Saturday, September 08, 2007

Chapter 1 Jan. 8 - May 9 - Sept. 8

Chapter 1: On the Kinds of Monks

Jan. 8 - May 9 - Sept. 8

It is well known that there are four kinds of monks.
The first kind are the Cenobites:
those who live in monasteries
and serve under a rule and an Abbot.

The second kind are the Anchorites or Hermits:
those who,
no longer in the first fervor of their reformation,
but after long probation in a monastery,
having learned by the help of many brethren
how to fight against the devil,
go out well armed from the ranks of the community
to the solitary combat of the desert.
They are able now,
with no help save from God,
to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh
and their own evil thoughts.

The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the Sarabaites.
These, not having been tested,
as gold in the furnace (Wis. 3:6),
by any rule or by the lessons of experience,
are as soft as lead.
In their works they still keep faith with the world,
so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God.
They live in twos or threes, or even singly,
without a shepherd,
in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord's.
Their law is the desire for self-gratification:
whatever enters their mind or appeals to them,
that they call holy;
what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.

The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues.
These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province,
staying as guests in different monasteries
for three or four days at a time.
Always on the move, with no stability,
they indulge their own wills
and succumb to the allurements of gluttony,
and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites.
Of the miserable conduct of all such
it is better to be silent than to speak.

Passing these over, therefore,
let us proceed, with God's help,
to lay down a rule for the strongest kind of monks, the Cenobites.

Some thoughts:

Having said in the previous reading that he was starting a school, Benedict begins with the most basic step: definitions. Which reminds me that I omitted an important one which I should have mentioned back at the beginning. Which is the the definition of "rule" as used in this context. We can think of many things when we think of "rule". Monarchs rule. Knitting rules. Follow the rules.

The Latin root for "rule"is "regula" which simply refers to any sort of device one uses to mark a "true" line, such as the plumb line in Amos. I made comment about the Prologue, that in following the Lord, one's options narrowed. We can n o longer say yes to every possible good that comes our way, we need a yardstick to measure our choices against so that we can know we are still on the path the Lord wants for each of us. And that's the use of "rule" in "Rule of St. Benedict.

Speaking of options and being sure one is following along in the way God would have each of us, Benedict gets into the subject of the kinds of monks, listing them in order of his preference. What are the 4 kinds of monks? What does Benedict have to say about them? As we read the descriptions are we reminded of certain kinds of people today?

Cenobitic monasticism was 3 centuries old by the time Benedict wrote his Rule. He didn't invent it but he sure did refine it with this Rule. He clearly considers it the most superior form of monasticism. But we are not monks. How does this apply to us? What are the hallmarks of the cenobites? Communal living and an Abbess/Abbot. Daily face to face interaction with those who also seek the Lord under a leader. We may not have a monastery, but we have our churches and our priests, ministers, pastors. Hopefully we see the church not merely as a place to go to on Sunday, but as a place where we gather to support each other, share in ministry, as a place that is most central to our daily life.

What does Benedict say about anchorites and hermits? There are requirements for starting out one the solitary path, aren't there? Would-be hermits have to be trained in the subtle ways of the devil and temptations. The dangers of the hermit life are many.

Moving on to the sarabites and the strong language Benedict uses. That language is almost a surprise after the loving words of the Prologues, but as we shall see, Benedict is not above calling a spade a spade.

A brief historical note: at the time he was writing the Rule, the Roman Empire was falling apart and people longed for the peace and security they used to have. Maybe this is my own lack of charity, but when I read this bit, I am always reminded of modern tele-evangelists who promise so very much as long as we send them our money. I think also of those non-denominational churches that have no connection to any authority beyond themselves, none of the checks and balances of the denominational structure.

And then there are the gyrovagues. As I read this description, I feel as if I am reading a description of modern America. People church hop, job hop, follow fads and never settle to any one thing because they are afraid that might miss out on something better so they don't commit to anything.

This leads us back to the cenobites" The strong kind of monks". Why would Benedict call them "strong". What distinguishes them from the other kinds?

