Graced and communal: More lessons from monasticism


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. Two thousand years of Christian experience has taught us that it simply does take real effort to hold down our basic instincts for pleasure and comfort in search of something higher. There’s a reason the internet porn industry reaches a significant portion of the population each year. It’s so easy just to hit those few keys and satisfy that lower appetite – what takes effort is overcoming the temptation to do so.

Let’s see, then, how the particular monastic organization of spiritual discipline has helped many fight that drift.

The mutual dance of solitude and community

First there is the odd way that solitary disciplines and communal living support each other. This ironic lesson was one of the first that the church learned from its monks. When the young 4th-century Egyptian, Antony, went out into the desert to seek solitude and wrestle with demons, he emerged from his decades of spiritual discipline a highly sought-after holy man. People recognized that his solitary contemplation had given him access to relational wisdom, and they traveled from far away to access it.

Antony was the original “guru on a mountain” who has become a favorite comic-strip theme today. Though he preferred the solitude of the desert (and kept moving farther out into it to ensure that solitude), streams of people kept coming out to learn from him, and some even implored him to come back to civilization in order to help those embroiled in the court system. Antony reluctantly agreed, and Bishop Athanasius, his biographer, describes the effects of the holy man’s presence in that litigious community like this: “For who went to him grieving and did not return rejoicing? Who went in lamentation over his dead, and did not immediately put aside his sorrow? Who visited while angered and was not changed to affection? . . . What monk, coming to him in discouragement, did not become all the stronger?”

This was a man, in other words, wise in the ways of the inner life. Again and again, paradoxically, monastic (“solitary,” from the root word monos, or “sole”) wisdom is psychological, relational wisdom—it fosters discernment of the churning motives and emotions at work within us, and the ways those inner facts affect our relationships with others. By escaping from the marketplace, the monks became equipped to minister to the communal problems of that marketplace.

We need something like monasticism because our society needs people dedicated to prayer

Antony’s “eremitic” (solitary) style of monasticism did not win the day. Quickly “coenobitic” (communal) forms sprang up and flourished, allowing people to mix their practice of solitary disciplines with a mutually supportive communal experience. And as with the solitary holiness of Anthony, ancient and medieval society discovered that it needed communally disciplined Christians. Medievals came to identify three crucial sectors or groups in society – all valued for different reasons. The first two were those who work (farmers and craftsmen) and those who fight (knights and nobles). The third comprised those who pray (monks)—and this group was so precious and so desirable that by the late Middle Ages there was no medieval hamlet of even middling size that did not have three or more monasteries in it, all supported by the people through the church. I would argue that in the West today we have plenty of organized workers and organized fighters, but our number of organized pray-ers – certainly in the classic form of monastic communities – has trickled down to nearly nil, and it is hurting us.

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