If the Master and Benedict, following Cassian, recognize the legitimacy of anachoresis this is precisely because they represent cenobitic society as an educative enterprise rather than as a community of brothers living together a life which has value in and for itself. If they, like other monastic legislators, had taken as their model the primitive Church, where the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul, they would scarcely have allowed an exodus to the desert which might seem to assail this communion in charity. There is scarcely any place for eremitism when the union of hearts appears as the supreme value. On the contrary, nothing prevents one from leaving a school, if it is certain that one has exhausted its educative resources and can lead a more difficult combat in the wilderness.
Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 23.
Having considered the monastery’s relationship to the broader Church, Father de Vogüé turns his attention to the relationship between the monastery and the solitary life. He argues that, following Cassian, the Master and Saint Benedict see the monastic community in what could ultimately be thought rather functionalist terms as a preparation for solitude. While solitary life requires a thorough formation in the coenobium, the validity of eremitical life makes the monastery a school for eremitism. Moreover, the relationships in this school are primarily between a Master and disciples rather than between brothers in community.
The Christian community, either ecclesial or monastic, appears in the Master as an educative institution, where the relationship of disciples to master means almost everything and the relations of the disciples to one another means almost nothing. The aim of this institution is to lead to eternal life each of the persons entrusted to it. There is scarcely any building here below of a house of brothers where it is ‘good and pleasant to dwell together’. (23)
In contrast to Saint Basil, Saint Augustine and the rule of the Four Fathers, the Master and Saint Benedict do not begin with scriptural references to brothers living in unity (Ps 132) or the ideal community of the first Christians (Acts 2). Instead, the aspiring monk is addressed as an individual. De Vogüé concludes:
Our author was absorbed by his preoccupation with individual salvation, and could not give much attention to the communitarian dimension of christian prayer and life. If he firmly resolved to insert the neophyte and the new monk into a social framework, it was less to make him experience the riches and joys of a brotherly communion than to subject him to a sure guide, an authentic ‘teacher’. His monastic society was less a community than a school, and the school’s biblical foundation was found, not in the sweet words of the psalmist about the unanimity and joy of dwelling together or in the example of concord given by the Church of Jerusalem, but simply in the saying of Christ: ‘Enter my school, learn of me’. (25)
I must admit to a little disquiet at this perspective, especially as it applies to the Rule of Saint Benedict, although for now I shall suspend judgement and see how the theme develops in the rest of the book. Perhaps I have been more formed by a Cistercian reading of the Rule than I realised! And it is certainly the case that there is a solitude-community antinomy that seems to run through all forms of monasticism and that this perhaps should not be easily resolved. I suppose that I’m also reacting against the background of my reading of Being as Communion, and wondering about de Vogüé’s use of the contrast between individual and institution and whether this represents something significant ecclesiologically. But these are just less than half-baked thoughts that I need to work out more!