Culture, Essays

Toward a Monastic Notion of the Common Good

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It is said that Christendom has fallen, and societies around the world have entered into a post-Christian phase. These conditions have been exacerbated by a caustic and divisive election season. How are Christians to enter into a society whose values and general framework seem hostile to those of the Christian tradition? Is it possible for Christians to find common ground with others in order to offer significant contributions to society’s development? This implies the need for Christians to develop a nuanced and intelligent response to the needs of a nation divided by political discord.

Some propose that the only viable response of the Christian is either to prepare for battle against the tides of culture, or to retreat to the outskirts of mainstream society, both for the sake of preserving their heritage and convictions as Christians. Perhaps Christians and society at large would benefit more from an option that synthesizes the values that are found in both: offering a markedly Christian proposal that engages contemporary society that also maintains an ascetical dimension of detachment from the ‘world.’ These concerns have always played a role throughout Christendom, especially within the lives of Christian monastic communities. The contributions of these communities to Christians and the societies in which they find themselves are incontrovertible. A deeper look at the dynamic of such communities, fostered by vows of the three evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, obedience), may incite one to recognize the paradoxical nature of said contributions emanating from a dynamic sustained by such a commitment to detachment. The Christian monastic tradition offers a wealth of assistance and insight as Christians seek to engage society and to propose an integral understanding of the common good.

A Christian Understanding of Personhood and the Roots of Monasticism

Before approaching the history of Christian monasticism and discerning from it a method to engage contemporary society, it would be helpful to clarify the roles of renunciation and celibacy in Christian spirituality. The notion of renunciation finds its origin in Christ’s proclamation that his “kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). Human beings were made ultimately to be united to their Creator, but their awareness of and capacity to realize their ultimate end were damaged by original sin. Thus, human beings live in a state of incompleteness until their initial encounter with Christ, who offers to restore their capacity for self-realization and frees them to reach their ultimate end. In order to become fully “himself” and “herself,” man and woman must be willing to renounce “this world” for the sake of the Ultimate. The temporal is to be experienced as “a foretaste of the eternal,” as a sign of that to which human beings are ultimately destined, but not as their destiny itself. “God has called us . . . to live this world with a distance,” says Monsignor Luigi Giussani. The things of this world, “the immediate, is not true, so much so that it dies, it causes death.”[1] True freedom is realized when human beings are able to live in the world with a sense of detachment.

Approaching reality with an awareness of its ultimate dimension alters the way in which one establishes relationships within the temporal world. Pope St. John Paul II develops his Theology of the Body upon the assertion that human sexuality is ordered toward unity with God. When a man desires fleshly union with a woman, he experiences her beauty as a foretaste of Divine Beauty, which is his ultimate destiny.[2] Thus human sexuality is properly expressed when one approaches the other with a sense of renunciation—being free to recognize that the other is neither ‘his own’ nor his ultimate destiny. A celibate vocation, then, ‘skips a step’ by foregoing fleshly unity with another person and completely directing his life toward the ultimate end. The celibate imitates Christ in the sense that she possesses reality more fully; her sacrifice “allows the unveiling of the truth of the ‘thing’ or the ‘person’ that is present.”[3] Living a total detachment from the temporal dimension, the celibate lives the fullness of his personhood in an exceptional way.

True freedom is realized when human beings are able to live in the world with a sense of detachment.

From this essential aspect of Christian morality and spirituality grew the monastic tradition. It is unanimously agreed that the earliest Christian monastic was St. Anthony of Egypt. Born to Christian parents in the middle of the third century, he took off to the deserts east of the Nile River to live a life of poverty and celibacy. In the year 271, upon walking into a church, he heard the priest reading Christ’s words to the rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me.”(Mt 19:21). Upon hearing these words, Anthony left the church, sold his possessions, gave his profits to the poor, and retreated to the desert.[4] Scholars have sought to identify any precursors in early Christendom that may have foreshadowed Anthony’s monastic movement in the desert. The presence of celibates in Judaism (the Essenes) as a viable prelude was ruled out mostly due to their lack of an incarnational spirituality, thus confirming the decidedly Christian origin of this movement.[5] Many assert that this movement was an inevitable occurrence in light of Christ’s statement regarding those who make themselves “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” (Mt 19:12). Other major monastic fathers retreated from life in the world for reasons that slightly differed from those of St. Anthony, largely because of their respective cultural contexts. St. Benedict of Nursia left Rome in the early sixth century to live as a hermit in a cave in Subiaco, Italy. Most agree that Benedict, desiring to live a more austere and holy life, began his monastic movement as an escape from the “chaos and turmoil” that remained of the Roman Empire.[6] Cultural and historical contexts aside, a desire for freedom and sanctity united the pursuits of many of the early monastics to more fully live out the Christian call to renunciation and detachment.

