‘What piqued your interest in monasticism?’

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

A correspondent recently asked me this question. His answer was fairly straightforward: He met St Bernard and the Cistercians in his final semester of undergrad, and there was no looking back.

I, on the other hand, am incapable of straightforward answers!

Where did it all begin?

First there was St Francis. In actual truth, first there was John Michael Talbot, many of whose CDs (and, earlier, tapes!) my parents own. This led to St Francis, and my interest in the ascetic of Assisi was increased by his apperance in Grade 11 history class. This persisted, including reading John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St Francis in undergrad. But, like many, it was a narrow interest — just St Francis, not the movement, not other ‘monastic’ types.

Then came St John of the Cross. In high school, I went to Steve Bell’s concerts in Thunder Bay every year. One year, he sang a song inspired by St John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Then in first-year undergrad, I encountered this sort of … wild … Roman Catholic priest outside one night, staring at the stars. He said that the night sky always reminded him of St John of the Cross — so I went back to my dorm room and found the poem Dark Night on the internet. The idea, the ideal, of mysticism and union with the divine became embedded in my mind, but I did not read the whole book until the year after graduation.

The Desert Fathers took hold. Although I took a number of medieval courses in undergrad, including one where we read the Rule of St Benedict, the various monks encountered there never really grabbed me the way St Francis did as an individual, nor the way Carmelite mysticism did. Still, Sts Francis and John had tilled the soil. I was ready. In third year, when thinking of potential essay topics for the course ‘Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire’, a friend asked why I shouldn’t write about those crazy people who moved into the desert. So I did.

Cyprus solidified it. It was living on Cyprus for the year after graduation that made me maintain this interest. There I read St John of the Cross’s Dark Night for myself. I started in on The Philokalia. I met the Orthodox and their own ongoing engagement with monasticism, their own monastic tradition.

These aren’t the only points — I also read Esther de Waal’s book about the Rule of St Benedict, Seeking God, and a few other things, but these are the most important moments in this part of my spiritual autobiography.

So now, my own personal ‘spirituality’ is informed by St Athanasius, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, St John Cassian, (St?) Evagrius Ponticus, St Francis of Assisi, St Clare of Assisi, St Catherine of Siena, St Bernard of Clairvaux, The Philokalia, St John of the Cross, The Rule of St Benedict, St Teresa of Ávila, St Theophan the Recluse, St Gregory Palamas, St Maximus the Confessor, St Aelred of Rievaulx, Archimandrite Sophrony, St Porphyrios — all swirling around in there somewhere, showing me how poorly I measure up to the yardstick of Christ, but also showing how great His grace is for sinners like us.

St Cuthbert and missionary monks

Melrose Abbey

When I lived in Durham, my office was a two-minute walk from the powerful, weighty Romanesque/Norman cathedral. I visited the cathedral at least once a week to refresh my soul in what was, for us, a difficult year. If you turn right on entry and go to the Galilee Chapel, you find the tomb of the Venerable St Bede. If you turn left and walk along one of the broadest Romanesque naves of Europe, through the transept and into the late mediaeval Gothic expansion, you will find the tomb of St Cuthbert, behind the High Altar of the chancel.

St Cuthbert’s tomb is at the same height as the chancel, so you’ll have to take some stairs to get to it.

When King Henry VIII wanted the wealth of the church, combined with a Reformation zeal for simplicity, the old, glittering, glitzy, bejewelled shrine to St Cuthbert was dismembered (disiecti membra sancti?). Today, the saint lies interred beneath a black slab, similar to that of St Bede, ‘Cuthbertus’ inscribed in gold on it.

This body, intact for centuries (they disinterred it in 1104 and found it still to be fleshy and the limbs moveable), is Durham’s greatest treasure. To be sure, there are some mediaeval ecclesiastical politics behind the placement of St Cuthbert’s body, to do with the desire of Durham to be the episcopal seat of Northumberland, but the choice of St Cuthbert as Durham’s preferred saint is no accident.

Christianity arrived in (returned to) England in 597, and King Oswald of Northumberland brought St Aidan (d. 651) as his monastic mission-bishop based at Lindisfarne. The mission of St Aidan was something of a top-down affair. The king and his thegns converted, and the assumption was that their people would as well.

Around the time of Aidan’s arrival from Iona, Cuthbert, his most famous successor, was born. What makes St Cuthbert so interesting, from his time as a monk at Melrose to his death as a hermit on Inner Farne (at the time, all that was Northumberland), was the fact that, although a hermit at heart and contemplative by practice, he was also a preacher.

