The last several decades have witnessed the flourishing of a certain enchantment with monasticism. Whether it’s the product of some “postmodern” thirst for spirituality, or the idealistic quest of youth that equates radical practice with authenticity, or simply perhaps the perennial appeal of novelty, the literature of Christian spirituality that taps into centuries of Christian monastic life and practice is intimidatingly large and continues to grow. The old stigma of the escapist, world-hating ascetic eccentric has been replaced by the image of a sage who is the keeper of the keys to a deeper, truer communion with God. And it is this image that has tantalized the minds of many non-monastics who see figures such as St. Anthony or St. Benedict as sources for renewal of faith and life “in the world.”
Take, for instance, the recent theological lightning rod that is Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. In his book, Dreher struggles with the tension of maintaining what he calls “traditionalist” or “conservative” Christian values in a culture that appears to him to be nothing short of antagonistic to these values. His solution is for “traditional” Christians to retreat in certain respects from mainstream society and form intentional communities of practice in the footprints of the monastic communities of St. Benedict.
Dreher’s Benedict Option has already received a good deal of insightful criticism—which reflects that he is at the very least on to something.[i] But it also reflects some serious conceptual problems with his proposal. As I read the book it seemed to me that the biggest problem is a fundamental confusion centered around the (mis)use of monasticism as a guiding model. Dreher is engaged in a sustained back-and-forth: scorning secular culture on a number of fronts and calling Christians to abandon it in order to form stable cultural centers, but denying that he is advocating isolationism or quietism; admiring the ordered life of Benedictine monastics, but stopping short at advocating any strict rule of life other than regular prayer, bible study, and the avoidance of various items of moral and spiritual concern such as media, electronics, and so forth. Dreher supposes that Benedict’s Rule is “plain enough to be adapted by lay Christians for their own use.”[ii] But I think that is the problem: he too quickly and uncritically attempts to appropriate monastic writings and practice in non-monastic contexts and ends up in a jumble of confusion and contradiction.
The merits of Dreher’s book aside, he is not the only one to be guilty of this monastic fetishism and misappropriation. I would count myself among such an infamous group. My master’s thesis was concerned with how to appropriate a monastic worldview for modern life outside the monastery, and I have engaged this pursuit in my personal life and ministerial practice.[iii] What I have learned is that it is simply not as “plain” or straightforward a matter as one would wish. The monastery aims to evoke a different world—intentionally so—which makes appropriating its teachings outside of its boundaries filled with pitfalls. Yet it would also be an error, not to mention a tragedy, to ignore their world altogether. Christians who find the monastic world compelling need not give up this ghost, but ought to pursue it critically and with a clear view toward the dynamics involved in trying to integrate the monastic and the “secular” world.[iv] Toward that end, here are some notable misconceptions about monasticism that we would do well to avoid.
MISTAKE #1: MONASTICISM AS PRESERVATION
One of the popular myths of the origins of Christian monasticism is that it arose as a protest against the Christianization of the Roman Empire began by Constantine. The old ideal of the “red” martyr in the Coliseum was made impossible by the sanctioning of Christianity by the Roman empire, and so a new “white” martyrdom was made possible in the desert. The idea is that the desert fathers and mothers retreated to the desert of Egypt, and Benedict to Monte Cassino, to reclaim and preserve a notion of Christianity that had been spoiled by its institutionalization in the Roman Empire. This is at the heart of Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” He writes in his introduction that Benedict’s Rule “played a powerful role in preserving Christian culture throughout the so-called Dark Ages.”[v] Monasticism certainly had a preserving effect in a time of social and political upheaval, but it was preserving Aristotelian manuscripts and agricultural technology as a part of its cultural self-definition as Christians.[vi] Even then, this preservation was not for its own sake, but for the purpose of an ordered life of prayer and work—ora et labora—that would allow these monks to seek after a God they did not presume to possess.
