Monday, July 11, 2011

St. Benedict, the common life, and the danger of "lone-rangers"; or, What St. Benedict might say to Fr. Corapi

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. JosemarĂ­a 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.


Anonymous said...

Saint Theresa of Calcutta left her community, with permission, and lived an active life alone in the world, helping the poorest of the poor.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

"...lived an active life ALONE in the world..." -- ever heard of the Missionaries of Charity?

After living in the common life for many years, having reached perfection and spiritual union, Mother Teresa left her community in order to found the Missionaries of Charity.
[this is not substantially different from a monk/nun becoming abbot/abbess, though greater perfection is required (of course)]

Anonymous said...

When Mother Theresa left her community, she did not initially found a new order. She worked alone with the poor in the world for many months before founding her order. Also, did Mother Theresa believe that she had reached perfection and spiritual union before leaving her community?


Anonymous said...

You can live in community and still lose your vocation by having the freedom to come and go as you please, as became common after Vatican II. I remember when religious could not leave the convent alone, always had to travel with permission and in pairs. There was much wisdom in that.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous...Mother Teresa did leave her community after she received permission to do so and she did not live alone, she founded another community where they live together...very much together. i worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and the Nuns live in dormitories...strong community life. Mother Teresa always stressed obedience...for once we step outside holy obedience in order to do our own will, we place ourselves in grave danger.

florin said...

I signed my response to 'anonymous' also as 'anonymous' because I don't know how to sign 'florin'

Carlos said...

A great post! I've heard the quote about the road to hell being paved with priest's skulls and the signposts being the mitres of bishops attributed to John Chrysostom but I don't know if it's a popular attribution or not.

This reminded me of Seraphim of Sarov who was a monk living in community during his early years, living under the guidance of spiritual fathers and his abbot, and then was called out wilderness for many years, perhaps to cling even closer to God, perhaps to prepare him for even greater service. Which he was eventually called to, become a great spiritual to father many in his late years of his life. God Bless the Monastics. May they continue to inspire us and fight valiantly for the redemption of humanity and the world.

Anonymous said...

Hello Reginaldus. Isn't the shepherd of someone living alone (me - Lone Rangerette Benedictine oblate) their pastor/oblate director? O may I not be a Sarabite! Thank you so much. I love your blog. St. Benedict pray for us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks this was really inspiring especially for a young "cenobite" friar as myself.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Certainly, I wouldn't want to imply that all single people are Sarabites; not at all!
Rather, I only point out that there is a danger for single persons ... and it will be good for them to be aware.

Most definitely, living in obedience to one's pastor and director will help greatly! (obedience to the Church in general is important)
Also, the common life gained through the parish is helpful too.

Peace and blessings to you, and happy feast! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I see that florin already addressed the issue of the Missionaries of Charity...
Regarding whether Mother Teresa believed she had reached spiritual union and perfection before leaving her community -- I would say "yes", in fact, it would be sinful to leave without being quite certain of one's spiritual solidity.

Recognizing that she is in spiritual union and has reached a the level of the perfect is by no means an act of pride -- it is rather to recognize the goodness of the Lord and to trust in his grace.

Anyone who is not conscious of having reached the unitive way should not -- must not -- attempt to found a religious order, or become a bishop, or become a hermit/anchoress.
One grows in perfection principally through the common life ... how dangerous it would be to try to guide others (i.e. as bishop, abbot, abbess, etc) before reaching perfection!

Anonymous said...

And what of the odd position of those who suffer from something like SSA?

Kevin Tierney said...

This may actually be the best commentary on that priest who shall not be named that is out there.

St.Benedict, pray for us.

We need a modern day St. Benedict to call Christ's priests back to those important fundamentals, which are tried, true, and ultimately "safe" (though they will not appear to be so at the time.)

Alessandro said...

Dear Reginaldus,
what about those people who haven't managed to find a partner despite feeling a clear, deep vocation to marriage? I'm 27, I don't have any religious/priestly vocation, yet there's been no single girl around me accepting my Catholic faith. I don't want - or just can't - take a wife which is unfaithful to the Church, because of an act of obedience on matters secular girls won't accept (such as NFP). How can I live in the Church without any problem, knowing the vocation to marriage I am experiencing?

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

You refer to the illuminative and unitive ways. Could you explain a little about the three stages and how you define them?

You said: "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." -- Do you mean that the unitive way is rarely reached in this life?

Thank you, Father! I enjoy your blog.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

regarding those suffering from same sex attraction (which I believe is meant by "SSA" in the 8:21pm comment from 'anonymous'),

It may be possible in certain cases for such persons to participate in some aspect of religious life -- not necessarily becoming a monk/nun, but perhaps aiding the community through some work (generally a form of manual labor).
They would not live in common, but they could still (perhaps) live on the monastery grounds ...

Also, it is important to remember that no-one "is" gay. Rather, we assert that some suffer from SSA, but can be healed -- generally counseling with a priest or religious and with a faithful Catholic psychologist will be needed.

