Monastic unity and diversity

I read the First Chapter of the Holy Rule when I was a novice at St. Vincent Archabbey. I recall being more than a bit surprised to encounter terms like “anchorite, “sarabite,” “gyrovague,” and “cenobite.” I had already had Church History in seminary and so I knew something about “anchorites” or “hermits.” I guess I had heard about cenobites too—we had leaned about Basil and Pachomius—and even Benedict. But I had never heard of “sarabites” or “gyrovagues.”

When I read these passages for the first time, I recall thinking, “Wow, I am the good kind of monk.” And, in the course of my novitiate classes, I came to learn why it was that the call to life-in-community was so special. The years have not dampened my love for life-in-Community. However, my perspective has changed a great deal. I now understand “community” to be a far more inclusive and diverse concept than I once did.

Reading this chapter now causes me to realize that from the very beginning there was a greater diversity of monastic experience than I had previously thought or appreciated. The very fact that cenobites stoop to name-calling (I can not honestly think what else the use of pejorative terms like sarabite or gyrovague could be). Clearly the cenobites won out in the end, and they are the ones writing the Rule. It seems, though, that this reflects an early—and unresolved tension between the “Institutional Church” and the “Independent Monastic Charism.” Someone was apparently concerned that some monastics were not “toeing the line” and living docilely and obediently in the cloister.

Nor was this the last time such a thing would happen in the history of the Church. The early Franciscan movement was torn apart by dissension and competing claims to be the “true successor to Francis.” A beautiful aspect of new charisms, as they emerge in the life of the Church, is that they are volatile. In most cases, the Institution is able to accommodate and find a place for the new view–but not always! In the past force was used to bring dissidents into line—read, for instance, the beginning of The Name of the Rose.

Benedict attacks the Sarabites for not being “obedient” and the Gyrovagues for not being “stable.” His language is harsh—“their tonsure marks them as liars before God.” When Benedict’s vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of life became the “norm,” anyone who deviated from them was viewed as a “monastic heretic.” That is a sad thing. How different things might have been if the four strands of monastic experience mentioned could have worked together in a common cause, rather than fighting among themselves.

There is also the sad fact that as the Benedictine charism unfolded, there was such internal conflict that there were reforms (the Cistercians) and second reforms (the Trappists)—to give but one example. Conflict was so strong that there appeared to be “no love” between the “black-robed monks” and the “white-robed” ones. It seemed that Cîteaux and Cluny disagreed with the ferocity of “Nicenes” and “Arians” or “Jesuits” and “Jansenists.” No doubt this conflict was inevitable. However, it does not reflect well on the Benedictine family. In such hostility there is little “pax.”

I also find it interesting that there is still an unresolved tension between the cenobitic calling and the eremitical calling—as seen through the lens of the Rule (more will be said about this in the discussion of Chapter 73). This was a tension which later was to be played out in the Camaldolese story and in the story of Merton’s life at Gethsemane.

There are some important issues to consider here. Does the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict necessarily require a cloistered life with an Abbot and everyone living in the same house? Has this notion historically been applied differently to women and men? Are more “modern” notions of monasticism—joint communities, dispersed communities, inter-faith communities for example truly “Benedictine.” Is the modern distinction in the Episcopal Church between Religious Order (requiring celibacy) and Christian or Religious Community one that allows for a diversity of experience? What is one to make of the fact that traditional Benedictine monasticism (male and female) seems to lack the rigor and vitality ( or at least the numbers) which it had in previous years? What is one to make of the interest in and vitality of some of the emerging non-traditional monastic groups?

I do not have all the answers and do not pretend to do so. Having been involved in the formation and early development of one of these communities, though, I know first-hand that there is the potential for a new flowering of monasticism. My own hope is that each of these groups will be able to find a common ground—and that they will refuse to allow any “Institution” to crush and divide them. Perhaps one ought to take the advice of Gamaliel on this topic, “leave them alone and allow time to reveal what God is doing.” In the end, it will be impossible to prevent God’s work from being accomplished.

“Anchorites, Cenobites, Gyrovagues and Sarabites . . . unite.”





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