Chapter 1: the different kind of monks and their customs


…let us with God’s help establish a rule for Cenobites who are the best kind of monks.

Who is my community?

This opening chapter is sober reading. I return to the wise warning of Sister Catherine Wybourne,

Pray and read. I didn’t speak about RB until I’d lived under it in community for 15 years.

It is obvious that Cenobites, ‘those who live in a monastery waging their war under a rule and an abbot’ are St. Benedict’s ideal (aside from the Anchorites/hermits). This is right, of course, for not only am I reminded of God’s statement in Genesis, ‘“It is not good for the man to be alone.”’ (Genesis 2:18) but also we return to the question we asked last week, ‘Who is my master?’

It is clear that the monastic life is never to be done in isolation; an individual, personal choice unconnected from others but, rather, a public commitment to others with whom one binds oneself. St. Benedict establishes early, the call to monastic life is the call to a cenobiac life (the Latin derivation of the Greek koinos, “common”, and bios, “life”.) The Sarabaites and the gyratory monks are spoken of with such distain, ‘unschooled’, ‘untested’, ‘soft’, ‘openly lying to God’,

It is better to be silent as to their wretched life style than to speak.

Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert, helpful suggests,

I suppose that we are all Sarabaites to some degree, and must fight constantly against that tendency…Humanly, of course, we all tend to call holy what we believe in and to consider forbidden that which we dislike. This is part of the gift of having a tradition that we can accept and grow in. (Philip Lawrence, “Chapter 1: The Kinds of Monks”, Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, January 8 2014,

The Sarabaites and the gyratory monks both are marked, not by the lack of other human beings but by the lack of a human authority; an abbot who is the focus and teacher of a Rule. A community, it seems, must have a shared set of principles (A Rule) and one who lives it out and interprets the Rule for the community (An Abbot) in order for it to be beneficial. It is of no use engaging with a ‘community’ if you are not willing to be obedient to others; sacrificing personal desires and will and allowing yourself be taught. Again, Lawrence wisely observes,

There is a real formation in having to deal with other human persons in a community and with having to learn to live with a superior who is not perfect and yet to whom we give our obedience.(Lawrence,

Even the Anchorites ‘have spent much time in the monastery testing themselves.’ Here I am reminded of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and spiritual writer of the 20th century, who yearned to retreat into a hermitage but was continually called to remain in the community at The Abbey of Gethsemani,

The hope of finding a more solitary life now seems to be quite well founded. There are definite possibilities, but also there are still very great obstacles to be overcome, not least of which is my own Abbot. (October 8, 1959, Thomas Merton to Jean Leclercq, ‘Survival or Prophecy?: The letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) p.83)

This statement of desire to enter a solitary life was penned in 1959. Seven years earlier in Merton’s journals he is making decisions to enter into solitude,

I am now almost completely convinced that I am only really a monk when I am alone in the old toolshed Reverend Father gave me. (September 3, 1952, Thomas Merton, ‘A Search for Solitude: The Journals of Thomas Merton: Volume Three 1952-1960’ (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) p.14)

Remembering that Merton entered the monastic life in 1941, that’s a cenobiac life of 10 years before coming to a definite conviction to becoming an ‘Anchorite’ (although Merton always disliked the categories given to different types of monk). Even then, He would have to wait until 1965 until entering his own hermitage and living the life of solitude.


The Common Life

There is no escaping this question of human community with whom to live out the ‘common life’. As an ordained minister in a parish, who is my community? Who are the people who will share a ‘common life’ with me? The answer should be the congregation with whom I find myself but this is problematic.

There’s a popular notion that it is difficult and dangerous to be ‘friends’ with members of your own congregation. The reason is given that you can’t be close and intimate with one member with out being so with others. I think this is a silly notion and dismiss it. Ordained ministers must have personal relationships and will always have closer and stronger relationships with some members than others. Unless one either cuts themselves off from all close relationships then you will always spend more time and be more open with one, more than another.

The Cenobite, however, in order to give themselves completely to a ‘common life’ must know the trust and safety of deep relationship. It is difficult to enter into a life-long committed relationship without some degree of trust. Vulnerability requires a sense of safety, however small that might be. Here is where, community becomes tricky in parish.

Ordained ministry can become very much one sided in terms of commitment to relationship and community life. The reasons people attend church are many and varied from duty to a deep call/vocation to the life and work of God’s Church. Some turn up just for a quick fix, or because it is just part of their routine; they desire nothing more than to hear the same old words and to be comforted and propped up by a sense that it’s still going on. Others go to be challenged, to be given something to think and pray about; they want to reflect deeply about their faith, to encounter God. As a pastor to all of these, as well as to those in your parish that don’t attend church, you want to enter into their lives to be there in every aspect. You want to be able to speak words of comfort, consolation and challenge at the important moments of life; ultimately, you want to point to God at those times when He’s most needed.

This desire for that kind of relationship and community is not shared with everyone or fully understood by others. Some actively reject such intrusion whilst others seek it too much. Whichever way people go, the impetus comes from you. There’s rarely a sharing of life, equal and balanced in a ‘middle of the road’ Anglican parish. To call a whole congregation to a more committed ‘common life’ is not desired by all members as we all, as Lawrence suggested, ‘we all tend to call holy what we believe in and to consider forbidden that which we dislike.’ Where might the cenobiac commitment to other human beings challenge the consumerist approach seen at different degrees within parish ministry?

In the Diocese of York we have been looking at Five Marks of Growing. one of these is ‘commitment’. ++Sentamu wants to see disciples of Jesus growing in commitment. This must, I feel, include, at some level, a growth in the commitment to a common life and a more ‘monastic’ call.

So what does it look like to be in community, in a parish, when even members of your congregation aren’t interested or inclined to increase their commitment beyond their Sunday attendance?

I’d want to suggest a formalizing of the observable norm in most congregations: a central core group and a fringe. This is not about creating a boundary around the core people, stating some are ‘in’ and others ‘out’ but rather a marking of a central point with which one can place oneself; a shared set of principles (A Rule). Most congregations have this in some form or another but often it remains unspoken, and therefore unshared, or it is spoken of ambiguously (the generic, ‘In, Up and Out’).


To be protected against myself I need to take up the yoke of A Rule, under the obedience to an Abbot.

I have committed, for three years, to the Rule of the Northumbria Community but I am currently struggling with the lack of a physical community around me with whom to share that walk. I also see the need of an Abbot under whom I can allow the Rule to shape and challenge me. The leaders of the Northumbria Community are available but are not sharing life with me; the everyday moments. Without an Abbot I am a Sarabaite with all the tendencies described in the Rule of St. Benedict.

Holy Trinity, Divine Community, You make us to share life with others. Help me to establish a rule under which I might learn the joys of obedience. Show me the human abbots with whom I can share the common life and to whom I can look for protection against my ‘unschooled desires’.

Come, Lord Jesus 


  1. Have found this article to be very interesting and informative. Please take a look at the following website: St. Brendan’s Celtic Christian Monastery. I think you may find this helpful. Please pray for me as I am currently in discernment as to whether God is calling me to be a sister. Thank you.

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