Chapter 1: On the Kinds of Monks
Jan. 8 – May 9 – Sept. 8
It is well known that there are four kinds of monks.
The first kind are the Cenobites:
those who live in monasteries
and serve under a rule and an Abbot.
The second kind are the Anchorites or Hermits:
no longer in the first fervor of their reformation,
but after long probation in a monastery,
having learned by the help of many brethren
how to fight against the devil,
go out well armed from the ranks of the community
to the solitary combat of the desert.
They are able now,
with no help save from God,
to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh
and their own evil thoughts.
The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the Sarabaites.
These, not having been tested,
as gold in the furnace (Wis. 3:6),
by any rule or by the lessons of experience,
are as soft as lead.
In their works they still keep faith with the world,
so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God.
They live in twos or threes, or even singly,
without a shepherd,
in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s.
Their law is the desire for self-gratification:
whatever enters their mind or appeals to them,
that they call holy;
what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.
The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues.
These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province,
staying as guests in different monasteries
for three or four days at a time.
Always on the move, with no stability,
they indulge their own wills
and succumb to the allurements of gluttony,
and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites.
Of the miserable conduct of all such
it is better to be silent than to speak.
Passing these over, therefore,
let us proceed, with God’s help,
to lay down a rule for the strongest kind of monks, the Cenobites.
Having said in the previous reading that he was starting a school, Benedict begins with the most basic step: definitions. Which reminds me that I omitted an important one which I should have mentioned back at the beginning. Which is the definition of “rule” as used in this context. We can think of many things when we think of “rule”.
Monarchs rule. Knitting rules. Follow the rules. The Latin root for “rule”is “regula” which simply refers to any sort of device one uses to mark a “true” line, such as the plumb line inAmos. I made a comment about the Prologue, that in following the Lord, one’s options narrowed. We can no longer say yes to every possible good that comes our way, we need a yardstick to measure our choices against so that we can know we are still on the path the Lord wants for each of us. And that’s the use of “rule” in “Rule of St. Benedict.
Speaking of options and being sure one is following along in the way God would have each of us, Benedict gets into the subject of the kinds of monks, listing them in order of his preference. What are the 4 kinds of monks? What does Benedict have to say about them? As we read the descriptions are we reminded of certain kinds of people today?
Cenobitic monasticism was 3 centuries old by the time Benedict wrote his Rule. He didn’t invent it but he sure did refine it with this Rule. He clearly considers it the most superior form of monasticism.
But we are not monks. We don’t live in a religious community. So how does this apply to us? What are the hallmarks of the cenobites? Communal living and an Abbess/Abbot. Daily face to face interaction with those who also seek the Lord under a leader.
We may not have a monastery, but we have our churches and our priests, ministers, pastors. Hopefully, we see the church not merely as a place to go to on Sunday, but as a place where we gather to support each other, share in ministry, as a place that is most central to our daily life.
What does Benedict say about anchorites and hermits? There are requirements for starting out one the solitary path, aren’t there? Would-be hermits have to be trained in the subtle ways of the devil and temptations. The dangers of the hermit life are many.
Moving on to the sarabites and the strong language Benedict uses. That language is almost a surprise after the loving words of the Prologue, but as we shall see, Benedict is not above calling a spade a spade.
A brief historical note: at the time he was writing the Rule, the Roman Empire was falling apart and people longed for the peace and security they used to have. Maybe this is my own lack of charity, but when I read this bit, I am always reminded of modern tele-evangelists who promise so very much as long as we send them our money. I think also of those non-denominational churches that have no connection to any authority beyond themselves, none of the checks and balances of the denominational structure.
And then there are the gyrovagues. As I read this description, I feel as if I am reading a description of modern America. People church hop, job hop, follow fads and never settle to any one thing because they are afraid that might miss out on something better so they don’t commit to anything.
This leads us back to the cenobites” The strong kind of monks”. Why would Benedict call them “strong”. What distinguishes them from the other kinds?
They have committed, have they not? They have said “this monastery, this group of people, this way of life.” They have also committed to the training that the Benedict’s school will teach them. They have drawn a line between themselves and all other possible good things ( once known as our appetites) that might come along.
Have they given up their personal freedom of will? Only if we understand freedom of will to mean that we have to remain open to every little thing that might come down the pike. That understanding of will is a new fangled notion that doesn’t represent centuries of Christian understanding which teaches us that the will is really a matter of the heart. ” A passionate harmony of one’s entire being”, I read somewhere which allows us to go so very deep. “Further in and higher up” as C. S. Lewis said in “The last Battle”.
Are we willing to explore how community life draws into fuller life? Possibly a more full life than we had ever dreamed of. Are we willing to recognize and act on our needs, longings, weaknesses? Surely Christian community is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?
Granted, we all may have some horror stories to tell of our experiences in Christian community. A former parish priest who also was one of my seminary professors, former Bishop Mark Dyer, described the monastery as the place where one learns “the horror of incarnation.” In other words, no walk in the park on a sunny pleasant day but very hard work among those stubbornly insist on remaining All Too Human. Christian community can be one of the most hurtful, judgmental places there can be.
Benedict calls it a school and subsequent chapters teach us how to respond and live in a positive, Christ-affirming manner, remembering that every single one of us is All Too Human and that we must cut slack first if we wish to have slack cut for us.