This is the text of a paper presented at the first Postgraduate Research Morning hosted at St Hild’s College in Sheffield on Monday 5th June 2017.
I want to talk about discipleship today from within, what many are calling, ‘the New Monastic Movement’ of which I am part. This movement has emerged out of a protest against the steady increase of individualism prevalent in our Western culture. Many would argue that the individualisation of our society began in the Enlightenment with philosophical thought becoming more introspective and focussed on the subjective interpretation of reality famously summarised in René Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am.” The Church has not been immune to this social deconstruction and this has led to a powerfully individualised faith experience. This erosion of the corporate understanding of faith has impacted the Church’s discipleship and life together.
With the secularisation following on from the Enlightenment project and the further mechanising and fragmenting of all aspects of our lives, the place of community has diminished. In the late 20th century, with the Church increasingly unwilling or unable to offer intensive forms of Christian discipleship, some have gathered together to re-discover what it means to live out the communal life as described in the New Testament. The faithfulness of the monastic and mendicant saints throughout history became wells around which these small groups were nourished, inspiring them to live counter-culturally. These ‘pioneers’ discovered that the shared life they dreamt of had long been practiced by communities like the Franciscans, Benedictines and the Jesuits, among many. Others arrived at a similar place by a different route, having sought, in the first place, to rediscover the spiritual fortitude and charisms of the very same saints of old and so to re-dig wells of Grace in the ‘places’ where God has worked for generations before. Regardless of the path towards a contemporary articulation of the monastic way of life, they all learned that the historic forms were in need of some re-imagining for the new context in which we now live. In this way these expressions of communal discipleship can all be reasonably described as ‘new monastics’.
The term ‘New Monasticism’ was first used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter he wrote on 14th January 1935. This is what he said,
the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)
Two years later, Bonhoeffer published ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he seems to expand on his view of classic monasticism. He writes,
The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness. It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.46-47)
This ‘toleration’ of monasticism by the Church, however, relativized the discipleship lived out in the monastic houses. The Church was able to avoid the criticism of secularisation by living the life of holiness vicariously through the achievements of these monks who obeyed the radical call to forsake all earthly things and follow Jesus Christ in discipleship.
Bonhoeffer argues that Martin Luther’s journey through the monastic life led him to see how the monastic life had failed the Church by perpetuating this lie that Christians could pay others to be ‘disciples’ on their behalf. The monastic houses had become, by the time the Reformation began, propped up by the financial donations by the Roman Church paying a select few monks to be obedient for the rest of God’s Church. Luther’s protest was an attempt to release the radical obedience to follow Christ, found in the charisms of monastic life, and invite all Christians to participate in this form of devoted life of monasticism.
I say all this, yes, in order to justify the New Monastic movement as a continued protest for the Church to embrace the way of life outlined in the founding documents of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits and others. But I also say it in order to acknowledge and outline the popular portrayal of monastic life and the criticisms that it therefore receives. I want to argue that it is the early monastic life, articulated most purely in the Rule of St Benedict, that holds the key for us todayas to how to live as ‘a living protest against the seculariztion of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’
Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ. (RB Pro:1-5)
Thus starts the Rule of St Benedict. It begins with an unswerving command to obedience, not a popular command in our individualised, self-autonomous culture but the monastic life centres on the vow to stability, obedience and conversion of life. Columba Cary-Elwes helpful highlights that ‘the very word obedience has a treasure hidden in its history.’ She writes,
If you unpack it, ob audiere, to listen intently is the language of love. When you really love, you listen intently to know what the one you love wants to happen. (Columba Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer:the rule of St. Benedict for lay people (London:Burns & Oates, 1992) p.182)
This understanding of obedience is acceptable in the context of our personal relationship with Christ but it becomes problematic for many in our post modern, subjective culture. To love and obey another is seen by our self-autonomous society as oppressive and open to all manner of abuse. In outlining the role of the abbot in his Rule, St Benedict, on more than one occasion, however, quotes Christ, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.” Christ imparts authority to his disciples in order that they may speak on his behalf to others. The abbot in the monastic community is to represent Christ to his monks. The risk of abuse to that kind of power is real and Cary-Elwes acknowledges as much when she states,
No doubt also an abbot can go beyond his rights, and what is wrong or evil should not be obeyed. Yet all that happens is under divine providence and God’s wise guidance of the world, and this includes commands of superiors. (Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer, p.40)
St Benedict spends many chapters portraying what an abbot should and should not do; he spends so much time that it begs the question, “why is it so important?” It is important because the role of the abbot directly impacts the discipleship of the rest of the community. ‘The first thing that defines the abbot,’ Esther de Waal writes, ‘is not the position at the head of an institution but his relationship with sons’ She links this with the model of discipleship undertaken by monks.
The learning process is more analogous to that of apprenticeship by which one person learns a skill from another. In the ancient world skills were handed down from father to son, and so apprenticeship also carries with it the implication of a father-son relationship. It involves imitation and long, patient watching and copying, a shared learning that owes much to the fact of daily living together.(Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1985) p.130)
Discipleship, within the monastic tradition, begins with obedience; to listen intently to God through His Spirit and His people under authority. Rowan Williams paints a beautiful image of this model of discipleship as he suggest that being a disciple ‘is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption.’
You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: essentials of the Christian life (London: SPCK, 2016) p.3)
‘Obedience is not an imposed subservience to an external authority but a condition of inward growth,’ as Dominc Milroy writes,
The monk who is not authentically obedient to his abbot and his brethren will not be a happy monk; the carpenter who is not obedient to the laws of governing joints will make an unreliable table. All disobedience represents, in this sense, the pursuit of illusory freedom which obstructs the acquisition of real freedom. (Dominic Milroy, “Education According to The Rule of St. Benedict”, Ampleforth Journal, no.84 (Autumn 1979) p.4)
As well as obedience, discipleship, within the monastic tradition, also begins with stability. Brian C Taylor says,
The Benedictine vow of stability is a vow to a community of people… In this sense it is a marriage…The grass is not greener “over there”: one must work out one’s problems with this person because, if one doesn’t, one will have to work it out with that person. This is precisely what is so freeing about the vow of stability, both in monastic life and family life. To have to work it out is to demand growth, as painful as it is, and that is freeing. Faithfulness is a limit that forces us to stop running and encounter God, self, and other right now, right here. (Brian C. Taylor, Spirituality For Everyday Living: an adaptation of the rule of St. Benedict (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989) p.17)
Or to put that more succinctly, Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘The meaning of stability: God is not elsewhere.’
If obedience is about listening intently, then stability aids our silencing of unnecessary distractions ‘for stability says there must be no evasion.’ There must be no escaping into a fantasy world or the day dreams of how we’d do great things if only… ‘At the heart of stability,’ Metropolitan Anthony bloom suggests, ‘is the certitude that God is everywhere, that we have no need to seek God elsewhere, that if I can’t find God here I shan’t find Him anywhere.’
Both obedience and stability combine with the commitment to seek out the conversion of our lives and gives the framework within which discipleship occurs in the monastic tradition. Conversion of life is about life-long, inner transformation which ensures discipleship is not a course to complete but a way of life to journey deeper into. Thomas Merton argues that a commitment to total inner transformation is to be regarded as ‘the end of the monastic life, and that no matter where one attempts to do this, that remains the essential thing.’
The Rule of St Benedict is immensely practical and pragmatic and can be used as a manual for a devoted life to following Christ. What we need to learn from it and the wider monastic heritage is the communal necessity of this way of life. Discipleship for Benedict, Francis and the other monastic fathers and mothers can only be done with others. Love can only be practised in the cut and thrust of community life. If the vows to stability, obedience and the ongoing conversion of one’s life can be seen as the soil in which monastic discipleship is rooted and from this the tree of discipleship can bear good fruit then we must acknowledge that all three require other people to be faithful and obedient to and to be changed by.
The monastic tradition has always rejected a form of life that attempts to replicate the religious life outside of a communal setting. John Cassian describes a type of monk called Sarabaites in a derogatory manner,
They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like. (John Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)
St Benedict also depicts this type of monk as,
…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (RB 1:7-9)
The monastic life, I would argue, is still ‘a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’ But in our modern context this requires us embracing the challenge of community life as outlined in the Rule of St Benedict. In this portrayal of community life discipleship is intrinsically linked with the submission of our self wills to the discipline of the larger community’s apprenticeship training. This is not the romantic, sentimental community life that we all easily describe in our dreams of missional communities but a very real and costly life which demands obedience and stability in order to enter into the inner change of discipleship.
Without this ultimate commitment to the other monks, to wife or husband, to child or parent, change is difficult at best because it lives under the threat of abandonment. With a commitment to stability, change is no longer a threat but something to be undertaken together. One can change or ask for change in the other when one knows that one is loved and that this request will not drive the other away.
