Let us set to work, by the help of God


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 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. 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 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.

Having completed our reading of the Prologue, we enter today into the text of the Rule. Our word “text” derives from the verb texo, meaning “to weave artfully” so as to produce a precious tapestry or cloth. The Holy Rule is just this: a precious tapestry woven of threads drawn from Sacred Scripture and from the doctrine of the Fathers.

Originally, the designation monk was reserved to solitaries. In speaking of cenobites, both the Master and Saint Benedict more often use the term brethren.  Nonethless, in ancient monastic literature there is a development of the meaning of the word monachus, monk. The First Book of Samuel opens with these words: Fuit vir unus (1 Samuel 1:1). The meaning suggested by Origen is that of a man who is one in himself; such a man is focused on one thing, he eschews flightiness, he is not at odds with his own heart’s deepest desire. The monk is the vir Dei, the man of the “one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:42). For Evagrius Ponticus, the monk is a man in whom two, seemingly incompatible opposites, come together: “A monk is one who is separated from all and united with all” (On Prayer, 24).

For Saint Augustine, a community is monastic insofar as the multitude of its  members have “but one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). Saint Augustine writes in the first chapter of his Rule:

Primum, propter quod in unum estis congregati, ut unanimes habitetis in domo et sit vobis anima una et cor unum in Deum.
The main purpose for you having come together as one is to live at one in your house, intent upon God with one mind and one heart. (Rule of Saint Augustine, Chapter I)

For his description of the four kinds monks, Saint Benedict draws upon Cassian’s 18th Conference, obligatory reading to be sure. Cassian, for his part, draws upon the description of the monks of Egypt given by Saint Jerome in a letter to Eustochium written in 384 and in another letter to Demetrias written in 414.

For Saint John Cassian, the prototype of the cenobium is the Apostolic community in Jerusalem. You are familiar with the marvelous little book of Dom Germain Morin, The Ideal of the Monastic Life Found in the Apostolic Age (1914); Dom Morin, of course, drew his treatment of the monastic life from Cassian. Cassian recounts the origins of cœnobitic life in the Apostolic Age:

The system of cœnobites took its rise in the days of the preaching of the Apostles. For such was all that multitude of believers in Jerusalem, which is thus described in the Acts of the Apostles: “But the multitude of believers was of one heart and one soul, neither said any of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common” (Acts 4:32).

Cassian goes on to relate the lamentable cooling down of the original Apostolic fervour.

The fervour of that early faith cooled down owing to the daily increasing number both of natives and foreigners, and not only those who had accepted the faith of Christ, but even those who were the leaders of the Church relaxed somewhat of that strictness.

Thus does Cassian explain the origins of the cœnobitic life:

Those who still maintained the fervour of the apostles, mindful of that former perfection left their cities and intercourse with those who thought that carelessness and a laxer life was permissible to themselves and the Church of God, and began to live in rural and more sequestered spots, and there, in private and on their own account, to practise those things which they had learned to have been ordered by the apostles throughout the whole body of the Church in general: and so that whole system of which we have spoken grew up from those disciples who had separated themselves from the evil that was spreading. And these, as by degrees time went on, were separated from the great mass of believers and because they abstained from marriage and cut themselves off from intercourse with their kinsmen and the life of this world, were termed monks or solitaries from the strictness of their lonely and solitary life. Whence it followed that from their common life they were called cœnobites and their cells and lodgings cœnobia. That then alone was the earliest kind of monks, which is first not only in time but also in grace, and which continued unbroken for a very long period up to the time of Abbot Paul and Antony; and even to this day we see its traces remaining in strict cœnobia.

Cassian calls the cœnobitic life “this most fruitful root of saints”, and then presents the anachorites (or hermits) as the flowers and fruits of the root.

Out of this number of the perfect, and, if I may use the expression, this most fruitful root of saints, were produced afterwards the flowers and fruits of the anchorites as well. And of this order we have heard that the originators were those whom we mentioned just now; to wit, Saint Paul and Antony, men who frequented the recesses of the desert, not as some from faintheartedness, and the evil of impatience, but from a desire for loftier heights of perfection and divine contemplation.

