Session 09 - Early Monastic Spirituality

CoS 222 - Theological Heritage II: The Early Church

Session 9: Early Monastic Spirituality

 Part 1: Backgrounds

 Intro.: My favorite professor in seminary told us that, like years during our lives, certain centuries in the history of the church stand out. The first one he pointed to is the fourth century, which is notable for the next three developments we’re going to look at:

 • The rise of the monastic movement

The Constantinian revolution

The Trinitarian controversy

We start off with the monastic movement. While this might seem a strange subject for 21st-century Protestant pastors, I hope you will see that these “desert mothers and father” have a lot to say to us about love of God and neighbor.


I. Preparatory remarks

A. Importance of monasticism’s impact on the institutional life of the church: from the 4th century on, and particularly in the Middle Ages, church leaders come from the ranks of monastics.

B. Spiritual importance of monasticism: Sums up the spirituality of early church, provides the impetus to reform movements in the Middle Ages.

C. Provides us a window into the souls of the early Christians, allowing us to see how they conceived the life of the spirit.

D. Much of what they said will sound foreign; some was written from far different understandings of human physiology and psychology. Yet at its heart, the spirituality of the early monastics grapples with questions fundamental to anyone who has struggled with the issues of reconciling one’s convictions about God and religious realities with everyday life in the world.

E. The fundamental belief of the early monastics goes back to Irenaeus’ time: that being truly human means living according to the image of God in which we are made; that, since God is love, to live according to the divine image means to live the life of love. Thus, the monastics were seeking a way of life in which loving God and neighbor was more possible.

II. Anchoritic monasticism: Antony.

A. Background: Past association of the rise of monasticism with the loss of martyrdom; This important, yet Antony’s movement began before the conversion of Constantine, pointing to other impulses which lie behind the movement.

B. Born around 250.

C. As a young adult he heard the story of the Rich Young Ruler in church; gave away most of what he had, with a little held back to take care of himself and his sister. A few years later he encountered the verse “take no thought for tomorrow,” so he saw his sister was taken care of, then abandoned all of his possessions in order to go out into the desert.

D. Antony’s life was thus one of a hermit; note however that this did not mean separation from all other human beings; he had numerous disciples, held meetings with any number of individuals, and came into Alexandria to comfort those suffering in the Diocletian persecution.

E. Anchoritism as envisioned by Antony was thus an attempt to find a way to devote oneself totally to the pursuit of true humanity.

III. Coenobitic monasticism: Pachomius

A. bBorn around 290 in Upper (southern) Egypt.

B. Story of conscription into the army and assistance by Christians; conversion.

C. Tried the anchoritic lifestyle, yet found something missing: community.

D. In 320 founded the first monastery. By the time of his death in 346 this had grown to 9 monasteries for men and 2 for women

E. Characteristics of Pachomian monasticism:

1. The “Rule”: guideline for life in community.

2. Softening of the excessive asceticism of some solitaries: Everyone was required to eat one meal a day.

3. Importance of the communal virtues.

F. Influence of Pachomius on Basil’s Rule:

1. Community as the locus of the graces of the HS

2. Community as the proper place to exercise love.

G. Thus, Pachomian coenobitism added a new dimension: the importance of a community in which this pursuit of true humanity might best take place.

IV. The middle ground: the Abbas and Ammas of Scete and Nitria.

A. In two places in Egypt, Scete and Nitria, a third form of monasticism was followed, one which stood between these two. This was the form of small numbers of disciples living in the vicinity of a teacher, known as an abba or amma.

B. The goal of this form of monasticism was for the abba or amma to serve as the mirror of the disciples soul, teaching through introspection and example the way of true humanity.

V. Overcoming some notions about early monasticism

A. Rejection of Sex:

1. For men, it was a statement about the societal obligations of family life, and how these took one's time away from the service of God. Tell story of monastic who built the clay figures.

2. For women, as we have already seen, it was a means of finding one's identity apart from a husband or father. Also, remember that sex meant childbearing, and that childbearing quite often meant death or serious disablement.

B. Escape from society:

1. Not an escape, but rather an establishment of a new society. The early monastics considered their communal life as contributing to the coming of the kingdom of God.

C. Supernatural: the “old man” battling the demons was not an accurate reflection of their self-understanding. Note Evagrius' teaching concerning the demons as the passions.

Part 2: The Heart of Monastic Spirituality

Intro.:In the first half of this session, we began talking about the rise of monasticsm in the early church, a movement that I believe to be one of the most significant in Christian history. Now we will move from our discussion of the institutional forms of early monasticism to its vision of the Christian life.

VI. The Goal of the Christian life: perfection

A. Our uses of the term:

1. For us, perfection as applied to humans has a negative connotation, one of nitpickiness & failure to admit our faults: “To err is human”

2. For us perfection is a static concept, one in which the highest state of growth or improvement has been reached.

B. Their use of the term:

1. Gregory of Nyssa: perfection derives from God; two possible meanings:

a. Unchangebleness: Nothing can be added to or subtracted from God.

b. infinitude.