What the monastic tradition offers the Church today is a communal way of life that challenges our cultures hyper-individualism by demanding the sacrificing of the idol of self and ‘a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.’ We must discover that on the boundary of the Church today the monastics still preserve ‘the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship.’
For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life?
Isn’t this just about being a Christian?
I sat amongst the emerging community holding the proposed Rule of Life for the possible Society of the Holy Trinity, a New Monastic Society aimed at bringing together communities across the UK (and hopefully further afield) under a common rule and constitution. As we read the prologue to this Rule and reflected on what it said, there was an obvious thing to say,
Isn’t this just about being a Christian?
I had sat with Ian Mobsby, Gareth Powell and others for three days a month before and shared the stories of our different communities as they grew and developed. The Rule of Life, mainly written by one of the communities, had spoken to the other communities represented around the table. In our discussions we were clear that we needed this Rule to be a broad umbrella so that communities from across the Anglican communion may gather under it but it couldn’t be so broad as to lose any definition.
In a paper I was asked to write for the upcoming New Monastic Conference, entitled ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, I attempted to articulate what the New Monastic movement understands by a ‘Rule of Life’.
A Rule of Life is fundamental to the identification with the New Monastic movement. A Rule of Life is not just an agreed statement of belief or purpose but a set of commitments which are formally accepted by way of promises/vows. For all Christians, for every community, every monastery, every intentional grouping, the Gospel is the Rule of our life, the measure of our faithfulness to Christ. In this sense, no other rule is necessary. The tradition of the monastic Rule evolved as the deposit of the Gospel for a particular group at a particular time. Thus intentional communities need to be clear about the way in which they respond to the call of the Gospel. There are many possible ways: a community may feel called to follow a classic Rule; another may have felt called to write a Rule that is, for the members, their invitation to the Gospel life; another may have evolved a covenant document that identifies certain key practices that hold the members in their common vocation. (Ned Lunn, ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, Position Paper for ‘New Monasticism: a UK gathering of new forms of missional and religious life’, 14th April 2016)
With this understanding it is a natural response when reading any Rule of Life to say, ‘but that’s just being a Christian’ but the reality is many Christians struggle to specifically embody the gospel in their lives. The life of faith demands to live and move within context. The Spirit of God does not calls us to live anywhere but calls us to live in the time and place we find ourselves. Jesus lived in history, at a particular time and in a particular culture.
One of the ways in which the Society of the Holy Trinity distinguishes our specific vocation is to acknowledge that we are all communities living in urban contexts. This is not to say that we refuse to engage in the gospel elsewhere but the reality is we experience the life of faith is in the city environment. God has called us to live out the gospel in the City and so we have different questions to ask and a unique perspective on God’s vision for the new creation from communities who exist in the countryside.
I was initially uncomfortable with limiting the Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity to urban life but God showed me his specific call to bless the city. Living in a context requires us to continually return to the specific questions God asks of us and we must ask of each other. ‘How then shall we live here and now?’ It is easy to lose focus and to shift it from one thing and then to another; a Rule of Life forces us to sit with questions longer than we would naturally.
The Early Church wrestled with the question of context. St Paul argued pragmatically that Christians living in the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire as slaves and wives of Greeks or Romans did not have the luxury to distance themselves from the company of Gentiles as the Jewish Christians would want. It was easier for new Christian converts to live the Jewish life in Jerusalem but it was not practical or reasonable to ask those elsewhere to live to that standard. The Early Church discovered the need for some contextual common sense in the discipleship of new Christians.
The danger of context, however, is that we err too far the other way and use the charge of ‘context’ to encourage individualism. There is a risk that by adopting the ‘that’s alright for you but I am different’ subjective approach to life that we are never challenged by the cost of discipleship. There are some who are exploring New Monasticism who feel they can tailor make their own Rule of Life so that it works for their life as it is. When this Rule of Life starts to cost something of our life and comfort, they re-assess and change it to suit new priorities, etc. This makes me feel particularly uncomfortable. A Rule of Life must be shared with others to ensure that iron sharpens iron. That is why, even though there are some parts of the proposed Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity that I am not keen on, I’m happy to sit with it and would love, in the future, to vow to live by it.
A Rule of Life, like the Bible, demands of us to wrestle with the text and seek to hear God reveal himself through the tangible words. A Rule of Life is a lens we use to help us to hear and understand God’s life-giving story as it calls us to participate in it and it is a lens which we need to share with others to ensure we don’t impose our own agenda and distorted ideas onto it. A Rule of Life must not become an idol, formed into our image, but rather must point us to the revelations of God’s love and grace towards us and the world around us.
Esther de Waal, who I have enjoyed journeying with through the Rule of St. Benedict, puts it beautifully at the end of her book ‘A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict’,
The rule of Benedict is a way of life, a life-giving way. To encounter the text in all its fullness and complexity is like a source and stream, always the same and yet always different, or like a tapestry where I follow first one thread and then another and so get different glimpses of the whole. I return to it time and time again throughout my life. Benedict and his practical manual of the love of Christ are always there to help me on my journey, the coming home of the prodigal to the loving embrace of the father. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (New York: Continuum, 1995) p.215)
Christianity is not a spirituality because it forces us to embrace our humanness; the fleshy, tangible life. We are not dualists, yearning for the separation of our souls from our bodies. We are not a people focussed on some spiritual nirvana achieved by asceticism or prayerful meditation in the hope of transcending our flesh. We are bodily present, rooted in history and geography, in the world we see, hear and breathe in.
The gospel is about the redemption of the world not an escape route from it. Rowan Williams writes,
The only history to be taken seriously is bodily history; and so the redemption of humanity must be located in bodily history. (Rowan Williams, The Wound Of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990) p.28)
The beautiful revelation of God through Jesus Christ is that God cares for this world and his eschatological plan is bound up in the atoms and particles of creation. The incarnation is good news for us that our earthly lives are not accidental but have a divine purpose: redemption.
The parish system should help us to remember the particularities of our life. Where we live is important. Our neighbours lives demand our attention. The communities of which we are a part are not distractions but the priority of our God who walks that landscape seeking out the lost and proclaiming another world is possible. We can easily forget these truths and realities and that is why a Rule of Life is helpful to hold us in that place of asking the question, ‘how then shall we live?’ How do we live out the gospel in this place at this time? It will be different from those in different contexts but the challenge is, as it has been since the early Christians first discovered God’s vocation given to them by the Holy Spirit at their baptisms, how do we remain united in the demands of different contexts?
Almighty God, through your Holy Spirit you created unity in the midst of diversity;
We acknowledge that human diversity is an expression of your manifold love for your creation;
We confess that in our brokenness as human beings we turn diversity into a source of alienation, injustice, oppression, and wounding. Empower us to recognize and celebrate differences as your great gift to the human family. Enable us to be the architects of understanding, of respect and love; Through the Lord, the ground of all unity, we pray. (“Prayers for Diversity”, Jesuit Resources, http://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/Prayers-for-Diversity.cfm)
Come, Lord Jesus.
Monks should practice this zeal with ardent love…
What has happened to the UK?
We live in interesting times!
On the Sunday morning after the UK voted to leave the European Union the lectionary epistle reading was Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy; these were the words being used as the ripples of the UK’s decision were felt by all of us. Both major political parties went into melt down as David Cameron resigned triggering a leadership race and then the Labour party followed suit with several resignations and a leadership coup. Scotland began rethinking their independence which, strangely UKIP are dead against because they feel Scotland is better in a union than out… No one seemed totally comfortable with the way things were turning out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s announcement was downbeat to say the least. The political jostling had begun!
Throughout the debate it was clear that what the voting public needed were facts, but who do we trust to give us the facts? As Michael Gove interestingly stated,
I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.
Although we needed facts what we wanted was ‘passion’. The ‘Trump Effect’ (which is sadly now a well known phrase!) is the replacement of intellectual reason with courage in conviction.
They aren’t afraid to say it as it is.
They are passionate about their beliefs.
Nigel Farage, the main force behind the referendum, has now resigned having achieved what he wanted in politics. He worked tirelessly to achieve his aim and ambition with great zeal but at what cost? To be more specific; in what manner? For me passion and zeal, unbridled by reason, faithfulness or stability leads to division. This is what is being outlined in the Galatians passage above.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
When you sow in division, you reap in division.
I want to be clear that, despite my vote to remain in the EU, my concern and disappointment is rooted not in the outcome of the vote itself but in the nature that the debate was done and the precedent it has set for the future of our society. As always my judgement on the morality of a decision is based not on the decision itself but on the process and means by which the decision was arrived at. If the vote had gone the other way, I’d have still been upset and uncomfortable about the decision (albeit less intensely).