They have committed, have they not? They have said "this monastery, this group of people, this way of life." They have also committed to the training that the school will teach them. They have drawn a line between themselves and all other possible good things ( once known as our appetites) that might come along.

Have they given up their personal freedom of will? Only if we understand freedom of will to mean that we have to remain open to every little thing that might come down the pike. That understanding of will is a some new fangled notion that doesn't represent centuries of Christian understanding which teaches us that the will is really a matter of the heart. " A passionate harmony of one's entire being", I read somewhere which allows us to go so very deep. "Further in and higher up" as C. S. Lewis said in "The last Battle".

Are we willing to explore how community life draws into fuller life? Possibly a more full life than we had ever dreamed of. Are we willing to recognize and act on our needs, longings, weaknesses? Surely Christian community is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

Granted, we all may have some horror stories to tell of our experiences in Christian community. A former parish priest who also was one of my seminary professors, former Bishop Mark Dyer, described the monastery as the place where one learns "the horror of incarnation." In other words, no walk in the park on a sunny pleasant day but very hard work among those stubbornly insist on remaining All Too Human. Christian community can be one of the most hurtful, judgmental places there can be.

Benedict calls it a school and subsequent chapters teach us how to respond and live in a positive, Christ-affirming manner, remembering that every single one of us is All Too Human and that we must cut slack first if we wish to have slack cut for us.

Commentary by Sr. Joan Chittister

In this chapter, Benedict describes each of the four main classes of religious life that were common at the time of his writing. The effects of the descriptions and definitions are apparent. He is for all intents and purposes telling us the characteristics that he values most in spiritual development and emphasizing the qualities which in his opinion are most important to spiritual growth.

In one brief sentence, then, Benedict describes the life of the cenobite. Cenobites are the seekers of the spiritual life who live in a monastery--live with others--and are not a law unto themselves. Holiness, he argues, is not something that happens in a vacuum. It has something to do with the way we live our community lives and our family lives and our public lives as well as the way we say our prayers. The life needs of other people affect the life of the truly spiritual person and they hear the voice of God in that.

Cenobites, too, live "under a Rule." Meaningless spiritual exercises may not be a Benedictine trait but arbitrariness or whim are not part of Benedict's prescription for holiness either. Monastic spirituality depends on direction. It is a rule of life. Self-control, purpose and discipline give aim to what might otherwise deteriorate into a kind of pseudo-religious life meant more for public show than for personal growth. It is so comforting to multiply the practices of the church in our life and so inconvenient to have to meet the responsibilities of the communities in which we live.

But the spiritual life is not a taste for spiritual consolations. The spiritual life is a commitment to faith where we would prefer certainty. It depends on readiness. It demands constancy. It flourishes in awareness. The ancients say that once upon a time a disciple asked the elder,

"Holy One, is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?"

And the Holy One answered, "As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning."

"Then of what use," the surprised disciple asked, "are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?"

"To make sure," the elder said, "that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise."

The Rule prescribes directions that will keep us, like the mythical disciple, awake until what we live, lives in us.

Then, Benedict says, the cenobite lives under an abbot or prioress, someone who will mediate past and future for us, call us to see where we have come from and where we are going, confront us with the call to the demands of living fully in the now when we might be most likely to abandon our own best ideals for the sake of the easy and the selfish. It is a basic Christian call. Everyone in life lives under someone and something. Adulthood is not a matter of becoming completely independent of the people who lay claim to our lives. Adulthood is a matter of being completely open to the insights that come to us from our superiors and our spouses, our children and our friends, so that we can become more than we can even begin to imagine for ourselves.

The cenobite, like most of the people of the world, works out the way to God by walking with others. In monastic spirituality, there is no escape from life, only a chance to confront it, day after day in all its sanctifying tedium and blessed boredom and glorious agitation in the communities of which we are a part at any given moment of our lives.

If any paragraph in the Rule dispels the popular notion of spirituality, surely it is the one about anchorites. Modern society has the idea that if you want to live a truly spiritual life, you have to leave life as we know it and go away by yourself and "contemplate," and that if you do, you will get holy. It is a fascinating although misleading thought. The Rule of Benedict says that if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love. Then, if you want to go away from it all, then and only then will you be ready to do it alone.

