Chapter I. Of the Several Kinds of Monks
and Their Way of Life
8 Jan. 9 May. 8 Sept.
It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first are the cenobites: that is those in monasteries, who live under a rule or an Abbot.
The word monk (Latin: monachus; Greek: μοναχός) is, in itself, a whole program of life. The word means a solitary or one who, seeking God, lives alone or apart. By extension, it can refer to a man whose heart belongs to the one imperishable treasure revealed in Christ. “Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also” (Matthew 6:21). The monk is that man of the Gospel (Matthew 13:44-45) who, having found a treasure hidden in the field, went, full of joy, and, having sold all that he had, bought the field. Again, he is like the merchant seeking good pearls, who when he found one pearl of great price, went his way, sold all that he had, and bought it.
Saint Benedict’s monk has one focus in life: the Unum Necessarium (one thing necessary) that Our Lord revealed to Saint Martha at Bethany when He said, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
The word cenobite is derived from two Greek words: κοινός, meaning common, and βίος meaning life. Some commentators would say that the first cenobites were the Christians of the primitive Apostolic community, insofar as they lived together, under authority, following the teaching of the Apostles.
And all they that believed, were together, and had all things common. Their possessions and goods they sold, and divided them to all, according as every one had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they took their meat with gladness and simplicity of heart; praising God, and having favour with all the people. (Acts 2:44-46).
A cenobite, or cenobitic monk, according to Saint Benedict’s description, lives in community with other monks, under a rule and an Abbot. Today, the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict is, more often than not, interpreted by a complementary text called Constitutions or Declarations. In a small monastery, such as ours, the Father of the community is called a prior, rather than an abbot. His responsibilities, however, are the same as those of an abbot.
There are, then, three components of cenobitic monasticism: 1) life together in a single monastery; 2) corporate submission to a rule; 3) under the authority and care of an abbot.
The second are the Anchorites or Hermits: that is those who, not in the first fervour of religious life, but after long probation in the monastery, have learned by the help and experience of many to fight against the devil; and going forth well armed from the ranks of their brethren to the single-handed combat of the desert, are able, without the support of others, to fight by the strength of their own arm, God helping them, against the vices of the flesh and their evil thoughts.
Saint Benedict presents anchorites or hermits as veterans of the cenobitic life. The experience of bearing patiently, day after day, and year after year, with other men marked by “infirmities of body or mind” (Chapter LXXVII) is precious and indispensable. It constitutes the best purification of the heart, the most fruitful ascetical exercise, and the highest school of charity.
Only after long years of manfully struggling, in the midst of his brethren, against the eight principal vices enumerated by Saint John Cassian — gluttony, lust, greed, hubris, wrath, envy, listlessness, and boasting — is a monk in any way prepared for a life of complete solitude. The monk who enters the solitude of the desert prematurely will find himself vomited out of it, for the desert is a severe and uncompromising host for the man who enters it tainted with self-absorption and not entirely resolved to die to the world and and to all things passing.
In the meantime, Benedictine life, such as we live it, offers hours and spaces of solitude that provide the cenobite with a prudently measured experience of the desert. Unlike the Cistercians, who often privilege the common life at all times and in all places, to the point of sleeping in a dormitory, and of reading and studying in a scriptorium, our observance would be marked by a certain affection for the solitude of the cell: the monk’s ordinary place of lectio divina, study and, sometimes, work.
A third and most baneful kind of monks are the Sarabites, who have been tried by no rule nor by the experience of a master, as gold in the furnace; but being as soft as lead, and still serving the world in their works, are by their tonsure to lie to God. These in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, shut up, not in the Lord’s sheepfolds, but in their own, make a law to themselves in the pleasure of their own desires: whatever they think fit or choose to do, that they call holy; and what they like not, that they consider unlawful.
The Sarabites have no reference outside themselves: no rule, no abbot, no received tradition. They are “cafeteria monks”, choosing from among things monastic whatever strikes their fancy, and sneering at the rest. Lest one become too smug in one’s judgment of the Sarabites, I must add that there is in every monk — myself included — at least at certain hours, a touch of the Sarabite. The devil can fill a cenobite with loathing for the rule, antipathy towards the abbot, and a biting criticism of tradition. The Sarabite syndrome can be summed up as: “I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, in the way I want to do it.”