It is rumoured he preached as far north as Edwin’s Burg (Edinburgh), where a church to St Cuthbert stands today where once the shores of the Nor’ Loch lapped against the land. And he did not just preach to kings and carls, to thegns and landholders. He preached to the common folk of Northumberland, people to whom the king’s religion had not yet reached in the ensuing decades.

And this is why St Cuthbert is the greatest treasure of Durham Cathedral, for he really, truly was the instrument of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Gospel to Northumberland (which in medieval terms would include County Durham).

When I think about how we might reorient our lives and churches in post-Christendom, it is the example of such figures as Sts Cuthbert and Aidan that strikes me the most — people who are devoted to both the inner chamber, the secret room, the contemplative life of the mystic, and to the outer world, the preaching of the Gospel, the saving of the lost, the making of disciples.

Maybe we need more missionary monks.

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.

Review: The Monastic Achievement by George Zarnecki

The Monastic AchievementThe Monastic Achievement by George Zarnecki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My brother Michael got me this book for Christmas, and when I started it, I was thinking that somehow it would be a history of monasticism pure and simple. But it isn’t — probably because such a thing could hardly ever be written. In this volume of Thames & Hudson’s Library of Medieval Civilization, Zarnecki gives us the history of the monastic movement primarily interested in the art and architecture of the monastic world.

This book has five chapters: ‘Monastic Origins’, ‘To the Limits of Christendom’, ‘The Return to Simplicity’, ‘Contemplation and Action’, and ‘Monastic Art and Artists’. They move roughly chronologically from the Desert Fathers to the 1400s.

In Chapter One, Zarnecki begins his discussion with the biblical precedents for the ascetic life and the early Christian domestic forms of self-denial, then moves to Sts Antony and Pachomius. The next patristic ascetic is St Basil ‘the Great’ of Caesarea, who has been very influential in eastern Christian monasticism. St Basil rejected the life of hermits, having tried it himself, because he did not see how a hermit could fulfil Christ’s command to love one another.

My one important tweak of this section is that eastern monasticism is not all ‘Basilian’ the way Zarnecki talks about it as though every monastery followed Basil’s Asketikon the same way Benedictines follow St Benedict’s Rule. In reality, eastern monasteries are usually independently organised, and the monastery follows a rule established by its founding abbot. They do tend to be very similar and are inspired by St Basil, but they are ‘Basilian’ in the way the adjective makes it sound.

The main focus of this book, however, is western monasticism in the Middle Ages, so Zarnecki makes his way West very quickly, discussing the early patristic sources for western monasticism. This takes about a page, and then more extensive discussion of St Benedict ensues. After St Benedict, we are introduced to Irish Monasticism, the earliest monasteries of which leave us some very interesting archaeological remains with their bee-hive huts. Then comes St Augustine of Canterbury and the Benedictines in England.

[Aside] As is usual with many Anglophone books about the Middle Ages, a lot of attention is paid to England throughout the book. I don’t mind this, although England is not instrinsically more interesting than other places in Europe. It is simply a reflection of the knowledge and interests of Anglophone writers, publishers, and their audience. [End aside.]

After the Insular section with some magnificently beautiful images of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art, we meet the Carolingians and the influence their Reform had on monasticism — largely through regularisation and the spread of the Benedictines plus all that art. After the Carolingians comes the period of the Romanesque and the Order of Cluny.

Chapter Two discusses the spread and development of Romanesque in the 11th century when there was a monastic revival and the spread of many beautiful buildings built along similar lines, as well as the churches and art of the road to Compostela, with a discussion of the mother house at Cluny as the culmination of Romanesque art.

Chapter Three discusses the reform movements, above all the Cistercians, who are the most successful. These movements sought to return to the simplicity of the original Rule of St Benedict. Accordingly, their art and architecture tended to be quite plain — original Cistercian church buildings are square (no round apse!) and have no bell-tower. Their manuscripts tend not to have decoration, or — if they do — it is usually simple flower motifs (although Zarnecki gives us some striking examples that break such ideals).

Meanwhile in the mid-11th century, canons following the Rule of St Augustine were organised. These were clergy who lived a common life but who were also active in parish ministry and life — whereas the strictly-defined ‘monk’ lives only within the monastery walls and is truly ‘cloistered’ (a cloister is the covered walkway connecting the buildings of a monastery together).