2. Perfection as applied to humans: partaking in God’s perfection.

a. Cannot be unchangebleness, since part of what it means to be human is to change.

b. Therefore, humans partake in God’s perfection through the infinite character of love. Love, which can know no bounds, reflects the limitlessness of who God is.

3. The objects of love: God and other people: Dorotheus’ circle and the interchangableness of the two loves.

4. Perfection therefore meant being fully loving, and being fully loving meant being fully human. The purpose of the monastic lifestyle was to initiate, in very practical terms, a lifestyle which facilitated a more truly human way to live. The reason they sought this new way of living is that the old one involved one in the passions, the enemies of love.

VII. The obstacles to perfection: the passions.

A. What we mean by passion: a strong emotion. “He has a passionate love of ice cream”; “She loved him passionately.” According to this understanding passion can be ill-placed or excessive, yet a life lived without it is empty and pointless. Further, we are wrong to deny our passions out of a prudish fear of strong emotion.

B. What they meant:

1. The passions were not strong emotions, but negative attitudes and dispositions which blind us and prevent us from loving.

2. Example: Origen’s exegesis of the Song of Solomon as a description of the way God loves the world. Such love is the opposite of the passions.

3. How do the passions blind us? The imbalance in the three-fold psycholgy:

a. Appetitive part of the self: that which draws things into the self. Imbalance here produces things like gluttony and avarice.

b. Spirited (irascible) part of the self: that which thrusts things away from the self. Imbalance here produces contempt and judgmentalness.

c. Reason: that which allows us to see our own desires and dislikes in the broader perspective of God and other human beings, and to order the first two parts of the self in harmony with these others (note that this is not simply self-abnegation: hatred of oneself is itself one of the passions). Thus, reason is the glasses we employ to see the world in such a way as to respond to life out of the disposition of love.

4. Examples of the passions

a. Gluttony: letting food control us. Note certain modern corollaries such as anorexia nervosa.

b. Avarice: Fear of death, with the result of grasping at the things of this world.

c. Depression: Grief over what is, and refusal to see the possibilities of what God might do in the future.

d. Anger: While telling ourselves that we are concerned about injustices on the part of others, we nurse hurts to our own selves, giving us little time to love.

VIII. The way to perfection: humility.

A. What we mean by humility:

1. Manipulative: “You deserve to be first in line, I don’t (but you will owe me for having allowed you to do so).

2. Self-hatred: humility has long been a “Christian” virtue preached to women and minorities. It is in truth a denial of one’s self-worth.

B. What they meant by humility: Giving up the heroic self-image

1. Ability to accept forgiveness:

a. Story of woman who didn’t become a missionary.

b. Story of soldier who asks if God accepts repentance; reply of the abba concerning a torn cloak

2. Ability to accept the worthiness of our service:

a. Story of the brother who worried that he gave bread to his friend out of desire for praise, rather than genuine conern: answer of the abba in the parable of two farmers, one who sowed a poor crop, one who sowed nothing: Which is preferable?

b. Worrying about the motivation or size of one’s service blinds one to the true purpose of that service, which is the need of the other.

(1) Ability to abandon the need to be right in every situation

(2) Story of abba hiding the woman in the brother’s cell from the other brothers.

(3) Point is that the abba was not concerned w/being deceptive, nor with condoning a breaking of the vow of chastity. He was willing to be wrong in order to aid the brother who had fallen.

C. Humility as that which empowers one to love:

1. Story of the cell mates, one of whom fell into immorality and for whom the brother accepted the same penance.

2. Story of Abba Moses carrying the leaking water jug to the trial of a brother.

3. Both of these stories point to the fact that humility is that which enabled one to gain greater insight into one’s similarity with the sins of others at the very time one was growing closer to God.

IX. Conclusion: Early monasticism presents itself to us as a rather different and often quite alien way of life. Yet the goal of this lifestyle was to create a context in which one could pursue the life of love through overcoming the passions and taking on humility. The more we come to know about these early monastics, the more we can see that there is nothing alien about their analysis of love, its obstacles, and its pursuit.

X. Implications for contemporary ministry

A. The monks struggled more than anything with the true nature of life in community. They sought to create new communities in which loving God and neighbor was more possible, yet always the old temptations to reject or ignore the obligation to the neighbor resurfaced.

B. The closest thing to the old monastic communities that we Protestants have is the small membership church. It is the blessing and curse of such churches that everyone knows everybody else, and is in some kind of relationship with them. Too often those relationships are fractured and in need of God’s grace. Yet equally often those relationships are the vessel through which God dispenses grace to the small church.

C. At the heart of monastic spirituality lie two things close to John Wesley’s heart as well: intentionality and accountability. Both of these are much harder if you are anonymous member of a large congregation. In any small community, the graces given to one are shared with all, as Basil of Caesarea said.

XI. Online resources for the study of our subject

A. For some of the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, click here or here.

B. For a brief overview of the origins and history of the monastic movement, click here.

C. For pictures of some important early monastic sites, click here.