Athanasius testifies to the paradoxical nature of the joy and freedom that Anthony experienced while living in the desert:

His face had a great and marvelous grace . . . It was not his physical dimensions that distinguished him from the rest, but the stability of the character and the purity of the soul. His soul being free of confusion, he held his outer senses also undisturbed, so that from the soul’s joy his face was cheerful as well.[7]

Anthony, who fully detached himself from his “temporal development,” devoted himself solely to developing his ultimate dimension for the sake of holiness. This wholeness of his personhood, despite his having renounced its earthly dimension, attracted others both from within the desert and from without. His markedly joyful and free demeanor became characteristic of monastics throughout Christendom as time progressed, standing as a point of reference for all Christians throughout the centuries. The monk is “a Christian fully alive.”[8] His paradoxical lifestyle calls Christians back to the true nature of their humanity and their ultimate vocation. The monk’s “way of renunciation,” rather than making him less human, allows him to become more fully human: “they seek to integrate all into a simple, direct response to God in whose divine simplicity all things find their ultimate being and meaning.”[9]

Following the example of the monastics, Christians who are not called to a vocation of full detachment should be impelled to enter more deeply into the temporal realm rather than to retreat from it; they ought to recover the ultimate meaning and end of all aspects of society in which they engage themselves. The human person’s vocation essentially is Christ, the Eternal, regardless of the particular form that the person’s vocation takes. Giving oneself to the Eternal by following Christ and thus detaching oneself from the temporal dimension allows the person to become more authentically human and to deepen his or her relationship with reality.[10] The more intensely one lives this vocation, the greater the experience of freedom. Christians should look to monastics as an “invitation to . . . never to lose sight of the supreme vocation”—engaging society with a greater awareness of their humanity and making way for a true understanding of freedom to emerge (Vita Consecrata, §7). From such an understanding of personhood can begin an authentic proposal of the common good.

The Role of Community in the Person’s Pursuit of the Ultimate End

As monastic communities continued to proliferate, they developed an understanding of interdependence that played a crucial role in the growth of all forms of Christian communities. St. Augustine begins his monastic Rule with the exhortation that his monks renounce all personal property upon entering the monastery. All property was to be held in common, not for the sake for a synthetically imposed sense of equality, but rather so that all of the monks would be free to seek “nobler things,” together.[11] Augustine also encourages the monks to take accountability for their brethren upon moments of struggle or temptation.[12] With his emphasis on renunciation and redistribution of goods according to need, Augustine reminds the monks that love is the dynamic force which sustains his monastic community:

For love . . . places the common good before its own, not its own before the common good. Know, then, that the more you devote yourselves to the community rather than to your private interests, the more you have advanced. Thus, let love, which remains forever, prevail in all things that minister to the fleeting necessities of life.[13]

Self-discipline and accountability for the discipline of one’s brethren are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the more seriously one takes his own vows, the more his brother benefits. The more he encourages his brothers to take their vows seriously, the more he will benefit. In regards to personal hygiene, the monks must approach bathing as an act of conformity to goodness. It is good for himself as well as for his brothers when the monk cleans himself. He must bathe even when he is “unwilling,” and must “renounce his desires . . . when he wants to go bathing because he enjoys it” and it is not necessary.[14] Such a valorization of the human person and his relationship to the good are intimately connected to the ascetic commitment to renunciation.

