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The Monastic Life – The Path To Spirituality?

Elijah and John, like other hermits (a monastic way of life) lived in the deserts. Jesus did not. What then is the pathway to spiritual maturity? Is it the life of the monk or otherwise? What we achieve, it must be noted, the monastic life or otherwise, is by the grace of God. God looks at the heart. What was Jesus’ first miracle? In which ceremony did he perform it? If Jesus performed a miracle in a wedding feast, thus promoting joyful celebration (though, with limitations), is this not a hint that, the monastic, celibate or ascetic life is not godlier than the wedded, celebratory life? Is monasticism the path to spirituality? Although there are good principles in the monastic life, it must be emphasized, echoed and re-echoed that only God can bring us to spirituality. From the foregoing, spirituality is not by works of righteousness but indeed by His grace alone.

1. DEFINITION OF TERMS

a. Spirituality

The term spirituality is defined as living the Christian life with a consciousness or sensitivity to religious values. Striving or aiming for perfection and making particular use of prayer are therefore very important considerations in many different Christian circles. However, it must be emphasized that spirituality assumes various forms in several Christian traditions, for instance, from the solitude of the Orthodox monks to the activism of the Pentecostals.

b. The monastic life

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The monastic life refers to a way of religious life that is usually pursued within the confines of a monastery where the residents take several vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, living by the rule of the order to which they belong. Generally celibate and universally ascetic, the monastic individual separates himself or herself from general society either by living as a hermit or anchorite (religious recluse) or by joining a society of others who profess similar intentions. It is believed that although St. Anthony is viewed as the founder of monasticism, the founder of the rule of life is St. Benedict. The goal of the monastic way of life was the achievement of personal salvation with God through a continual spiritual battle with temptation. It is therefore reasonable to note that “the chief aim of the monk, therefore, is personal sanctification…” (Cross, 1975, 914).

c. Monastic spirituality

Monastic spirituality implies a single-heart solitary seeking of God, an approach to Him in response to His invitation found in Scripture, for instance, “seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Mt. 6:33). It is meant to be carried out in a lifetime and perfected or finalized in eternal life after one’s death. It is a “way of life… that requires a certain discipline to dispose oneself to meet the living God” (Monastic Spirituality 2004). It therefore flows from a belief in a God who comes to those who are disposed to listening, who will persevere in seeking God even when it seems pointless boring. The forty-eighth verse of The Rule of St. Benedict states, “do not be daunted immediately by fear and man away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset” (The Spirit of Benedictine Life, 2004).

2. TYPES OF THE MONASTIC LIFE

The Encyclopaedia Britannica generally divides monasticism into two, organizational or institutional, and hierarchical and status types. The organizational or institutional type could be further divided into eremitic, quasi-eremitic, cenobitic, quasi-monastic, and mendicant monks. The two subdivisions in the latter group include sacerdotal, and secondary and religious orders.

A common feature of true eremitic institutions is the emphasis on living alone on a strict contemplative life. Quasi-eremitic institutions had loose organizational structures with no external hierarchies. In cenobitic monasticism, ascetism was to be pursued in community life and in obedience. The quasi-monastic groups are Christian military orders. Strictly defined, mendicant monks are those who live by begging.

3. CAUSES OF THE MONASTIC LIFE

Several reasons could be attributed to the rise of monasticism. An important influence was the philosophical. The dualistic view of flesh and spirit, with its tendency to consider flesh and evil and spirit good- so characteristic of the Orient- influenced Christianity though the Gnostic and Neoplatonic movements. It was thought that retirement from the world could “help the individual crucify the flesh and to develop the spiritual life by meditation and ascetic acts” (Cairns, 1967, 163).

Secondly, it would appear as if some Scriptures seem to justify the monastic life. I Corinthians 7 is a case in point. Some early Church Fathers like Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian and Jerome, urged celibacy to support correct interpretation of the Scriptures. Furthermore, it is observed, Antony, probably the first monk, “in response to those words (Matt. 19:21), disposed of his property and gave the proceeds to the poor, reserving only a portion for the care of his sister” (Gonzalez 1984, 141). He even disposed of the small reserve fund that he had kept for his sister, placed her under the care of the virgins of the church, and left for the desert when a later verse “do not be anxious for tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34) moved him. Although we do not really know when the flight to the desert really began, “Antony first embarked on the life of a hermit shortly before the year 270; but it seems that he had predecessors” (Lawrence 1984, 5).

The total spiritual poverty that is demanded of Christians and to which monks respond without hesitation appears to be lovingly granted through in the Beatitudes. This is the core of the Benedictine Spirit – adhering to His teachings, ultimately following Him who has trodden the same path from His baptism in the Jordan through the trials, misunderstandings and humiliations of rejection, to His glowing obedience to His Father and the final unblinking act of sacrifice. Furthermore, thirdly, certain psychological tendencies strengthened the desire for a monastic life. In period of crisis there is always a tendency to retreat from the harsh realities. The late second and third centuries saw the beginning of civil disorder which was to become so prevalent in the later history of the Empire. It is evident therefore that “many left society for the monastery as a means of escape from harsh reality and the moral contamination of the times” (Cairns 1967, 164). Historically, there was increasing moral deterioration, especially of the upper classes in Roman society and monasticism became a haven for those in revolt against this growing decadence of the times. Geographically, the warm dry climate and the multitude of caves in the hills along the banks of the Nile were conducive to separation of the individual from society.

4. BENEFITS OF THE MONASTIC LIFE

It is a truism that there is so much evil in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that we have to critically evaluate and learn to accommodate each other in the Christian faith. No denomination has it all right. There are strengths in the different denominations and the Christian needs to have a receptive spirit to learn from each. The monastic life is not an exception. There are several good points in this way of life worth mentioning. It is observed that monasteries “are necessary because the world is not Christian. Let it be converted, and the need for a monastic life will disappear” (Chrysostom, 1972, 52-53). History has not vindicated his hope. Monasticism has a unique testimony to the world. It is firmly believed that “monasteries were the conservators of learning and the centers of missionary and philanthropic work. The monks were the writers, preachers, philosophers and theologians of the age….” (Vos, 1994, 122). This is why Cross believes that “the monks were the chief teachers of Europe and an influential civilizing power” (Cross 1957, 104).