Stage One of Monastic Purification

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STAGE ONE OF MONASTIC PURIFICATION

A person usually joins a monastery because he/she believes that by withdrawing from the world, and by entering a system of discipline, he/she will be able to please God easier than they previously could while in general society.

People want to be monastic because they believe that inward purity is pleasing to God. They want to conform to the image of Christ, they want to be holy and blameless, and they want to please God.

So, in an important way, the first stage of monastic purification takes place before they join the monastery, as they begin to see their carnality, begin to measure society and church by the Word and begin to feel the conviction of God. This occurs before they join any system.

One way to approach a description of monastic purification as it occurs within the system is to describe the exterior life: The schedule of prayer, the daily work routine, and the simplicity governing food, conversation, alcohol, sleep and clothing. That is, to describe the external disciplines and the sacrifices and difficulty of the monastic life.  It is important, though, to realize that there has been a great deal of variation in these externals. Some monastics were radical in their self denial. Purification was by asceticism in some systems. Rigorous near starvation, exposure to weather, lack of sleep, isolation and denial of community and society prevail. The desert fathers (early monastics who lived in the Egyptian desert in the 4th and 5th centuries) are often cited as examples of such rigors. In general, the later monastic systems changed this. It became obvious that the philosophical systems that were dualistic, that identified spirit with purity and the body with evil, were not really representing the Gospel. Later, the medieval monastic systems were wiser about purification, dealing more with inward sins of the heart, and less with external hardships. Therefore, a monastic today will live a simple life, stressing moderation of the external life but not extreme denial. Of course, compared to the average citizen of today’s developed countries, it does indeed still represent a form of purification.

The second way to describe monastic purification is to examine the inward attitudes that are purified. In order to illustrate this inward purification we will quote the early portions of the Rule of Benedict. Benedict of Nursia (in Italy) was born in 480 AD. He became an isolated hermit at first, but as he got older he realized that purification could be accomplished in groups if the participants had the right inward purity. He developed what has become known as the Rule of Benedict, a set of guidelines that outline the operation of a monastery.  The Rule is widely acknowledged to have reformed the monastic system and make it a successful institution. Still today the Rule of Benedict is frequently used.

Therefore we will examine the first stages of monastic purification by looking at the first part of the Rule. We start with its Prologue:

“Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to God from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for Jesus, the Christ”.

“First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to God most earnestly to bring it to perfection. In God’s goodness, we are already counted as God’s own, and therefore we should never grieve the Holy One by our evil actions. With the good gifts which are in us, we must obey God at all times that God may never become the angry parent who disinherits us, nor the dreaded one, enraged by our sins, who  punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow the way to glory.”

“Let us get up then, at long last, for the scriptures rouse us when they say: ‘It is high time for us to arise from sleep’ (Rom. 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from the heavens that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear God’s voice today, do not harden your hearts’ (Ps. 95:8). And again: ‘You that have ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev. 2:7). And what does the Spirit say? ‘Come and listen to me; I will teach you to reverence God’ (Ps. 34:12). ‘Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you’ (John 12).

This prolog shows the zeal and intensity of monastic devotion.  A serious approach to works, such as this one, will challenge the lukewarm, the neglectful and the complacent. A person who shares such a radical approach to sanctification is ready to take a step towards the elements of monastic life.

Several issues need to be clarified, however, before we go onBenedict was writing to monks, or to candidate monks, and he is really answering their heart’s cry. The monk, or monk candidate, is already appalled at his own sinfulness. Really, the person who wants to join a monastery, or who has joined a monastery, is stating that they want to leave the world, with its neglect of God, its rebellion and blindness, and become pure. They admit that the world is polluting them. They are saying that while in the world, their own “sloth of disobedience” drags them down. They want help in fighting the sin and worldliness inside of them. Benedict is saying that the monastic disciplines will help them overcome their “sloth” and will aid them in obedience. The monastic structure will assist them in purging out the worldliness within them. There will be others taking the same vows, there will be accountability, and there will be oversight by monastic governmental leaders and policies that will “keep them on the straight and narrow”.

