Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Monasticism

In a meeting recently with an Italian archbishop, Benedict XVI said, "If there is no battle, there is no Christianity." I find this little statement to be very interesting, especially in light of the one-year anniversary approaching of the historic abdication from the Chair of St. Peter (of which today is the anniversary of the announcement to the College of Cardinals).

In medieval history, we are discussing the origins of monasticism. Christians in the East became concerned with the corrupting influences, as they saw it, of the urban life and of the corruption found in mass conversions to the Christian faith as the persecutions wound down.  Thus they began to withdraw from the world, living their independent life aside from returning to the city for the sacraments, trying to discern the best way to live the Gospel.

It was all about perfection: everyone can live the Decalogue. It's much harder to follow the counsels of perfection found in the New Testament. Loving one's enemies, poverty, chastity, and obedience. These are radical and early on it was found that this requires a higher form of life, one of contemplation of God away from the world.

In Egypt, St. Anthony the Abbot retreated further and further into the desert to pray and fast more heavily, and as a part of this heavily ascetic life of a hermit, he did battle with Satan. Those who saw him could see visible signs, such as bruises, of this battle on his body. This is true of many of his contemporaries, known collectively as the Desert Fathers. Anthony also returned to Alexandria to do battle with the Arian heretics, friends with St. Athanasius, the chief proponent of the divinity of Christ.

Extreme asceticism marked monasticism in the East, whether it be standing on pillars for decades in Syria or the bi-weekly fasts of St. Pachomius. I find this to be a battle against the body so that it might be placed under control and be used for good, not doing anything that might harm the soul. The body and soul are integrated so as to form the human person, and matter is not bad. It is good, so says Genesis, for God created it. In the Eastern practices, there is probably a touch of neo-Platonic thought influencing their readings of the Pauline epistles.

In the West, St. Benedict moderated it, so that the monks spent time in labor, study, and prayer, and he valued the common liturgical celebrations of the Holy Mass and of the Divine Office. Having watched Des Dieux and Des Hommes, I find that the Western monastic life (IMO) is especially apt for answering the questions of the post-modern world (I need to see Into Great Silence on the Carthusians...).

Why? I think we are all called to be monks, in a way. Christ called all those who loved him to sell all that they had, give it to the poor, and follow Him. There were to be rewards in Heaven for leaving their families and worldly comforts, and it all was part of taking up one's Cross. Christians thus are all called to poverty, chastity, and obedience as part of loving Christ. We love Christ, so we are poor, we are chaste, and we are obedient. The opposite is true as well: we are poor, obedient, and chaste, so that we might love Him more and more. Humans are also communal creatures, and so carrying the Cross together is a great act of love towards one's neighbor.

So it is not so much a battle against our bodies, as a fully Neo-Platonic argument would have it, but a battle against the world, influenced by the devil, to which we are to be a sign of contradiction. And we must do this together, regardless of our station in life.

More to come, I think.


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