Photo: Sergey Sokolov; CC-BY-ND-2.0

Photo: Sergey Sokolov; CC-BY-ND-2.0

This dynamic of love takes on more radical implications within the context of Augustine’s proscriptions regarding authority and obedience. Monks are to obey their superiors lest they “offend God in them.”[15] His phrasing implies the origin and finality of the superior’s role. The superior receives his authority from God, and is to exercise his office for the sake of his own as well as the monks’ progress toward God. St. Benedict’s abbot also is to be regarded with obedience and humility. In turn, the abbot must be obedient to God, setting an example for his monks, as well as being obedient to his monks themselves. Benedict advises the abbot to listen closely to the young monks, for God sometimes chooses to speak through them.[16] Benedict warns that the prior must grow in humility and avoid becoming “puffed up with pride,” lest he lose sight of the fact that those who elected him prior also elected the abbot. This dynamic of reciprocal obedience and humility also constitutes the nature of the relationship among the rest of the monks. Augustine implores that any conflicts be resolved immediately, for failing to forgive one another could damage the life of the community considerably.[17] Therefore the monks must be obedient to one another in order not to get “caught up in self-love.”

The foundations of both Augustine’s and Benedict’s Rules are predicated upon a reciprocal and gratuitous love which “must be guided by the Spirit.”[18] The call to love cannot be separated from the call to detachment and renunciation. The latter callings are bound up in the evangelical counsel of obedience that all monastics must take. With this grounding, the monastery becomes a space in which one discovers a notion of the good which corresponds to each individual and can be experienced in common. Because the monks devote themselves to both detachment and obedience, they are freed from their instinctual desires, and are more available to pursue a good that transcends their individuality and allows them to live a true unity with their brethren. To pursue one’s personal good, then, coincides with the flourishing of the community’s life. The flourishing and fruitfulness is not limited to monastic life, however, for it also constitutes the dynamic of the life of the Church.

The human person’s vocation essentially is Christ, the Eternal, regardless of the particular form that the person’s vocation takes.

The legacy of the monastic tradition impacted not only Christendom, but also non-Christian societies around the world in which monastic communities established a presence. One also could see the overflowing of the fruit of monastic life as early as in St. Anthony’s time. Athanasius writes of countless statesmen, kings, scholars (both pagan and Christian), and lay people who sought Anthony’s counsel and to encounter his enthralling sense of joy and holiness.[19] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attributed much of Europe’s moral and cultural unity to the proliferation of Benedictine monasteries. By proposing that God made himself present in everyday realities like work and community, St. Benedict fostered a true humanism which avoided the establishment of forms of government predicated upon man striving to “save himself.”[20]

A more recent example of the impact of St. Benedict’s charism can be seen in the life and work of Dorothy Day. The notion of an ascetic “personalism,” which values renunciation for the sake of proportioning humanity’s endeavors toward its transcendent vocation, played an essential role in Day’s rejection of Communism and conversion to Catholicism. The thirst for divine love, or what she called “the long loneliness,” cannot be satisfied by material means. Day initially understood this longing as a need that could be solved by a restructuring of the political body, thus her attraction to Communism. She quickly started to realize, however, that this loneliness was so intense that a political system structured on a utopian notion of community and equality depended on an understanding of man which sought to completely eradicate his desire for immaterial happiness. Man could only be satisfied by transcendent love, and could discover this through being accompanied by a community sustained by a dynamic of love.[21]

This community, or “koinonia,” takes on an “ontological value . . . meaning it interests and engages man’s being, it becomes a new being, a being possessed by the revealed Mystery and, therefore, in a unity of being of all who are called . . . and subsequently tends to coincide with a new attitude, an all-embracing solidarity.”[22] This convergence is contingent upon a unifying factor that transcends each individual and thus is available to all. Human love is fully realized when purified by divine love. Only in accepting this reality can a society be united in pursuing a truly common good. Thus the fullness of human society is contingent upon a strong network of interdependent persons who are seeking the fulfillment of their own lives, which is realizable when ordered toward their ultimate end. How can a society seek to foster such a dynamic among its people?

The Practical Application of a Monastic Notion of the Common Good

The life of a monastery is grounded in an understanding of the integral nature of the human person. This is most fully understood under the light cast on him by Christ, who gives man his existence. This life is fostered by the adherence to the love and intentional order of reality given by the Creator. Through belonging to the community, the monk discovers his destiny and his ultimate end; he sorts out his personal vocation and path toward salvation as he walks with his brothers toward the Source of this ultimate good. Though not all persons in a given society will agree upon the exact nature of that which constitutes their ultimate end, nor will all of them discern a vocation grounded in the three evangelical counsels, the framework of monastic life can serve as an model for the development of contemporary societies that take into account the different factors that constitute the integral nature of the human person.