It is true enough that folks began to retreat to the deserts amid the persecutions of Decius prior to Constantine, and that these early hermits and monastics were viewed as representatives of an uncompromised faith after Christianity became a religio licita. The misconception here is that they retreated to the desert to preserve something that already existed and that was becoming compromised. The Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman says that these monks “were fighters, not escapees, pilgrims, not tourists.”[vii] Thomas Merton acknowledges that many desert fathers and mothers regarded life in a Christianized pagan society as a “shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life.”[viii] They did not, however, leave in an effort to preserve a faith compromised or challenged by that society, but rather “they sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.”[ix] Moreover, in many cases the monastic communities were central to the preservation of the newly-Christianized Roman Empire, rather than subversive Christian idealists.[x] Although it is possible to see this as a complete corruption, it more likely that monastics found the safety and security afforded by imperial sanction to be helpful in their spiritual pursuits.
Monastic life then and now is a journey into the Christian life rather than a stronghold that preserves an established version of it. Those who sincerely begin to live in the pseudo-monastic communities that Dreher’s Benedict Option commends may be disappointed to find their presuppositions about the Christian life being challenged just as much within the monastic community as from without, though perhaps in a better direction. It is instructive to remember that Benedict was a contemporary of one of Catholicism’s greatest leaders, Pope Gregory the Great who did as much to bring vitality to Christian life outside the monastery as Benedict did from within it.
MISTAKE #2: MONASTICISM, PURITY, AND IDEALISM
Very often a monastery is mistaken as a place free from corruption, or at the very least as a place that is free from temptation. Neither are particularly true, and probably for the better. Although many monastic communities today display virtues rare in the world outside the cloister, they have their fair share of bickering and ego battles and moral failings all the same. More importantly, however, the monastery is not a place free from temptation. If anything, it is a place that takes away the shallow temptations of a chaotic life only to uncover more profound trials at the core of our being. Take, for instance, an episode from the desert fathers:
After Abba John the Dwarf had prayed to the Lord and the Lord had taken away all his passions, he went to one of the experienced old men and said, “You see before you a man who is completely at rest and has no more temptations.” The elder replied, “Go and pray to the Lord to stir up your passions once again, for the soul is made strong only in battle. And when this happens, do not pray that the struggle be taken away from you, but only say, “Lord, give me strength to get through the fight.”[xi]
Monasticism is not a means of fleeing from the world and its temptations. It is a means of carving out a space where the world can be seen for what it is and temptations can be managed as the soul grows.
There is something to commend in Dreher’s desire to shore up the cloister walls of Christian culture if that monastic instinct is more concerned with stability, order, and prayer than cultic purity. That may be an interpretation many moderates take. It seems, however, that Dreher sees our present civilization crumbling like it was in St. Benedict’s day, and it is this alarmism that lies behind his more radical sectarian impulses masquerading as monastic wisdom. The Benedict Option calls for strict limitations on exposure to media, abandonment of secular school and Christian schools that don’t buy into his pseudo-Benedictine scheme, and a number of other proposals for separating ourselves from the rest of society ostensibly under the umbrella of Dreher’s mistaken monastic appropriation: “A monastery keeps outside its walls people and things that are inimical to its purpose.”[xii]
I think it is fair to say that a monastery is a place that resists “people and things that are inimical to its purpose,” but that is not a trait exclusive to monasticism, nor is it a wisdom that comes from monasticism in particular. All organizations and communities tend to do this sort of thing. Dreher may be right to say that monasticism also does this sort of thing to a degree, but he is wrong to apply it as principle of moral or cultural purity. Monasticism is about strengthening the soul, not keeping it trembling behind walls, safe, for the time being, from the barbarian hordes of liquid modernity. Joan Chittister writes, “The Rule of Benedict is full of rules that are never kept, always shifting, forever being stretched. Only two Benedictine principles are implied to be without exception: kindness and self-control.”[xiii]
MISTAKE #3: MONASTICISM WITHOUT THE MONASTERY
The temptation when reading monastic literature like Benedict’s Rule is to think: “I could do that…” You can’t; at least not without the communal and cultural structures that supported and sustained monastic life throughout the centuries.
