A HISTORY OF MONASTIC SPIRITUALITY
1. OUR PURPOSE
This is a course on the history of monastic spirituality. First let us explain three terms.
History is the knowledge or the recounting of the past, the events of the past; it deals with facts relating to the evolution of a social group. It looks at a succession of men and women and the events through which they lived. It runs along a horizontal line.
These events are past, the people are dead. In spite of their archeological interest or the examples and lessons they give, they are nevertheless dead and gone.
This concerns the spiritual life, the life of the Holy Spirit within us. The Spirit of the Living God comes to dwell within us and to lead us to God. Here we have a vertical line constantly coming down to arouse our response to return to him.
3. History of Spirituality
Here we have a convergence of the two lines, horizontal and vertical. More exactly, the horizontal line of history is brought to life at every moment by the movement of the living God who comes to live among men and women ("to play with the sons of men" as the book of Proverbs has it). To this movement of God there corresponds a free movement of men and women who can respond to him in two ways:
In setting oneself free from everything which could be an obstacle to the work of God, renouncing the evil forces capable of limiting or annihilating this divine action. It is a combat, a struggle (= ascesis) leading to purification.
In letting oneself be caught up in this movement of return to God, giving oneself to his action through availability, surrender, prayer. This is contemplation.
Ascesis and contemplation are two movements linked together which we will come across constantly.
To study the history of spirituality is then to try to understand the movement of God towards men and women and their response to god in the course of history, particularly through the texts which have been handed down to us, texts written by people who have spent their lives close to God or who have written about it. There is no history without texts. These texts will draw for us the moral and spiritual profile of each of these witnesses to God, their response to the action of God, their way of going to God. We are not dealing with something dead as in history pure and simple, but with something very much alive.
All the more alive as the same Spirit who has fashioned the different spiritual characters of the men and women whom we shall meet, is also within us to help us understand their teaching, the breath of life with which he has endowed them and their writings will transform us with a life-giving touch. It is the Spirit who will bring us into contact, and even into friendship with these men who are always present among us through their writings.
This third term simply indicates that we have made a choice in the history of spirituality. We will just think about monks, leaving on one side for the moment the Fathers of the Church who have little or nothing to tell us about the monastic life. For those among them who do say something in their writings, we will only give a brief presentation of their personality and look at what concerns monastic life alone in their works, leaving on one side what belongs to a course on Patrology.
The purpose of this study of the history of monastic spirituality, then, is to make personal contact with the spirit which was at work in our Fathers in the faith, the first monks. It should be an apprenticeship to lectio divina. For St Benedict, the lectio which can "lead us to the summit of perfection", is the Bible and the "holy Doctors", among whom he names particularly the monks: the works of CASSIAN and BASIL (Rule ch.73).
In this preamble explaining our purpose, first we state our OPTIONS: in this case spirituality takes precedence of history. There are already 'histories of monasticism'; we present a 'History of Monastic Spirituality'.
Then, we do not pretend to say everything that can be said on the subject. There is an excellent document: 'The study of the Fathers of the Church in priestly formation' which is useful for the study of monks as well. It underlines: "the need to make a choice, considering the huge amount of material". Among the four different ways which it suggests for presenting this "great quantity of material", we have chosen "the monograph, which concentrates on some of the more representative of the Fathers, a method particularly adapted to teach in a concrete way how to approach them and study their thought".
This preamble also shows you the MANNER in which we will work:
One part will be the presentation of the subject or the author, as we must place our first monks in their historical context in order to understand them; this will be fairly brief, as many other books deal with the history of monasticism. Mention will also be made of the principal works of the authors studied; but we will concentrate particularly on their teaching.
To understand this, contact with texts is indispensable. It is through these above all that our Fathers speak to us and pass on the Spirit who dwelt in them. We will cite the texts on separate pages, giving their reference in the course.
Thirdly, before it was published, this course was given to the novices at Cīteaux, during which mention was occasionally made of the Rule of St Benedict in the form of short exercises. Identifying the sources as we go along helps to understand them better, and so to value them.
Then, we thought it would be helpful to check the knowledge gained by revision at the end of each main subject.
As the course is now being used by other monasteries, we have added, for the use of the tutors, the answers to the revision and the exercises on the Rule of St Benedict; and also some explanations of the texts, which do not pretend to be the only explanations!
So you will find here:
The PLAN followed tries to be both logical and chronological, but as monasticism appeared at the same time in several places, it is not possible to be completely chronological.
After this Introduction, we study the Prehistory of monasticism (1), then the earliest preparation, before there were any texts. After the prehistory, we present the first text, which begins the history, the 'Life of St Antony' by Athanasius (2).
Having established this landmark, the initial step, we take a look at what happened round the Mediterranean basin, the panorama of all the different kinds of monks who appeared in the fourth century (3). This 'Bird's-Eye View' is followed by a few words on the Monastic Rules (4).
Next we study the first of the 'Mother'-Rules, with the first form of cenobitism led by Pachomius (5). We stay in Egypt, to look at the anchorites who were the Fathers of the desert, and we study their Apophthegmata (6). This takes us to Evagrius, one of the Desert Fathers, who put their teaching into writing (7), and to Cassian who took it to the cenobites of Gaul (8).
Then we look at the "strong race of cenobites" with another Mother-Rule, that of Basil, to which we add some monastic texts of his brother Gregory of Nyssa (9). We turn next to the author who goes under the name of Ps. Macarius, and who depends to some extent on Basil and Gregory (10). Then we pass on to the last of the Mother-Rules, that of Augustine (11).
After a quick look at Western Monasticism (12), strengthened in Gaul by Cassian, we finish with the later inheritors of this magnificent flowering of Eastern monasticism which we have studied: the monks of Gaza (13) in the fifth and sixth centuries, and John Climacus in the seventh (14).
We shall stop there, aware that we have not said everything, but hoping that we have whetted your appetite!