Chapter Four brings us to the world of the Carthusians, who are hermits who live together — if you see a Charterhourse, you’ll note that in fact it is a series of small, one-room house, each with its own garden, looking into a common area with a chapel. Carthusians are the most austere monks — they all take a vow of perpetual silence. (I recommend the film Into Great Silence) And beside the Carthusians, we learn of the warrior monks, the Templars and Hospitallers, and their role in protecting pilgrims and the monastic houses they built in Europe and the Middle East. Also mentioned are the Teutonic Knights who did some ample conquering in north-central Europe.

We also meet the successors to the monks — in the 13th century, the heyday of monasticism was really over in Europe. Their place was being taken by the friars, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who also lived the ascetic, communal life, but who were preachers and much more active and visible in the community. The world was now Gothic, and the great architecture was now found in the cathedrals and parish churches, not in the abbeys and abbey churches. Manuscript production was moving to secular scriptoria. While monasteries would continue to produce and commission great art and architecture, their high point in such cultural influence was gone.

Finally, Chapter Five discusses monks and monk-art. Much art that we associate with the monasteries will actually have been created by lay craftsmen in the employ of the monastery, but the content will have been set. There are, however, some famous monk-artists, and it is evident that some of them were able to work in multiple media.

Throughout, Zarnecki discusses the art and architecture of the different orders and parts of western Europe under discussion. When tenable, he shows the relationship between an order’s ideals and its art. The book is accordingly full of pictures, which I found to be very useful as well as very lovely. Not only did I meet many interesting monastic persons while reading this book, I saw so much great art. In total, there are 19 colour plates and 109 black and white illustrations. I recommend it.

View all my reviews

Chrysostom: The monk’s habit is the garment for the Wedding Feast

14th-c Russian icon of this parable

The other night I read the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1-14, just before bed. Then I decided to think about it. I sort of understood most of it, but the end is not as straightforward as we all like to think the Bible is:

And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment; And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Mt 22:11-14 KJV)

I wasn’t so much concerned with ‘outer darkness’ and ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ as with ‘many are called, but few are chosen’.

Chrysostom from Ayia Sophia

Since I am myself, I turned naturally to St John Chrysostom (d. 407), that great Doctor of the Church. I didn’t reallly find the answer to what v. 14 means exactly, although the short version is, ‘Sure, we Gentiles are all called. But just because you trusted in God at some point and got baptised doesn’t mean you have no responsibilities to live a holy life now.’

The orator bishop says:

Then in order that not even these should put confidence in their faith alone, He discourses unto them also concerning the judgment to be passed upon wicked actions; to them that have not yet believed, of coming unto Him by faith, and to them that have believed, of care with respect to their life. For the garment is life and practice.

And yet the calling was of grace; wherefore then doth He take a strict account? Because although to be called and to be cleansed was of grace, yet, when called and clothed in clean garments, to continue keeping them so, this is of the diligence of them that are called.

The being called was not of merit, but of grace. It was fit therefore to make a return for the grace, and not to show forth such great wickedness after the honor.

You can read this section of Homily 69 on Matthew here, beginning at the fourth paragraph on p. 932. As you proceed, it will be much as you expect — he berates the congregation for being too worldly-minded, for not living by Christ’s commandments, for caring more about who became governor of which province, for …

not being monks.

Unexpected, but not surprising.

Chrysostom pulls out some of his golden* prose for the ensuing description of life in the desert-made-city.** St John Chrysostom was a former monk, so he had first-hand knowledge of what life was like for the average fourth-century monk. And Syria, where he had been a monk before joining the ranks of the ‘secular’ clergy, was a hotbed for weird and wooly monasticism — some of the more extreme examples of Late Antique ascetic piety arose there.{See footnote ***}

I quote the beginning of his ensuing oration on monks:

3. Wilt thou that I show thee them that are clad thus, them that have on a marriage garment?

Call to mind those holy persons, of whom I discoursed to you of late, them that wear garments of hair, them that dwell in the deserts. These above all are the wearers of the garments of that wedding; this is evident from hence, that how many soever purple robes thou wert to give them, they would not choose to receive them; but much as a king, if any one were to take the beggar’s rags, and exhort him to put them on, would abhor the clothing, so would those persons also his purple robe. And from no other cause have they this feeling, but because of knowing the beauty of their own raiment. Therefore even that purple robe they spurn like the spider’s web. For these things hath their sackcloth taught them; for indeed they are far more exalted and more glorious than the very king who reigns.

