July 11th, Feast of St. Benedict
As the Church today celebrates the feast of St. Benedict (according to the Ordinary Form), we consider the common life which the Father of Western Monasticism both defined and defended. In our own day (as I suppose in any period of history), there is a great impulse toward individualism and independence – and these tendencies often creep into our religious sensibilities through hidden and unseen cracks.
St. Benedict defended the institution of common monastic life and recommended this before the solitary life of the hermit. Certainly, the life of the hermit is more perfect than that of the monk, but St. Benedict warns that the hermit’s life is also more dangerous and therefore should only be entered after many years of living the common life of the monastery.
Far too often, both religious and priests separate pre-maturely from the common life of their community in order to take up a solitary life independent from the monastery or (as the case may have it) from the common life of the diocesan clergy. This tendency toward separatism is very dangerous, as it puts the vocation of the priest or religious in grave jeopardy – indeed, it can happen that the individual (now outside his community and living independently and according to his own whims) will become so lost as to end up renouncing his vocation and pursuing instead his own plans rather than the will of God which is communicated through his superiors. [Does this story sound familiar to anyone?]
A consideration of the opening chapter of Holy Rule of St. Benedict will serve to correct this errant tendency.
The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter I: Of the Kinds of Monks
“It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind are the Cenobites: those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an Abbot.
“The second kind are the Anchorites or Hermits: those who, no longer in the first fervor of their reformation, but after long probation in a monastery, having learned by the help of many brethren how to fight against the devil, go out well armed from the ranks of the community to the solitary combat of the desert. They are able now, with no help save from God, to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh and their own evil thoughts.
“The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the Sarabaites. These, not having been tested, as gold in the furnace (Wis. 3:6), by any rule or by the lessons of experience, are as soft as lead. In their works they still keep faith with the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God. They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord's. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.
“The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues. These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such it is better to be silent than to speak.
“Passing these over, therefore, let us proceed, with God's help, to lay down a rule for the strongest kind of monks, the Cenobites.”
Following St. Benedicts advice, we will not speak of the despicable rabble who follow their own will rather than the will of their superiors and – abandoning the common life – end up losing their vocation in pursuit of their own glory and worldly delights.
Rather, we shall turn to the happy consideration of the benefits of common life. It is the common life which St. Benedict praises most highly – lifting the cenobites (i.e. monks in community) even above the hermits. Certainly, the life of the hermit is most perfect, but the common life is more necessary as a means of attaining to perfection.
How the common life leads to perfection
St. Thomas Aquinas (who, as a boy, was himself schooled in the common life of the Benedictines) points out two ways in which the common life brings a monk to perfection: “Now man is assisted in this practice [of perfection] by the fellowship of others in two ways. First, as regards his intellect, to the effect of his being instructed in that which he has to contemplate; wherefore Jerome says (ad Rustic. Monach., Ep. cxxv): ‘It pleases me that you have the fellowship of holy men, and teach not yourself.’ Secondly, as regards the affections, seeing that man's noisome affections are restrained by the example and reproof which he receives from others; for as Gregory says (Moral. xxx, 23), commenting on the words, To whom I have given a house in the wilderness (Job 39:6), ‘What profits solitude of the body, if solitude of the heart be lacking?’ Hence a social life is necessary for the practice of perfection.”
St. Josemaría Escrivá speaks more directly: “You class with the character of one person or another … It has to be that way – you are not a dollar bill to be liked by everyone. Besides, without those clashes which arise in dealing with your neighbors, how could you ever lose the sharp corners, the edges – imperfections and defects of your character – and acquire the order, the smoothness and the firm mildness of charity, of perfection? If your character and that of those around you were soft and sweet like marshmallows, you would never become a saint.” (The Way 20)
What persons are fit for solitary life apart from a community?
Notice that no one ever is completely separated from community life. Married persons have their spouse and family, priests have their brother priests and parishioners, monks and nuns have their monasteries. Even single lay persons (hopefully) grew up first in the common life of a family. Also, bishops begin as priests first, and have thus experienced the common life – as an abbot was also first a monk. But we may ask: When it is wise for an individual to move beyond the common life?
For most, the answer is probably never. Generally speaking, most people ought to remain in the common life – this is why marriage is so much safer than lay single life (excepting the common life of certain lay celibates, like the numeraries of Opus Dei). Most lay people should marry, since most people need the common life to come to perfection.
Among religious and priests, we must say that (generally) they should remain in the common life as well. Religious can move beyond the common life by two means: Either by becoming the abbot or abbess (and thus being the father or mother of the community) or by becoming a hermit or anchoress. Only those who have already reached perfection should endeavor either life – one must be upon the unitive way of the perfect (and not merely in the illuminative way of the proficient) before accepting the role of abbot or abbess, or retiring to the solitary life of the hermit or anchoress.
For priests, it is most advisable that they remain priests and not aspire to the episcopacy. To become a priest, a man should already have attained to the illuminative way of the proficient; but to become a bishop, a man must be perfect and in the unitive way. How many have lost their souls by accepting the appointment to the episcopacy before having reached the way of perfection! Indeed, the way to hell has been paved with the miters and crosiers of imperfect bishops!
Finally, it should be added – following the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas – that those dedicated to the active life should never attempt to take on the solitary life while maintaining their activities in the world. The Common Doctor stresses that solitude (i.e. life apart from the community) is a means to perfection through offering ample opportunity for contemplation. As such, “solitude is a means adapted not to action but to contemplation, according to Hosea 2:14, I … will lead her into solitude; and I will speak to her heart. Wherefore, it is not suitable to those religious orders that are directed to the works (whether corporal or spiritual) of the active life.” (ST II-II, q.118, a.8)
Practical conclusions drawn from the Rule of St. Benedict
From what has been said, it is clear that solitary life apart from a community is dangerous and ought not to be embarked upon except by the perfect. Moreover, even the perfect should continue to live in community if their work is in the active life. Therefore, anyone who has regular contact with the world, even if their work is solely in the preaching of the Gospel, must not live alone apart from the community but must submit to the common life.
Though, simply speaking, the solitary life of contemplation enjoyed by the hermit is the most perfect life, we must stress that such perfection is not generally gained in this life. Only rarely are souls called to the life independent of the community – and, even then, they can only respond to this vocation after having attained perfection through living for many years in the common life with others.
This is why, for lay persons, it is better to be married or to live as celibates in community, than to be single and independent – indeed, the modern phenomenon of single lay persons living alone and independent of any community is quite dangerous to the soul.
Likewise, for priests, it is better to live either in community (if the priest belongs to a society or order) or to live in the parish community and also in communion with his presbyterate (if the priest is diocesan).
“Lone-rangers”, whether priests, religious, or lay persons, are in a precarious position. The idea of a “lone-ranger” is a person who is neither untied to a community nor living a common life, but who is nonetheless active in the world – even if this activity be entirely evangelical in nature. St. Benedict criticizes such persons as the detestable Sarabites (the third class of monks) who live without a shepherd and seek to create their own sheepfold, rather than to dwell obediently in the sheepfold of the Church.
Seeking independence and freedom, such persons will often end up losing their vocation – and, when this occurs, we ought not to be surprised, for their foundation was weak. They were founded on their own conviction and will, rather than on the perfection which is gained through the common life handed down by the tradition of the Church.