Why I Care about Monasticism: Part 1
This and the following sections are meant to provide you with a very general overview. You may or may not wish to read on after Parts 1 and 2 as I then take my remaining intrepid readers “into the weeds.”
The robustness and longevity of Western monasticism are impressive. Western monasticism begins around the 4th C. AD with Basil bringing this tradition from the East to his fathers’ estate near Annesi, Italy. Yet it is St. Benedict to whom we ordinarily give credit when it comes to providing monasticism, around 500 AD, with a blueprint it could apply time and again throughout the Middle Ages. And so, to a large extent and not without variations and new formations, it did, following Benedict’s wise Rule
(the Latin is regla
, which literally means “trellis”–for more on this translation, see my “Toward a Transformative Philosophy of Education”
). Benedict invited, nay required
monastics to make three vows
: one to fidelity to the monastic life; another to obedience to the abbots and prioresses; and a third to stability, that is, to living out the remainder of his life in this
We might say that medieval monasticism reaches its high water mark around 1100-1300. Committed to ora et labora (praying and manual labor) as well as to contemplation, monastics, at their very holiest, lived out a life that was separate from “the world” but, for all that, was not entirely “other-worldly.” In this respect, they are like true philosophers, living as they do in “no man’s land.”
What I see in the monastery so described is a picture of the contemplative life embodied in intentional community and inscribed in the hearts of its practitioners for whom resting into God is ever utmost.
Why I Care about Monasticism: Part 2
But then something happens that upsets all this! The profound event, “The Dissolution of the Monasteries,”
occurs in England between 1536 and 1541. (Around this time, other northern European countries such as Sweden also dissolve their monasteries as well.) Henry VIII, for political and religious reasons both, disbands the monasteries and nunneries. For me, this event carries more symbolic value than strict historical weight. Over time and in ways unforeseeable then, it opens the flood gates for Total Work to be born and spread.
How so? The monastic life was, by intention, a communal life set apart from the life of merchants engaged in commerce, that of peasants toiling in the fields, and that of aristocrats involved, in the 1500s, in courtly life and, to be sure, political intrigues. And what kind of communal life was that? It was one in which contemplation through study, lectio divina, and prayer were all held in high esteem. To be mattered and required no further justification.
As the monasteries lost their footing during the Protestant Reformation, so did the seed born in and borne within themselves, the seed, I mean, of the contemplative life. And as the contemplative life ceded its position and so too its legitimacy, the active life of work, of work on oneself and of work on this world, would come, in due course, to reign supreme. In other words, without “an other” set over against the ways of the secular world, Total Work had a much easier time pressing inexorably forward into history…
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Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus
In the following sections, I get into “the weeds.”
The Reformers, Luther and Calvin, and the humanist and Reformer Erasmus all offered trenchant critiques of monasticism. Among their manifold criticisms, I would like to single out three that are seminal for my purposes, three that are best summarized by Calvin in his Institutes. Speaking of the “degeneracy of modern monks,” Calvin calls out their “inconsiderate rigor,” their general “idleness” or “contemplative idleness,” and their “false boast of perfection.”
Critique #1: Pure Decadence
But for poor health and but also for differences in aesthetic sensibility and temperament, Erasmus (1466-1533) might have ended up a monastic himself. Indeed, he experimented with the monastic life, only to find himself unsuited for it, given their ascetic practices and considering also his passion for classical literature.
While some scholars
have held that Erasmus, during his lifetime, never goes so far as to criticize the institution
of the monasteries so much as the particular practices themselves, he is not remiss about letting what barbs he does fly from his hands. For example, in his short but popular book Enchiridion
(also titled: Handbook of the Christian Soldier
), he charges monastics with adhering more to the dead letter than to the living spirit of Christianity. “[T]hey think,” he writes to his largely fictional addressee, “the ultimate in piety consists of just one thing: the daily repetition of as many psalms [called psalmody–AT] as they happen to know, although these are hardly understood, even literally” (The Enchiridion of Erasmus
, trans. and ed. Raymond Himelick, Bloomington: Indiana UP, p. 54). Their devotion, he assures us, is “growing lax and enervated” and, for this reason, is “dying out” (p. 54). Their decadence, then, amounts to their going through the motions without–as Reformers averred–speaking straight into the heart.
Erasmus was not the only one to cry foul. For some monasteries had grown wealthy, corrupt, and unjust, and Reformers were picking up on this perverted “popery.” In On Monastic Vows, penned some twenty years after Erasmus’s treatise in 1521, Martin Luther claims that monasteries are preying on the weak and the ignorant who are making permanent vows to stability at a young, and impressionable, age. Listen to Luther in Articles 5 and 6: “Many also entered into this kind of life through ignorance, being unable to judge their own strength, though they were of sufficient age. Being thus ensnared, they were compelled to remain….”
One scholar has argued that the “monastic cycle” always begins in ascetic devotion and always ends in decadence–and then repeats this cycle again and again (Gordon Cosby, the scholar in question, is cited by Dave Andrews, whose critical reflections on Western monasticism
I benefitted from immensely.) The Protestant Reformation, coming at such a time of decadence, was not willing to let the latter go unnoticed.