No one has done more in thinking about what asceticism is about—and monastic life by extension—than Richard Valantasis. Valantasis explains that ascetic practices seem strange and difficult to integrate into life in mainstream society precisely because they are about envisioning a new, alternative kind of person sustained by a new, alternative culture. Cultures constitute a “fabric of meaning” of abstract values and concrete practice in a coherent and ordered way. Personal and communal formation occurs within a given cultural framework and becomes conflicted when persons and communities are caught between multiple, incommensurate cultures. What makes sense in a monastic culture does not necessarily make sense in a non-monastic culture. We get into trouble when we uncritically assume that these are the same worlds with only the veneer of difference, and we end up operating on two often-conflicting cultural frameworks. Of course monasticism and Christian life in mainstream society share a lot in common, and are ultimately aimed at the same goals, but they operate on fundamentally distinct cultural levels. That is what makes integrating them both promising and difficult.[xiv]
What this means is that if we try to live by Benedict’s Rule or integrate spiritual disciplines in a life otherwise entrenched in the values, practices, and rhythms of mainstream society and its cultural “fabric of meaning,” we will at best experience a general frustration and difficulty, and at worst experience a spiritual schizophrenia. This is why these kinds of practices are successful in monasteries and often unsuccessful outside of them. Monastic life is a counter-culture and these practices are both a product of that cultural worldview and reinforce it.
This does not mean that folks “in the world” cannot engage in spiritual disciplines or generally profit from monastic wisdom. It does mean that it cannot be done in a private, self-determined fashion, or indeed without some form or fashion of intentional communal structures. A largely neglected relational piece of monastic life is the role of the spiritual director, which is usually the abbot. In many forms of monasticism, it would be considered out of the question to try to live a spiritual life at all without a director to guide, explain, sometimes chastise, but mostly help navigate the inner life.[xv] Yet modern spiritual literature is rife with calls to engage in spiritual disciplines often on the basis of personal inclination and discretion. Not only does this grind against common monastic practice, it contradicts the core of monastic spirituality aimed at rooting out a false self and its ego through practices of self-denial. Privatized monastic emulation, especially done outside of the ordered environment of an intentional (monastic) community, is not only doomed to failure, it is an attempt to appropriate monastic values and practices for means contrary to the spiritual life, leading not to union with God, but a divided self.
MISTAKE #4: MONASTICISM AS THE NORM
The 7th century monk John Climacus, author of the spiritual classic Ladder of Divine Ascent, addresses, begrudgingly, the question of how non-monastics can live a holy life:
Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’[xvi]
As a young student enchanted with the radical dedication of monastic life these words bothered me. I promptly ignored them. I suspected Climacus was referring to some other person carelessly living in the world with a wife and other social cares.
The interesting thing that I missed, or rather ignored, was that when confronted with the question about how non-monastics could appropriate the wisdom he had to offer, Climacus did not mention a set of spiritual disciplines or using the monastic life as a model for life “in the world.” Instead he distills his wisdom in a set of relational commands that, although nowhere near as spiritually enticing as mystical union with God, nevertheless represent the essential virtues that the monastic life was geared toward.
MONASTICISM FOR THE REST OF US
Up to this point I’ve focused on a set of mistakes we often make in trying to make sense of how monastic thought and practice can be beneficial for those of us on the outside. To distill the main piece of advice, I caution those who seek to make quick and simple appropriations of monastic wisdom to slow down and realize the complexity and difficulty of such a venture. The best writers on this subject make healthy applications sound simple precisely because they’ve wrestled—intellectually and experientially—with the thorny tensions and dynamics at play.
