Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

The Monastic Tradition and Spiritual Growth

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Benedict. St. Benedict wrote the Rule of St. Benedict, a document that outlines the parameters of the monastic life to be followed by the monastic tradition that he founded. A copy of the document was later sent to his sister Scholastica, a nun, to be used by her monastic community. After his death, the Rule of St. Benedict was adopted by other monastic communities, and thus the Benedictine Order of monks and nuns was born. Monasticism was present in the West prior to the time of Benedict; nonetheless, there was no universally accepted rule used by the monks, that is, each monastic community had its own way of life. The Rule of St. Benedict was the first time one saw in the West a particular manner of organizing and living out the monastic life becoming widespread among multiple monastic communities, so that they were united as one order. Since the Benedictines were highly influential in the evangelization of Europe in the early Middle Ages, the Benedictines were also highly influential in the spread of monasticism throughout the West.

 

With this in mind, I think it is good to present some quotes from some of the holy men of Christian monasticism – both of the East and the West – concerning the nature of repentance. One of the foundational texts of Eastern monasticism was The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The father of monasticism was St. Anthony of Egypt, whose wisdom and strict asceticism inspired others to follow in his path. The monks of the early Church were held in such high regard that biographies were made of some of the more historically significant ones (i.e., St. Athanasius’s The Life of Antony, composed shortly after his death). Yet, most of the early Christian monks were considered fountains of wisdom. Many of their sayings were preserved and passed on, starting with St. Antony himself, and lasting for several centuries after his death. Starting with Antony, it became a common trend to record the sayings of prominent monks from a particular community, and eventually certain teachings from certain monks became popular among multiple communities. These sayings were eventually grouped together in a text known as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, written by an anonymous scribe in the late A.D. 6th century. Throughout the Middle Ages, this text became popular throughout both the Eastern and Western Church.

Each chapter is named after a letter in the Greek alphabet (the language the text was originally written in), and in each chapter is the name of a famous monk with that letter as the first letter in their name. Under each monk’s name is a series of quotes attributed to them. (Some texts, however – for example, some Medieval Latin translations, arrange the text thematically rather than alphabetically). Here are a series of quotes from an early monk named Abba Poemen:

 

As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does man need humility and the fear of God. [2]

 

Vigilance, self-knowledge, and discernment; these are the guides of the soul. [3]

 

To throw yourself before God, not to measure your progress, to leave behind all self-will; these are the instruments for the work of the soul. [4]

 

The victory over all afflictions that befall you, is, to keep silent. [5]

 

 

What we can extract from these texts is that, in order to overcome sin and grow closer to God, we need moral vigilance (that is, a constant state of being prepared to encounter and struggle against temptation), self-awareness (that is, an adequate understanding of our own spiritual and moral state), and discernment (the ability to see the spiritual and moral implications of all that surrounds us). If we have these three things, we will be adequately equipped to grow in holiness. Yet, from whence do these things come? It proceeds from the act of throwing ourselves at the feet of God as our savior, acknowledging our utter dependence on Him for our salvation, and accepting all that He commands of us. To throw ourselves at the feet of the Savior and to obey Him in all things necessarily includes a throwing away of any sense of self-interest or the desire to put our will above all else, and the recording of our progress in life as if it were something to boast in. Submitting ourselves to God in such a way, in turn, requires humility. Recognizing our lowliness and expressing our utter dependence on God is necessary to turn towards God and to remain in such a state. Thus, humbleness should be just as much a part of our life as breathing or other basic bodily functions.

 

Holiness does not result immediately after this. All of this merely marks the starting point of sanctification. There will be times in which we fall short; yet, to turn to God as the source of our salvation is to trust that God is at work within us, guiding us towards salvation. Thus, there should be a sense of sorrow for ones sins, but never a sense of disturbance. Faith is exactly what prevents sorrow for sins from becoming despair, and transforms it into the desire to improve, to grow in holiness, to grow closer to God.

