31 January 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (1)

"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

Introduction: Legitimacy of Monastic Life

With this posting I begin a new series, as the title suggests, on desert spirituality, with a view to relating it to the Christian walk of reformed Christians. I am also returning to my broader goals for this blog. For a long time, too long (even for me), the focus has been very much upon political economy. On one hand this is to be expected, since I try to discuss philosophy, politics and economics from a neo-calvinist perspective. I have a certain preoccupation with ethics and political economy raises ethical questions, so it is only natural that I would spend a great deal of time on it. But I have other interests, even, in a certain sense, more important interests than political economy. And I want to post on them.

Too, I just want to have some fun.

Obviously one of the first questions, for reformed Christians, is why bother about this? Presently, I just want to say I think familiarity with this strand of Christian spirituality is beneficial even if only to dispose, or even simply respond to, the claim that reformed people think, or act, as if the history of the church began when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. To be reformed is to be both orthodox and catholic, as well apostolic. Indeed, one of the themes of The Reformation was ad fontes--return to the sources. The goal was a return to, not a departure from, orthodox catholicity. The rest of the answers to the question will, if I'm successful, come out in the course of the series.

What I want to do is offer some brief discussions of the history of the monastic movement, offer short biographical sketches of some of the important personalities of the desert, such as St. Anthony of Egypt, St. John the Dwarf, (Amma) Syncletica (of Alexandria), John Chysostom, Athanasius, John Cassian, and St. Jerome, among others. Then I'll discuss some of the key principles of desert spirituality and their application to those of us alive today, even us Reformed people. Finally, I plan to discuss monasticism in relation to Reformed Christian theology, in terms, specifically, of the question, "Has monasticism, or at least some form of it, any place in Reformed theology?"

I should declare a bias. As a once-aspiring monk, I do not share Luther's blanket rejection of any and all forms of monasticism. I think there is a way of doing monasticism which is consistent with Reformed theological distinctives, and I have long wanted to explore that possibility.

I begin with a little history of the monastic movement. When did it begin? How did it start? How have Christians regarded the monastic movement?

Given that my purpose is to relate desert spirituality to Reformed theology, I'll start with that last question.

Clearly, not all christians have agreed that the monastic movement is a good thing. The chief agument is that the monastic life is an unbiblical lifestyle which produces an unwholesome life. The Westminster Confession of Faith (the doctrinal standard of my denomination) expresses this argument in Chapter 22.7, which says, in relevant part, "[M]onastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself."

Certainly, Martin Luther held this view, a view shared by most reformed people ever since. Prior to his rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith he was, I think it safe to say, an exceptional monk. Upon making his rediscovery, he concluded--rightly, given the context in which he and virtually all orders of monks in the west lived the monastic life--that monasticism enslaves people.

Long before Luther's day, a works-righteousness came to characterize virtually every monastic order in what we now call the Roman Catholic Church. For Benedictines, the Rule of St. Benedict (through which I still read several times a year) speaks several times of those elements of the monastic life which result in salvation. As an Augustinian, Luther was bound to the Rule of St. Augustine, (through which I also read several times per year) which offers exhortations such as, "Although your eyes may perhaps fall on a woman, they must never be fixed on her. For in passing here and there, you are not forbidden to see women, but to desire them or wish to be desired by them is wicked. On either side bad passions are stirred up, and that not merely by touch or by thought, but by sight alone. And say not that your minds are pure if your eyes are not kept in modest restraint, for the immodest eye is the messenger of the impure heart. And when such hearts exchange thoughts by looks though without words and by fleshly concupiscence allure each other with evil desires, then chastity flies from the soul, even though the body is free from outward stain. And when a man fixes his eye on a woman, or takes pleasure in being locked on by her, let him not imagine that his sin will pass unnoticed. He will surely be seen and by those he thinks not of."

Now, I happen to agree with all that. So, in fact, do the Westminster Standards. As duties required by the Seventh Commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism asserts:
"[C]hastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior; and the preservation of it in ourselves and others; watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel; marriage by those that have not the gift of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation; diligent labor in our callings; shunning all occasions of uncleanness, and resisting temptations thereunto."

As prohibitions, including the obvious, such as, adultery, fornication, rape, incest and sodomy:
"[A]ll unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections;all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behavior, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage; having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others."