The fourth kind of monks are those called “Girovagi,” who spend all their lives-long wandering about divers provinces, staying in different cells for three or four days at a time, ever roaming, with no stability, given up to their own pleasures and to the snares of gluttony, and worse in all things than the Sarabites. Of the most wretched life of these it is better to say nothing than to speak. Leaving them alone therefore, let us set to work, by the help of God, to lay down a rule for the Cenobites, that is, the strongest kind of monks.
The Gyrovagues described here by Saint Benedict are restless wanderers, never content with what they find in one place, ever itching for novelty. The temptation to seek out a change of scenery, of diet, of brethren, and even of liturgical praxis is a classic demonic ploy. The Gyrovague is a man incapable of submission or, if you will, a kind of monastic philanderer ever moving from cloister to cloister, the way some men move from one relationship to another without ever making a life-long commitment.
This being said, one must be careful not to judge one’s brother (or sister) a Gyrovague, because one is never in full possession of all the facts. I think immediately of Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), the “Teresa of Avila” of the Benedictine Order in the 17th century, a reformer and mystic of outstanding significance in the history of spirituality. Mectilde began her religious life as an Annonciade, in an Order of Franciscan obedience. Forced out of monastery by the vicissitudes of the Thirty Years War, she and her companions took refuge with a community of reformed Benedictines; there Mectilde discovered the Rule of Saint Benedict, asked to be received as a novice, and made profession as a Benedictine. Many years later, it took a decision of the Holy See to silence those who questioned the validity of her Benedictine profession.
Benedictine though she was, and this to the very core of her being, stability and enclosure were not to be the lot of Mother Mectilde de Bar. Diverse circumstances, in which it is permitted to see an action of Divine Providence, swept Mectilde from one place to another. At one point she was sorely tempted to drop out entirely, to disappear by running away to a mountainous desert place in the south of France. Once she accepted God’s will that she should, even in the face of poverty, political intrigues, and virulent opposition, establish monasteries of Benedictine life marked by perpetual adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, her interior stability became immovable. Her stability was in the Sacred Host. Until the end of her life, like Saint Teresa of Avila, she traveled extensively, consumed with a burning desire to offer Our Lord victims of adoration and reparation who would, like so many grains of incense, consume themselves in the fire of His Eucharistic Love.
With effects no less devastating than those of the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, monastic life in the West, with very few exceptions, was struck by a kind of revolution. The year 1968 is often cited as marking the beginning of an age of “bare, ruined choirs.” Many men of that time who, like myself, entered monastic life in search of the pax benedictina safeguarded and fostered by fidelity to tradition, were told, instead, that there were no absolutes and no certainties, and that everything, beginning with the sacred liturgy itself, had to be re-invented. Benedictine stability was, in many places, stripped of the very elements that made it possible and desirable. Some took to the road like Saint Benedict-Joseph Labre. Others sought out small communities where there appeared to be a glimmer of hope; most of these ended in delusion and heartbreak. Still others entered the few continental abbeys where the classic Benedictine life was alive and thriving in its most traditional expression.
The post-Conciliar years were profoundly destabilizing. The men and women whom critics were quick to label Gyrovagues may have been poor destabilised seekers of God, spiritually homeless, waiting for the return of the serenity without which a true discernment and an enduring commitment to stability are not possible. “Let us go forth therefore to him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come. By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise always to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to his name. “(Hebrews 13:13-15)
Are there still Gyrovagues then? I leave that to the judgment of God and of Saint Benedict, giving the last word to the prophet Jeremias:
Blessed be the man that trusteth in the Lord, and the Lord shall be his confidence. And he shall be as a tree that is planted by the waters, that spreadeth out its roots towards moisture: and it shall not fear when the heat cometh. And the leaf thereof shall be green, and in the time of drought it shall not be solicitous, neither shall it cease at any time to bring forth fruit. The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it? I am the Lord who search the heart and prove the reins: who give to every one according to his way, and according to the fruit of his devices. (Jeremiah 17:7-10).