Why we need something like monasticism again today – part I


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Well, I have my computer back, fixed and ready to go again. So, as we cruise down the home stretch of the monasticism chapter from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: Explorations with C S Lewis, we come to a few reasons modern Christians would do well to learn from the medieval monastics:

We need something like monasticism because we are physical beings who need a holistic spiritual discipline

Against the stereotypes, Christian asceticism still holds the body to be a good thing – and Benedict’s Rule demonstrates this, for example, in its close attention to the needs of a sick monk, who should be given more food and more sleep, and of course its strong insistence on hospitality to the stranger and the guest.

We’re talking about spiritual dieting here. And diets that work still allow you to eat things you like, but in a more controlled manner. Christian asceticism is spiritual dieting, not spiritual anorexia. Anorexia is a complete construction of food as evil and disgusting, and an aversion to food. Monks did not believe that marriage and procreation (for example) were evil. They believed that by doing without them, they could train themselves toward a higher good. And this is firmly grounded in Augustinian theology—in Augustine’s teaching that evil is not ever a substance –not something that is related to Creation as a positive part of Creation. There’s nothing created that’s evil – not even desires that in their basis are evil. It is the misuse of created things and the misdirection of affection—wrong degree, wrong object, etc.—that is evil.

So Benedict for instance tried to pull people back from extremes of self-denial. People get fed more when they are sick b/c the body needs that food in order to be healthy, for instance, which shows that bodily health is a positive good for the monks – as we also saw in the hospitals and compassionate ministry chapter.

We need something like monasticism because we need to hold the contemplative and active lives together

Monasticism also blessed medieval society because the active and contemplative lives must be held together. It’s a misunderstanding of medieval monasticism that there was no life of loving action to others involved – that it was all about curling up in a corner with Jesus. The charge that there’s no evangelism is incorrect – there’s an evangelism of example. The same impulse that led streams of seekers out to the desert to see what the holy man Antony could teach them, led thousands of medieval laypeople to imitate the spiritual disciplines of the monks.

But the bigger charge that there’s no active work is even more incorrect: the monastic establishment did a huge amount of economic work—farming, fishing, manufacturing of various foodstuffs for sale–that blessed and flourished the surrounding community.[1] They engaged in prayer for people in the community. They practiced healing in their infirmaries. The grand theorist of the mixed life (active and contemplative) was the monk pope and medieval spiritual father Gregory the Great, who extended the principle beyond the monastery walls, teaching that the married could become just as spiritually adept as the cloistered, celibate monastic—and many laypeople in the medieval period grabbed hold of that vision and adapted the monastic disciplines for their busy lives. Meanwhile, inside the cloisters, the monks followed Benedict’s injunctions that prayer be balanced with work, that the brothers serve one another and outsiders in obedience, giving hospitality to all who asked—thereby hosting Christ himself, in the other. This was the most intensive and loving kind of active service, balancing and feeding the monks’ contemplative lives.


[1] “The monks founded capitalism by producing an agricultural revolution in northwestern Europe, Collins observes, and northwestern Europe, not the Mediterranean cities, was the cradle of our modern capitalist society. The rationality that the monks introduced into their agricultural enterprises was a specific application of a general rationality that they applied to all their activities. Similarly, in The Dynamo and the Virgin Reconsidered (MIT Press, 1968), Lynn White, Jr., places the monks among the leaders of technical innovation, in the technological revolution that occurred during the Middle Ages. The innovations of the monks in architecture, in agriculture, and other areas are by now well known.” Michael Slattery, “The Catholic Origins of Capitalism: Max Weber Clarified,” Crisis Magazine, April 1988; http://www.crisismagazine.com/1988/the-catholic-origins-of-capitalism-max-weber-clarified.

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2 responses to “Why we need something like monasticism again today – part I

  1. Reblogged this on Anglican, Plain and commented:
    A cogent post from friend Chris Armstrong on monasticism, one of a series on his blog, “Grateful to the Dead.”

  2. Monks played a major role in evangelizing Europe,I remember Pope John Paul II acknowledging the particular role Irish monks played in evangelizing his native Poland,
    .

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