I have, as regular readers of this blog will know, for a long time been criticising the direction of our society in the UK over the last few decades. At the heart of my criticism and concern is the liberal, individualised approach to politics which places the individual desires and passions at the heart of all conversation. What matters most in debates is not reason but what a person thinks and feels. The subjective voice is unassailable and if someone’s beliefs are criticised then the opponent is labelled ‘intolerant’. Opinion is held higher than than fact or truth because there is no longer any objective truth. It comes down to what we ‘reckon’. This leads to us ensuring we get what we want but never paying the cost to get what we need.
What was obvious throughout the debate and in the aftermath of the referendum was that we the voters, en masse, didn’t know what we were doing. We were not told all the information we were fed lies from both sides and as the reality hit we were all as confused as before. We talk about the value and success of democracy but what the referendum did show me was that democracy doesn’t work because it relies on the generally uninformed voter making a decision which inevitably goes to the person who is charismatic and not for the one who is able to make the change to society that most of us don’t know we need. The referendum was won, not by truth but by personality.
Plato, in his book ‘Republic’, depicts democracy as a denigration of strong governance and places the democratic regime just above tyranny. The democratic man, which he uses to portray the character of democracy, is a man who is free to do what they want and live how they want. This democratic man is ruled by his passions and base desires. He is uneducated with little self control. Democracy is painted as self-autonomous units fighting and competing to survive… sounds like the UK at the moment!
When reading Galatians a day after the referendum it was this depiction of democracy that came to mind as I prepared to preach into a society where the political, economic and social stability of our nation was in chaos. Markets were uncertain. Communities were divided and a rise in xenophobia and racism became prevalent. Families were divided deeply and there was no sign of any leadership. This is the fruit of living life by our flesh, our passions.
The alternative, Paul argues, is to die to the flesh.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
The referendum was also a debate about identity. We, as a nation, are struggling to articulate a shared identity due to the aggressive pursuit of the individual identity in our capitalist, neo-liberal culture. There is no longer a shared narrative to our lives together. This is why the concept of family, community, fellowship is eroded and there is such high levels of loneliness, mental health issues, depression, anxiety and violence; and it is that one word which describes the debate and the fruit of the vote to leave, on both sides: ‘violence’.
Violence is rooted in fear. Violence is the response when we feel threatened. Violence is characterised by the cross. So what should our response be? How then do we live?
This is not the love that allows people to live how they want but the love which desires that people belong and are brought together. This love is not just allowing others to exist nearby but a desire for transformation and growth. This love is rooted in the monastic vow of stability, obedience and ongoing transformation. Esther de Waal writes,
Genuine love is free from exploitation or the manipulation of others. Where this is missing love becomes a delusion, a subterfuge, a means to an end. The patience and gentleness of verse 5 are again virtues which Benedict admires and which he has been encouraging. This is the opposite of that violence which is not limited to aggressive behaviour but may be a reflection of the hidden violence of feelings which comes out in tone of voice or the glance… The ‘wicked zeal of bitterness’ must refer to the rivalries and power games that can tear communities apart, the sort of competition that is unsuitable in the body of Christ. If you must compete, he seems to say, at least compete in love! (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p.211)
Paul contrasts the life lived by the passions of the flesh as a life guided by God’s Spirit.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
To live by the Spirit one must die to the flesh. This is what is being outlined by St. Benedict in this penultimate chapter of his Rule.
Let them, “in honour prevent one another” (Rom 12:10). Let them accept each other’s frailties (of body and soul). Let them try to outdo each other in obedience. Let no one do what is best for himself, but rather what is best for another. Let them expend the charity of brotherhood in chaste love.
I’m a passionate person; I feel things powerfully and I have strong convictions but I know I must learn to control and master that passion by deliberately and intentionally dying to self and being drawn into the community of love and respect. I must establish my identity in Christ and allow him to form me in his likeness.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.(Phil 2:3-8)
…salvation is not an individual project, but one we undertake with and among our brothers and sisters in Christ. We work out our salvation not only in fear and trembling, but also in community. It is in our care for, and interaction with, one another that we become the body of Christ, now and forever. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1990) p.267)
Now, more than ever, the UK needs to be re-trained in living with others. There was a great cry, after the vote on the UK membership in the EU, to come together and be united. It sounded so simple but we have lost the art of doing that. Living with others is a cost to our personal sense of freedom. We have heard a lot about freedom and our own sovereignty over the referendum debate but I repeat Paul’s words to the Galatians,
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
It is the paradox of the Christian life that we have been given freedom to choose to become slaves to one another in Christ. Community is not easy and so the need for guidelines is so important. The Rule of St. Benedict is the greatest example of such guidelines which hold people together when every passion and zeal is telling them to flee or worse do violence in thought, word or deed. A Rule of life must cover every aspect of one’s life; the thoughts (orthodoxy), the feelings (orthopathy) and the actions (orthopraxis). It must be shared with those you live with in order that everyone exists within the same narrative because with no shared story there is no shared values, direction, destination and ultimately no shared character/identity.
We have voted to leave the EU to regain our own sovereignty so how do we now build a common life together? On this issue there remains silence or rather there remains a competition for ideological power or individualised tolerance. The Kingdom of God is established when we allow our political ideology, our self-identity, our sexuality, our gender, our class, our weatlh or status to become secondary to the identity which brings joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I appreciate that may be interpreted as another subjective option of many in this pluralistic society but, as a Christian, I can see no other option offering such hope.
How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the Gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it…. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. Insofar as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the “lenses” through which they are able to understand and cope with the world. (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 2004) p.227)
The New Monastic movement is a fresh call from God to intentional place ourselves in the environment of community under a framework that will shape us into the character of Christ. That was the goal of St. Benedict and the other monastic fathers and mothers and it is the goal of this new wave of monastics. The sharing of a way of life challenges the individualised culture we now suffer within. We need to commit to a Rule which is not shaped by me or my desires but is shaped for me and my transformation and in which my passion and zeal will be focussed solely on seeking God’s will in our life together; redemption of my flesh to be guided by the Spirit.
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified:hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in our vocation and ministry we may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name. Raise up leaders of character who will lead us to inhabit your story of hope and in which all of us find our rest.
Come, Lord Jesus.
The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.
Where is authority and obedience placed and how is it used?
Let prefix this post with an acknowledgement: I will be quoting Thomas Merton a lot during this one!
I have a personal struggle with authority and obedience which is deeply woven into my personality and history. Firstly, I am a born and raised Roman Catholic which has undoubtedly influenced me for good and ill in equal measure. I cannot and will not ever shake that influence from me, I can only learn to embrace the good and ask God’s mercy and grace to redeem the ill. Secondly, I am a millennial/Generation Y, my older siblings are the cynical generation X and they have shaped me as well as my peers who, like me have been parented by baby-boomers. All of that may sound like a load of sociological mumbo jumbo but the key point is I’m a product of my culture. Generation Y is also known as Generation Me, for we are, on the whole, a narcissistic bunch obsessed with selfies due to a great deal of pampering by our parents who were the recipients of Thatcher’s ‘booming economy’! These two parts of my social makeup would be enough to create a paradox around the issue of authority but there’s more specific personality traits that create a confusing cocktail of issues for me. (There’s my Generation Y traits coming out; a desperate need to be unique and noticed. Ironic!) In Myers Briggs personality test I am an INTJ
Blindly following precedents and rules without understanding them is distasteful to INTJs, and they disdain even more authority figures who blindly uphold those laws and rules without understanding their intent. Anyone who prefers the status quo for its own sake, or who values stability and safety over self-determination, is likely to clash with INTJ personality types. Whether it’s the law of the land or simple social convention, this aversion applies equally, often making life more difficult than it needs to be.(“INTJ Strengths and Weakneses”, 16 Personalities, April 23 2016, https://www.16personalities.com/intj-strengths-and-weaknesses)
I have a deepening sense of vocation to some form of monastic life. I am a self selected Anglican. I am artistic by temperament and, until ordination, by profession. All of this makes for some paradox inducing internal struggle for me but… it’s what makes me interesting!
I appreciate authority. I desire authority. I know the necessity for authority and even in a democratic country authority is not only allowed it is more needed than ever. Our relationship with authority, as a culture, is interesting to me. After it’s abuses by so many in the 20th century we have allowed the pendulum of social opinion to swing completely in the opposite direction. As my older siblings in Generation X have taken power (often in protesting movements and social activism) a large dose of cynicism towards authority and the status quo has become prevalent too. Figures of authority are routinely mocked and publicly shamed as satire has became increasingly popular so that now most comedians will have some form of pedestal kicking in their acts. I am not suggesting this is bad or unnecessary; I’m just noting it as interesting.
