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.**
With each passing day there is less and less commonality between different cultures; or, perhaps to see it another way, culture is constantly shifting. In fact, culture changes so swiftly that no one, I think, can keep up. Language, technology and morality, for example, are in a constant state of flux, while those “in charge” try to dictate what the right culture is on this day, at this hour. Culture is at war with itself and with others. Yet, no matter the culture, Christianity has always been a counter-cultural religion – a religion that is in the world but not of it (1 John 4:1-6). Even more astoundingly, Christian monasticism is counter-cultural among that which is already counter-cultural! For monasticism not only spoke to the non-Christian world of a different way but it also spoke to Christians of an “angelic” way.
The best of Christian monasticism never understood itself to be superior to the “normal” Christian life but it understood itself to be another way in which Christians here on earth could, in this lifetime, begin to approach the kind of life that is reserved for those in God’s presence – a life characterized by continual prayer and love for God and neighbor. With this message it called out both the faithful and the unfaithful to (re-)evaluate their relationship to the world; it called folks to stand over against the dominate culture and to stand in solidarity with the teaching of the Gospels. Monasticism demands that we weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn and that we walk the extra mile and turn the other cheek. It expects us to care for the hurting with no prospect of reward and to embrace the repentant prodigal.
The counter-cultural nature of Christian monasticism is not based on a philosophy wherein matter is seen as evil and should be avoided whereas the spiritual is good. On the contrary, it was monks and nuns who preserved the physical elements of their culture (e.g., copying manuscripts in the Middle Ages), proving that to them the world was truly God’s good creation. Instead, the counter-cultural nature of monasticism is rooted in the institution’s recognition that if one is called to be a monk then one is called to live out that vocation in obedience to a rule and to a superior. To live in a monastery was not just a flight from the world (i.e., the fuga mundi) but a flight into the arms of God. It was not just simply running away from something but running to someone. It was a retreat from the fallen culture to an experience of the perfect culture of the Kingdom of God.
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.