The call to love cannot be separated from the call to detachment and renunciation.

The cornerstone upon which any society must be built is the freedom of conscience and religious belief. The monastic community is established for the sake of aiding persons as they seek the object of their religious convictions. A society, because it is not itself a religious institution, cannot propose a specific path toward realizing the object of one’s religious convictions. This would prove antithetical to its task, which finds its ends in the temporal reality and is distinct from the task of specifically religious institutions. Nevertheless, a society ought to be open to furthering both the temporal and ultimate pursuits of the human person.[23] Thus the framework of a society and its notion of the common good can model that of the monastic community in that it “opens a space” for the pursuit of that which fulfills the citizens’ ultimate end. Such a framework takes on even greater value in pluralistic societies: a notion of the common good that opens space for the pursuit and influence of the Object of man’s ultimate end may be the only factor upon which said persons can establish a sense of unity. While the ways in which they conceive of their ultimate end and the adequate ways to express worship will differ, the persons in a pluralistic society can find common ground in their shared desire for fulfillment, thus allowing for said society to establish a genuine community. To do so, it is necessary not only to open said space to the discussion of and pursuit of ultimate ends, but also to foster a sense of fraternity and love among the members of the society.

Dorothy Day speaks at a political gathering in 1965. Photo: Jim Forest; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Dorothy Day speaks at a political gathering in 1965. Photo: Jim Forest; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

The Rule of Saint Augustine makes clear that the life of the monastery cannot be sustained if the brothers do not love each other, and seek rather to love their own self-indulgent pursuits.[24] Similarly, Dorothy Day claims that a civil society, to become a community, must foster bonds of love among its members.[25] Without this bond, the society will remain a mass of individuals, pursuing their own materialistic and selfish ends. The evangelical counsel of chastity seeks to order the totality of the monk’s affective powers toward God, who is the ultimate end of earthly human relationships. Chastity allows human beings to understand the true value of their own lives as well as those of their compatriots. The valorization humanity’s ultimate end as fostered by a commitment to ascetical renunciation allows for human relationships to take on a new strength and value. The solidarity that is born of this willingness to give of oneself fosters a sense of the ultimate good which can truly be held in common by all, thus countering the temptation to seek an individualistic (and thus relativistic) good.

The evangelical counsel of poverty draws attention to the reality that human beings are not fulfilled by material goods alone. Humanity’s being constitutes a complex variety of needs. Positing the establishment of laws that regulate the distribution of goods at the state level as the sole ‘solution’ to poverty—thus arbitrarily assuming the specific nature of his needs—is gravely injurious to humanity’s dignity. The state would also offend this dignity were it not to seek to regulate the distributions of material goods at all, and to leave it in the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, thus the need for subsidizing the authority to distribute goods at local levels of governance and social organization. The human person and the complex web of his or her needs can be best understood when approached from the most proximate level of social organization. Attentiveness to the person beyond material need allows for the development of a more adequate system of distributing material goods. Such an attentiveness should also recognize the value in seeking to assist persons and their local communities in attaining material goods by their own means. St. Benedict’s Rule requires that the abbot be attentive to the needs of his monks so that he can accurately distribute the goods of the monastery, thus allowing the monks to be more free to further their commitment to their daily work, furthering both the life of the community and their pursuit of God.[26] G.K. Chesterton points to the service the state does for its inhabitants when it teaches “people the things they are so eager to teach themselves.”[27] The capacity to work and the attainment of goods are inextricably caught up with human beings’ sense of their own dignity and pursuit of their vocation. Thus to afford people opportunities to learn to work and obtain goods on their own furthers their journey toward their ultimate end. The state can further the common good by both establishing subsidies at more proximate levels of society and intervening through the establishment of laws when necessary.