And if thou wert able to open the doors of the mind, and to look upon their soul, and all their ornaments within, surely thou wouldest fall down upon the earth, not bearing the glory of their beauty, and the splendor of those garments, and the lightning brightness of their conscience.

For we could tell also of men of old, great and to be admired; but since visible examples lead on more those of grosser souls, therefore do I send you even to the tabernacles of those holy persons. For they have nothing sorrowful, but as if in heaven they had pitched their tents, even so are they encamped far off the wearisome things of this present life, in campaign against the devils; and as in choirs, so do they war against him. Therefore I say, they have fixed their tents, and have fled from cities, and markets, and houses. For he that warreth cannot sit in a house, but he must make his habitation of a temporary kind, as on the point of removing straightway, and so dwell. Such are all those persons, contrary to us. For we indeed live not as in a camp, but as in a city at peace.

‘Thebaid’ by Fra Angelico, Uffizzi, Florence. Ascetic Egypt = Chrysostom’s paradise

This moved me (go on, read it to the end!). I am, admittedly, frequently moved by tales of monks and the lives of holy men and women in their quest for God — whether mystics, monastics, or missionaries.

But what are we up to? Are we clothing ourselves in the garments necessary for the banquet? Are we ready to feast with the King?

I am not here talking about justification or grace or any such thing.

I am talking about daily life.

Do we live as the pagans around us?

Come, let us get on our knees and pray. For there is no better place to start getting dressed.

*Pun on Chrysostomos (lit. ‘Goldenmouth’) intended.

**Hm … stealing from Derwas J Chitty or Athanasius/Antony?

*** Because everyone likes to read about this sort of thing: Simeon the Stylite on his pillar (d. 459; English trans of Syriac Life of Simeon the Stylite), this one guy who wore an iron belt under his clothes that was wearing away his flesh (see Theodoret’s History of the Monks of Syria), people who lived off wild herbs and had no shelter (boskoi in the Greek), several guys who never lay down to sleep, I think Simeon lived in a well before the pillar. It’s been a while since I looked at this material, sorry there’s not more.

Do ‘rules’ and ‘order’ stifle the Spirit?

St Ignatius of Antioch

For my two tutorials this week, the assigned texts for one were about the earliest evidence for church orders, ie. bishops, priests, deacons (and apostles and prophets). The other was about St. Francis of Assisi. Reading these, I’ve been thinking about rules and order and whether they are as stifling as some people say.

For example, the Didache (ca. 90-100) teaches about how to go about baptising people and the Eucharist, and talks about receiving apostles and prophets. Clearly the latter group has some sort of charisma from the Spirit; the point of rules here is to help people discern between false and true prophets. I do not believe this is a way of stifling the Spirit but, rather, practical guidance for people in real situations.

By St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 117), the ecstatic, charismatic role of the prophet seems to have melded with that of the local bishop — at least in Ignatius’ case. He asserts his authority through stating he has been given certain knowledge in a vision. This prophetic episcopal role will persist, as visible in St. Cyprian of Carthage’s statements regarding his own visions and dreams from the Spirit in the mid-200s. The Spirit has chosen to work with the people in the episcopal hierarchy — this is an observation regardless of whether or not episcopal hierarchy is the best way to run a church. The Spirit will blow wherever he pleases.

The bishop, the hierarchy, seem to be taking on the role of mediating the gifts of the Spirit to the people. Unfortunately, the only evidence I know of for this period of lay charisma is Montanism (discussed here), which the hierarchy branded as heretical. So perhaps the hierarchy was stifling the Spirit somewhat — although, if we take Cyprian and Ignatius at their word, the Spirit seems to have got around the issue and is still communiting the Divine Will to the Church through the members of the hierarchy.

And just when we think this state of affairs may solidify in the fourth century, the monastic movement begins — lay people outside of the official hierarchy of the Church claim direct access to God and special knowledge and mystical experiences. This potentially unstable element does not start to be tamed until the Early Middle Ages, after Benedict, and in the Carolingian age when Benedict’s Rule (discussed here) is used to regularise Western European monasticism.

And so we have entered that long, large, and largely passed-over middle half of Christian history. Did the mediaeval hierarchy with its various developments, its liturgies, its monasteries, its canon law — in all their various manifestations throughout the centuries and places of Western Europe — stifle the movement and action of the Holy Spirit? St. Hildegard, St. Bernard, readers of Dionysius, Lady Julian, St. Catherine of Siena, the miracle-workers of visionaries of insular Christianity (vs. the tendentious romance of ‘Celtic Christianity’), seem to say to me no.

