Cenobites: the strongest kind of monks (I)

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.

By way of introduction, Saint Benedict merely alludes to cenobites, the strongest kind of monks, living under a rule or an abbot, and waging the spiritual combat (militans) in a cœnobium (κοινόβῐον), that is, a monastery of the common life. The entire Holy Rule will set forth the life of cenobites.

Saint Benedict speaks more extensively of the second kind of monks, the anchorites or hermits. Our holy Patriarch, having himself lived as a young solitary in the Sacro Speco, is favourably disposed towards hermits. All the same, he seems to have learned from his own somewhat precocious, though providential, experience at Subiaco that older monks are better equipped for the challenges of life in solitude than are men in the first fervour of their conversion. Saint Benedict grants the solitary life only to wise old veterans of the monastic struggle. Seasoned and humbled by a long experience of obedience and of life in the ranks, they have learned to identify and unmask the deceits of the devil. If they are allowed to retire into solitude, it is in order meet the ancient enemy and rout him, like David going out to meet Goliath.

And David said to the Philistine: Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, which thou hast defied. (1 Kings 17:45)

The hermit goes forth from the company of his brethren to the single-handed combat of the desert. There, with the blessing of his abbot, trusting in the grace of Christ and in the intercession of His Most Holy Mother, the hermit keeps to a rigorous daily order. He learns to live without the support of others, and undertakes manfully a never–ending struggle against the vices of the flesh and evil thoughts.

It is a classical ploy of the devil to tempt a monk against stability, obedience, and conversion of manners by filling his head with with fantasies of the eremitical life. In the best of circumstances, at least twenty-five or thirty years of solemn profession and monastic consecration are needed before a monk is ready to live in solitude. The wisest abbots begin by allowing a mature  monk with eremitical aspirations to go into solitude for one day a month, then for one day every fortnight, and finally for one day a week, before allowing him to pass a longer time in the hermitage. Even then, the aspiring hermit is required to follow a stricter rule than the his cenobitical brethren: rising in the night, praying more, eating less, working and doing everything else at rigidly fixed hours, lest self–will, and shiftlessness open the door to the devil. The devil in the hermitage is worse than the devil in the cœnobium because his territory is smaller and more confined, and because he has but one man to tempt and deceive.

The dangers of the solitary life are legendary. Some hermits, for want of humility and obedience, fall into madness. Their hermitage is untidy; they neglect their personal hygiene; they become altogether idiosyncratic and peculiar.  Others eat, drink, smoke, entertain visitors, and waste time on the internet. Some self–proclaimed hermits spend hours on the telephone or in online discussion groups about solitude, and silence, the exigencies of the eremitical life, and the fine points of liturgiological questions. Still other hermits are never at home in the enclosure of the hermitage; they are always on an errand, a pastoral visit, a work of mercy. Very often these “acts of charity” or of “apostolic zeal” are pretexts for escaping from one’s solitude and for seeking the emotional gratification of affirmation, affection, or companionship. The priest–hermit is particularly at risk in this regard.

The graces of the solitary life well–lived are, at once, sublime and hidden, for the hermit himself and for the whole Church. The fruitfulness of the solitary life is, in some way, proportionate to the humility, purity, hiddenness, and silence of the hermit.  “But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee” (Matthew 6:6). In one of the most beautiful pages ever written about the solitary life, Saint Aelred addresses his own sister, a recluse, saying.

Embrace the whole world with the arms of your love and in that act at once consider and congratulate the good, contemplate and mourn over the wicked. In that act look upon the afflicted and the oppressed and feel compassion for them. In that act call to mind the wretchedness of the poor, the groans of orphans, the abandonment of widows, the gloom of the sorrowful, the needs of travellers, the prayers of virgins, the perils of those at sea, the temptations of monks, the responsibilities of prelates, the labors of those waging war. In your love take them all to your heart, weep over them, offer your prayers for them.

Saint Benedict calls the third kind of monks most baneful. The Sarabites want to be seen as monks, but resist dying to their weaknesses, vices, and self–indulgence. They refuse to submit to tradition, to what has been handed on by the saints and by their wiser forefathers.  Saint Benedict denounces them as being soft as lead and lying to God by their tonsure. More often than not such men are attracted to others of a like mind. The defining characteristic of the Sarabite is his refusal to submit to authority. If he has a rule of life, it is his own rule. If he practices austerity, it is the austerity that he has chosen for himself. If he prays at fixed times, it is according to his own notions of what is correct, and worthwhile, and convenient. A Sarabite can only be cured by humility, obedience, and stability in one place, in a community, under a rule and an abbot.

Saint Benedict has little time for the fourth kind of monks, the Gyrovagues. These are monastic poseurs and dilettantes who make a practice of visiting monasteries to enjoy the hospitality, to take note of the various observances and liturgical peculiarities, and who carry gossip from one cloister to another. Very often such men are critical and restless. Saint Benedict says that they are “ever roaming, with no stability.” The Gyrovague is often a man in love with a certain intellectual ideal of monastic life but who cannot put down roots in one place to become an amator loci et fratrum, “a lover of the place and of the brethren.”