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.

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Gregory of Tours and the need for real discipleship

My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)
My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)

So I’m reading Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks right now, and not for any insight into mission and discipleship or disciplines but for insight into the culture and society of Merovingian Gaul. Nonetheless, as a Christian reader I cannot turn off my personal perspectives and thoughts while reading.

This passage seized my thoughts the other day, and I thought I’d share with you:

Chilperic was the next to fly into a rage. … He continued to advance with his troops and invdaed the Limousin, the district of Cahoors and other territories near by, all of which he ravaged and sacked. He burned the churches, stole their holy vessels, killed the clergy, emptied the monasteries of monks, raped the nuns in their convents and caused devastation everywhere. There was even more weeping in the churches at this period than there had been at the time of Diocletian’s persecution.

48. To this day one is still amazed and astonished at the disasters which befell these people. We can only contrast how their forefathers used to behave with how they themselves are behaving today. After the missionary preaching of the bishops, the earlier generations were converted from their pagan temples and turned towards the churches; now they are busy plundering those same churches. The older folk listened with all their heart to the Lord’s bishops and had great reverence for them; nowadays they not only do not listen, but they persecute instead. Their forefathers endowed the monasteries and churches; the sons tear them to pieces and demolish them. -Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 4.47-8, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics), p. 244

A brief historiographical note. As I’ve mentioned before, I often read the sources for Christian history in two ways — one is what this post is about, which is a more devotional approach that seeks to see what insight a text/image/story might have for my own personal life and faith. The other is the more critical approach that sets something within its context.

Grégoire de Tours, Histoire des Francs, livres 1 à 6, page de frontispice.jpg
Gregory’s History of the Franks, Frontispiece from Paris, BnF Latin 17655 fol. 2. Late 7th c.

In Gregory’s case, we should read passages such as this with some caution; he is not a pure, accurate, unbiased observer. He is, in fact, a bishop deeply invested in the culture, politics, and religion of his world. So when he imagines that the days of Clovis (d. 511, recounted in Book 2) are better than today, we need to keep in mind that Gregory is a bishop first, historian second. Gregory’s description of the earlier days may thus be rosier than the truth (I’m inclined to think it is), and his description of his own days may be gloomier, but both are there to encourage piety in the reader.

Back to my original thought. What Gregory of Tours is concerned about here is sort of like a multigenerational vision of a lot of evangelistic outreach events. That is, people heard, received, and ingested the (Catholic) faith with vigour, but before too long they were just as bad (or worse) than before. For Gregory, this is something that happened over generations. Eighty years before Gregory’s day, they were on fire for their new faith, and accordingly built churches and sought the evangelisation of their people. Now, in Gregory’s lifetime, they are raping nuns and pillaging churches — worse than the last great persecution of the pagan emperors carried out by Diocletian!

It is my belief, as a promoter (but, sadly, bad practicioner) of Christian discipline and the formation of disciples, that what (supposing Gregory to be accurate) transpired was a failure of disciple-making. The kings of the Franks after Clovis were not, it seems, brought into the deep fellowship with Christ and surrender to His will as Lord and King that true discipleship calls for. The above story about ransacking churches aside, they continued to deal treacherously with one another, commit adultery, murder people, and engage in unprovoked war. The bishops may have had converts, but over the generations of life in Frankish Gaul, they neglected to make disciples.

This makes me think of big evangelistic rallies that often have no system of follow-up. 1345 people came to Jesus! How many stayed with Jesus? Or, closer to home, how poorly we raise the children in our congregations to be confident, joyful disciples of Jesus Christ. Of the children to whom I taught Sunday School as a teenager, I can think of none who is now a churchgoer or actively involved in the life of faith. Or those people at church camp who had dramatic conversion stories but who now call themselves agnostic.

How many young people ‘graduate’ from church at Confirmation or at the end of High School? A friend of mine said that several young people who were in the group who got baptised with him disappeared after the baptism — they had dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to make it into heaven, hadn’t they? Isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?

‘The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.’ (Acts 11:25)

We should pray and seek the face of God so that we may see fewer failures of discipleship and disciple-making.