 

Abba Agathon, another famous Desert Father, is recorded as saying, “Unless one keep the commandments of God, man cannot make progress, not even in a single virtue.” [6] Progress in holiness necessarily entails obedience to God. Obedience to God, by its very nature, includes a complete self-giving of oneself for the good of the neighbor and the glory of God. Abba Agathon is also reported as saying, “If I could meet a leper, give him my body and take his, I should be very happy.” The compiler of these quotes then goes on to say, “This indeed is perfect charity.” [7] There is no greater good for man, no greater joy, than the act of self-giving love in imitation of Christ’s self-giving love on the Cross, because it is in this that we fully realize what it means to be man. Humans were created in the image and likeness of God. The image and likeness of God within us was warped by sin, but is restored by the Death and Resurrection of Christ. It is through accepting the grace of God – which of necessity includes a cooperation with grace, which itself includes being imitators of Christ (as Christ Himself command: “Love one another as I have loved you”) – that we reap the fruits of Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

 

Man must  keep ever before him the fact that everything he does effects his relationship with God. Thus, Abba Agathon says, “A man ought at all times to be aware of the judgments of God.” [8] Yet, the compiler of the text notes how, when a man was speaking with Abba Agathon about a sin he was struggling with, he received the following advice: “Go, cast your weakness before God and you shall find rest.” [9] Confessing our sins before God and placing our trust in Him is a form of prayer. Abba Agathon noted, when asked which good work was the hardest, answered: prayer, for the demons at all times are working to distract us from prayer. [10] He thus concludes that, “…prayer is warfare to the last breath.” And this is the great paradox: to turn to God in prayer is something dominated by both struggle and the deep experience of peace. The act of turning to God is the fundamental of growth in holiness. Thus, the devil will unleash every type of spiritual pitfall in turning towards God, thereby making the act of turning towards God – and the entire spiritual life that flows forth from that – a perpetual struggle. Yet, God, as the source of our salvation, is also the source of spiritual peace. One who truly turns to God, acknowledging his own sin and weakness and trusting in God, will experience inner peace amidst this turbulence. Because of his act of turning to God, nothing can perturb his sense of inner peace. Ones sense of peace is determined by the strength of ones faith. As ones faith grows, so does their peace. The absence or loss of faith causes one to become absorbed by the turbulence of the fallen existence within which we find ourselves. But, the stronger ones faith is – that is to say, the more one turns to God – the stronger our sense of inner peace, because we are able to resist that which is the root cause of turbulence, namely sin, and trust in God’s mercy when we do fall into sin. Thus, not even our constant awareness of God’s judgments induces fear for the righteous man, for the righteous man is righteous precisely because of the mercy of God in which he trusts. God’s judgments are only fear-inducing for those who are far from God, not for those who are close to God and in whom God dwells.

 

It is for this reason that another monk, named Abba Andrew, wrote, “These three things are appropriate for a monk: exile, poverty, and endurance in silence.” [11] A monk, he asserts, should separate himself from the world, give up everything he owns, and endure all things with a sense of patience and inner peace. This same standard applies to all. As Catholics, we are called to be in the world but not of the world. That is to say, the term “the world” is often used to refer to the current fallen state of things. We exist amidst the ruins of mankind’s fallen condition, but do not allow ourselves to be sucked in by it. Thus, the Christian, by virtue of his Baptism, is dead to world and alive in Christ (and he is one precisely because of the other). To be a Christian is to be an exile in the world, because we cease to be of the world. What separates the Christian from those of the world is that the holy or virtuous man, to the extent that he is holy or virtuous, thinks beyond his own immediate wants and desires to serve a higher good. The epitome of this is the Christian life, by which we empty ourselves completely for the sake of loving our neighbor and glorifying God. Thus, spiritual exile is often coupled with spiritual poverty. If a man has distanced himself from the world and serves God, he also should not fear, for to abandon the world and cast ourselves into the arms of God and to serve God as a result of this presupposes a sense of trust in God that is not perturbed by the forces of our fallen world, or even the forces of hell. This is what lays the basis for the Christian mentality, of which the monastic mentality is one expression among many.

