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
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Antony of Egypt, Augustine, commmunity, grace, Medieval, Middle Ages, monasticism, solitude, spiritual disciplines, Spiritual practice, Spirituality
Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)
This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).
In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).
Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Resources for Radical Living
Tagged African-American Christianity, Antony of Egypt, Benedict of Nursia, Benedictinism, church and state, communal life, Constantine, Constantinianization, Council of Nicea, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Martin Luther, Medieval, medievalism, Middle Ages, monasticism, new monasticism, prophetic life, radical Christianity, slavery
Was interviewed this morning by Alex McManus, formerly of Mosaic Church in L.A. and now of Kensington Community Church in Troy, MI and http://myimn.com/, on his BlogTalk Radio show about my book Patron Saints for Postmoderns. Click here for the audio.
This summer, Leadership Journal editor Marshall Shelley once again allowed me to share with his readers about one of my favorite leaders from Christian history. This one was an unlikely cat, indeed: a shriveled little man who wanted nothing more than to spend his life alone in a remote cave in the Egyptian desert . . . yet who found himself deluged with attention, and who responded with the most amazing wisdom about community and relationships:
How Solitude Builds Community
An ancient monk’s surprising role in bringing justice and healing to his neighbors.
Monday, August 3, 2009
As a history professor, I have asked my students, “What is monasticism?” and I often get suspicious, negative answers: “Monks withdrawing from the world.” Continue reading
Posted in Patron Saints for Postmoderns
Tagged anger, Antony of Egypt, asceticism, Athanasius, community, desert, Egypt, monasticism, relationship, sex, sexuality, solitude
Bishop Athanasius, fresh from his triumphs in the Nicene attack against Arianism and his defeats and exiles at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors, just wanted to write a biography of his friend Antony. What he actually did was to invent the genre of hagiography and help spark the worldwide movement of Christian monasticism.
Fighting Demons In The Desert
How a book about one man’s radical quest for God helped to redefine Christian discipleship and launch the monastic movement.
The man acclaimed as “the father of monasticism” never dreamed of the huge impact he would have. But the new mode of discipleship he helped bring to birth in Egypt in the early 300s A.D. turned out to be one of the most momentous innovations in the church’s first thousand years.
The book that started it all
Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (298-373) was exiled five times from his beloved church at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors. In one of these exiles, the staunchly orthodox, diminutive firebrand fulfilled a long-time dream by traveling to the desert to share the life of the hermits there. During what became a lengthy ascetic sojourn, he wrote what historian Derwas Chitty correctly calls “the first great manifesto of the monastic ideal.” This was not some tidy, orderly rule of life, but rather a biography of the most gripping sort—of the best-known early monk and first “desert father,” Antony of Egypt (251-356). Continue reading
Another of my entries for the Zondervan Dictionary of Spirituality,this one features “the original desert father,” Antony of Egypt. Antony, too, features in my Patron Saints for Postmoderns.
Antony of Egypt (251-356). Egyptian monastic pioneer. He is often (though incorrectly) called the first monk and founder of monasticism: he himself imitated a tradition of “holy solitaries”—men who lived ascetic lives at the edges of Egyptian towns. His innovation was that when he heard the word of the Gospels preached—“Sell all you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me”—he sold his belongings, gave away the proceeds, and moved out into the desert to live as a hermit. This he did decades before Constantine’s legalization of Christianity—so spiritual declension of the church under state sponsorship was not the initial impetus for Christian monasticism. Athanasius’s Life of Antony is our only source on the Egyptian monk’s life, aside from a few “sayings” and a small set of letters. Athanasius’s book paints a prototypical holy man. Continue reading
I’ve been privileged to teach at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN since early in 2005. In January 2006, a “presentation service” was held to welcome me as a faculty member. As is the custom, I gave a talk. Here it is:
Standing before you today, I feel 1,000 feet tall.
Is it because of the joy and honor it is to teach these wonderful students and work with these wonderful colleagues? Well, this has certainly had me walking a little taller ever since I got here a year ago. But that’s not it.
No, I’m standing so tall today because I know . . . that I am standing on the shoulders of countless others who have come before me in the church. And I am reminded of this every day as I prepare to think, teach, write, counsel, and learn in this Bethel community.
I didn’t always know this. In fact, I’d guess that the majority of American Christians don’t really know it. Finding out about those whose shoulders I am standing on has been a long journey of discovery for me. Continue reading