Four approaches to monastic life
‘We can all recognise the distinction between the four different kinds of monk. First of all there are the cenobites. These are the ones who are based in a monastery and fulfil their service to the Lord under a rule and an abbot or abbess.’
The community that Benedict was to establish would take this form. It is clear from the very short introduction to this form of monastic life that, for him, it is a given that this is the way to exercise the monastic life. He does not need to explain it or go into great detail. Partly The Rule will do this anyway. This introduction is simple and matter of fact about it. A Rule, a place and a leader. This is the simple recipe for Benedict, the skeleton on which he will hang the rest of the rule.
‘Anchorites, who are also known as hermits, are the second kind. Their vocation is not the result of the first fervour so often experienced by those that give themselves to a monastic way of life. On the contrary they have learnt well from everyday experience with the support of many others in a community how to fight against the devil. Thus they are well trained in the ranks of their brothers or sisters before they have the confidence to do without that support and venture into single combat in the desert relying only on their own arms and the help of God in their battle against the evil temptations of body and mind’
I am always struck by this passage whenever I read it. As someone who finds the idea of solitude appealing this warning from Benedict weighs heavy on me. In silence we come face to face with God. In the silence of our hearts that is where we meet Him, in the sacred ground within the self, and when we do, He will go to work on our soul. This can be painful. Parts of ourselves will have to be chipped away, smoothed down, melted down, cooled and reshaped as we grow in the likeness of Him. We must be prepared to encounter a God who wants us to grow in His likeness and the further we are from that image the harder the work to be done on the soul will be.
The second person that we meet in silence is ourselves. We are left alone with the thoughts in our heads and the desires in our hearts. Are they pure? Are they pointing us down the path of righteousness. The honest answer is probably no. And that is why Benedict is very clear about the sort of person that should be attempting long periods, a lifetime perhaps, of solitude. They are not to be the inexperienced, those who have caught the monastic vision, run full speed toward it and grab it with both hands. Because soon, alone, their enthusiasm will be depleted and they will be left undefended. Zeal is no substitute for the tools of the trade.
And how are these tools prepared? In the everyday routine of the community. I find that particular phrase especially comforting when I am dealing with church related administration or sitting in meetings. These are aspects of my community life, they are important, they may not be my favourite aspect and they may eat into time for prayer or other interaction but that serves to highlight the importance of balance that is so potent in the Benedictine Rule. I try to view the mundane tasks of church life (which is my community) prayfully, living by the Benedictine saying, pray and work, ora et labora, that all we do is part of sharpening the tools in the chest to make them ready.
‘Sarabaites are the third kind of monk and the example they give of monasticism is appealing. They have been through no period of trial under a rule with the experienced guidance of a teacher, which might have proved them as gold is proved in a furnace. On the contrary they are as malleable as lead and their standards are still those of the secular world, so that it is clear to everyone that their tonsure is a lie before God himself. They ground in twos or threes, or even singly, resting in sheepfolds which are not those of the Lord, but which they make to suit themselves. For a rule of life they have only the satisfaction of their own desires. Any precept they think up for themselves and then decide to adopt they do not hesitate to call holy. Anything they dislike they consider inadmissible’
For those of us that do not live in the monastery and have the protection of those walls and fellow minded monks around, who have to try and follow the call of the Lord within the world, perhaps this passage provides both alarm and comfort.
So that it is clear to everyone that their tonsure is a lie before God himself
Each day as I place my collar around my neck and button my cassock I am reminded of this phrase. I do not want my tonsure collar to be a lie before God, I do not want anyone to look upon me and think badly of Him who has inexplicably called me. This passage from The Rule reminds me to embody a monastic mentality – to be single minded in my focus so that Christ remains central to my daily life. That my interactions with others, my daily tasks, my presence inside the walls of my church, the boundary of my parish or the wider community is entirely caught up in the pilgrimage I make toward God.
I am my own worst enemy. Left to the devices and designs of my own heart I would easily stray. I would develop a spirituality of self – probably the most dangerous form of idolatry that is usually accompanied by the phrase ‘if only other Christians were more like me’ or ‘my interpretation of this is the only truth’ – we can become so sure of ourselves within our spiritual practice that we cease to offer worship and instead receive it, from our very self.
The routine of prayer and of sacrament helps to ensure that I am returning to the true sheepfold and not being tempted to lay my head elsewhere.
‘Finally those called gyrovagues are the fourth kind of monk. They spend their whole life going round one province after another enjoying the hospitality for three or four days at a time at any sort of monastic cell or community. They are always on the move; they never settle to put roots down the roots of stability; it is their own wills that they serve as they seek the satisfaction of their own gross appetites. They are in every way worse than the sarabaites.
About the wretched way of life that these so-called monks pursue it is better to keep silence than to speak. Let us leave them to themselves and turn to the strongest kind, the cenobites, so that with the Lord’s help we may consider the regulation of their way of life’
I think that for Benedict at the time that he was writing there was indeed a practical problem with these gyrovagues, that they were actually ‘monks’ or certainly acting as though they were and using the charity of others.
In our current spiritual age we probably do not see them in this guise but it reminds me of those that claim to be ‘Spiritual but not religious’ – they go around to different communities of faith and cherry pick the best aspects of each. A little bit of the person of Christ here, a small amount of Hindu reincarnation there, add in a dash of contact with the dead through Mediums…
Benedict emphasises the need to remain still. To put down roots and give them time to grow deeply. Someone who is forever moving, either physically from one community to another or spiritually from one practice to another can never really embed themselves in the rhythm of life. This has become increasingly a problem in modernity where everyone is used to instant gratification. If we want a reply from someone, we can message them in a click and a second. If we want to find information it is in our hand without effort. Unfortunately the same attitude becomes apparent in our faith, we want access to God immediately and are impatient for His reply.
Thomas Merton said ‘Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.’ – when we are impatient we miss these moments, the very moments that could be the difference between advancing in holiness or slipping into darkness.
Rhythm and root. Pray and work.