Thomas Merton (here it comes!) wrote to a Marie Byles, a scholar in Japanese religions, on January 9 1967,
You ask about the Catholic idea of holy obedience. What you are really interested in is evidently the ancient ascetic idea of obedience which goes back to the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and so on, is exemplified by the saints, and is analogous to the perfect obedience, docility, and so forth found in other religious ideals. The idea is fundamentally the same: to become free from the need to assert one’s ego, to be liberated from the desire to dominate others, to renounce selfish demands, and so on. Ultimately the idea is that if you renounce your own will you will be guided directly by God and moved by Him in everything… The real purpose of obedience is to obey God and give one’s will to Him. This idea of obedience is somewhat ambiguous in the later legalistic context that it got into, when the religious Orders got highly organized and became big impersonal structures run by bureaucracies. The ascetic idea was pressed into the service of a different kind of ideal, and “blind obedience” was stressed as an ideal since it meant the subject simply submitted to authority and became a cog in a machine. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 191)
Merton draws out the first issue with obedience and authority and that is: where it is placed.
St Benedict’s original emphasis of obedience in his Rule stems from the expectation that within the monastic community there are personal relationships; monks were known to each other. An abbot knew the monks, personally and intimately. This relationship can’t always have been comfortable for either party particularly in issues of obedience. The abbot would have come from the community and could have been, at one time, a peer of the monks he now found himself in authority over. Within the intimacy of this fellowship of faith and discipleship, obedience is encouraged for it’s original purpose: to practice submission of our own will to God. I acknowledge not just my own personal need to practice this submission but my whole culture to do so.
Obedience, unfortunately, has continued to be associated with big, impersonal institutions and so is baulked at by many in Generation X and younger. Since the First World War and the abuses of the ruling classes that forced the population to fight increasingly failing battles on their behalf became apparent, cultural acceptance of authority began to erode. Throughout the last century, with the rise of fascism, communism, capitalism and many other philosophical and political ideals, humanity has developed a wariness to power and authority. Institutions have one by one shown themselves to be corrupted, or at least corruptible, and trust has been lost (the Church, the police, politicians, government processes, schools). This has been done to such an extent that we are now numbed to scandal and, strangely, we now see political elite and celebrities who are seemingly immune to such challenge.
To focus the issue a little more let me explore authority within the Church of England. I, as an ordained minister, have made an oath of canonical obedience,
I, A B, do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of C and his successors in all things lawful and honest: So help me God. (Canon C14, Canons of the Church of England 7th Edition: Full Edition with First Supplement (London, church House Publishing, 2015)
In my case I have sworn obedience to the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu which has, on occasions, been put to the test. There have been decisions that the Archbishop has made which have affected me directly and which I have not agreed with. I have accepted those decisions as an act of obedience to him. This acceptance has not been easy at times as I struggle to obey authority solely because some person of status tells me to and particularly when I don’t believe them to possess all the necessary information of understanding, but I obeyed. My struggle is particularly painful when I am asked to obey decisions that have been made without any form of dialogue or relationship. Merton goes on,
As long as the notion of obedience is implicated in an impersonal power system it will be corrupted by the very things it is supposed to liberate us from- worldliness, selfishness, ambition, and so on… (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 192)
That is not purely to say that just the authority figure, whoever that might be, is corrupted by those things but those in obedience under them also. For the vow of obedience to be renewed and reformed for both parties involved I suggest we ensure it is placed back in the soil of long-term, trusting relationship. The alternative is to either blindly allow it to continue as it is and to be burdened by the struggle or to leave the system altogether (as many who have taken the oath of canonical obedience are doing.)
Thomas Merton, in a letter to a Wilbur H. Ferry on January 19 1967, makes the following heartfelt observation,
Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic Church and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is imposed in God’s name. It is an insult to God Himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to. On the other hand… If everyone with any sense just pulls out, then that leaves the curial boys in full command of the field with the assurance that they are martyrs to justice or something. the real problem remains the reform of the Church people who remain inside. And if there can only be a little agreement on a more reasonable and free approach, something can be done. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 322)
Many have asked me why I, as a pioneer minister of sorts and as a creative artist, not only follow the rules but promote the need to stay true to them. It is the key paradox that makes me, me; how does it balance?
I have spoken before about an important moment in my life when I was asked by God to make a decision: was I going to be a revolutionary or a reformer? A revolutionary, in this instance, is one who seeks to overthrow the current system in power and replace it with something else. This revolutionary wants to destroy the status quo which is , in their mind, no longer fit for purpose, in order to create the new workable model. The reformer, on the other hand, is the one who seeks to take the treasures of the old and salvage them to allow the broken parts to either be ‘fixed’ or recycled or thrown out. The job of the reformer, in contrast to the revolutionary, is a long term systematic but thorough process. I made a promise to God some eight years ago to be a reformer and not a revolutionary.
Most pioneer ministers and those involved in the Fresh Expressions movement are revolutionaries. They are tired of the status quo failing, in their eyes, in the mission of God. The Church of England is joke and needs to be radically changed and that change is going to be made from a grassroots movements akin to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and UKIP (this is not about motivation but solely about approach.) I have promised my God that I’d commit to participate in dialogue with the tradition because I still believe God has built his Church and he has not forsaken it yet. I believe that the Church is the hope of the nation and that God is still in it working through it. Fresh Expressions of church must, in my mind grow out from and remain united to the Church of God.
The Reformation was, in my mind, an unfortunate but necessary moment in Church history. It was unfortunate because it has birthed, out of division, a divisive movement. If you sow in division you reap in division. This has meant that preference has often replaced the deeply held convictions of the reformers and we have the situation where there are so many independent churches. These church congregations are not, in themselves a problem, many are doing wonderful, anointed work and I rejoice with them in the promotion of the life of faith and mission but the ecumenical movement, despite our best intentions of being united, is not full unity. What was begun at the Reformation has created this issue.
It is from this place of commitment to change the system from within that I speak. I don’t believe in complaining about something and not learning why it is as it is and how it or I can be changed to solve the problem. It is in this reformation mindset that I struggle to balance my obedience to authority and work to discern how God is birthing the new things in and through his Church. It is in all of this that I am encouraged by Merton’s letter to Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit and one of the founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship,
While in fact there are a lot of Superiors who think themselves infallible, and are absolutely incapable of understanding what it means to really find out what their subjects need and desire (they consult only yes-men or people who have made the grade by never rocking any boats), there is a new bunch coming up that sincerely wants to help change things, but obviously can’t do everything they would like to do either. And then there are the good Joes who want to go along wherever the Church seems to be going even if they don’t really understand what it is all about. If all these are treated as if they were purely and simply reactionary tyrants, then there will be a real mess for sure… The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 272)
Merton draws out here the other issue with authority and obedience and that is: how is it used.
The pain of authority comes when it is, as Merton calls it, “arbitrary and reactionary”. How many of us have been on the receiving end of this approach to power? Often authority is used like this when it lacks the environment of relationship but it can still manifest itself like this even when you are within long term, trusting relationships. Merton knew this personally with his own abbot at Gethsemani where he lived.
The letters and journals of Thomas Merton are full of his personal struggles with abbot James Fox who continually refused Merton the opportunity to become a hermit. these occasions are so numerous and so gradual it is hard to find just one that will sum up the pain he felt as he wrestled with obedience to an authority he no longer respected.
I know he is my Abbot, but I am very much afraid that I have never honestly been able to deal with him as with a “spiritual father” and it would be impossible for me to do so sincerely. (May 11, 1965, Thomas Merton to Jean Leclercq, ‘Survival or Prophecy?: The letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) p.128)
Just two years earlier, Merton expressed, in his journal, his approach to obedience to an authority he did not respect.
In consequence my attitude toward the monastery changes. They have need of me and I have need of them. As if without this obedience, and charity, my life would lack sense. It is an existential situation which god has willed for me, and it is part of His Providence – it is not to be questioned, no matter how difficult it may be. I must obey God, and this reaches out into everything… In this new condition my attitude toward the abbot is changing. Of course it is obvious that my complaints and discontent have been absurd. Though I can perhaps back them up with plausible arguments, they have no real meaning, they don’t make sense. He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?(January 15, 1963, Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: the journals of Thomas Merton volume four, 1960-1963 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) p. 288-289)
Esther de Waal suggests,
…obedience is a gift rather than a matter of duty. It is something which the good monk gives with gracious charity to his brother… Obedience depends on listening so totally and openly to the other that through them we discern the face, the voice of Christ himself. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p. 208)
Obedience must be a gift and should be lived not out of duty but love. This becomes painful when authority is wielded over you and obedience demanded from you rather than inspired in you. It is a delicate balance that Merton lived and that we all, in some way, must navigate. Obedience, like love, must begin as a practice, a choice and through this will grow into a habit and a virtue.
