Chapter 1: On the Kinds of Monks

January 8, 2010

From the Rule of St Benedict

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.

Commentary by Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert
As we begin to hear the actual Rule of Benedict, Saint Benedict identifies different kinds of monks. For us, who are Cenobites, he identifies our life with living under a rule and an abbot. These are important factors in our lives. So often in the present age people choose to live under the Rule of Benedict as a form on inspiration. To choose to live under an abbot is another thing entirely. If we choose just the Rule of Benedict, we are free to interpret it in our own way. To live under both a rule and an abbot means to subject myself to another human being. That is really a challenge. Benedict is absolutely clear throughout his Rule that the real asceticism is subjecting oneself to other human beings who are only frail vessels just as we are.

The next kind of monk is the Hermit. Again, Benedict approves of this form of monastic life, when hermits have been really trained properly. For a person to be a hermit, Benedict insists that they have lived in community for a long time and have passed through the first fervor of monastic life. There are other ways to be hermits, and the Church allows other ways, but this is the way that Benedict would see a hermit emerging from the community. There is a real purification in living in community and Benedict thinks that that purification is very important before one sets out as a hermit. The defects that a monk has in community will be with him when he passes to the hermitage. In our own time there are many who become hermits because they cannot live in community, and this, thinks Saint Benedict, is not such an ideal situation. Others become hermits because it allows them to live as they want, and this also is less than ideal. Both of those types of hermits can still be purified by the grace of God. What Benedict describes is simply the practical manner that he finds best for forming hermits.

Some interpreters of the Rule think that the aim of the Rule is to form hermits and that the ideal is to pass from the cenobium to the hermitage. Others think that the ideal is to remain in the cenobium all of one’s life. Benedict seems not to opt in either direction and so the commentators are normally reflecting themselves and not the Rule. Among other things, the arguments are based on the influences of Saint John Cassian and Saint Augustine in the Rule of Benedict.

I suppose that we are all Sarabaites to some degree, and must fight constantly against that tendency. Benedict describes this kind of monk: “Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. 9 Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.”

Saint Benedict would prefer his monks to act from principles. There is a real formation in giving oneself over to be formed in a community that is clear about what is expected and yet merciful and flexible in living a truly human and Christian life. There is a real formation in having to deal with other human persons in a community and with having to learn to live with a superior who is not perfect and yet to whom we give our obedience. Our lives can become open to the Divine Spirit in a wonderful way in a Monastery that is functioning well–yet is never perfect. 

Humanly, of course, we all tend to call holy what we believe in and to consider forbidden that which we dislike. This is part of the gift of having a tradition that we can accept and grow in. For instance, the acceptance of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is a real test for many persons in our time who disagree with this or that teaching. The Catechism is clearly advocating a strong and biblically based morality of living and of following Christ. Not everyone will be able to accept it. 

Benedict would ask of us, I am sure, the same kind of response as to living under a Rule and an abbot: give ourselves. Does that mean never question anything? Of course not! But as with all the questions that Benedict foresees in the Rule, we must always question with respect and with acceptance of the role of authority.

There is finally the Gyrovague style of Monasticism. These monks sound less offensive to us than the sarabaites, but Benedict thinks they are worse. He describes them: “Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than the Sarabaites.” That is a pretty strong condemnation! Perhaps because the Sarabaites at least live in small groups, they find themselves having to be subject a bit to others. Gyrovagues are simply wanderers looking for a soft way of living. We must be careful today not to confuse Sarabaites with monks changing their original monastic home. Benedict obviously knows of monks moving from one monastery to another, and does not comment much on this phenomenon. As always, we must look deeply into the situation of a monk who is moving from one house to another to find whether this is of God or simply of human desire.

To become strong monks according to the Rule is our desire and the goal of this monastic community. We must want to allow ourselves to be formed by the Rule and by the desert monastic tradition. We must want to allow ourselves to be formed by the Roman Catholic Church, since we are a Roman Catholic Monastery. We must use the means given to us by the Rule and the monastic tradition and the Roman Catholic Church in order to be formed by the sacraments and the teachings of our tradition.

With Benedict, we can say, let us go forward in the cenobitic life and work at being cenobitic monks in this tradition. We do not need to spend time looking as other ways. This way is ours, let us get on with seeking Christ!

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