- 1 There are clearly four kinds of monks. 2 First, there are the cenobites,that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot.
- 3 Second, there are the anchorites or hermits, who have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervor of monastic life. 4 Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil. 5 They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God's help to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.
- 6 Third, there are the sarabaites, the most detestable kind of monks, who with no experience to guide them, no rule to try them as gold is tried in a furnace (Prov 27:21), have a character as soft as lead. 7 Still loyal to the world by their actions, they clearly lie to God by their tonsure. 8 Two or three together, or even alone, without a shepherd, they pen themselves up in their own sheepfolds, not the Lord's. Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. 9 Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.
- 10 Fourth and finally, there are the monks called gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. 11 Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than the sarabaites.
- 12 It is better to keep silent than to speak of all these and their disgraceful way of life. 13 Let us pass them by, then, and with the help of the Lord, proceed to draw up a plan for the strong kind, the cenobites.
Even in the pre-schism church the Augustinian tradition of canonical life grew alongside Benedictine monasticism whilst in the Celtic churches a healthy form of secular monasticism was evident, and then in the middle ages, the unique vocation of the military monk evolved. The Templars in particular lived by a strict monastic rule.
Those whom St Benedict labelled sarabaites could be represented by some Celtic monks and medieval hermits - who did not always live alone - as well as the very popular tradition of idiorhythmic monasticism as lived in sketes in the eastern church. The gyrovagues of course enjoyed a huge resurgence in the middle ages with the growth of the mendicant orders.
In the early modern period we see the evolution of the clerical and “apostolic” orders of vowed religious engaged in pastoral and social work of various kinds, something quite alien to monastic spirituality as St Benedict would have understood it. However, what may have been unacceptable in St Benedict's day may be deemed acceptable at other times according to our evolving understanding of human psychology and the needs of the church as it adapts to changes in society.
Therefore, although much of this first chapter of the rule is now questionable, naturally much of it still applies. Human nature has not changed much in one and half thousand years. Here are a few of St Benedict's assumptions which still hold true:
- The essence of the monastic vocation is the seeking of God in silence and solitude. This may be facilitated either by a community life ordered towards this orientation or living as a solitary under a personal rule of life. As to how much solitude and silence is required in order to be “a monk” is open to discussion.
- Community life is indeed a testing ground and it does take a strong person to succeed and stick with it. If a person is unable to keep to an horarium in community he or she might not have the self-discipline to keep a personal horarium when no one is there to impose the rule. However, in these days of virtual community, where daily contact between members of a geographically dispersed community is possible ,actually some peer pressure can be applied and people can also find genuine fellowship and mutual edification, ironically sometimes even more than may be possible in some busy monasteries.
- Those who wear the habit/identity of a monk or nun without any experience of the tradition gained through reading as well as personal experience – for however short a time - do indeed “lie to God by their tonsure”. “Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.” This sounds pretty much like the New Age movement but actually many of these types of person can be found in the Independent Sacramental Movement too. Those people who choose the “spiritual but not religious” label also often fall into this category. They go with “what they feel intuitively” and although they often love to meditate, their prayer life is rarely fed and informed by the teachings of those great spiritual masters who have gone on before. We must never forget that study, is one of the three vital pillars of Benedictinism.
- Stability is essential if the monk or nun wants to make progress. In St Benedict's day gyrovagues flitted from community to community. In these days, when much of our lives are spent in cyber space, it is just as necessary to stick with our community of choice through thick and thin, though we acknowledge and make allowances for the fact that people will often need to try a few groups before the right one emerges.
A great change is happening to the monastic scene throughout the civilised world. Just as traditional monastic communities are becoming fewer, more and more people are attracted to the essence of the monastic life; a simple balance of prayer, work and study; the desire to find a contemplative centre in the midst of a frenetic world. What we might call idiorrhythmic monasticism in the ISM context or “New Monasticism” in its more recent Protestant form are radically redefining what it means to be monastic, whilst the popularity of monastic Oblature in the RC context is a less radical, but nevertheless significant, response to the same spiritual impulse.
This is a radical transformation of monasticism because it invites us to rethink the basic asceticism of celibacy and community life, assumed to be intrinsic to monasticism since its beginnings in early Christian Egypt. However, an open and objective reading of the beginnings of the monastic movement clearly shows the strong influence of a body-denying, life-negating dualistic gnosticism (principally Manichaeism) which most people would now see as alien to the the life-giving gospel of Jesus. The Judaism of Jesus was non-dual and though he put himself through a “vision quest” experience in the desert, testing himself to the limit, he also knew how to enjoy the good things of life. Nowhere do the gospel writers draw attention to his apparently unmarried status, but they do draw attention to his close and possibly intimate relationships with St John and St Mary Magdalene and his sending out of the apostles two by two, without possessions, actually conforms more to the lifestyle of the gyrovague than the cenobite. I think it is fair, therefore, to assume that the simplicity of the early Christian lifestyle is merely designed to facilitate the efficiency and well being of the community rather than to be a means by which the body is brought into subjection and that celibacy is rooted more in St Paul's personal sexual inadequacies than the teaching of Our Lord.
From my perspective, as someone with some first hand experience of celibate community life, I see no particular benefit to the asceticism of “poverty” and “chastity” as they are normally understood, which so often leave people lonely, unloved and institutionalised. Rather we would recommend “living simply that others may simply live” and relationships (intimate or not) based on integrity and compassion; values which can be just as easily lived “in the world” as “in the cloister”. As vocations to celibate community life dwindle - rapidly in many countries - it is likely that the “new monastics” increasingly become the new representatives of this ever evolving spiritual tradition.
I can only speak from my own experience as someone who is deeply thankful for the training I received as a Benedictine novice but have now found my Benedictine vocation flowering in a most unexpected way, as an iddiorhythmic monk in a committed relationship here at our Alpine retreat. Anyone who is married or in a partnership knows how necessary mutual obedience is in a relationship. Stability too and ongoing conversion to a more Christ life way of life are just as applicable to the married as to the single. God does not require broken people to serve him and surely that is what may have become of me had I “persevered” in conventional religious life. No, as St Irenaeus says, “the glory of God is a man, fully alive”. We can have our cake and eat it!
Would the historical Benedict approve? Probably not, but does the cosmic Benedict approve? Yes, I see no reason why not. Any adaptation of the tradition which promotes a greater wholeness (holiness) of the individual in his seeking of God is surely a good thing.