Let us look at St. Francis of Assisi.

Talk about someone with rules. Rules about what you eat and when, what you pray and when, how you get your food, how you deal with money (don’t), about preaching and working and so on and so forth.

But look at the sheer whimsy of the man. Running off to become a hermit. Rebuilding San Damiano and Santa Maria di Portincula because of a vision. Singing songs of love to God in the streets. Abruptly preaching to birds, leaving his companions on the roadside. Abruptly leaving his companions on the road when he went to pray on an island for 40 days. Jumping off the dock to catch a boat to Syria. Climbing Assisi’s church steeple to ring the bell so the Assisians could enjoy the beauty of Sister Moon.

Blown by the Spirit, indeed.

But Francis respected the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the Pope, the priests, the Eucharist, all of that sort of thing. His was not an anti-clerical revolution. His charisma and openness to the the movement of the Spirit was not in opposition to how things were meant to be ordered — although undoubtedly opposed to how things often operated.

We must not mistake anti-clericalism for ‘openness to the Spirit’ and a desire for order for ‘stifling the Spirit.’ If the Third Person of the Trinity truly blows where (s)he wills, then it is not a matter of how we order our churches but a matter of our hearts. Are we open for the next adventure, even if that adventure is the mundane task of growing vegetables in the monastery garden? Or if the adventure is cleaning a leper? Or if the adventure is preaching yet another sermon on the magnificent love of God to a congregation who couldn’t care less? Or if the adventure is running off to be a missionary in Morocco?

If God pervades everything, our openness to his Spirit is not dependent upon our Church structures — be they allegedly anarchist or congregationalist or episcopal or presbyterian — but upon our hearts and those of our leaders. Same goes for Sunday morning worship.

St Francis and the Monastic Impulse

St Francis and Brother Rufus, by El Greco

Today is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. I have been a fan of St Francis since ever I learned of him, and have read The Little Flowers of St Francis, G K Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi, John Michael Talbot’s The Lessons of St Francis, and Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (my wee review here).*

Last night after Bible study, I was talking about my tutorial for tomorrow with one of the guys, a tutorial about the Desert Father St Antony of Egypt (saint of the week here). Like many evangelicals, my friend sees no appeal in monasticism, rightly (I believe) criticising the all-too-frequent tendency in monastic or eremitic circles to cut oneself off from the rest of the world that the commandments of Christ to make disciples cannot be fulfilled.

I, however, tend to find the monastic call somewhat appealing — certainly the ascetic/mystical call. When we look at St Francis (as at Antony), we see someone who took up the ascetic life out of a desire to live in radical obedience to Jesus. He gave away his very clothes so as not to be beholden to his earthly father, declaring to his local bishop that he now had only God for his Father!

And what does Francis do? He goes and rebuilds a local church. And then he gathers a band of fellow jongleurs de Dieu. And what do they do? They go around getting into all sorts of trouble and preaching the Good News of Christ.

This is the monastic impulse as it should be, I think. The single-minded devotion to Christ that we find in ascetics from Antony of Egypt to Benedict of Nursia (saint of the week here and here) to Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) is present in St Francis of Assisi. He abandons the life of a warrior or of a middle-class merchant with wealth. Rather than giving the regulated, required tithe to the poor, he gives all to the poor and joins their ranks, out of obedience to Christ’s call to give all your possessions to the poor.

St Francis spent hours and days and months in prayer, once going off to an island spontaneously and spending all of Lent on it praying. This is the monastic impulse at work. But St Francis takes this single-mindedness and turns it outward to the suffering world around him.

Francis doesn’t shut himself away in a cave or the thick walls of an Italian monastery. He goes out into the world, preaching the Gospel of Christ, working to save souls. This is the monastic impulse as it should be directed, I think. He engages in the usual ascetic practices of dietary restriction, prayer, and poverty, but he spends his days in the marketplaces of Italy, telling people the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, calling them to repentance.

The Franciscan friary — their equivalent of a monastery — is meant to be a stop along the way, a place for refreshment both physical and spiritual before going back out into the hostile world and engaging in the true mission of Francis: winning souls for Christ.

It all sounds terribly evangelical, doesn’t it?

*Also, I’ve written these blog posts: St Francis and Why You Like Him; The San Damiano Crucifix; Saint of the Week: St Francis; St. Francis of Assisi; What to Do with the Canticle of Brother Sun; and St Clare’s Laudable Exchange.