Coenobitism


In reality, a monastic community consists of broken people living a life of repentance. Like all broken people, monastics come into intense conflict with one another, conflict which visitors and pilgrims never see because monks and nuns tend not to “wash their dirty linen in public.” What the visitor to a monastery experiences in the gracious hospitality and respectful distance is absolutely genuine, but it has little to do with the experience of the monks and nuns themselves. Outsiders who visit a monastery may consider the members of the community to be “perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless.” Members of the community know better. The basic difference between monastic life and parish life in this respect, then, is that the problems in a monastery become far more severe, but the solutions become even more profound and life-changing.

They say that in any average monastery nine out of ten who come to try the life end up leaving. It’s all about handling the pressure of interpersonal relationships. Either you give up and go away or you stay and make it work. Ultimately there is only one way to make the monastic life work—by demonstrating the willingness to resolve conflict by forgiving others, asking their forgiveness, reconciling with them, and by humbling yourself even when you think you are right. This process does not take place in every monastery, and as a result the monasteries which are healthy are very, very healthy, while the monasteries that go bad go very, very bad. In either case, they serve as an example to the parish, either a good example or a bad example.

What monastic life, at its best, has to offer the parish is a vision of what the Kingdom is like when we make our relationships with other persons work, because ultimately healthy relationships – with other human persons and with God – are the only thing that matters.

Monk Cosmas Shartz in the current issue of In Communion, journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God, February2011, p. 35, also available here.

Like their source, this section only aims at establishing the primordial necessity of the common life. The celebration of the anchorites is itself, after all, only an element of this demonstration. Not that there is room to suspect its sincerity, but if our authors admit with Cassian that the anchorite is great and admirable, this is precisely because they see in him a perfect cenobite, capable of doing without cenobitic discipline after having fulfilled it to perfection.

Perhaps the chief interest of this account of anchorites is that it places mercilessly before us an embarrassing fact; the Master’s cenobitism, like Cassian’s, regards the common life as a means and not as an end. We made this remark when commenting on the definition of the monastery as a school. We verify it here again. The most important thing in the cenobium does not seem to be the fraternal union in itself, but the struggle against the common enemy. When a member of the ‘battle line of brothers’ becomes capable of fighting alone, the monks admire his assurance and let him display his skill in solitude, with the help of God. Doubtless the Master gives cenobitism a more communitarian aspect by the Leonine touches of which we have spoken, but this community is a community of action, turned towards a well-defined goal and one exterior to itself, so to speak. We would dare call it an open cenobitism, both because it can empty out into a further eremitical stage and because, far from taking itself as an end point, it is ordered to a purification of consciences which is each person’s business.

Thoroughly ascetic and individualist, such a concept presupposes that the monk takes very seriously ‘the struggle against the vices of the flesh and of thoughts’. Monasticism, under its two valid forms, pursues this enterprise methodically. It has a task to accomplish which it holds as sovereignly important and absorbing. It is not by chance that the paragraph on hermits ends with the warlike formula we have just cited. The same formula is found equivalently at the end of the chapter on the abbot and on humility. It expresses a constant thought, a definite design. The purification of man, the elimination of ‘vice’ – that is indeed the great business of monastic life.

Adalbert de Vogüé. The Rule of Saint Benedict. A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary. Kalamazoo, Michigan; Cistercian Publications, 1983. 57-58.

In his second chapter on “Common Life and Solitary Life,” a commentary on the first chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which discusses the four types of monks, Father de Vogüé returns to themes that he had raised in his previous chapter. His discussion serves to situate Saint Benedict’s perspective on eremitical and coenobitical life against the backdrop of its sources and to show its function in relation to the whole Rule.

Saint Benedict’s teaching on coenobites and hermits has received different interpretations and emphases, with some emphasising his preference for coenobites and others emphasising his praise for hermits as the fulfilment of coenobitical life. However, both presuppose that this chapter is intended to introduce the coenobitical legislation of the rest of the Rule, something that de Vogüé questions by returning to Saint Benedict’s sources. As with the Prologue, Benedict took this chapter over from the Master although reducing the sections on sarabites and gyrovagues. More importantly, however, he omits the Master’s presentation of the abbot as teacher and

removes what was in the Master’s eyes the very reason for the whole chapter. In the Master this chapter aimed only to introduce the one ‘On the Abbot’. Its real object was not to describe the various kinds of monks, or even to situate cenobitism among them or give it a definition, but to present the ‘teacher’ of the monastic scola, that is, the abbot. (46)

Moreover, behind the Master’s text lies Saint John Cassian’s Conference 18, attributed to Abba Piamun, thus placing him firmly in within Cassian’s monastic doctrine which viewed the coenobium as a training ground for the eremitical life, a position that was by no means universally accepted. In fact he even omitted Cassian’s own reference to the apostolic origins of coenobitical life, just as he shows little interest in providing a scriptural or Hellenic basis for eremitical life. This is because the Master’s priority is to present the three fundamental realities of Rule, monastery and abbot in order to lead to the theme of the abbot as teacher.

Given that Saint Benedict omits this presentation of the abbot, he has effectively “removed the end towards which the whole discourse moved.” (48)

Since these elements no longer support the final segment, we are tempted to see them only as teething stones now unused, or the foundations of a ruined edifice. Yet when we consider the new edifice, the Benedictine Rule, we can still recognize a function and meaning in them, but the function and meaning have been profoundly renewed. (48)

This Benedictine renewal consists in the introduction of the element of the Rule alongside that of the abbot, making these “for the first time the two constitutive principles of cenobitism.” (49) Furthermore, Benedict’s phrase “Let us go on to organize the valiant kind, the cenobites” now signifies a transition to something new.

A break has thus been established between the chapter ‘On the Kinds of Monks’ and the rest of the Rule. The chapter seems a preamble to the presentation, no longer merely of the teacher, but of the entire Rule. As a result a new meaning is attached to the whole description of the different kind of monks. (49)

However, we cannot know to what extent Benedict consciously did this, hence the importance of reading him against the backdrop of the Master and of Cassian, who clearly viewed the coenobium not only as a training ground for eremitical life, but who also situated the purpose of monastic ascesis in inner individual purification and the removal of vice. It is in this context that de Vogüé sees Saint Benedict and the Master as treating community as a means rather than an end.

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!