The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.
Philip Lawrence, OSB and abbot of Christ in the Desert, writes,
Obedience is valuable in our lives because we show one another what it means to serve and love one another. Even the abbot has to obey the brethren! (Philip Lawrence, “Chapter 71: Mutual Obedience”, Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, April 23 2016, https://christdesert.org/prayer/rule-of-st-benedict/chapter-71-mutual-obedience/)
Obedience is to be done in love and as a service and it is expected, although not explicit in the Rule, reciprocal. The person in authority over another is not to laud it over their subjects but to be obedient also. It is in this mutual obedience that authority can be wielded.
Obedience then should be preceded by a deep listening from both parties. If it is rooted in relationship then authority will be exercised with love and obedience given as a gift.
This chapter challenges me, like the rest of the Rule, but particularly at this moment in my ministry. This current season in my life is painful like a continual dull thud causing me discomfort. I find myself blindside by a sear of the pain which I must ride out until it subsides. Through it all I choose obedience and to re-commit to following the path laid out for me by God, to see through my potentially erroneous beliefs or opinions and to say of my superior,
He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?
Having said that, I am also aware that authority and obedience is not currently rooted in relationship and it is in this way that it and I must seek to change. I must be careful though,
The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs.
I was asked to visit the nacent new monastic community at St Lukes, Peckham, as part of my involvement in the development of the Society of the Holy Trinity. In our discussion (which can be found here) the painful and personal issue of obedience to authority was explored. I encourage you to listen to it and pray.
I appreciate that this post has been long so I want to sum up the salient point: I believe in the Church as an institution which can develop a transformation of character by practices such as obedience. If authority and obedience is rooted in relationship and a place of intimacy they can be amazing gifts one to another. Outside of relationship they are potentially deeply damaging weapons wielded over people. The change should not be to disown them and seek replacements but to renew and replace them into their proper place.
You are the God who makes extravagant promises.
We relish your great promises of fidelity and presence and solidarity,
and we exude in them.
Only to find out, always too late,
that your promise always comes in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.
You are the God who calls people like us,
and the long list of mothers and fathers before us,
who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.
So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,
who calls always to dangerous new places.
We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us
that we may be among those who believe your promises
enough to respond to your call.
We pray in the one who embodied your promise
and enacted your call, even Jesus. Amen.
(Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis:Augsburg Fortress, 2003) p. 90)
Come, Lord Jesus.
We insist that no one is to strike or excommunicate a brother unless ordered by the abbot.
What is that to you?
I want to begin with a confession. I regularly dream of committing great acts of physical violence on other people. Often these people in my dream show no sign of being impacted by the punches, bites, kicks, etc. that I inflict on them. Part of the build up of violence in these dreams is that no matter how hard I attack my opponent they merely smile or continue to taunt me.
These dreams clearly reveal an inner violence within me of some sort; a form of anguish, frustration building up inside me. The figure who takes the most amount of beatings in my dream is my brother who I always associate with antagonism. He and I growing up had a typical brother relationship of competition, bullying and taunting. We are very different people with very different outlooks and approaches to life and this continues to cause (when we spend any long period of time together) a regression to childish responses in me. He has become a totem in my sub conscious for those people who seem oblivious to my frustrations and continue unchanged in their behaviour which irritate me.
I want to be clear that it has been 16 years, 3 months, 1 week and 6 days since I last punched someone in the face… it was my brother. We were sharing a room on the way up to a millennium celebration with our family and he was deliberately winding me up and we had wrestled with each other until I had pinned him down and, as usual, he taunted me, knowing that I never used physical violence. This time, however, I lost control and punched him clean in the nose… we haven’t fought since… Violence solves nothing, kids!
When St. Benedict insist on not striking someone many of us can’t imagining monks beating each other up but we must assume it must have been a common occurrence or it wouldn’t have been specified. The insistence also highlights, as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, that,
…if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement (Mt 5:22a)
Violence can be expressed in many forms and we ‘strike’ one another more than just physically. The same is true of excommunication.
Official excommunication is the task of the abbot only, as has been clearly defined previously in the Rule, but we can excommunicate others from our lives by choosing not to be near them or avoiding them. We are able to exist in the shallow comfort of community life if we hold onto the control of who we allow into our inner life. We look upon one others with the eyes of judgement choosing to give worth and value to one and not the other. In this way we excommunicate people from the community of our heart.
St. Benedict is insisting that we change our heart.
It is in this deeper area of our personal conversion that we must be attentive. Only with the progress through the ladder of humility and under the obedience that is required in that that we can be changed. Again we see the Benedictine vows of stability, obedience and conversion creating the dynamic, paradoxical tension in the life of discipleship.
As with the previous chapter in which the presumption of coming to the help of another monk, in striking or excommunicating another we are placing ourselves between them and God. It is God alone, through the authority of the abbot, that judgement (if it is passed at all) is made. If we presume to step in and mediate we ourselves fall short for in doing this we ultimately say to God,
We don’t trust you’ll do what we expect.
The last two chapters have reminded me of the end of the gospel of John where Jesus has re-instating Peter after his denial.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (Jn 21:20-22)
The sins and failings of our brothers and sisters must first be a call to our own repentance as we acknowledge that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23) Again we must place ourselves in the narrative of creation, redemption, sanctification.
Our discipleship begins with an acknowledgement that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are created beings formed from the earth by a loving and gracious Father. Our life is solely dependent on his good will and pleasure. From this point we know that we are called to live out a life of freely chosen devotion to him, a life of willing obedience. It is in following him by way of his Son that we are transformed into his likeness. He bestows himself upon those who desire conversion in the person of the Holy Spirit who continues to equip and empower us to continue the work of redemption. The Holy Spirit also makes us holy, distinct from the way of the world and marks us out as God’s own people; beloved.
If we miss out the important acknowledgement, in full force, that we are dust, nothing, sinners, then we limit our appreciation of grace within our life. A community grows and flourishes when all truly inhabit this story of our faith. If we can rightly believe the truth of this in our life and the life of each other then we are able to see Christ working out his purposes in one another.
I’ll finish with a story from the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It is said that she ‘sought out the company of those nuns whose temperaments she found hardest to bear.’ A fellow novice nun, Martha of Jesus, who spent her childhood years in various orphanages and who was described by all as emotionally unbalanced, with a violent temper, became the focus of Thérèse’s attention. It is said that the Mother Superior became concerned that Thérèse was infatuated with Martha and ordered her to stop spending so much time with her. After Thérèse’s death it was discovered that
[she] went out of her way to spend time with, and therefore to love, the people she found most repellent. It was an effective means of achieving interior poverty, a way to remove a place to rest her head. (Kathryn Harrison, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (New York: Penguin Group, 2003) p. 111)
A commitment to conversion of life relies on a rootedness in humility achieved through obedience to authority outside of ourselves. That conversion, for Thérèse of Lisieux, was about achieving interior poverty in the likeness of Christ.
What I am about to say is not as controversial as it may first appear: conflict and tension gives a community the necessary dynamic to grow and move forward. Disagreement is not only expected within community it is necessary. Without it life together becomes, firstly, bland and also, secondly, stagnated, dare I say, dead. In the tension of polarised opinion there is a movement in thought, ideals, opinions and direction. As people wrestle with one another in disagreement we all develop and grow.
That’s why the foundational commitment to the narrative outlined above alongside a vow to chastity and stability alongside an equal vow to conversion of life creates the environment to disagree well. It won’t come as a surprise that there are members of my Christian community, locally, nationally and internationally, that I have consider punching in the face on a number of occasions (I’m sure my face has been imagined being pushed through a wall more than once!) It is a natural response to frustration and conflict but the next step is the most important in spiritual growth. Do we choose to consider how to, not necessarily physically strike them or officially excommunicate them but internally do so? What do we do with these internal temptations and thoughts? Father Maximos, in Kyriacos C. Markides book, ‘The Mountain of Silence, suggests,
We ignore them. That is what the Church fathers tell us to do. They explain that they are like flies and we are to bat them away… We can take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ by His grace. (Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: a search for Orthodox spirituality (Indiana: Doubleday, 2002), quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2: farther up and farther in (London: William Collins, 2015) p.1158-9)
Community life is fraught with dangers of division and it is in the dynamic interplay of the trinitarian vows of stability/chastity, obedience and conversion/poverty and under the narrative of creation, redemption and sanctification that these issues can be a positive force rather than a destructive one.
