I was having a discussion about monasticism recently with a friend. I was explaining that Orthodox priests are either married or monastic. (There are cases where economy has been applied so that we do have some unmarried priests who are not monks but they are the exception rather than the norm). My friend asked how that works in practice, as surely priests whose parishes are spread far and wide cannot properly serve their parishes if they are all living together in community, miles away.

Of course, I hadn't actually mentioned anything about living in community: I had merely mentioned monasticism, which doesn't of necessity have anything to do with community. Indeed, the English word monastic comes from the Greek monachos, which means solitary one. My friend has seemingly been exposed to the same sort of ideas that I was in my Anglican days.

Monasticism was always explained by those outside the monasteries as living in community, serving God together as part of a community. That was more or less it. Even when objections were raised by some of the more Evangelical Anglicans that this was merely a form of escapism from living in the world, the only rebuttal was that these people find living in community to be beneficial. I can sympathise with those objections if this is the only explanation that is given to those who raise them. There was never any explanation of monasticism in connection with the purpose of the Christian life: theosis. Monastic life is simply a more intense and focussed form of the Christian life, the way of shedding the temptations of the flesh, the world and the devil.

This is a great contrast that I have seen since having become Orthodox. Indeed, it is only since having become Orthodox that I have come to understand what monasticism is properly about. It is about dedicating oneself entirely to one's salvation, and to full union with God, sharing in the divine nature, as St Peter tells us is our aim in this temporal, fleeting life. The cares, pleasures and frivolities of this life are shed by the monastic, in favour of a life of stability, constant conversion to God, prayer & fasting, and the Sacramental life of the Church.

The kalendar of Saints of the British Isles from its Orthodox era is riddled with the names of hermits who adopted this monastic lifestyle, which shows the idea that eremiticism is a purely Eastern understanding of monasticism for the fallacy that it is.

Yes, there is cœnobitic monasticism as well. This is a wonderful thing and is perhaps the form of monasticism with which most unchurched people are familiar. In this form, the monk is still in one sense alone, still striving for his theosis, but is doing so surrounded by others who are striving for the same thing. The temptations that face the hermit are somewhat lessened, as there is a sense of human accountability to and encouragement from, his brother monks, and all under the spiritual direction of the Abbot. The monk still has his cell where he communes with God, but joins his brother monks for prayer and labour. They do indeed live in community, taking their turns in cooking, cleaning, &c. but this is incidental to the purpose of their monasticism.

The equation of monasticism with mere communal living is not healthy for monasticism, in my opinion. This is neither its purpose nor the aim of those who follow that way, and on the day that this mindset infiltrates their way of life, monasticism will have been seriously compromised!

Some words from St Benedict:

It is recognised that there are four kinds of monks.

The first are the Cœnobites: that is, those who live in a monastery under a Rule or an abbot. The second is that of the Anchorites, (or Hermits), who not in the first fervour of conversion, but after long trial in the monastery, and already taught by the example of many others, having learnt to fight against the devil, are well prepared to go forth from the ranks of the brotherhood to the single combat of the desert. They can now, by God's help, safely fight against the vices of their flesh and against evil thoughts singly, with their own hand and arm and without the encouragement of a companion. The third and worst kind of monks is that of the Sarabites, who have not been tried under any Rule nor schooled by an experienced master, as gold is proved in the furnace, but soft as is lead and still in their works cleaving to the world, are known to lie to God by their tonsure.

These in twos or threes, or more frequently singly, are shut up, without a shepherd; not in Our Lord's fold, but in their own. The pleasure of carrying out their particular desires is their law, and whatever they dream of or choose this they call holy; but what they like not, that they account unlawful.

The fourth class of monks is called Gyrovagi (or Wanderers). These move about all their lives through various countries, staying as guests for three or four days at different monasteries. They are always on the move and never settle down, and are slaves to thir own wills and to the enticements of gluttony. In ever way they are worse than the Sarabites, and of their wretched way of life it is better to be silent than to speak.

Leaving these therefore aside, let us by God's help set down a Rule for Cœnobites, who are the best kind of monks.

The Holy Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 1

5 responses:

Ian said...

To my shame I was not aware of the general meaning of monastic as solitary one. I knew there were some, but I always believed them to be the exception.

I continue to learn. Thank you, and thanks be to God.

Ari said...

I always thought St. Benedict goes too far in trying to promote his cenobitic monasticism at the expense of the other forms. He has rather harsh language for patterns of monastic life which were lived by holy men before - and later.

Michael said...

I think you're actually right, Aristibule. That said, I don't know what his experience was of these types of monasticism where he had his being. What he has to say may well be a true reflection on his local situation, but then who knows?

I do understand his concerns about eremitic monastics who have not previously been grounded in the monastic life in a community of monks but I do think that it can be done, and well, and that harsh is perhaps the right word to describe his description of them.

Ian, you're very welcome. :-)


Geoff said...

Oh, gosh, was this me? I remember this conversation!

Michael said...

Yes, it was indeed you. It's rather disconcerting to learn that my past posts are being scoured. I just know that something I say in conversation will be greetied with, 'But you said, on the 4th of October, 2005, that...'


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