20 April 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (6)

Goal of the Monastic Life

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

What were the desert monastics up to? What was the purpose of their asceticism? Why so much emphasis on fasting, prayer, silence and meditations? Among those of us in the Reformed Communion, the answer given is usually simple: They were pursuing a life which would justify their claims to perfection, or at least to being holier and more righteous than non-monastics. To a certain extent this criticism is justified, especially since this was very much the case in the west at the time of the Reformation.

But then, church history doesn't begin with the Reformation. And Calvin had a higher view of the monasticism of earlier times than he did the monasticism of his day:

"[I]t is to be observed, that the ancient mode of living in monasteries was very different. The persons who retired to them were those who wished to train themselves to the greatest austerity and patience. The discipline practised by the monks then resembled that which the [Spartans] are said to have used under the laws of Lycurgus, and was even much more rigorous. They slept on the ground, their drink was water, their food bread, herbs, and roots, their chief luxuries oil and pulse. From more delicate food and care of the body they abstained. These things might seem hyperbolical were they not vouched by experienced eye-witnesses, as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. By such rudimentary training they prepared themselves for greater offices. For of the fact that monastic colleges were then a kind of seminaries of the ecclesiastical order, both those whom we lately named are very competent witnesses, (they were all brought up in monasteries, and thence called to the episcopal office), as well as several other great and excellent men of their age. Augustine also shows that in his time the monasteries were wont to furnish the Church with clergy." (Emphasis added.)

In this posting, I explained the radical problem which, to the monastics, required a radical solution. The situation among monastics in the east was for the most part much different from the west.

In asking what is the goal of the monastic life, we could ask, as well, what is the goal of the Christian life? For the desert monastics, the goal of the ascetical practices was the same as the goal of the Christian life. Often, I think, this fact is lost on us precisely because of the asceticism itself. We cannot see the forest for the trees (those ascetical practices). Moreover, the aforementioned loathing of ascetical practices and easy dismissal as works-righteousness also hinders our vision. We Reformed and (by virtue thereof) non-monastics don't engage in such practices and we're living the Christian life; therefore, the monks, having added to the requirements as it were, are attempting acts of supererogation and, for that reason, not living the Christian life. They are in fact sinning greatly.

What in fact compelled the monastics to go into the desert was the command of Jesus to "Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5.48). Jesus's words there, seeming to suggest that we must have a completely, flawlessly obedient life, might depress us, given what must surely be our knowledge that we cannot be perfect. But the message from Jesus recorded in Matthew 5.48 isn't about flawlessness; rather, they are a restatement of the Two Great Commandments: (1) that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Deuteronomy 6.5) and (2) that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19.18) (cf. Luke 10.27).

What Jesus is asking of us is a life of perfect love, for God and for others. We were created to give and receive love. God created us for love; and he redeemed us for love. Love characterizes the Holy Trinity. The fundamental relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is love. Out of that love relationship, we were created and redeemed. And for the sake of that love relationship, we were created and redeemed. The center of all things is that love which exists in and among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The life of the Godhead is an eternal love life with each other. As the church fathers have put it, the members of the Trinity interpenetrate each other (perichoresis). Or, better, as Jesus himself put it: "I am in my father and my father is in me" (John 14.10) and "...you are in me and I am in you." (John 17.21).

What's the point? God created us and redeemed us out of his eternal trinitarian love life. And he calls us to enter into that very love life; he calls us to live life with him. As the Catechism puts it, our whole purpose is "to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever." However much we (or some of us) Reformed Christians may criticize the means, this life with God is the end or purpose of the monastic life. They, no less than we, seek to glorify God and enjoy him forever, specifically by growing in love for God and our neighbor.

There is a story by the 6th century monk Dorotheus which is highly illustrative of the relation between love for God and love for neighbor.

"Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centerpoint is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center. The straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. Let's assume for the sake of this analogy that to move toward God, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God the closer they become to one another. And the closer they are to one another the closer they become to God."

For those of us who eschew works righteousness, Dorotheus's analogy is powerful. He does not argue that in order to become closer to God we must love each other more, so that closeness to God becomes something like a reward for loving others. He says that we must love God. As we do so, we come closer to him and, since we are all moving from the circumference (i.e., our lives) to the center (i.e., his life) we also come closer to each other. Growing in love for each other; growing closer to each other -- these cannot happen by focusing on them. They can only happen by focusing the attention of our hearts upon God. Don't worry about loving me; worry about loving God.

So the goal of the monastic life, including their ascetical practices is love. The praying; the fasting; the silence; the meditation -- all are intended to draw the monk closer to God. Before we think that monks properly think of themselves as superior to non-monks we should recall Chrysostom's admonition: The only difference between the monk and the married man is that the monk has no wife. Nothing is demanded of a monk which is not also demanded of a married man. Nothing is demanded of a married man that is not also demanded of a monk. We all "must rise to the same height."


Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony



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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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