Saturday, August 25, 2012

Monasticism in the Western Church, Part 1

This is the first of a three-part essay on monasticism by Stephanie Swee, President of the Society of St. Gregory the Great.

The Legacy of St. Benedict:
Monasticism in the Western Church

The first question that arises regarding this topic is: What is monasticism, anyway? Many of the sources for this paper were written at a time, just  before and right after the Second Vatican Council, when there was a lively interest in the subject. However, today it seems there is less understanding of the vocation of the monk or nun who strives to live the counsels of perfection, as, indeed, there is less stress even on mere Christianity and its relevance for every person.

Dom Hubert Van Zeller is a Benedictine monk who has written extensively on many spiritual topics. His book, Approach to Monasticism .is a compendium of how such a vocation is discerned and followed. He addresses this question very simply at the outset. “The approach to monasticism,” he writes, “is only the approach to Christianity through a narrower door.”[1]  In other words, seeking God as the end of man’s aspirations can admit of degrees. While all Christians need to understand that their goal is eternal happiness in the presence of God, the monk sets himself apart from the world and takes on a life oriented directly and solely to that goal.

Louis Bouyer in his work, The Meaning of the Monastic Life, gets even more specific: “If it is only God whom we seek, we have to seek Him as a Person …the monastic call presupposes that God is someone who has revealed himself to us by a word (and) Who has called us.  And to respond to the monastic vocation is to respond to this Person.”[2]

If we look at the very early Church we will see that the first Christians took this pursuit of union with God seriously enough that it informed the whole of life. Simply to follow Christ then could be as all-consuming as living a religious vocation is today.  In fact, many Christians regarded their faith as reason to  joyfully lay down their lives in witness to Christ. It is interesting to note that it was after the great Roman persecutions ended that certain Christians withdrew to practice asceticism.  Indeed, if one faces the possibility of death for Christ, one need not look for a higher way to serve Him. Once Christianity became respectable, however, many writers note that “the monk came to replace the martyr as hero. Whereas the martyr died for Christ; the monk lives for Him.”[3]

Some writers have pushed the beginnings of monasticism back as far as the Decian persecutions in the mid-third century, but “the great Christian historian Eusebius makes no mention of it in his history.” [4] There is actually little written about the life of monks before 330 A.D., even though by the time Athanasius died in 373 A.D., “the movement had witnessed extraordinary growth.”[5]

The Introduction to The Rule of St. Benedict dismisses the many theories that early monasticism grew out of pre-Christian sects.  Rather than the philosophical asceticism of the pagan Greeks, “The ascetic tradition in Christianity … can … be traced directly back to the New Testament. Of particular importance was the tradition of virginity and celibacy that was grounded in the example and teaching of Jesus.”[6] In fact, the belief grew quickly that monasticism was a logical outgrowth of Christian life. “Just as baptism was held to forgive sins, so the monastic profession (of vows) came to be held to forgive sins.”[7]

It is likely that cenobitic monasticism – i.e., monks living in community – was a variation of life of  the Eastern Church’s early Fathers of the Desert, eremites who lived in solitude except when they came together occasionally for prayer, reading of Scripture and spiritual discussions.  That the desert was the preferred locale for the anachoresis, or “retirement from the world,” is a living of  the passage in St. Matthew that tells us that” Jesus withdrew to the desert place by himself.”

St. Anthony of the Desert, generally held to be the “father of the eremitic life,” was born about 250 A.D. His turbulent and colorful path to holiness was chronicled by St. Athanasius. He is said to have been assailed by the devil spiritually and physically with great vigor, but eventually to have triumphed over these trials. After some time alone, he was followed to the wilderness by others who desired to take on the same penitential life.   At first, these aspirants had to beat down his door, but eventually Anthony emerged and agreed to teach them how to live apart from the world as he did.  He performed many miracles and became the de facto head of the scores of men who sought to find only God in the desert.[8]
After Anthony died, however, some Christian writers began to warn of the dangers in such a solitary life and, even in the Eastern Church, cenobitic monasticism began to grow. Its first famous proponent was Pachomius, who, like Anthony, drew many to himself, but,, unlike his predecessor, succeeded in “shifting attention … away from himself and to the community as the locus of the Spirit. His followers became a fellowship of brothers, a koinonia.”[9] Later St. Basil also began to establish communities of monks in the East.

[1] Van Zeller, Dom Hubert, Approach to Monasticism. New York: Sheed and Ward,  1960, p. 8.
[2] Bouyer, Louis, The Meaning of the Monastic Life. London: Burns and Oates, 1933, p. 8
[3] RB: 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict, Timothy Fry, O.S.B., editor. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1980, p. 14.

[4] RB: 1980,, p. 3.
[5] RB.1908, p. 4.
[6] RB 1980, p. 3
[7] RB 1980, p. 15
[8] RB 1980, pp. 18-20.
[9] RB 1980, pp. 24-25. 

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