Essay / Theology

The Story of Monasticism; or, What Monastics Can Teach Us

NB: This blog originally appeared as a series of blogs at Baker Academic Blog.

Why wouldn’t everyone want to be a monk or nun? These days you will get your own room, never have to overthink the daily “What will I wear?” debate, be allotted plenty of time with God and, if you choose wisely, be engaged during your lifetime in a host of satisfying jobs and ministry assignments. All in all, the monastic life has a good number of the elements that many of us look for in life and work. Sure, there’s the whole obedience to a superior thing, and the celibacy thing, and the poverty thing but let’s face it – those are often over-rated to today’s culture anyway. Most of us crave stability and perhaps even predictability.

It turns out, however, that the monastic life does not often offer either of these. Contrary to much popular and historical thinking, the institution of Christian monasticism is not a monolithic entity – it never has been and, I’m guessing, it never will be. That does not mean, though, that it was an inchoate institution teaching falsehoods and superstitions, as it was (and sometimes still is) often depicted in Reformation-era caricatures. In fact, the history of monasticism is quite the opposite as to how it is often portrayed or imagined.

My book The Story of Monasticism is not only an attempt to present an accurate historical depiction of Christian monasticism but it also strives to show its historical and ongoing relevance for all believers. Contrary to many Protestants, monasticism was not and is not a fringe movement in Christian history. It may have started on the fringes geographically (the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, for example) but it was, from the start, an important element in the life of the church. Though it may have, on occasion, needed reform and, at times, be reminded that it was not superior to the “normal Christian life,” it was most often a thriving discipline, populated by devout men and women. There is much to learn from the history of Christian monasticism and believers today will do well to learn from this history, making it their own and adapting it to their own present circumstances. Monks and nuns remind us that we should have a single-minded devotion to God and they also remind us of the need for the church to be counter-cultural (aspects of monasticism that I will discuss in subsequent blogs in the three weeks ahead). These lessons are biblical, not just monastic but they certainly are brought home clearly in the history of Christian monasticism.

A hallmark of Christian monasticism is its emphasis on a single-minded devotion to God. Historically, for some monks and nuns this meant living in a cave in the middle of the desert or climbing to the top of a forty foot column and living there in relative isolation (i.e., the stylite monks). But “single-minded” does not necessarily mean alone and it certainly does not carry with it the connotation of “leave me alone because I’m attempting to be in communion with God and your presence is simply a distraction.” These false notions of monasticism and single-mindedness overlook the fact that first and foremost, single-mindedness is about orientation and intentionality more than it is about location.

It is true that the first kind of monasticism that really flourished was the eremitical (from eremos = desert); that is, the kind where a man or a woman forsakes regular contact with others in order to live (mostly) alone in some kind of isolation (even if it was only temporary). The paradigmatic example of this is the infamous Antony the Great of Egypt, whose life was written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the fourth century. Yet this form of monasticism quickly became the exception and the more characteristic kind of monasticism that emerged was the cenobitic (from koinonia = fellowship and bios = life). Cenobitic monasteries (which were scattered throughout ancient Egypt, Asian Minor and Palestine) housed thousands of monks living in community under a rule of life. One of the most well-known of the cenobitic architects is Pachomius (d. 348).

These cenobitic monks lived in community, coming into contact with each other multiple times a day – during prayers, meals and community work. Yet, in spite of this contact that may have, in fact, been a distraction, these monks were resolved to remain focused on God in spite of the fact that they lived in close proximity to one another. Again, “single-minded” does not mean alone or undistracted but it means that in spite of the presence of others and in spite of potential or real distraction one continues to remain focused on God. Community was not seen as a hindrance to single-mindedness but a necessary part of single-mindedness. For it is in community that one learns best how to seek God. Community is “a school for the service of the Lord,” writes Benedict of Nursia, wherein one learns true single-mindedness; that is, he learns to be a monk (monos = single).

With each passing day there is less and less commonality between different cultures; or, perhaps to see it another way, culture is constantly shifting. In fact, culture changes so swiftly that no one, I think, can keep up. Language, technology and morality, for example, are in a constant state of flux, while those “in charge” try to dictate what the right culture is on this day, at this hour. Culture is at war with itself and with others. Yet, no matter the culture, Christianity has always been a counter-cultural religion – a religion that is in the world but not of it (1 John 4:1-6). Even more astoundingly, Christian monasticism is counter-cultural among that which is already counter-cultural! For monasticism not only spoke to the non-Christian world of a different way but it also spoke to Christians of an “angelic” way.

The best of Christian monasticism never understood itself to be superior to the “normal” Christian life but it understood itself to be another way in which Christians here on earth could, in this lifetime, begin to approach the kind of life that is reserved for those in God’s presence – a life characterized by continual prayer and love for God and neighbor. With this message it called out both the faithful and the unfaithful to (re-)evaluate their relationship to the world; it called folks to stand over against the dominate culture and to stand in solidarity with the teaching of the Gospels. Monasticism demands that we weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn and that we walk the extra mile and turn the other cheek. It expects us to care for the hurting with no prospect of reward and to embrace the repentant prodigal.

The counter-cultural nature of Christian monasticism is not based on a philosophy wherein matter is seen as evil and should be avoided whereas the spiritual is good. On the contrary, historically it was monks and nuns who preserved the physical elements of their culture (e.g., copying manuscripts in the Middle Ages), proving that to them the world was truly God’s good creation. Instead, the counter-cultural nature of monasticism is rooted in the institution’s recognition that if one is called to be a monk then one is called to live out that vocation in obedience to a rule and to a superior. To live in a monastery was not just a flight from the world (i.e., the fuga mundi) but a flight into the arms of God. It was not just simply running away from something but running to someone. It was a retreat from the fallen culture to an experience of the perfect culture of the Kingdom of God.

There is a common misconception that the institution of monasticism only exists in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. And there is a historiography that says that Protestants threw out the baby of monasticism with the bath water of late medieval faith and practice. Yet, this is not the case. There has been an ongoing impetus in the Protestant tradition to either maintain the institution of monasticism or see it reintroduced into Protestantism. There were sixteenth century Protestant theologians who said so and there continue to be advocates down to this day.

Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected monasticism primarily based on the notion of life-long vows but both had room for monasticism if it could be construed without vows. Furthermore, many other reformers did not entirely reject monasticism and did not see it as inconsistent with a reformed theology, whether Lutheran, Calvinistic, Anglican or other. Well-known twentieth-century Protestant theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Donald Bloesch have all argued for a Protestant monasticism and currently Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Shane Claiborne and Scott Bessenecker claim to be living out a “New Monasticism.” Simultaneously many Protestant believers have become oblates or associates of Roman Catholic monasteries, giving them an opportunity to partake of much that is good in monasticism without having to become monks and nuns. Roman Catholic monastic writers such as Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr are popular spiritual writers with a wide Protestant readership and the well-known monastic Rule of Benedict is used by Protestants to address questions as diverse as leadership and business practices.

All of this, of course, is not the same as the re-establishment of historic monastic institutes among Protestants but they are clear signs that there is an interest in the history and practice of monasticism and its relevance to today’s Protestant church. The Story of Monasticism is an attempt to offer guidance in this recovery of monasticism for today’s church, looking closely at the history of monasticism as a guide for our own future. Monasticism is not the answer to every question asked in today’s church but it is an answer to many of the questions. Protestant Christians would be remiss if they failed to retrieve this ancient tradition for contemporary spirituality.

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