Tag Archives: monasticism

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part III: The moral argument concluded


Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

This post continues the series from a section of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis that argues monasticism is part of our “usable past.” Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

To recap, my argument in this chapter has been that we will continue to be both disinclined and incapable of the effort necessary to practice ascetic disciplines unless we, first, have something of the passion for Christ that animated the monks and, second, have a strong traditional foundation on which to build our practice. I have been trying in this book to describe the foundation the medievals had, in their passion for theological knowledge, their understandings of Incarnation and Creation, the balance they held between Word and world, their whole-person devotion, and so on. We need both the passion and the tradition if we are to do the discipline.

In particular, the morality chapter speaks to the argument of this one: If we, like my pastor whose question is described at the beginning of that chapter, do not know how to put a Christian ethic into practice[1] – that we are paralyzed by grace—or rather, by misunderstandings of Reformation teachings on grace. We are kept from applying the practical insights of medieval monasticism by a dimly understood sense that whatever the Reformation was about, it was about destroying monasticism (and it did end up doing that in some European countries). But with nothing to put in place of that practical monastic wisdom—though the Pietists tried to replace it, as did the Puritans—we will fail to practice spiritual disciplines as the monastics did.

Deep down we have counter-rationalizations, arguments in our heads that say “Oh no, that’s not something we need to do. We can achieve virtue in other ways besides spiritual disciplines. Continue reading

Why we need something like monasticism again today – part II: Moral flabbiness


monks (1)

Following on from part 1:

We need something like monasticism because we have a problem with ethics

One genius of monasticism is the way it actualizes virtue ethics—Aristotle’s description of ethics, which recognizes that without long practice so that something becomes a habitus, virtue cannot become effective in our lives. Medieval monks read Scripture all the time, and they focused on its moral sense. But a man who reads Scripture and goes away and does not do it is like a man who looks in a mirror and goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like—it’s not an effective use of the moral understanding of Christianity.

And so monastic discipline went beyond just reading and became a training ground for the virtues. And whether we adapt monastic ways of doing this or find some other modes, some sort of spiritual-ethical discipline is crucial, not optional. This is because our interactions with our desires and with the material world are so fraught and so difficult, because we fall to temptation in so many ways. To give just one modern example: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

But what did monks DO all day? The holy routines of medieval monasticism


monks_singing_medieval hymn

What did monks do all day? Columba Stewart tells us in his marvelous little book Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (Orbis, 1998):

The Work of God

At the center of the Benedictine life was the daily round of liturgy called by Benedict the “Work of God” (opus dei). The Rule specified eight such ‘offices’ per day. The first, very early in the morning, was “a comparatively long service of psalms and readings called Vigils.” Then came Lauds [“lawds”] followed almost immediately by four other brief offices during the day—Prime, Terce ["terse"], Sext, None [rhymes with "bone"], an evening office (Vespers) and a brief bedtime office (Compline ["COMP'-lin"]). All told, this amounted to nearly four hours per day spent in communal prayer, during which the monks would work their way through all of the psalms once each week.[1]

Important to the monastic life was the slow, meditative reading of scripture, called the lectio divina. Continue reading

The wisdom of Benedict: God in all, and Christ in the other


Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order

Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order

At this point in the draft of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I move from general remarks about monasticism to a reflection on the specifically Benedictine form that has long dominated Western monasticism. This is a distillation of the wonderful work of Benedictine scholar Columba Stewart:

We need something like monasticism because community is necessary for growth

The overwhelmingly dominant form of coenobitic monasticism in the West after the 9th century was the Benedictine form. When we talk about Benedict of Nursia’s (480 – 534/7) Rule, my students are conflicted. He insists on rules and disciplines, actual obedience, humility – all those things we free, democratic, individualistic Americans find so difficult. Benedict structures his monastic rule in a communal way that builds on the relational wisdom of Antony, but feels constricting to us. “For Benedict, as for the whole tradition before him, the key to monastic life was accountability to God and to other people.”[1]

Why is he so insistent on a lifelong community commitment?

First, because we hear God through each other – and this requires not just attentiveness but obedience

Benedictine scholar Columba Stewart identifies two fundamental insights in the Rule: First, “the divine presence is everywhere,” and second, “Christ is to be met in other people.” I’d call these the sacramental and the communal principles.[2] “The best kind of self-awareness,” says Stewart, “the kind leading to deeper and deeper awareness of God, occurs in the company of others. For most people, to become truly individual before God requires immersion in the common life.”[3] Continue reading

Graced and communal: More lessons from monasticism


monks

If traffic on this site is any indication, it looks like this discussion of monastic discipline is resonating with readers. Today we’re looking at two surprising ironies of the monastics’ way of living: (1) though marked by heroic effort, it was vividly aware that nothing happens without grace, and (2) though born out of a solitary discipline, its best wisdom has always been relational and communal.

