Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month Greg Peters will be discussing the history of Christian monasticism, and its continuing importance for the contemporary church.
Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of his forthcoming book The Story of Monasticism (to be shipped on its release date). The winners will be announced at the end of the month.
Why wouldn’t everyone want to be a monk or nun? These days you will get your own room, never have to overthink the daily “What will I wear?” debate, be allotted plenty of time with God and, if you choose wisely, be engaged during your lifetime in a host of satisfying jobs and ministry assignments. All in all, the monastic life has a good number of the elements that many of us look for in life and work. Sure, there’s the whole obedience to a superior thing, and the celibacy thing, and the poverty thing but let’s face it – those are often over-rated to today’s culture anyway. Most of us crave stability and perhaps even predictability.
It turns out, however, that the monastic life does not often offer either of these. Contrary to much popular and historical thinking, the institution of Christian monasticism is not a monolithic entity – it never has been and, I’m guessing, it never will be. That does not mean, though, that it was an inchoate institution teaching falsehoods and superstitions, as it was (and sometimes still is) often depicted in Reformation-era caricatures. In fact, the history of monasticism is quite the opposite of how it is often portrayed or imagined.
The Story of Monasticism is not only an attempt to present an accurate historical depiction of Christian monasticism but it also strives to show its ongoing relevance for all believers. Contrary to many Protestants, monasticism was not and is not a fringe movement in Christian history. It may have started on the fringes geographically (the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, for example) but it was, from the start, an important element in the life of the church. Though it may have, on occasion, needed reform and, at times, to be reminded that it was not superior to the “normal Christian life,” it was most often a thriving discipline, populated by devout men and women.
There is much to learn from the story of Christian monasticism, and believers today will do well to learn that history, making it their own and adapting it to their own present circumstances. Monks and nuns remind us that we should have a single-minded devotion to God, and they also remind us of the need for the church to be counter-cultural (aspects of monasticism that I will discuss in subsequent blogs in the three weeks ahead). These lessons are biblical, not just monastic, but they are brought home with unique clarity in the history of Christian monasticism.
Greg Peters (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto), a Benedictine oblate, spiritual director, and ordained pastor in the Anglican tradition, is associate professor of medieval and spiritual theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He is also visiting professor of monastic studies at St. John’s School of Theology in Minnesota and adjunct assistant professor of church history and ascetical theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin. Peters is the author of Peter of Damascus: Byzantine Monk and Spiritual Theologian and Reforming the Monastery: Protestant Theologies of Religious Life.