AD 525 and Why It Matters

This is the fourth of a series, 7 Dates and Why They Matter for the Anglican Faith. Links to previous installments are here.)

By Derek Olsen

Towards the middle of the fourth century, the desert of southern Egypt bore strange fruit. Dwellings and communities flowered in the harsh wastes—peopling the wilderness as one contemporary writer said. But these planters of communities were no colonists or pioneers, striking out to expand the frontiers of the Empire; instead, they saw themselves as militants, soldiers, carrying the fight to the enemy’s heartland—for where better than the demon-haunted wastes to find and conquer demons? Some went singly into the deserts to wrestle with demons within and without while others went in pairs or aligned themselves in communities. Indeed, in the writings they left they conceived themselves as a spiritual twin of the armies of Rome: Christ, their commander; the abbas and ammas, field commanders; monastics, the shield-walled battle line with the hermits striding before as champions to taunt, confuse, and discourage the milling enemy lines of the demonic horde. It was here in the sands of Egypt that Christian monasticism was born. This tradition, especially as mediated through a single book, was to have an great impact of Christianity on a whole and the Anglican tradition in particular.

As the days of Roman persecution came to an end and as Christianity found official favor, thousands flocked to Christian fonts. Some came who had feared persecution and death before, others, came newly convicted by its message of salvation. And, of course, as the religion’s status rose, those who sought status realized that a profession of Christianity could be quite an asset to their political profession. Where before being a Christian could get you killed, now it could get you promoted; Constantine had, in effect, created the nominal Christian. Monasticism was, in part, a reaction against this laxity and to maintain the urgency and discipline required to hold the faith in the days of martyrdom. Rather than seeking the minimum required to acquire the title, the hermits and monastics sought to embody the maximum: to live the life enjoined in the Scriptures—to give their goods freely, to embrace the path of the cross, to pray without ceasing. For them this was no “above and beyond”; it was nothing less than the requirements for being a Christian.

The legends of Antony, the father of the eremtical life (hermits and other solitaries), and Pachomias, father of the coenobitic life (monastics—both monks and nuns who live in communities), spread quickly through the Greek-speaking East. Their wisdom was simple, unconcerned with the heights of theological speculation but focused on the pastoral and the pragmatic—recognizing the temptations of sin and avoiding them through the cultivation of virtue. Their lack of studied sophistication and ignorance of classical (pagan) learning was heralded by their biographers (who were often highly educated and sophisticated themselves…) Indeed, Athanasius wrote that Antony was illiterate; his massive biblical learning depended not upon what he had read, but what he had memorized from what he heard. As the legends spread, the way of life spread with it: monastic communities sprang up in Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey); the wisdom of the desert which had been passed down in stories and maxims was collected and organized by teachers like Basil the Great and Evagrius of Pontus.

The Latinate literati of Jerusalem—Jerome, Rufinius, and others—translated many of the Greek texts into Latin for the benefit of the church in the West, but the character of western monasticism was indelibly marked by the efforts of John Cassian. As a young man John Cassian and his companion Germanicus dwelt briefly as monks in Palestine but, unsatisfied by what they found there, headed to the Egyptian deserts themselves. Circling through Northern Egypt, they saw Egyptian rigor with their own eyes and sat at the feet of celebrated abbas—questioning, probing, and learning. Cassian returned to the West, rubbing shoulders with the great and powerful as he went (he was ordained to the diaconate by St John Chrysostom himself) and founded two monasteries in Marseille. In this setting, he penned his magnum opus in two works, the Institutes and Conferences. Taken together, these works represent a watershed moment in the history of the Western Church. Most of the writings from this period are occasional, topical, or homiletical; Cassian’s was the first work in the Christian West that strove to be complete. When we moderns think of Christian works that strive to be complete, we think of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or Karl Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik but Cassian’s was not a systematic theology. True to the monastic ways, it was intended as a comprehensive Christian spirituality.

Monasticism took root in the West in a variety of forms. Fertilized by the rich traditions of Egypt, Syria, and the Western stands of Cassian, Caesarius of Arles, and Augustine of Hippo, it ranged from the exuberant asceticism of the Irish to the intellectualism of Cassiodorus’s Vivarium. As it matured over centuries, two rules—or sets of instructions for living the monastic life—came to the fore and of these one was eventually recognized as the finest expression of the monastic spirit in the West: the Rule of Saint Benedict. (The runner-up was the Irish Rule of Columbanus.) True to the monastic spirit of humility, obedience, and of patient transmission of received tradition over innovative originality, not much is known of Benedict, the circumstances of the Rule’s writing or even when exactly it was written. The Dialogues of Pope Gregory written some half a century after Benedict’s death is the only record of his life and, like the other lives of the monastic masters, is a theological and spiritual treatise in biographical form rather than a modern historical account of dates and deeds. Nevertheless, the Rule itself exudes a character and spirit of a piece with the individual descried by Gregory, one at home alongside Antony, Pachomius, and Cassian.