 

Trusting in God produces peace. St. Maximos the Confessor, one of the greatest theologians of the late Patristic period – himself a monk – fills in some of the blanks in the opening lines of his work Centuries on Love that faith in God produces fear of the Lord, for faith is the recognition that God exists, and what God says, does and reveals is true. Yet, with this comes the realization that if God is real and is to be accepted as truthful, God is also the judge of all, and we are always subject to His judgments. This thus produces within us a sense of self-control. We attempt to control our actions, thoughts and desires so that we may avoid that which is displeasing to God, and only do that which is pleasing to God. Yet, we sometimes fail to do what we ought, and even when do do as we ought, progress in the spiritual life is not always immediate or obvious. Hence, self-control thus produces hope. All of this then furthers our detachment from the things of this world and our love for God. [12]

 

 

To skip ahead to the Middle Ages, we see some words of wisdom in St. Thomas Aquinas’s sermon for Septuagesima Sunday, in which he comments on the words of Jesus in Matthew 20:4 (“Go ye also into my vineyard”). He writes:

 

The vineyard into which the men are sent to work is the life of goodness, in which there are as many trees as there are virtues. We are to work in this vineyard in five ways: Planting it in good works and in virtues; rooting up and destroying the thorns, that is, our vices; cutting down the superfluous branches, “Every branch in Me, that beareth fruit, he will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit” (John 15:2); keeping off the little foxes, that is, the devils; and guarding it from the thieves, that is, keeping ourselves indifferent from the praise and blame of mankind.

 

What St. Thomas Aquinas is saying is that the vineyard into which Christ calls us represents the life of goodness. The act of turning to God, trusting Him for our salvation, by definition necessitates leading a good life, a life pleasing to God. Just as a vineyard needs certain things to be preserved and even prosper, so too does leading the good life require certain things for it to be spiritually fruitful. Such things include doing good works, avoiding evil ones, overcoming those sins which have been ingrained in us through habituation, or overcoming the effects of previous sins, guarding ourselves against temptation, and become indifferent to what is said by the world, caring only for what is said by God.

 

What can be concluded from all of this is that resisting sin is not easy. The entirety of our lives is marked by a perpetual struggle against the forces of evil. For those who have not yet converted, or who are in the early stages of conversion, our struggle against sin is an uphill battle, and man can frequently feel overwhelmed by his sin, and thus fall into despair. It is only by turning to God that we can find peace in the midst of the sinfulness and disorientation of our fallen existence, for it is only in God that we find the forgiveness of sins and the strength to do as we ought to the fullness that we ought.

 

This has many implications for Lent. For those who have started on their spiritual journey, stop letting the devil throw you into a state of spiritual confusion and turbulence; rather, turn to God as the only One Who can give true clarity, wisdom and peace. Do away all self-will, arrogance, and presumption, throwing yourself at the feet of your savior with the ardent desire to serve some good greater than oneself. Through this, the snares of the devil and the brokenness of our current existence will no longer serve as threats to a sense of tranquility. And for those who are already making progress on the path towards salvation, to remain close to God and to continue striving towards salvation requires us to constantly self-introspect, plucking out all that which leads us to sin, building up all that is good, and placing the judgments of God above all. Faith, prayer and good works are thus the source of man’s tranquility in the midst of sin, for they are what bind us to God. Let us end this mediation by reflecting upon a story from St. Antony, the founder of the entire Christian monastic movement. Antony cried out to God one day: “Lord, I would be made whole and my thoughts will not suffer me.” Shortly afterwards, Antony looked outside of his monastery and saw a man sitting on the ground taking part in various forms of manual labor, rising only to pray, and then returning to his work. An angel then appeared to Antony and said, “This do, and thou shalt be whole.” The author of the text then goes on to say, “And hearing it, he took great joy of it and courage. And in doing so, he found the deliverance he sought.” It is in turning to God in trust, and serving the will of the Lord, that we are freed from all that afflicts us.

 

 

Sources:

  1. Benedicta Ward, S.L.G., “Translators Note,” in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Trappist: Cistercian Publications, 1975), translated by Benedicta Ward, pg. xxvii-xxix
  2. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Trappist: Cistercian Publications, 1975), translated by Benedicta Ward, pg. 173
  3. ibid., pg. 172
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid., pg. 20
  7. ibid., pg. 24
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid., pg. 23
  10. ibid., pg. 21-22
  11. ibid., pg. 37
  12. St. Maximos the Confessor, Centuries on Love, I, 2, quoted in Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge, 1996), pg. 38.
  13. St. Thomas Aquinas, “Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday Sunday,” in Meditations for Lent from St. Thomas Aquinas, by St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Philip Hughes (London: Forgotten Books, 2012), pg. 9
  14. The Desert Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), pg. 119

[6] Pg. 20

[7] pg/ 24

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