But what is there to say about how monastic life and thought can be fruitful for non-monastics? The first thing I suggest is that there is often no other way than to simply try and fail, make mistakes, study more, think more, and try again. There is no point in trying to avoid naiveté or the inevitable adolescent struggles of a passion for God. There is no way around it, only a way through it.
The second suggestion is to read people who write well on the topic. Below I have listed a short bibliography of writers and their books which I think do a better job than most at trying to bridge these two worlds. A secondary suggestion is to visit monasteries, talk to monks, engage in spiritual direction if that is offered, or consider the vocation of an oblate life.[xvii] A tertiary suggestion is to read the primary and secondary literature of monastic thought. Accessible English translations abound of monastic literature from the desert fathers and mothers to modern-day monastics like Richard Rohr. There is no substitute for engaging the world of monasticism, with its diverse manifestations and colorful history.
As a young reader of St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent I emailed a noted scholar asking for advice on how to read this book and how to apply it. He gave a few technical suggestions on reading, but complimented my youthful idealism saying he was glad I was interested in the hard work of the spiritual life, as some folks tend to confuse the ‘ladder’ for an escalator. Regardless of how monasticism should not be appropriated in non-monastic contexts, the sure test of good application is, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche via Eugene Peterson, a “long obedience in the same direction.” There are no shortcuts and no quick payoffs. Healthy and accurate appropriation of monastic life and thought will manifest in a long-term, sometimes tedious, often clumsy, ordering work of prayer in our lives no matter where we are or what vocation we live under.
[i] http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/4027/Would_Alasdair_MacIntyre_Live_in_a_Benedict_Option_Community.aspx; http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/03/19008/
[ii] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017), 53.
[iii] See Brandon Pierce, “Haven: Asceticism, Spiritual Formation, and Youth Ministry,” Discernment: Theology and the Practice of Ministry 2.1 (2016): Article 3.
[iv] Note that ‘secular’ was a term used by early Christian monastics to refer to mainstream society.
[v] Dreher, Benedict Option, 4.
[vi] For a modern-day parallel see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-29/benedictine-monks-race-to-preserve-ancient-islamic-manuscripts/8389910
[vii] Laurence Freeman, OSB, “Introduction,” in Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (Oxford: Lion Books, 2004), 9.
[viii] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1960), 3.
[ix] Merton, Wisdom of the Desert, 6.
[x] See especially Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); and idem., Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Milwaukee, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).
[xi] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamzoo, MI: Cistercian Publishing), 87-88.
[xii] Dreher, Benedict Option, 126. Note that in the same chapter he backpeddles from this hard stance, which does less to suggest balance and more to suggest that Dreher wants to have his cake and eat it too—he advocates monastic purity in one breath and in the next breath advocates actions that would put that monastic purity at risk.
[xiii] Joan Chittister, The Rule of St. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010), 186.
[xiv] For a technical look see Richard Valantasis, The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008); a more accessible and practical application of this material can be found in Richard Valantasis, Dazzling Bodies: Rethinking Spirituality and Communal Formation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016).
[xv] See especially Joseph J. Allen, Inner Way: Toward a Rebirth of Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Publications, 2000).
[xvi] John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent; trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), 1.21.
[xvii] Benet Tvedten, How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job: A Guide for Benedictine Oblates and Other Christians Who Follow the Monastic Way (Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013).
Williams, Rowan. Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert. (Oxford: Lion Books, 2004).
Norris, Kathleen. The Cloister Walk. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997).
Monks of New Skete. In the Spirit of Happiness. (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2001).
Evdokimov, Paul. Ages of the Spiritual Life. Translated by Alexis Vinogradov and Michael Plekon (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998).
Chittister, Joan. The Rule of St. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010).
McQuiston, John. Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living. (Seattle, WA: Morehouse Publishing, 2011)
Okholm, Dennis. Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007).
Brandon Pierce is the Senior Minister at the Stamford Church of Christ in Stamford, Connecticut.