It is a difficult situation indeed.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If you desire married life and are actively looking for that life, then you are not really living as a "single guy" in the modern sense.

Still, you can attest to the difficulty ... desiring the life of marriage, you suffer until you are able to gain that life -- what a witness to the value of the common life!

Striving to live personal chastity and holiness, and continuing to seek a spouse, you are already doing well.
This desire for marriage and common life sets you apart from the wicked rabble I talk about in the post above.

Be encouraged! The Lord knows what you need before you ask him -- will he not provide for you according to his gracious will?
Peace to you. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In fact, I think that very very few persons attain to the unitive way of the perfect while still in this life -- this is why I am grateful for purgatory!

However, I would stress that this perfection ought to be IN THE NORM. In other words, the unitive way is not meant to be an exceptional gift, nor is it beyond the normal process of spiritual growth.
Sadly, very few attain to it. Most of us are slow and sluggish souls.

Still, I would add that, even of those in the unitive way of the perfect, a special vocation and many special graces are needed for an individual to live as a hermit/anchoress (or to become a bishop/abbot/ abbess).
Peace to you!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

regarding the three ages of the interior life (briefly):

Purgative: The way of beginners, only the beginnings of the virtues, purification is primarily the active work of the individual, prayer is either highly affective/emotional or terribly dry and given up easily (i.e. it is only acquired prayer and not too deep), perhaps still some falls into mortal sin, regular falls into deliberate venial sins. This is the 1st and 2nd Mansions of Teresa.

Illuminative: The way of proficients and the threshold of the mystical life. Solid virtues, living regularly from the gifts of the Holy Spirit, docility to divine providence, passive purification of the senses through accepting all things from God, infused mental prayer which may still be quite dry at times but which perseveres. This is the 3rd and 4th of Teresa.

Unitive: The way of the perfect and the flowering of the mystical life. Eminent and heroic virtues (as in the saints), perfect humility and charity, patience in all things, infused contemplation and mystical union, perseverance in spite of many trials, no sin at all (not even venial sin), even the character flaws and little faults are burned away. This is the beginning of heaven while yet on earth. It corresponds to the 5th, 6th, and 7th Mansions of Teresa.

Between these ages are, first, the dark night of the senses, then the dark night of the soul.

I hope that helps ... perhaps I will write a post on the ages of the interior life, sometime.

Peace! +

Anonymous said...

What is it, Father, when you are absolutely abandoned by everyone on earth and, when you plead with the inhabitants of Heaven to help you, no assistance is forthcoming from there either. The soul is hanging unsupported by anyone on earth or in Heaven.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of what a priest should attain to before becoming a bishop. A shepherd should be no less for the good of his flock.

Here in the US at least it seems that bishops are chosen more for their administrative/political skills than holiness. I think that's why we've gotten into such trouble.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You can see just how important the common life is!
Still, God only allows periods of spiritual dryness and doubt in order to bring about some great good! Remember that the spiritual life isn't about how we "feel"; what does it matter if we "feel alone", do not think that you are really alone -- Christ died for you! What have you to fear? Now that he lives, shall we be abandoned? OF COURSE NOT!

Recall St. Joan of Arc when they condemned her saying, "Joan, you will be alone" .... "Yes," said the Maid, "Alone with God!"
Peace to your spirit. +

Alessandro said...

Dear Reginaldus,
I truly thank you for the comforting words of yours. It is so said that for Christians the blessing of a matrimony according to the Gospel is becoming so difficult to achieve, even (and especially) in the mostly Catholic Italy I live in. Let us pray for better days and for a recover of matrimony in its fullest sacramental nature...

I greet you with all my heart: God bless you in your life and in your ministry!

Anonymous said...

I read what Veronica said and can feel the pain she expresses. I have been listening to a wonderful podcast series by Fr. Timothy Gallagher on Ignatian Discernment of Spirits here:

The series beautifully addresses how to understand and deal with the spiritually desolate times in our lives. If you think this would be of help to Veronica, perhaps you would publish it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your answers, Father. They were helpful. I was surprised when you said that the unitive way corresponds with the fifth, six, and seventh mansions; for some reason I had it in my head that it would just be the seventh.

A post on the ages of the interior life would be very interesting! I find it very encouraging to read about high levels of virtue.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the link. Unfortunately, we do not have high speed internet, and I am unable to listen to audios or view videos.


Chatto said...

Father, I definitely think you should prepare a post on those three 'ways' of St. Teresa. I think it would help a lot of us to make an honest assessment of our lives.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I will do so!
It will probably be at least a month (I have all the articles already written for the next few weeks), but I will try and find a day when an article on the spiritual ages will fit.

I should be more clear: The three "ways" or "ages" go back to the Fathers of the Church. St. John of the Cross wrote extensively on them as well.
St. Teresa spoke of the 7 mansions of the interior castle, which are compatible with the three ages as well.

Peace to you, and thanks for the encouragement! +

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