For Saint Benedict, the anachorites (or hermits) are mature monks, not men still learning the discipline of the cloister. It takes between ten and twenty–five years to form a monk and, even then, the weakness of human nature and the wiles of the devil are such, that a monk can leave the cœnobium to live in solitude only to find that, little by little, he begins to lie in bed on cold mornings, to neglect the Divine Office, to eat and drink at odd hours, to open his hermitage to visitors, to daydream at the hours of prayer, to lose his taste for Sacred Scripture, to seek pious (or impious) diversion on the internet, to text–message friends, and, finally, to jump into his automobile and go visiting whenever the itch to do so strikes him. In the end, such a man, would have done better to remain in the cloister with his brethren. Would–be hermits, especially those not tightly–anchored to an observant monastery and under the eye of a watchful abbot, degenerate easily and quickly into peculiar little men given to odd behaviour and to the indulgence of their whims and fancies.

Not for nothing does Saint Benedict speaks of a long period of testing in the monastery. He attributes great importance to the “help and experience” of many brethren, in whose company and by whose example a man learns to fight against the devil. The hermit is a spiritual warrior; he is trained for single–handed combat in the desert. He is ready to forego the support of others and to fight by the strength of his own arm. He is a man utterly reliant on divine grace and, I should add, on the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces, the Immaculate who crushes the head of the ancient serpent. He renounces nothing of what he learned in the cœnobium. On the contrary, he holds to the strictest horarium; celebrates the Hours and the Holy Sacrifice at the proper times; observes all the regular fasts and the traditional abstinence; keeps himself out of the sight of men; and does nothing without the blessing of his own spiritual father, and in the most exact obedience.

Sarabaites are misfits and profiteers who, having found each other, live a parody of monastic life. They are would–be monks who, according to the indictment of the psalm, hate discipline and cast the words of the Lord behind them (Psalm 49:17).  Cassian calls the sarabaites “disgusting and unfaithful”. He says that their free–wheeling ways originated in the the persons of Ananias and Sapphira, the unfortunate couple in Acts 5 who lied to the Holy Ghost about money and were struck dead. Cassian goes on to say:

They are anxious to be reckoned by the name of monks without emulating their pursuits, in no sort of way practise discipline, or are subject to the will of the Elders, or, taught by their traditions, learn to govern their own wills or take up and properly learn any rule of sound discretion . . . . They shirk the severity of the monastery, and live two or three together in their cells, not satisfied to be under the charge and rule of an Abbot, but arranging chiefly for this: that they may get rid of the yoke of the Elders and have liberty to carry out their wishes and go and wander where they will, and do what they like.

Finally there are the girovagues or pseudo–monastic tourists. These are men constantly on the move from one monastery to another, never satisfied, always critical, endless complaining about the liturgy in this place, the food in another, the architecture in still another. They will ingratiate themselves in one place and then, when they have satisfied their curiosity, move on to another, spreading gossip and bearing tales. These, says Saint Benedict, have no stability, and are worse, in all things than the sarabaites.

Our Father Saint Benedict concludes this chapter by saying, “Let us set to work, by the help of God, to lay down a rule for the cœnobites, that is, the strongest kind of monks”. Reliance on the help of God characterises all that Saint Benedict teaches. He writes out of a profound humility. He writes in obedience to the tradition he himself received. Having shaken the dust from his feet, after this necessary but unpleasant excursus into the dark regions of the sarabaites and the girovagues, Saint Benedict goes forward with a supernatural optimism, radiating peace and shining with the light of Christ. If we would have “have some degree of goodness of life, and a beginning of holiness” (Chapter LXXIII), we have only to follow him. “Whoever, therefore, thou art”, says Saint Benedict, “that hasteneth to thy heavenly country, fulfil by the help of Christ this least of Rules which we have written for beginners”.

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