Sometime around the year 525 Benedict, working with and adapting earlier monastic material, created a deft epitome of Cassian’s work—capturing in a fraction of the space the heart of Cassian’s vision. At the same time, the Rule itself becomes a lens to read Cassian and the rest of the monastic tradition highlighting by its emphases themes and motifs explicit or latent in the earlier works. In this Rule, Benedict bequeaths four great gifts to the Western Church all of which—to one degree or another—have become embodied in the Anglican tradition.

The first is moderation. The child of a tradition that could be extreme and imprudent, Benedict counseled moderation in the pursuit of asceticism. You will find here no tales of hours-long prayer-sessions, standing with arms outstretching, while frigid sea water lapped around necks (as in Irish monastic traditions). Rather Benedict understood excess as, more often than not, a sign of initial exuberance likely to flare fast and hot—then burn out—not a temperament conducive to an entire way of life. Within communal life too, Benedict cautioned against one set of strictures for all in favor of a toleration that would accommodate the very old, the very young, the sick, and the weak. The strong should rejoice in their strength and ability to endure rigors, but not at the expense of the rest. Asceticism is intended to train the body and soul—not destroy them. The via media, the path of moderation, is upheld as the superior path.

The second great gift is Benedict’s ordering of prayer. “Pray without ceasing”, Paul commands, and the early monastics took him quite seriously. Their prayers of choice were the Psalms and various traditions utilized them in various ways. Benedict, again following the path of moderation reminds his readers that if the great monks of old could recite all 150 psalms each day, the least his readers could do would be to pray through them each week. Establishing an order by means of the seven day prayer offices and the night office through which the whole Psalter could be prayed each week, Benedict helped solidify the liturgical tradition of the West that ordered its day around these eight hours of prayer. Although reduced in number to two services of prayer (four in our current prayer book) the Anglican tradition inherited its liturgical rhythm from Benedict and also its love for the Psalms which still today form the heart of the Anglican services of morning and evening prayer.

The third great gift is Benedict’s pragmatism. The monastic tradition generally rejected obscure theological speculation in favor of serious introspection. The profound unflinching gaze into the eyes of the soul is much more uncomfortable than theological speculation; cataloging personal failings with an eye to their amendment and correction is more humiliating than solving great scholastic dilemmas. What mattered to the monks from Egypt and beyond is that they gathered in common for prayer, and eagerly sought a common salvation. While they neither (knowingly) sheltered nor excused heresy, their focus was elsewhere. The bulk of Benedict’s rule is taken up with mundane directions—who helps cook the food; how servers are selected and when they get to eat if their serving during mealtime; who keeps he door; how is discipline administered. And, in the midst of it all, these orderings and arrangements are seen as no less holy than the Work of God (the hours of prayer) in the chapel. Yes, the Work of God is to take precedence above all else, but in and through the Work of God one learns that all labor is somehow the work of God when undertaken with care, concern, and compassion. When the one performing the lowly tasks of serving table or washing feet comes to understand the labor as serving Christ in the other, work and prayer intertwine and inform one another. This pragmatism, this focus on common prayer, common action as the root of unity rather than ascription to theological formulas is dear to the Anglican way.

The fourth great gift of Benedict is his understanding of community. The early monastics understood that contending with demons was safer in numbers; demonic deceit plays on our weaknesses easier when we are alone. Benedict highlighted three particular vows that, taken together, foster and facilitate Christian community: obedience, stability, and conversion of life. As he makes painfully clear in his first chapter, the third—what seems to be the real goal of the monastic life—is, in fact, impossible without the first two. Only by remaining in the community, in the conversation can conversion of life be properly achieved; only under obedience to the authority placed over you, and understanding God to be both symbolized in and directing that relationship, can conversion occur.

The first three gifts of Benedict are the easier—the safer. The fourth is the resilient secret that has enabled Benedictine monasticism to remain as a viable force for almost fifteen hundred years. (By way of contrast—how many communes founded in the Sixties, a spare forty years ago, now remain…?) It is the fourth that challenges us now, that challenges our Anglican Communion now. In our current struggles, what does it mean to embody the vows that Benedict demanded? What does it look like to envision them within our current context? Benedict calls us to struggle for a stability that is neither sloth nor stagnation, an obedience that is neither feigned nor forced, holding forth as the prize the ongoing conversion of life as we grow towards the mind of Christ.

Sometime around 525 Benedict penned his rule—and now we need his wisdom more than ever: wisdom on prayer, wisdom on moderation, wisdom on the holiness of the pragmatic, and wisdom on the formation of effective Christian community that leads us ever deeper into love.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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