blogged on St Cuthbert before, and I’ve had an accidental (providential?) tendency to follow him around. St Cuthbert started his contemplative career as a monk of Melrose (which I’ve visited), and one of his duties while holding office in the monastery was preaching in the countryside. It is extremely likely that the country folk of what is now southern Scotland in the mid-600s were still practising whatever Anglo-Saxon paganism was.** So evangelism was part of his monastic career from fairly early on.

Remember that the professed goal of monasticism is to go off and spend time in intentional community (or entirely alone) and pray, seeking purity of heart and freedom from the passions so that you can get to know God better. What’s interesting is how few monks ever get to spend all that time alone; too many of them end up helping others. Indeed, the missionaries of Britain from both the Continent and Ireland were monks. Monk missionaries are a thing.

Worth contemplating. 😉

Later, St Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, which was the episcopal see for the Kingdom of Northumberland. His job was the care of souls as well as the management of the monastery on Holy Island. He oversaw the introduction of the Rule of St Benedict on Lindisfarne. His life of contemplation remained wedded to a life of service and action.

Even later, St Cuthbert became a hermit on an island called Inner Farne and had little desire to spend time with anybody but the local birds and Jesus. The hermit’s life is meant to be a life of single-minded devotion to Jesus and cultivation hesychia, or peacefulness/stillness. People still brought their problems to him, though.

St Cuthbert is Northumbria’s biggest hit. He was so popular that, when local unrest and a few Viking raids made the monks leave Lindisfarne, they brought St Cuthbert (and King St Oswald’s head) with them, eventually depositing him in their new cathedral on the rocky peninsula that is Durham. Lots of miracles of one sort or another are attributed to his relics and to visions of him and suchlike.

In 1104, the tomb was opened and a very laborious inventory made, described by Symeon of Durham — including St Cuthbert’s undecayed body.

Anyway, for us today, we should consider this dual life of St Cuthbert — the preaching and praying. The contemplation and action. The monasticism and mission. The evangelism and eremetism. I believe that this sort of radical commitment to the love of God through prayer and meditation, coupled with love to neighbour through preaching and acts of mercy, is what will fuel the new evangelisation of Europe.

Not choral evensong. Not the latest light show on the stage. Not ‘relevant’ sermons. Not making church feel less ‘churchy’. Not more gospel tracts. Not better gospel tracts. Not contemporary Christian music. Not organ concerts. Not serving fairtrade coffee after church.

Contemplation and mission.

*Actually, in terms of straightforward proximity, I am closer to Cuthbert than Bede, but because one enters Durham Cathedral from the back, and Bede is buried near the narthex but Cuthbert in the amubulatory, Bede is closer in terms of walking distance.

**We know very little because, although they loved writing almost as soon as they converted to Christianity, Anglo-Saxons did not love writing about their pagan past. And, since the Old Norse Eddic poetry and sagas are about as far in time from St Cuthbert as St Cuthbert is from Jesus, they are actually less helpful than you’d think.

Contemplation and Action in Scripture

One of the things I’d like to do some day is make a really good case for contemplation/mysticism using the Bible as a way to get low Protestants across the threshold of some truly great literature of the Christian life. I see that Greg Peters has already beat me to it in the first chapter of The Story of Monasticism, although his approach is different from what mine would be (so there’s room for both of us). Towards the end of his series of biblical exempla of contemplatives he writes:

Biblically, the active life and the contemplative life are not in tension with each other but are meant to complement each other. This has not always been the case in the history of the Christian church, where oftentimes the so-called contemplative life was valued much greater than the so-called active life. Putting aside this imbalance, however, does not change the biblical revelation that presents a calling to active ministry coupled with the expectation that active ministry serves and complements contemplative ends. The Bible not only depicts God calling people to a particularly active apostolate — such as pastor, missionary, or evangelist — but it also depicts inidividuals called to the practice of lovingly gazing on God’s presence, most often evidenced in a direct one-to-one encounter with God. (pp. 14-15)

Today, especially amongst low-church Protestants as well as in ‘the world’, the active life is prized very, very highly. Too highly, at times. We would do well to wed it with the contemplative.

Philokalic Friday: Encouragement from John of Karpathos

This season has not been the best.

This past Saturday I received a rejection letter from a two-year postdoc that was the position I most wanted this coming year. And yesterday I was rejected by a one-year postdoc that I also fervently desired. My current job ends at the close of August, so academic work is not simply a matter of building my career or living my dream but of survival for my family. This is not an easy season, Lent or not.

Lent hasn’t really been working very well, either. We were travelling the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, and I had a lecture to finish preparing and then to deliver that evening, so I missed any Ash Wednesday service. Besides the Lent Book Poll resulting in finishing off The Philokalia, Vol. 1, as my Lenten reading, I didn’t really pray or think about a discipline or abstinence of any sort. So I’ve felt a bit off to begin with.

This reading of The Philokalia has brought me to John of Karpathos’ writings encouraging monks in ‘India’ (apparently actually Ethiopia) who wanted to throw in the towel. So:

The demons try to undermine your inward resolution by buffeting your souls with an untold variety of temptations. Yet out of these many tribulations a garland is woven for you; Christ’s power ‘comes to its fulness in us in our weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). It is usually when our situation is most gloomy that the grace of the Spirit flowers within us. ‘Light has shone in darkness for the righteous’ (Ps. 112:4 LXX) — if, that is, we hold fast to our confidence and the rejoicing of our hope firmly to the end (Heb. 3:6). (Ch. 19)

When you are being tested by trials and temptations, you cannot avoid feeling dejected. But those who till the hearth of hardship and tribulation in their hearts are afterwards filled with great joy, tears of consolation and holy thoughts. (Ch. 30)

Whatever you’re facing, may you have strength to carry on today.

Blogging Benedict: Humility vs Arrogance

Chapter 57 of the Rule says:

But if one of them [the craftsmen] becomes arrogant because he is skilled at his craft, believing that he is benefiting the monastery, he should be removed from that craft and not allowed to resume it until he has shown humility and the abbot tells him he can. (trans. White)

Apply this to your own work, particularly if you are good at what you do. Remember, whatever we do/create at work, at home, in leisure, is meant to work together with everything for the good of all, and not for our own self-aggrandisement.