How often in Church life do we avoid conflict because we do not know how to travel through the terrain? It is far better, I propose, that we live within the context of a life committed to the principles outlined here; that, along with the previous chapter, we are to give attention to our own growth in faith rather than take on the growth of others. It is our own conversion that we are responsible for and to allow others to sort out their own growth, trusting and praying for them as they do so. To see them through the eyes of humility, obedience and holiness.
Father Maximos also suggests that it is the practice of the Jesus Prayer that keeps ‘repetitive assaultive thoughts’ at bay.
St Mark the Ascetic said that he gave credit for his prayer life to Satan. Every time he was tempted by the devil, he prayed, thus, he prayed alot. (Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence: a search for Orthodox spirituality (Indiana: Doubleday, 2002), quoted in Celtic Daily Prayer Book 2: farther up and farther in (London: William Collins, 2015) p.1159)
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Take care that, no matter what, no monk presumes to defend or protect another…
How should we teach?
I was sat with a large group of young people leading them in a Bible Study on cutting off limbs (Mt 5:30, Mk 9:43) and there were a lot of questions being asked. I had not been a leader for longer and, althoguh I had experience of being a teacher, I felt out of my depth. I looked across at the paid youth worker who headed up the team I was on and looked pleadingly at him. I desperately needed his help to answer and guide us back on track as I was flailing in the metaphorical brambles! Instead of jumping in and either closing down the questions or deftly answering them he remained silent staring back at me.
Well, thank you very much!
I thought as I clumsily fought back the probing questions and steered us to end the time together to start an unplanned game.
After the young people had left I cornered the youth leader and said,
Could you not see I was in trouble there. I needed your help and you just left me to fail and it was really embarrassing!
He smiled and replied,
How are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet if I keep propping you up. You need to find your own way out of those kinds of messes.
It was one of the best lessons I learnt.
Skip forward eight years and I’m now ordained and leading a youth group in another church. I have a new leader who I am helping to train up and she was surrounded by young people asking difficult questions about miracles. She stuttered and struggled and then she turned to me and said,
I have completely lost track of what I was saying. Ned, how should I end this?
For a moment I was back at that moment when the youth leader let me struggle on my own and I learnt the valuable lesson of finding an ending on my own. As this student leader stared at me, totally overwhelmed, I faltered and stepped in to defend her. Afterwards I regretted doing that, remembering the great lesson learnt when someone didn’t protect me from embarrassment or failure.
It seems harsh reading this chapter, to be told not to defend another person. To leave them struggling doesn’t seem that kind or, to be honest, very Christian. The instruction, however, is to enable monks to learn the lessons they need as they journey the path of righteousness. How often we step into help someone and in so doing refuse them the opportunity to grow or deepen their faith?
As humans we love the opportunity to instruct and teach others in some weird narcissistic attempt to make them more like us. Imparting advice is a way we can extend our influence and intellectually procreate. In doing this, though, we rob another of growing or maturing. It’s the problem with our established pedagogy (way of teaching).
Paolo Freire, a liberation theologian and practitioner articulates, for me, the fundamental problem with the way we teach one another. The church is not immune to the oppressive approach to education which ‘becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.’
Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive , memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.72)
Students become passive participants who are, by the manner in which information is given to them, encouraged to accept the world as it is and not to hope for new revelations or transformation in reality.
Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator not re-creator… he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.75)
Discipleship must be shaped around a new way of teaching. A teaching, outlined in Freire’s writing, which encourages students to journey alongside another student. It is a focus on modelling how to interact, with curiosity and wonder, with the world around us. The teacher is no longer set apart, up front, depositing information but rather in amongst, a student amongst students, learning and asking questions with them about what they see, hear and experience around them.
In another book, ‘We Make The Road By Walking’, he summarises his point concisely.
The other mistake is to crush freedom and to exacerbate the authority of the teacher. Then you no longer have freedom but now you have authoritarianism, and then the teacher is the one who teaches. The teacher is the one who knows. The teacher is the one who guides. The teacher is the one who does everything. And the students, precisely because the students must be shaped, just expose their bodies and their souls to the hands of the teacher, as if the students were clay for the artist, to be molded. The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves. And in doing that, he or she lives the experience of relating democratically as authority with the freedom of the students.(Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) p.181)
Within this liberation framework we begin to see a way in which the abbot’s authority explicit throughout St. Benedict’s Rule, can be executed without taking away freedom from the monks. The guidance and teaching is one of accompaniment; yes, firm and un-wielding when necessary but allowing God to transform them through a process. Thomas Merton understood this approach.
A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which makes him a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (Boston: Shambhala, 2005) p.258)
I suspect that discipleship crisis in the Church (which has led us to mission and evangelism crisis) is rooted in the approach to how we teach. The time has come to throw away the educational philosophy described above as the ‘banking concept’ for what it creates is followers who are dependant on ‘experts’ to feed them the information they need. If they manage to fight through the passivity that is forced upon them they become oppressors themselves with the catalogue of deposits they have collected over the years.
We leaders and teachers must relearn how to guide people to become the person God intends for them to be. This is going to be hard for most of us as we are products of this old and autocratic educational process. We must come to see God through Jesus the teacher who allowed mistakes and failures, who brought out free enquiry in story rather than a syllabus of knowledge that needed to be memorised. The first disciples were not given, like the other rabbis of the time, a textbook to be learnt but instead received the Holy Spirit to inspire.
This new form of teaching must ripple through every aspect of the Church; through the pulpit, into small groups, into evangelism. Can we imagine the Church being at the forefront of education again by establishing this inquiry based, liberation approach to teaching the younger generation how to engage with the world?
Guiding God, through your son, Jesus Christ, we see you teaching us amongst us. You do not deposit diktats from above but instead walk life with us encouraging and leading with all gentleness, strength and faithfulness. We thank you that your desire for us is not just to know about you but to become like you and in that, find our freedom.
Come, Lord Jesus.
If a brother is requested to do something difficult or impossible he should, at first, accept the command meekly and obediently.
Can we change?
Again I’m forced to ask the ever penetrating questions: how to respond to authority? and how to exercise authority? These two issues have oscillated throughout the Rule of St. Benedict and has raised obedience as the vow which cuts through the individualised, libertarian ethic of our age. Obedience is the virtue, the practice, I think, that challenges us most because it seems to our ‘progressive’ minds a reversal into authoritarian state which birthed both fascism and communism.
We want freedom. We want to be released from what others think of us. We want to be able to censor the oppressive demands placed upon us.
My heart knows what is good for me.
We want to be autonomous, in control, because the alternative is perceived to be unsatisfying and, at worse, abusive. We want freedom to choose because choice is the goal of our culture. We are told,
We can do anything if believe strong enough. We can achieve whatever we put our mind to. If anyone tells you can’t do it, they are wrong.
Our televisions project stories of people, ‘achieving their goals’. The contestants speak out in un-ironic parody the same statements of self belief. They’re ‘expressing themselves’ and ‘no one will stop them.’ It all sounds so positive and encouraging but under the surface lies a slightly more sinister tone of captivity.
Underneath the statements of ‘knowing self’, of finding ‘true self’ is an oppressive narrative which holds people in an identity which is unable to change;
You are who you are.
In this reality we need to discover who we are as static personalities and express it. Our gender and sexuality, our personality strengths and flaws all set in stone by a Creator who likes diversity no matter what the impact on others. Mistakes can be blamed on genetics and change of behaviours subtly denied because if we can change then we don’t know what we want or need and therefore choice becomes trickier to make.
In this consumerist narrative of free choice, we hear the call to obedience to something outside of our own choice as foreign. The truth is obedience opens our eyes to see the potential conversion of our life. It is only in obedience that we can be transformed from an old life to a new life but we must trust that which can lead us through the painful sear of true freedom into the fullness of life. All other freedom than that discovered through a commitment to obedience is false, a mirage that will blind you.
True liberation is a mystery many do not fully find because the false liberation is more appealing. The temptation makes more sense to us because we ask
why would freedom be difficult; it is the absence of pain, is it not?
True liberty does violence to self and, like Christ, who disregarded that he was sovereign becomes a slave to serve others. (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Pennsylvania: The Plough Publishing, 1988) p.40)
It is this liberation and conversion that St. Benedict calls monks to through the consecrated life. Ultimately, this life is ‘impossible’ without the faithfulness and stable love of God. It would be wrong to enter the monastic life thinking that it is achievable, it is within our capabilities. Many decide not to pursue the monastic life because they see it as impossible with their personality or who they are. The truth is: it’s not about you!
It doesn’t matter who you are, or even think you are because that, hopefully, will change; in fact, it must change if you are to live the life of discipleship and true repentance. It matters not if, when you think about the expectations the Rule places upon you, you cannot imagine yourself being able to ‘succeed’ at being a monk. It only matters if you trust that God can and will transform you from the life you live as you enter into a being ready for eternal life with him.
