Now we turn to a more direct example of the supposed conflict between economic work and spiritual health. This is from the fascinating study of Cistercian economic activities penned by Constance Bouchard.[i] Bouchard states the crux of her argument like this:
“Whereas modern scholars usually contrast spirituality and economic success, the Cistercian order in Burgundy, in its first century of development and expansion, was able to participate in the multiplying economic activities of the period and at the same time continue to be considered by its secular neighbors an intensely holy order whose monks had the ear of God.” (ix-x)
I note again that “secular” used above means what it has meant to older generations and still means to the Roman Catholic Church: those Christians who, in contrast to the “regular” (rule-following) monastics whose daily round focused on eternity, engage in the business of the world and of “this age” (the saeculum). Thus even priests were considered seculars. And certainly knights, peasants, and craftsmen as well – most of whom would have been trying to live as Christians, and had at least elementary understanding of, and agreement with, key theological sources such as the creeds.
Bouchard “use[d] the rich but largely untapped Cistercian archives to study economic exchanges between the monasteries and their secular, primarily knightly, neighbors,” reviewing records of over 2,000 economic exchanges, nearly two-thirds of them never having seen print, and only accessible in Burgundian archives. (ix)
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 →
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. Chris Armstrong
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 →
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