Critique #2: Idle Contemplation
In a short Puritanical pamphlet, The Arminian Nunnery
(1641), the narrator reports on the foolish and idle monastic discipline of a religious community he purportedly witnessed. Feverishly involving themselves in hours of prayer and in regular fasting, such men and women, the narrator claims
, are neglecting their true calling
as Protestants understood it:
Oh, the stupid and blind Devotion of these people, for Men and Women in health of able and active bodies and parts to have no particular Calling, or to quit their Callings, and betake themselves to I wot [know–AT] not what new forme of Fasting and Prayer, and a contemplative idle life, a lip-labour devotion and a will-worship… which by the word of God is no better than a specious kind of idlenesse, as St. Augustine termes them to be but splendida peccata: as if diligence in our particular lawfull callings were no part of our service to God.
Here as elsewhere, idleness is a chief complaint of Protestants. A more well-argued attack on monastic idleness can be found in Calvin’s Institutes (1536) (4.10):
For they [modern, idle monks–AT] deem it an inexpiable crime if any one deviates in the least degree from the prescribed form in colour or species of dress, in the kind of food, or in other frivolous and frigid ceremonies. Augustine strenuously contends that it is not lawful for monks to live in idleness on other men’s means. (August. De Oper. Monach.) He denies that any such example was to be found in his day in a well-regulated monastery. Our monks place the principal part of their holiness in idleness. For if you take away their idleness, where will that contemplative life by which they glory that they excel all others, and make a near approach to the angels? Augustine, in fine, requires a monasticism which may be nothing else than a training and assistant to the offices of piety which are recommended to all Christians.
In his critique, Calvin is not entirely wrong, for Benedict did enjoin monks to pray and work in order that, through their efforts, they could build self-sustaining communities that would neither require extracting money from peasants through tithes and the like nor entail hiring day laborers, as some monasteries did, to farm, craft, and cook for the monks. The charge of idleness is consistent with that of decadence.
Though idleness is not itself defined in the pamphlet or The Institutes, what might it mean in both? Two things, I believe. In the first place, to be idle is to reject St. Paul’s claim about pulling one’s own weight: “that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (KJV 2 Thessalonians 3:10). In the second place, idleness means not performing the pastoral duties that parish priests, say, are accustomed to perform.
Why is this significant? Why should it matter to us? I believe that the charge of idleness, beginning as a particular claim against the contemplative decadence of monastics, will, in time, become a global complaint against anyone seeking to orient himself or herself toward the contemplative life when the duties of the day, ever beckoning, remain undone. Always, we’ve learned, doing before being; always ceaseless, busy activity before genuine stillness. At some point much later on, we shall internalize the sense of guilt, believing that if we are always “doing nothing,” then we must be succumbing to “being unproductive,” to “being wasteful,” to “wasting time,” and, in all, to being some kind of social parasite and pariah both. We are dharma bums, or worse.
Critique #3: False Perfection
In a letter to a friend, Erasmus confides: “Monastic life should not be equated with the virtuous life. It is just one type of life ….a life for which I was averse both in mind and body: in mind, because I shrank from ceremonies and was fond of liberty; in body, because my constitution was not adapted to such trials.” By suggesting that the monastic life is “just one type of life,” Erasmus is implying
that monastics take themselves, self-righteously so, to be superior to laypersons. Calvin too pushes back against monastics’ false “Christian perfection,” though it is Luther who, in On Monastic Vows
, puts the point as directly as possible: “Thus they made men believe that the profession of monasticism was far better than Baptism, and that the monastic life was more meritorious than that of magistrates, than the life of pastors, and such like, who serve their calling in accordance with God’s commands, without any man-made services” (Article 13).
Believing that living apart from ‘the world’ entails moral and religious purity is worse than a mistake, Luther thinks; it is an abomination. Do not, as Luther, who’d first been a monastic knew all too well, these stringent, unjustified lifelong vows nullify the exercise of one’s freedom? Did not the good book command Christians to marry and reproduce (Articles 18-21)? And is it not precisely pride to believe that the monastic life “is a state of perfection” (Article 60)?
Get off your high horse, Luther is saying, and come back to 'the world.’
The Unfolding of Total Work
For my purposes, what is especially significant about the critiques made above is how the traits and practices that had set monastics apart–their asceticism, their celibacy, their vows, their rootedness in place, and the like–all, having come under attack, result in dissonance being returned to the social fold. And, by the end of the nineteenth century, what will be that social norm? Ah, to work. To be untethered to a single place. To value freedom over obedience to any authority. To start and raise a family. To avoid weird “other-worldly” ascetic practices. Basically: to get in line.
I am not saying that this was Luther’s, Calvin’s, or Erasmus’ point. Nor am I saying that many of the sixteenth century monasteries weren’t corrupt or decadent. What I am instead suggesting is that, setting aside the rightful charge of decadence, the contemplativeness and the countercultural otherness of the monastic have both been issued a stern warning. It is a warning that we, you and I and others around us, have taken to heart and written into our souls.
It would take, perhaps, the countercultural 1960s before any brave and wild spirit would dare again to try living outside the social norms … And those social experiments, as scary, we’re told, as they were exhilarating, ended too in indecision, dissipation, and cultural amnesia… And who shall come next to show us a way out?
It took me a while to discover what the main Protestant critiques of monasticism were. I was fortunate, after reading quite widely and wildly over some days, to come across this short post
(which I draw upon heavily, and gratefully, in key parts of what I’ve written above).
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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
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Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>. Lastly, visit my website, totalwork.us <https://totalwork.us>, which is devoted to investigating this topic.