Further thoughts on missionary monks

Reflecting on my most recent post, the question arising is: What did Gregory’s missionary monks do, what did they look like? According to the Venerable St Bede (672-735, saint of the week here):

As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church. It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them. (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.26 trans. Sellar)

These two paragraphs likely cover a longer period of time than it seems.1  Nonetheless, we see here the evangelistic or ‘missional’ outworkings of the contemplative life upon the Kentish court. The life of the missionary monks resembles in many ways that of a monastery whether we look to Benedict, Columbanus, Cassian, or Basil. It also looks a lot like Acts 2:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It is typified, according to Bede by:

  • prayer
  • watchings (or vigils)
  • preaching to as many as they could
  • despising all worldly things
  • receiving only what they truly needed from the disciples
  • submitting themselves to suffering
  • gathering together
  • chanting the Psalms
  • celebrating Mass

If we are being inspired by the contemplative missionary, the two most controversial are likely to be despising worldly things and receiving from those they taught. Concerning the latter, I believe the idea is not that they are seeking material gain but rather the opposite. Unlike Jim and Tammy Bakker, Augustine and his companions accepted only what they needed to survive. This is in accord with what St Paul says of evangelists as well as The Didache. We pay our pastors, after all. But it does mean that this aspect does not apply to any of us laypersons who wish to start emulating the monastic mission in our own lives.

Despising worldly things has always been a hang-up for the affluent. I have no easy way around it, honestly. In our culture, especially, we should probably be seeking the Freedom of Simplicity and endeavouring to be Dethroning Mammon.

I hope and pray we can take their example seriously in our lives as individuals, families, and church communities. Perhaps we can see similar results, with the conversion not of kings but of colleagues, bosses, friends, parents, siblings, or — to look higher — CEOs, judges, politicians. Imagine true disciples of Jesus Christ being made in our midst at every turn by contemplative activists?


1. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, argues that the process described by Bede may have taken years. I am not a Bede scholar, so I leave the question as to duration open. 

Simplicity: Freedom from avarice and anxiety

In his book Celebration of Discipline, the first ‘Outward Discipline’ Richard Foster discusses is Simplicity. I am not the greatest practitioner of Simplicity, but ever since I really discovered St Francis of Assisi as an undergraduate, I have wished to be. As I look around at my multitudinous books, Playmobil, CDs, DVDs, cluttered schedule, I want to be unshackled. I want what Evagrius calls ‘Freedom from Possessions’.

Foster maintains that anxiety is the opposite of simplicity. I agree. I also believe that avarice is one of the great problems confronting and confronted by Simplicity. To cultivate Simplicity, to seek first the Kingdom of God, to dress like flowers and eat like birds, he gives three inner attitudes:

Freedom from anxiety is characterized by three inner attitudes. If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety. This is the inward reality of simplicity. However, if what we have we believe we have gotten, and if what we have we believe we must hold onto, and if what we have is not available to others, then we will live in anxiety. Such persons will never know simplicity regardless of the outward contortions they may put themselves through in order to live ‘the simple life’. (p. 77, 1st UK ed.)

The focus of our material possessions, and — I maintain — earthly relationships is turned from us maintaining and controlling to God maintaining and controlling. This can only be healthy.

But Simplicity is an outward discipline. What sorts of things can w do to live such a life? Foster gives ten principles; I give you the outdated page number for each in case you happen to also have the first UK ed at hand:

  1. buy things for their usefulness rather than their status (78)
  2. reject anything that is producing an addiction in you (79)
  3. develop a habit of giving things away (79)
  4. refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry (80)
  5. learn to enjoy things without owning them (80)
  6. develop a deeper appreciation for the creation (80)
  7. look with a healthy skepticism at all ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. They are a trap and serve to deepen your bondage (81)
  8. obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech (81)
  9. reject anything that will breed the oppression of others (82)
  10. shun whatever would distract you from your main goal (82)

Many of those are painfully obvious, but we do not live by them! Many we can think of friends or even ourselves being entrapped by such un-simplicity (e.g. ‘Must – have – iPhone – 5 …’; I know a guy with $25 000 of consumer debt). Number 8 is refers to, ‘Let your yes be yes and your no, no.’ How often do we just say what is necessary and what we mean without trying to justify ourselves or our answers? How many of us can even give an unqualified apology?