The superior, the authority of the abbot, is not forceful here. Again we see the gentleness needed in instructing a monk into the possibility of change. There is room, for St. Benedict, to go together, abbot and monk, as brothers into the presence of their all loving Father to seek his will. Both are equal under God and it is his will that they both must obey. Norvene Vest reflects beautifully on this approach to authority,
I resonate with the image suggested by the Latin word translated “gentleness.” The word is mansuetudine, meaning “accustomed to the hand,” and refers to training wild animals. I have a vivid sense of a small colt, standing shivering in cold and excitement as an attentive trainer approaches and gently caresses it. I often feel that way in the presence of God: fearful and shivering both with anxiety and eagerness, but willing myself to do all I can to respond, which is often simply not to run away. Instead, I tremble, and await the hand that touches me in love. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2004) p.261)
We as the Church must not be lured into the social narrative of consumerism and individualism. We must proclaim the truth and reality of conversion. This is not some political ‘change’ that is preached during election season. This is deep and painful change that leads to meaningful relationships of trust and hope.
The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted. (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Pennsylvania: The Plough Publishing, 1988) p.27-28)
Our message of salvation loses all it’s potency if we collude with the morally liberal philosophies of this world or the dictatorial conservative world views which state that significant change of behaviour is not needed nor is it possible. We are all sick and distorted. We are plagued by faulty genes and personalities. We’ve all been infected and we all need healing! To heal the patient must be obedient to the process of change otherwise nothing will happen.
The church must become a place of real transformation and healing to all who come. Change must be on our banners and explicit in all we do but a change that rightly is rooted in humility (acknowledgement of the sickness) and obedience (the willingness to let go of the past and step into a new life.)
Loving Father, we submit. We submit to your gentle hand in obedience. We cannot see how we will live out the impossible but we trust that nothing is impossible for you. What we have always been can be redeemed for you, for the Kingdom, the glory and the power are yours, now and forever.
Come, Lord Jesus
Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.
Upon admission, in the oratory, before all, he is to make a promise to stability, conversion (of behaviour/morals/life) and obedience,
I have been rather tarry on my writing for the blog this week due to the topic of today’s post. As part of a Lenten discipline I’ve decided to take up writing for 20 minutes a day again. A project which started me on this blog some two years ago! Instead of just writing a diary which led me to overly introspective and unhealthy depressive cycles of thought, I have decided to set myself outward focussed writing tasks. I have been writing fairytale versions of gospel narrative which I started for Burning Fences and I have been gathering material from this blog to put into a book (I know another book project which will probably not get finished and I’ll move on!)
One of the chapters I have tried to collate this week has been the chapter on ‘obedience’. This has meant I have looked through my blog on Parish Monasticism and picked out any material which touches on or has guided my reflections on the theme of obedience. The problem is: the whole of the Rule of St. Benedict is about obedience!
Most of the chapters have been me wrestling with what obedience looks like in 21st century western culture. I have returned again and again to issues of authority, leadership and individualism. In fact, if I were to sum up what I’ve been learning about through my reading and meditating on St. Benedict it has been the need for clear authorities in our modern day society.
At this point I’d direct you to a link on a previous blog post to highlight the salient point but, I can’t choose from so many. Type authority into the search bar at the top of the page and you’ll find the wealth of material there. Type obedience in and you’ll have more… enjoy!
The challenge of evangelism in our current age is the call to submit to an authority which is not the self. Life within the character of our Triune God demands that we relinquish power of our lives to someone/thing else, otherwise it bears no fruit. Anglican pews are used to the bottoms of the lukewarm non-committed, in fact they are pews because no one has felt the need to sit on them for a long enough time for them to be painful! (I’m being deliberately provocative, I’m sorry!) The challenge for the Church is to be bold in living out the life of obedience in a way that shows its fruit.
Let me be clear, this obedience is difficult and painful. We can easily romanticise, as with the whole religious life, what it means to commit to a life of obedience. I have only lived out ‘diet obedience’ or ‘obedience lite’ and that’s tough but I long for the environment to delve deeper into it.
True obedience requires stability and the intentional conversion of opinion, thought, behaviour and life. Obedience can only be experienced within the relationship of the other two vows that we’ve explored just as each of the other vows require the balancing of the rest in order to be fully experienced.
Brian C. Taylor helpfully writes,
We tend to think a balanced life means one in which there is no tension – a perfectly placid existence. But, in fact, it is quite the opposite. A truly balanced life, if it is to embrace the paradox of truth, is one which is in tension: not destructive and stressful but healthy and dynamic.
Approaching the vow of obedience after reflecting on ‘stability’ and ‘conversion’ it can seem that these first two vows are in unhealthy tension and the vow to ‘obedience’ brings about a dynamic tension and frames them harmoniously. This would be too limiting. In fact if you approach any of the three vows through the other two vows you’ll come to the same conclusion: Trying to live within the tension created by a vow to obedience to a particular person or Rule and the vow to conversion creates an antagonistic relationship of discernment and interpretation. When discovering stability as a third point of reference eases that battle and brings an extra dimension to the life lived within these vows. The same is true with discovering the power of conversion via the tension of stability and obedience.
In this way the trinitarian model of life asserts itself in practice.
Authority is abused; that’s a fact of life. We can all reel out stories of how someone in authority has abused that position to meet their own needs. No area of life has been immune to this experience and that needs to be said and heard. This does not mean, however, that authority is, in itself bad or negative. I have had problems with authority personally but I have found it helpful to put a face to those problems and rather than dismiss ‘authority’ because it hurt me name the person in that position who hurt me (on a side note, the Church doesn’t hurt people, people hurt people!)
Life without authority is actually just as painful and difficult and it is in the vacuum of authority that extremist views step in. As human beings we hunger and thirst for an authoritative voice to get behind and we’ll find it wherever it may be found. Charismatic leaders, like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Russell Brand, etc. can sound authoritative when their opponents lack depth and experience. Sadder still is those amongst us who’s only authority is themselves and their own egos and desires. With these as sole authorities no learning or change can occur, cynicism and skepticism hinders any depth of relationship and all of life becomes precarious and unstable.
Authority is needed to teach and grow us beyond our immediate beliefs and opinions. Authority, ironically it seems, gives people freedom to explore and exist. Culture and Societies only develop and deepen when there is a shared narrative; to prove this I point you to the current character of public discussion and the temperature of the exchanges. Our examples of philosophical discourse is loud, abusive, fear centric, cyclical and, above all, non-sequential (the great example of this is David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time when in response to a question he’ll change the subject as his answer!)
Obedience is other focussed. Obedience is about placing your life, your choices, your future, however difficult it is, into the hands of another. This is risky; there’s no escaping that fact. Obedience is about inviting someone to act in freedom upon you and you to take on the consequences of their decision. This is so alien to us that it will take the Church to start to live it out to be an example that will save our world.
I want to finish this short romp through potential vows around which many new monastic communities may gather to explore briefly how our culture desperately needs to participate in a triune life. What I mean by this is a life which is beyond polarised, extreme binary terms of reference into a dynamic dance of ideas and discovery.
We are increasingly finding combative language and views as we’re forced into extreme, entrenched political, social and religious viewpoints. Our debates have become antagonistic fought between two sides; political right and political left with the centre being an attempt at mixing the two in different concoctions, liberal and conservative wings of the church with the ‘middle of the road’ churches being different grey mix of the two at the whim of that particular people. I have quoted Oscar Romero recently,
The Church, then, is in an hour of aggiornamento, that is, of crisis in its history. And as in all aggiornamenti, two antagonistic forces emerge: on the one hand, a boundless desire for novelty, which Paul VI described as “arbitrary dreams of artificial renewals”; and on the other hand, an attachment to the changelessness of the forms with which the Church has clothed itself over the centuries and a rejection of the character of modern times. Both extremes sin by exaggeration. Unconditional attachment to what is old hampers the Church’s progress and restricts its “catholicity”… The boundless spirit of novelty is an impudent exploration of what is uncertain, and at the same time unjustly betrays the rich heritage of past experiences… So as not to fall into either the ridiculous position of uncritical affection for what is old, or the ridiculous position of becoming adventurers pursuing “artifical dreams” about novelties, the best thing is to live today more than ever according to the classic axiom: think with the Church. (Oscar Romero quoted in Morrozzo Della Rocca, Roberto, Oscar Romero: prophet of hope (London: Dalton, Longman and Todd, 2015) p.22-23)
Romero’s call to ‘think with the church’ has haunted my thoughts for the last few weeks. I have come to discover that what he might have meant is to think Trinitarianly (that’s a new word I’ve just made up!) not in binary on a flat spectrum but in a three dimensional balance. We don’t fit on a continuum between two points but a matrix within three.
