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.


Monks and the goal of reading in the 6th century

I am reading Pierre Riché, Edcuation and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries. Of relevance to my ongoing posts about the Rule of St Benedict is his discussion of reading. First of all, Riché establishes that there was a common Latin Mediterranean monasticism and monastic culture in the sixth century. Then he discusses what monastic education would look like. It is all focussed on what St Benedict calls the ‘school for the Lord’s service‘ — education in asceticism. To that end, they have the Bible and the Fathers and the lives of saints read aloud to them, and they spend time reading these same texts. Not for intellectual growth nor even for understanding as we would think it:

To what end did frequent reading of the Bible and the other texts we have cited lead? Historians have taken quite different and even opposing positions on this subject, especially insofar as the beginnings of Benedictine monasticism are concerned. According to some, monks read the Bible without ever truly appreciating its meaning. Others claim that the monks abandoned themselves to learned study and portray Benedict as the ‘initiator of Biblical studies in the West.’

We have only the texts with which to settle this debate — in particular, the regulae, which speak of lectio, especially of lectio divina and meditatio. But what do these terms mean? The intellectual vocabulary of the period was quite rich but rather imprecise. For example, meditatio, which for the Church Fathers often meant ‘prayer,’ [cites Jerome and Cassian] in the rules meant ‘study,’ especially ‘preparatory study.’ Meditari litterasmeditari psalmos meant to learn to read and to learn the Psalter by reading it aloud in order to become thoroughly familiar with it. [Benedict, Rule of the Master, Cassiodorus] Meditari was also synonymous with legere, which ordinarily meant ‘to read’; but when Benedict spoke of the lectio divina, did he not mean something more than simply reading? Lectio, for the grammarians, was the beginning of interpretation. ‘To read’ the Bible, then, could mean to study it intensively under the direction of the abbot. Was the abbot to explicate the hidden meaning of the Scriptures to the monks and to be, as was said of Achivus of Agaune, an ‘interpretator insignis?’ All that is certain is that the abbot was primarily charged with directing the spiritual and moral life of the monks. He was more a ‘physician for the soul’ than a teacher; a passage in the Regula Magistri portrays him curing an ‘illness’ with words and appropriate readings. I see no place for the establishment of ‘Christian learning’ as Saint Augustine understood it in the ascetic climate described by the regulae.

According to Cassian, who borrowed the thought from Evagrius Ponticus, purity of heart was preferable when learning when it came to delving into the meaning of Scripture. The cenobites of Gaul and Italy remained true to this advice. Caesarius said that humility, obedience, and charity were the primary conditions necessary for lectio and oratio, while Benedict, like Cassian, insisted on ‘puritas cordis.’ Cenobites, beginners in the art of asceticism,[Benedict] were apprentices under the direction of their abbot. Their final goal was real meditatio, the contemplation of God.[Cassian] Legere and meditari mean more ‘to taste’ than ‘to understand.’

Thus the monk’s religious culture was an exclusively ascetic culture. While there is no doubt that Benedict founded an original monastic organization, he was somewhat less original in the realm of religious culture. He compares in this respect more with the Eastern cenobites than with Cassiodorus. This monastic culture, which, as we have described it, was completely opposed to profane culture, was also proposed as a model for clerics. (120-122)

A quick note: This is explicitly a discussion of sixth-century southern Gaul and Italy, not the wider monastic culture that will grow up in Benedictine monasteries and which is described and studied by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

The Benedict Option, Chapter 3: A Rule for Living (and Norcia!)

This is my fifth post blogging through The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. In Chapter 3, Dreher brings us into contact with both the content of Benedict’s Rule and the Benedictine community that currently inhabits Norcia (ancient Nursia), St Benedict’s home town. The monastery at Norcia first opened its doors in the Central Middle Ages. Napoleon closed them in 1810, and they were reopened in 2000 with an American abbot and an international community of monks.

I was hoping for more descriptions of what life looks like for the monks at Norcia than Dreher provided; he rather uses interviews with the monks to scatter their own personal experience throughout Dreher’s discussion of some of the more important features of the Rule of St Benedict for us today. I am glad he did this, since it gives the Rule something of a personal touch. It’s not just a 1500-year-old document, but a way of life that still impacts people today.

The Benedictine virtues that Dreher picked out are order, prayer, work, asceticism (mostly fasting), stability (perhaps the most countercultural for my generation), community, and hospitality. Each of these is ordered in Benedict’s Rule to direct us Godward into holiness. We must learn in community to bear with each other’s burdens. We must learn in hospitality to find Christ everywhere. We learn from stability how to face our problems and live through them, rather than running away.

Reading this chapter, it struck me that most of these virtues could easily be taught from most of what we might call ‘mainstream’ Late Antique ascetic and monastic writings — actually, even ones associated with extreme movements such as Messalianism and Encratism. This draws me to a question that Bill asked in the comments on my second post of the series — what other monastic rule would I put forward for the 21st century?

I still don’t have a great answer; I’d have to revisit the others. But I think in any such conversations with the wider church, unless you run in circles that are still vigorously promoting ‘Celtic’ (Insular) Christianty or you are Eastern Orthodox, the Rule of St Benedict is going to win. There are two reasons.

First, as I said above, there is very little that is unique to this Rule. I imagine that Dreher knows this; he is a former Roman Catholic, now Eastern Orthodox. From his concerns and writing styles, besides the fact that he admits to having changed denominations twice, I suspect he is a former evangelical. Anyway, given the neo-Patristic bent of contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as the ongoing Philokalic renewal, and the fact that Dreher wrote a book about Dante, I think he’s decided that the focus should be on RB.

It’s a lot shorter than a lot of other texts. I think the Cassian Option might be nice, but the Institutes are already much longer and more rigorous than Benedict’s Rule, let alone the Conferences that are twice as long again or more. It’s a third the length of the Rule of the Master but less rigorous. Also less rigorous than either of Columbanus’ Rules.

The Rule of St Benedict is not the easiest read for the modern mind, but it easier than Evagrius Ponticus or most authors in the Philokalia or John Climacus. If we want to see a spiritual renewal that people can actually engage with, Benedict is actually a more realistic option than most of his near-contemporaries. In fact, its great promoter of the 810s, St Benedict of Aniane, came to this conclusion. He preferred some of the other rules, but felt that RB was just a more realistic option for most monasteries.

Second, it is more accessible. RB exists online in multiple places. There is a Penguin Classics translation, as well as the very cheap RB 1980 translation. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library has a translation with Latin text for $35 (USD). Availability helps. It is also accessible in terms of familiarity. Everyone at least recognises St Benedict’s name. But who ever heard of St Hesychios the Priest?

RB is a document people recognise, can get there hands on, and can rally around. It is a powerful cultural touchstone for western Christianity, being the foundational document for monastic life from the 800s onwards. The Order of St Benedict is not the only monastic order to use it; it is the rule of life for the Cistercians and others as well.

Thus, even once I think of a different text I may prefer, I don’t think any other text will be as successful. Besides, the Rule of St Benedict has time for reading Late Antique ascetic texts built in, anyway. So those who wish to see other texts in the mix should get them. In a couple of chapters, Dreher does recommend the Church Fathers more broadly.

Coming back to Dreher more precisely, this chapter is a good one, a soft introduction to the Rule and its living legacy in Norcia, discussing its relevance for today.