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, and you can enter here.*
A hallmark of Christian monasticism is its emphasis on a single-minded devotion to God. Historically, for some monks and nuns this meant living in a cave in the middle of the desert or climbing to the top of a forty foot column and living there in relative isolation (i.e., the stylite monks). But “single-minded” does not necessarily mean alone and it certainly does not carry with it the connotation of “leave me alone because I’m attempting to be in communion with God and your presence is simply a distraction.”
These false notions of monasticism and single-mindedness overlook the fact that first and foremost, single-mindedness is about orientation and intentionality more than it is about location.
It is true that the first kind of monasticism that really flourished was the eremitical (from eremos = desert); that is, the kind where a man or a woman forsakes regular contact with others in order to live (mostly) alone in some kind of isolation (even if it was only temporary). The paradigmatic example of this was Antony the Great of Egypt, whose life was written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the fourth century.
Yet this form of monasticism quickly became the exception and the more characteristic kind of monasticism that emerged was the cenobitic (from koinonia = fellowship and bios = life). Cenobitic monasteries (which were scattered throughout ancient Egypt, Asian Minor and Palestine) housed thousands of monks living in community under a rule of life. One of the most well-known of the cenobitic architects is Pachomius (d. 348).
These cenobitic monks lived in community, coming into contact with each other multiple times a day – during prayers, meals and community work. Yet, in spite of this contact that may have, in fact, been a distraction, these monks were resolved to remain focused on God in spite of the fact that they lived in close proximity to one another.
Again, “single-minded” does not mean alone or undistracted but it means that in spite of the presence of others and in spite of potential or real distraction one continues to remain focused on God. Community was not seen as a hindrance to single-mindedness but a necessary part of single-mindedness. For it is in community that one learns best how to seek God. Community is “a school for the service of the Lord,” writes Benedict of Nursia, wherein one learns true single-mindedness; that is, he learns to be a monk (monos = single).
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.