Our main goal — the Kingdom of God. Cassian (Conference 1) points us to ‘Purity of Heart’ as the earthly goal to attain this heavenly end. Kierkegaard’s book title (referenced by Foster) tells us that Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. It is Simplicity.

For More on Simplicity

Besides Celebration of Discipline, I have been challenged (and sometimes changed to whatever degree I am simple) by these two modern books in particular:

Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J Foster. He goes into ever deeper detail in this book. Well worth reading and re-reading.

The Lessons of Saint Francis by John Michael Talbot. Gives various lessons on daily living with Christ through the lens of the life and teachings of the jongleur de Dieu.

From the ancient and medieval writers, check out John Cassian, The Conferences and Benedict of Nursia, The Rule.

Evagrius, Avarice, and Us

So, although I’ve fallen off the Read the Fathers cart (but hope to hop on again soon!), I’m still very much in the world of the Fathers. And since Thursday, I’ve returned a few times to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were my entry point into the patristic landscape of theology and spirituality.

This morning, over tea and toast, I read Evagrius Ponticus’ brief treatise ‘[To Eulogios.] On the Vices Opposed to the Virtues’, in Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (a translation of all the extant Greek versions of Evagrius’ ascetic writings). Herein Evagrius has some good things to say about anger, and I’ll probably blog on them soon.

But what caught my eye was ch. 3, ‘Avarice and freedom from possessions’:

Avarice is the parsimony of idols, the prophecy of the crowd, a vote for stinginess, a hoarding mentality, a wealth of captivity, a race of injustice, an abundance of illnesses, a diviner of many years, an enchanter for industriousness, a counsellor of sleeplessness, poverty of the belly, meagreness of foods, insatiable madness, a wickedness of many cares.

Freedom from possessions is the uprooting of avarice and the rooting of freedom from it, a fruit of love and a cross of life, a life free of suffering, a treasure free of envy, a heaven free of care, a sun without distraction, immeasurable matter, incomprehensible wealth, a scythe for cares, the practice of the Gospels, the world readily abandoned, a fast-running contestant. (PG 79.1141D; p. 63 in English)

I think every culture and every age is susceptible to certain of the Eight Thoughts* more than others, although all of us are beset by all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Today, we are hounded and beset on all sides by avarice — greed — in the ‘West’.

Many of us will not think that we are. But just as Cassian has thrown aside the veil covering our gluttony, so Evagrius here removes the mask of generousness that hides our avarice. Do you have ‘a hoarding mentality’? Does your desire for possessions or for money lead to injustice (whether directly by you or indirectly by companies and corporations)? Are you industriousness at work not for a job well done but a pay check well fattened? Do you worry about the fate of your earthly possessions — whether iTunes won’t allow you to pass your music on to your son or whether thieves will break in and steal?

Avarice is an attitude of the heart. When we are not free to give away our things or spend our money generously or give to the poor or loan things; when we feel a need to own that which we could as easily borrow — whether from a library or a friend; when we neglect other duties to make more cash; when we not only have an abundance but do not share that abundance with others; when we are never willing to open our homes up to friends and neighbours — we exhibit symptoms of avarice.

And the cure for avarice? Simplicity. As we shall see later.

*Although in this text, Evagrius gives us nine, adding Jealousy between Vainglory and Pride.

St. Clare’s Laudable Exchange

This past Tuesday we discussed Simplicity in our small group.  St. Clare of Assisi, friend of St. Francis of Assisi and founder of the Poor Clares, had this to say on the topic to Blessed Agnes of Prague:

What a great laudable exchange:
to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth,
to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
and to possess a blessed and eternal life.

I first encountered the Laudable Exchange via that modern Franciscan musician and spiritual father, John Michael Talbot on his album Meditations from Solitude.  Being a big John Michael Talbot fan, I was excited to read the words in the original context, actually aware of St. Clare’s authorship.

This Laudable Exchange is the essence of Simplicity, inward and outward.

The things of time: careers, business, worries, fears, hatreds, loathings, lusts, passions.

The things of eternity: Christ, the Heavens, peace, calm, bliss, justice, equanimity.

The things of time: books, CDs, computers, blogs, extra cloaks, fancy foods.

The things of eternity: abundant life, service, glory, the Spirit, the music of the heavens.

Let us all make the Laudable Exchange ourselves.