A potential objection and the role of grace

Some readers may be nervous about the term “mastery” that I’m using here. Surely that’s the wrong term for the spiritual life. What we’re really after is being mastered by God – isn’t it? Doesn’t this analogy of technical mastery risk making the Christian life a matter of earning salvation by works? When we turn to Bishop Athanasius’s biography of the proto-monk Antony of Egypt, we find the bishop describing the monastic life as being animated by twin energies. This double dynamic, learned from the apostles and early martyrs, consisted on the one hand of athletic, near-heroic self-exertion and self-interrogation, and on the other of God’s gracious help from heaven through Christ—a duality that would shape all future monastic movements. The importance of both of these elements to the Christian life was the key theological point of the book, and the book became the pattern and manual for Christian monasticism East and West, and the compass of correction whenever a monastic group or tradition felt themselves going off course and wanted to return to the purity of early understandings.

In other words, monasticism always understood its human effortfulness as working in synergy with the transformative energy of God’s grace, through which (alone! said the monastics and the main, Augustinian tradition of medieval theology) the monks were saved from sin into blessedness.

Another confusion revealed in our nervousness about this “mastery language” is a confusion between means and ends: of course in the end, we seek to be mastered by God – the question is how we get there. Continue reading

Paralyzed by grace? What we can learn from monastic discipline


discipline-of-prayer-the

We wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. This post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis moves on from the first of the “principles of mastery”–passion–to the third–discipline:

Holiness is not optional, and it requires effort

All this talk of passion may make us think that what is required it the single big, heroic action: casting ourselves into harm’s way for the sake of our loved one. But wise teachers of the spiritual life have reminded us of something we have sometimes forgotten: our lives as Christians are not all about single crisis experiences—single events that change our lives. The imagery of sawdust-trail conversions and emotional “altar calls” may sometimes lead us to think in that way, seeking a sudden, emotional experience as the solution to all our ills—but it just ain’t so.

John Wesley, to take just one example, reminded us that those powerful moments of repentance and coming to faith are just the “porch” or the “door” into the Christian life. The substance of the Christian life, which lasts as long as we live, is holiness. Wesley had a favorite phrase to explain holiness. Continue reading

Passion, tradition, and discipline: Medieval monks had all the tools necessary for spiritual mastery


girl playing violin_fullWe wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. We (Protestants in particular) acknowledge that the Catholic legacy of spiritual teaching is a strong and useful one (at least, setting aside all that flagellation stuff, anyhow. That’s a joke. See the footnote in this post). In this post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I begin to look at where that strength and usefulness came from:

Spiritual mastery requires passion, tradition, and discipline

It may help us to answer the question “Why monasticism?” if we consider ascetic self-denial as one species of a larger phenomenon: the drive to achieve mastery in any human enterprise. How do you master any skill? First, you need to have passionate commitment to the goal of mastery. Second, you need to study and learn practical knowledge handed down in a tradition. Third, you need to practice discipline—both in the sense of dedicating hours and hours to repetitive practice, and in the sense of implementing an often extended list of discrete “disciplines”—the particular repeated actions required by the craft.

Think of the progress of a young girl toward becoming a skilled violinist. First comes the passion: one day she hears a piece of music, and it pierces her heart with pure joy. At the beginning, she just wants to hear it again and again; then, to know how to make those beautiful sounds herself. And so she begins years of lessons and practice, giving herself to those two complementary means to mastery: studying a tradition (here, of musical knowledge) and practicing an askesis—a training or discipline. Continue reading

C S Lewis’s dawning asceticism: “Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration”


monastic arches

In the last post, as I began to unpack monasticism and asceticism with C S Lewis’s help, I took a passage from his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength as a window into the way that war, by shaking all our self-interests and focusing us on a higher goal, can give us a new vision and focus for life. I concluded, drawing from a phrase of Lewis’ in that book: “‘The immense weight of obedience’ involved in asceticism, too, can attune us more finely to our relationships, relativize our petty anxieties and cares, and help us live our earthly, human lives with more zest and appreciation.” Now, to continue:

Why monasticism?

This focusing function may be a helpful general principle about asceticism. But we may fairly ask: “What makes us think the particular ascetic modes of monasticism have any answers on our modern problems? They’re so . . . medieval! Stone cloisters, hard beds, celibacy, rising at ungodly hours to chant Psalms in Latin? Really? This is the balm for our ills?”

Lewis plumbs the depths of self

Lewis, in the year leading up to his conversion, struggled mightily with his “flesh” – and even more with spiritual pride, a sin the monastic fathers unanimously agreed was among the worst, and especially tending to beset those making efforts in their lives to achieve spiritual progress.

From early on, as he struggled toward conversion, Lewis also appreciated the asceticism of the Middle Ages. Continue reading

Christian asceticism (spiritual disciplines, self-denial): What’s up with that?


So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

In this second post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we come to the “inner logic” of asceticism. What is it about our experience as human beings that requires us to engage in “askesis,” which means “training,” in order to live well with and for God?

In the last post I reminded us of what we already know–that the desires and goods of our embodied lives are also so darn distracting. They so easily lure us in with the siren song that, after all, our real fulfillment lies in them and not in God.

Now I want to add that this fact about us explains the behavioral strictures that modern American holiness and fundamentalist believers have insisted upon: no dancing, drinking, movies, and so forth. These have been misunderstood by critics as “legalism,” a term with Lutheran roots that means the attempt to earn God’s favor through rule-following (the sort of thing that Jesus scorned in the Pharisees). Rather, they have a singular purpose: Continue reading