I seek to practice this standard in my own life. Properly understood, there is no problem in the ethical standards one finds in monastic rules such as the Benedictine and Augustinian. But if one has a works-oriented understanding of salvation, those ethical standards are deadly material! Understandably, Luther's experience left a bad taste in his mouth.

But do we have to accept this view as the sum total of monastic experience? I, for one, do not believe so. Quite simply, Luther and his ilk simply threw the baby out with the bath water. Rather than ask whether some sort of monastic life, consistent with justification by faith, was possible, as well as how to live this sort of life, they rejected the whole thing out of hand. One imagines that, for Luther and his followers, absolutely no good came out of monasteries. But this just isn't the case. Just because some versions of monasticism did enslave people and created horrble spirituality doesn't mean it is all bad. As it is said, abuse does not argue against proper use. Besides, no one familiar with the spiritual lives of Christians today, who do not live in monasteries, can say much in the way of complaining of either the licentiousness or the legalism which characterized many monasteries. Monastics would be entitled to say, "Tu quoque!" There is as much legalism outside of monasteries today as there was inside them centuries ago. And there is as much greed, gluttony and lust in the average Christian home today as there once was in some monasteries. As Calvin commented, "You will not find one [monastery] in ten which is not a brothel rather than a sanctuary of chastity" (Inst. IV.xiii.15). Frankly, I doubt Calvin would be impressed with what passes for the average Christian home, including the homes of those who share his justifiable antipathy for monasticism.

The monastic life can be corrected and properly balanced. This is the view of Reformed Christians, such as myself, in contrast with those who hold views similar to Luther's. Correction and balance--these two things can result in a monastic life consonant with Reformed theology, including the Regulative Principle of Worship. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This brings me to the desert fathers; for they did not share the same works-righteousness view of monasticism as that held by the west.

The spirituality of the desert fathers can provide much in the way of this needed correction and balance. In his, "On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works", St. Mark the Ascetic writes that Christians should engage in acts normally associated with righteousness (e.g., fasting, prayer, chastity) but to regard such works as the fruit of faith, not as a means to merit our salvation. In other words there is a wholesome approach to monasticism which will not lead to a merit mentality and result in the sort of abuses which caused Martin Luther and the other reformers to reject it.

Since we are talking about desert spirituality, we should ask how monks impacted, and continue to impact, the Eastern Orthodox Church. A glaring reality is the monastic movement itself. Consider the fact that orthodox bishops, by and large, are selected from the ranks of monks. Consider that the life of monks, in their monasteries, is the explanation for the amount of fasting our eastern brethren will do if they follow strictly the liturgical calendar. (If they did so, these brethren would fast almost half of the year! A type of disipline, which, to be brutally honest, would be of great help to our obesity "epidemic".) Yes, it is true that Jesus taught his disciples to fast. But monks really made it an important aspect of life.

Consider also that three of the special people celebrated by the Orthodox during the Great Lent are all monks, or nuns: Mary of Egypt, John Climacus and Gregory Palamas. The famous lenten prayer was composed by a monk, St. Ephraim the Syrian: "O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talking give me not. But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen" Moreover, however we feel about icons, eastern churches are filled with them. And most of them are icons of monks and nuns.

We should also point out that the work of hammering out the theology reflected in the out-put of the ecumenical councils was mostly, if not entirely, performed by monastics such as Athanasius.

Finally, the most important prayer among the eastern orthodox, the Jesus Prayer, was developed within the monastic communities.

That is just the east. What about the west? One need do no more than look at the prodigious amount of missionary work performed by monks in the west. I'm thinking, presently, of works such as the Hiberno-Scottish Mission, St. Columba, and of St. Patrick, among the Scots and Irish. I also have in mind, the mission among the Angles and Saxons by St. Aidan headquartered at Lindisfarne. However lamentable some of the other results, Christianity came to be the religion of Europe by the work of monks, including monks of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

None of that is intended to justify monasticism of any type, Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic. My only interest presently is to assert the impact of monasticism as at least one reason to look at it and acquire some understanding of its role, for good or ill. And while there have been ills, there have also been goods. One has to wonder, speaking strictly humanly, of course, would there even be much of a church, east or west, without the work of monks. We can learn a few things from them.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 5, St. Anthony of Egypt

About Me

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

Blog Archive