There is, of course, an anchorite lurking in each of us who wants to get away from it all, who finds the tasks of dailiness devastating, who look for God in clouds and candlelight. Perhaps the most powerful point of this paragraph is that it was written by someone who had himself set out to live the spiritual life as a hermit and then discovered, apparently, that living life alone is nowhere near as searing of our souls as living it with others. It is one thing to plan my own day well with all its balance and its quiet and its contemplative exercises. It is entirely another rank of holiness to let my children and my superiors and my elderly parents and the needs of the poor do it for me.

There's passion in the Rule of Benedict, lots of it, and sarabaites come in for good share. Benedict calls this sort of "spirituality" detestable.

Anchorites separate themselves from a community in order to concentrate their energies and strengthen their virtues apart from the distractions of everyday life. They are seasoned seekers who want to center their lives in God alone, naively perhaps but sincerely nevertheless.

Sarabaites separated themselves also. Before the codification of religious law, people could assume a habit without formal training or approval. Sarabaites presented themselves as religious but separated themselves from a disciplined life and spiritual guidance and serious purpose in order to concentrate their energies on themselves. They called themselves religious but they were the worst of all things religious. They were unauthentic. They pretended to be what they were not.

Perhaps the real importance of the paragraph for today is to remind ourselves that it's not all that uncommon for people of all eras to use religion to make themselves comfortable. It is a sense of personal goodness that they want, not a sense of gospel challenge. They are tired of being challenged. They want some proof that they've arrived at a spiritual height that gives consolation in this life and the promise of security in the next. There comes a time in life for everyone where the effort of it all begins to seem too much, when the temptation to settle down and nestle in becomes reasonable.

After years of trying to achieve a degree of spiritual depth with little result, after a lifetime of uphill efforts with little to show for it, the lure is to let it be, to stop where we are, to coast. We begin to make peace with tepidity. We begin to do what it takes to get by but little that it takes to get on with the spiritual life. We do the exercises but we cease to "listen with the heart." We do the externals--the churchgoing and churchgiving--and we call ourselves religious, but we have long since failed to care. A sense of self-sacrifice dies in us and we obey only the desires and the demands within us.

The gyrovagues, whom Benedict rejected out of hand, actually had a noble beginning. Founded to follow the Christ "who had nowhere to lay his head," the earliest gyrovagi threw themselves on the providence of God, having nothing, owning nothing, amassing nothing. Originally, therefore, a sign of faith and simplicity to the Christian community, gyrovagi soon became a sign of indolence and dissipation.

Gyrovagues went from community to community, living off the charity of working monks, begging from the people, dependent on the almsgiving of others. But they never stayed anyplace long enough to do any work themselves or to be called to accountability by the community. As admirable as their call to total poverty may have been in the beginning, it began to be their own particular brand of self-centeredness. They took from every group they visited but they gave little or nothing back to the communities or families that supported them. Gyrovagues abound in religious groups: they talk high virtue and demand it from everybody but themselves. They know how to shop for a parish but they do little to build one. They live off a community but they are never available when the work of maintaining it is necessary. They are committed to morality in the curriculum of grade schools but completely unmoved by the lack of morality in government ethics. Gyrovagues were an extreme and undisciplined kind of monastic and Benedict decried them, not so much because of their ideals surely as because of their lack of direction and good work.

Benedict's reference to the gyrovagues teaches a good lesson yet today. Extremes in anything, he implies, even in religion, are dangerous. When we go to excess in one dimension of life, the unbalance in something else destroys us. Work, for instance, is good but not at the expense of family. Love is good but not at the expense of work.

Too much of a good thing can creep into life very easily and become our rationalization for avoiding everything else. Achievement becomes more important than family. Prayer becomes more important than work. Religious exercises become more important than personal responsibilities. There is a little gyrovague in us all.

The Tao Te Ching, the Chinese Book of the Way, an ancient manual on the art of living that is the most widely translated book in world literature after the Bible, says on the same subject:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

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