 

Even more disturbing though is the language Benedict uses that describes God. Consider this line: “With the good gifts which are in us, we must obey God at all times that God may never become the angry parent who disinherits us, nor the dreaded one, enraged by our sins, who punishes us forever as worthless servants for refusing to follow the way to glory”. Again, a person who has been trained in Protestant evangelical Christianity is likely to respond like this:

 

The language Benedict uses bothers me. It bothers me because it makes it sound like we can obey God perfectly at all times.  Well, I know the Bible says that He has already given us all we need for godliness, so that does make sense, but at the same time, this is very absolute.  We MUST obey God at ALL times so that He doesn’t DISINHERIT us or become ENRAGED or punish us FOREVER.  Even though we have what we need for godliness and we should seek God and obey Him to the best of our ability, we are not totally a new creature yet.  We are not yet what we will be.  If being unable to perfectly obey God at all times results in an angry God tossing us out into everlasting punishment, what is the point of the cross?  I mean, I know that is our state prior to Christ, but here I just don’t see where “grace” is.  Yes it talks about needing to come to God so He can complete what He has begun and that He will teach us, so I understand that diminishes the element of legalism somewhat, but there seems to be no provision for our failure (in spite of our best efforts)”.

 

To answer these objections and to reassure readers about Benedict’s intent in using these words we have to examine the interaction between grace and works.   The New Day Monks position is that we don’t fully agree with either the traditional Protestant or the traditional Catholic view of grace and works. Or, more accurately, we think it’s clear from careful study of the major past figures of the Protestant and the Catholic traditions that God’s truth of grace and works contains a paradox that always results in humans forming 2 different camps, each holding a polar view of what is actually blended truth. So, the Bible, and the major historical leaders in both camps, all reveal that God blends grace and works into one relational walk with His people. The human mind can’t easily accept that 2 opposite facts, both of which God says are true, can both be true at the same time. So, the Catholics have gravitated towards the truth that humans must choose to obey God, and the reformers (rightly) protested and pointed out that it is God that chooses an individual human, and it is God that changes the person into an obedient child. At New Day Monks we think that God has provided for Sanctification in the atonement, but that the believer must seek the power to change, and must apply his/her will to both resisting sin and to turning to God for help in resisting. Thus we want to avoid both the idea that change is up to us, AND the idea that God does not care if we remain unchanged.

The New Day Monk idea is that it is now, at this time in the progression of church history, that God is addressing divisions in the church. It is time for one body and one bride. So, grace and works must be reconciled. Judgment and forgiveness must kiss. We can no longer afford either the error of legalism or the error of license to be in our midst. Therefore we will answer the above questions from the point of view that we really all agree already, but our language limits us and divides us.

So, first, we admit that it does seem like Benedict is saying that even those who are saved by grace hang by a thread over the fires of Hell.  Well, our first answer is that IF this is what Benedict really means then we don’t agree with him, and we would advise people to avoid his teachings, his Rule and his methods. If this is what Catholics or monastics really teach then we would “protest” and avoid them and steer others away from them. Now, in fact, a lot of Catholic people, in history, have distorted the Gospel, have distorted the teachings of the principle figures in their own Church, and have said things like Benedict seems to be saying and have meant it.

Luther objected to the corruption and false teaching of the Catholic authorities in his day, and he rightly protested things like selling of indulgences, and he traced the problem back to an overemphasis on works, and especially a legalistic approach to works, and he correctly steered people back to grace and to God’s kindness in Christ. However, Luther (by his own admission) agreed that Augustine and many other great historic Catholic figures taught grace. Luther wasn’t objecting to all previous Catholic teaching, he was objecting to the historic slide of the Church into a distortion and corruption of true Catholic teaching that, by his time, was almost completely devilish.

 

So, we don’t believe that Benedict is teaching that God is angry at those people who are trying to please Him. We don’t believe Benedict is saying that we have to fear lest we do some sin that enrages God and costs us our salvation. If that is really what Benedict believed we would not recommend his Rule to anyone. What we do think he is saying that those people in the world, those that live in disobedience and neglect of God, those that don’t know Him, who don’t follow Jesus, are lost and are under God’s wrath and judgment. Furthermore, we think that Benedict is teaching that someone who has come to (mentally/propositionally) see that Jesus is the Christ, but who does not obey Him, does not follow Him and does not (consequently) really love Him is lost and under God’s wrath despite their “faith”. Like James says: “Even the devils believe”.

 

Subsequent essays will clarify the fact that Benedict really teaches a generous, grace empowered, gentle form of obedience. His Rule could be understood to a harsh form of fear filled legalism, but actually he teaches that a monk who is trying his best must be gently loved into further improvement. The monk has to be honest, has to be praying and let God reveal sin to him, has to be obedient to the house (specific monastery) rules, and has to submit to constructive criticism, but isn’t under a lot of fear that “one slip and you are lost”.

 

The prolog to the Rule reveals the heart cry of the monastic. The Rule of Benedict then goes on to lay out practical methods to accomplish this heart’s cry in actual community life. We thus look next at practical aspects of monastic purification.