I am a vocal supporter on the Anglican approach to authority and it is Richard Hooker’s balance that finally convinced me of my Anglican calling. We do not limit ourselves to Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) nor to Sola Traditio or even to Sola Spiritus but a beautiful balance between them all. Univocal authority tends to lead to oppression of those under it. With only one authority power becomes unbalanced and blind loyalty is required. Bivocal authority creates stand offs, the likes we have seen within both political and ecclesial debates. It is once you reach three or more that power is released and shared. This is what I have discovered within the Rule of St. Benedict and what I am keen to press into more within an umbrella construct to feed new monastic communities across the Church of England and beyond.
So what might the call to obedience look like for the different forms of community? For most of these broad categories it will come down to the individuals involved, to what/who they are obedient may need to be fleshed out in the context.
For more intentional gathered communities, obedience will look very different depending on the individuals who participate within it or, rather, will be more or less of an issue depending those within the community. Taking on a vow of obedience would need to be done within a multi-authoritative framework. Obedience to a particular role of authority whose job it is to interpret a communal narrative which is another authority and, finally, a community of people who live out said narrative who are an accountable authority to the others.
Obedience will need to centre on accountability frameworks which will be contextual but the practice of obedience will be the same. These communities will need to figure out to what they are obedient and how they encourage the living out of the vow.
The parish church has authority structures in place but encouragement and teaching on obedience is somewhat lax amongst us. Synod and Bishops are not always agreed with and local expressions tend to follow differing practices depending on conscience; such as it naturally is within a place like the Church of England. This challenge to obedience has led to some difficult and painful discussions but the challenge has come from a perceived abuse of authority.
How do we ensure power is not abused within a large, established institution? I think a detailed exploration of the understanding of leadership is vital in this discussion. When leadership is seen as ‘driving forces’ then we are in difficulty as it is a force to be reckoned with and is unhelpful in relationship. If leadership is seen more as one who is under authority, a first amongst equals then we’re on our way to a healthier tension. That is why a model like that proposed for sodal communities can also be adopted in the modal.
Obedience within the monastic/mendicant form is to a particular tradition and so naming those things, be they, General Synod, Articles of Religion, Canon Law, a Bishop, a Rule of Life within the parish context is key to encourage the practice.
For networks of autonomous groups, obedience becomes very tricky as we have seen in the Anglican Communion recently. Establishing, early on, not only what are the authorities but also how they relate with one another is absolutely essential. If we neglect the long process of exploring together the details of how authorities relate and hold that important balance then disagreements will become increasingly difficult. This is where the Rule of St. Benedict becomes an example in the same way as the Sermon on the Mount is. St. Benedict explores, in many areas of life, how to discern the way forward, how the authorities of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and tradition interplay to develop a community which deepens the individual as well as communal character.
It is also important to have shared authorities, particularly so in nodal communities. It could seem as though I’m suggesting just having lots of authorities to defend against dictatorial forms of dominance but actually too many conflicting authorities and the balance is lost also. The authorities need to interact in a creative and dynamic way rather than creating a new kind of destruction.
On the day of their return, they should prostrate themselves at the completion of each Hour of the Divine Office and ask the prayers of the entire community for any sins they may have committed by seeing or hearing evil, or by idle chatter.
Why not travel?
I have been reflecting on the different types of monks this week due in part to my reading of The Conferences of Cassian. In Conference 18, Cassian hears from Abba Piamun of the three types of monks that have developed over the monastic tradition. It is clear from reading this document that St. Benedict took much from the wisdom of the Fathers and used their work to construct his Rule.
Abba Piamun names the types of monks as cenobites (coenobites), hermits and Sarabaites. Cenobites are ‘monks living in a community under the government of a single elder.’ Hermits are ‘men who have first been trained in communities to the life of virtue and have then chosen to live a completely hidden and solitary life.’ Sarabaites, however, do not come out well.
The third, and culpable, kind is the Sarabaites… They are descended from Ananias and Sapphira. They do not follow the perfect way: they prefer to pretend to follow it. No doubt they want to be rivals of, and to gain the kind of credit given to, people who choose Christ’s utter poverty above all the riches of the world. They pursue true goodness feebly. They must needs become monks in order to gain the repute of monks, but they make no effort to follow their discipline, disregard the rules of the communities, are outside all control from the elders, fail to use the elders’ traditions to conquer their self-will. They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like – they are more busied about the necessities of life day and night than are coenobites. (Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)
And that is an abridged version!
St. Benedict’s treatment of the Sarabaites gives the same cutting critique.
…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (St Benedict, Anthony C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro (trans.), The Rule of St Benedict, “Chapter 1:the different kinds of monks and their customs” (New York: Doubleday, 1975) p.47)
Critics of the New Monastic Movement are right in holding these excerpts as a mirror on those of us who are exploring this emerging vocation. We who are undertaking a discernment to what God might be doing within his Church must take these dangers seriously and face up to the wisdom found within them.
St. Benedict also describes a fourth kind of monk: the gyratory monks.
All their lives they wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three or four days at a time. They are restless, servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites, and are much worse in all things than the Sarabaites. (Ibid.)
The distinction, it seems, between Sarabaites and gyratory monks is the travelling. They move around and don’t remain in a place for long. They are nomads with no security from which to grow. It is in the light of this view that St. Benedict gives such a strict view on monks leaving the monastery at any moment or whim.
St. Benedict does not refuse travel but it must be necessary and even then, it is carefully managed by the abbot and community. Outside the monastery is seen as a barren place which is dangerous terrain to walk in. Monks should seek to return quickly and settle back into monastic life.
It is for the above reasons that the New Monastic Movement has adopted a model based more friars rather than monks. The friars, or mendicants, adopt a lifestyle of poverty, travelling, and living in urban areas preaching, evangelisation and ministry, especially to the poor. The mendicant orders have a Rule and an abbot figure called by various names depending on the different orders. The mendicants were released from the traditional interpretation of the Benedictine vow to stability giving them freedom to roam and preach where need is found.
I find myself caught between the monastic and the mendicant.
I am passionate about preaching good news to all who I meet. I want to see transformation in people’s lives brought about by a relationship with the living Lord. I want to see the Church equipped for the mission of co-labouring with God and seeing the Kingdom of God established amongst us. this life is one of journeying and going, meeting people where they are and dwelling with them.
I also feel, however, a deep yearning to remain rooted. I have spoken recently about this vision of a mountain goat being built for rough terrain and yet having a deep need for ‘home’. I am one who needs a tent/dwelling in the wilderness. Although I want to go out and work for the gospel I also need, in order to sustain myself, a stability in my life.
It is in the tension of these two calls that I find myself crying out to God to reveal to me, perhaps a new order that is a balancing of the monastic and the mendicant. I deep sense of a movement that has a deep understanding of the Christian as ‘tent-dweller’, both rooted and stable and yet nomadic.
The emergence of urban centers meant concentrated numbers of the homeless and the sick. This created problems for the parish churches who found themselves unable to address these issues. In response to this crisis, there emerged the new mendicant orders founded by Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226) and Dominic of Guzmán (c.1170-1234).(“The Mendicant Orders”, University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2003, http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/medieval/francis/mendicant.htm)
It is as I come to the end of my reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict that I discover a ‘monastic’ response to crises felt within the parish system. This is not to say that the reflections on the Benedictine Rule has been wasted, in fact I feel that the New Monastic Movement may be becoming a potential answer to my personal questions in a blending of the mendicant and monastic. It is this reconciling of the two which, I feel, is the unique charism for our time and this movement. This is the new thing that is emerging amongst us in the Western Church. From both these ends of the spectrum we can learn and discover the balance we seek.
These conversations between those who are more mendicant in their vision and vocation and those who are more Benedictine will be rife with misunderstandings and divisions of purpose but I feel that if we can remain faithful to one another, there is a space that is evolving where all can serve together. These conversations must be done with the utmost prayer and sensitivity of the Spirit. There must be a deep commitment throughout the discernment and conversations to faithfulness, inner change/conversion and obedience to the Lord who directs and guides us. Over the next few years I desire to see the New Monastic Movement come together from the different backgrounds and shapes and dedicate themselves to prayer, study and mission and seek to find the commonality which will unite us and see Lord bless and heal our world.
Holy God, who calls all things into oneness yet holds difference within, bring forth from amongst your people a vision for the future of discipleship and mission. May we discern from the movement of your Holy Spirit how you are redeeming and healing the brokenness of your Church to grow in the likeness and obedience to Jesus Christ our Lord.
Come, Lord Jesus