With a more comprehensive understanding of the role of the state in mind, what constitutes the vocation of the political authority? Here, the theological counsel of obedience sheds light on the role of a political authority figure as receiving her office from the same Authority in whom those subject to her seek their ultimate end. The abbot of Benedict’s monastery “holds the place of Christ in the monastery.” Benedict assigns this role with the awareness that the abbot and all of the monks know that this office is given by Christ, thus invalidating any claim to total authority, and that they all are seeking not to worship the abbot as their savior, but Christ himself.[28] The political leader, as distinct from the abbot, ought to respect and defend the freedom of the civilians, as well as orient them toward the common good.[29] Were the state not to have such an authority figure, there would be no one to assure the freedom and unity of the people: individuals would be subject to the unpunished and undeterred injustices caused by others, and the masses would lack direction as they seek the good on their own terms. Equally important is adherence of the political leader to the natural moral law, which protects the freedom of the civilians and fosters a genuine notion of the common good. Without adherence to the objectivity of the natural moral law, the state would be subject to the whims of the political authority figure.[30]

Conclusion

As contemporary societies grow increasingly hostile to cooperation with and the influence of religious ideals, one might respond to the proposal to turn to ascetic traditions for guidance with skepticism. Needless to say, most of the American public would be put off by the mention of a millennium-and-a-half-year-old monastic Rule on the floor in Congress. But the state of contemporary American public life reveals two important facts:

1. The duty of Christians to be engaged in the life of a society is not limited to the level of the political body. In remaining faithful to the notions of personhood and community as revealed by the Christian monastic tradition, the political body is neither the ultimate nor the only means for fostering the life of a society and furthering the common good. In fact, the development of the civil society and the “persons and groups of which it is composed” take precedence over the development of the political community.[31] Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement upon a personalistic notion of humanity and its salvation, which could never be achieved by the efforts of the state. Rather the state ought to “allow problems to be addressed at the lowest level possible in order to maintain the dignity and freedom of the person.”[32] This way, individuals could be free to establish communities based on fraternal love, which both accompany human beings in their infinite neediness and assist them in pursuing that which can fill their need.[33] Such a sense of solidarity and love cannot be imposed upon the people by a state.

2. The engagement of Christians in fostering the life of civil society points to the need for evangelism. A markedly Christian love ought to serve as the criterion for engagement of public life:

There is no place better than a retreat house to learn [to love]. We must withdraw for a time to renew our strength for the great struggle . . . Without the use of our spiritual weapons of love, which include prayer and penance and work and poverty and suffering, our future is harsh and ugly to contemplate.[34]

Referring to the evangelical counsels as lived in monastic communities ought to encourage neither prolonged retreat from public life, nor preparation for a ‘culture war’ in the public sphere. Rather, it allows Christians to offer a more authentic and convincing witness. Christian communities ought to be strengthened for the sake of deeper engagement with and the furthering of the good of civil society as a whole.

Thus, the recovery of the ascetical dimensions of personhood and of reality, as lived in the monastery, will offer a witness to all of society by reminding them of their ultimate end. And, in a unique way, monastic life acts as a guide to proposing a genuine understanding of the common good: based on the fulfillment of the person outside the temporal realm and on the need for the support of a society of interdependent persons in order to reach said fulfillment.

The political environment today is in need of those who are more concerned about ‘building bridges’ between the chasms created by discord and disagreement. Christians would do well to refer to the monastic tradition of the Church as they seek to be that presence of reconciliation and unity. The dehumanizing rhetoric used by many during the past election season has left many lost, without a sense of their true needs as individuals and as members of society. The ascetic principles of Christian monastic life can be a source of light—the starting place of a proposal that calls of the members of society back to their original needs and to a truly human public sphere.

Featured Photo: Lawrence Lew, OP; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

[1] Luigi Giussani, Is it Possible to Live This Way? Volume 3: Charity (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2009), 106–107.

[2] John Paul II, General Audience: “Virginity or Celibacy for the Sake of the Kingdom” (March 10, 1982).

[3] Giussani, Is it Possible to Live This Way?, 108.

[4] Athanasius, The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), §31.

[5] David Knowles, Christian Monasticism (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1969), 11.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] Athanasius, The Life of Antony, §81.

[8] M. Basil Pennington, The Monastic Way (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990), 23.

[9] Ibid., 102.

[10] Giussani, Is it Possible to Live This Way?, 115.

[11] Augustine, The Rule of Saint Augustine, trans. Raymond Canning, OSA (New York: Image Books, 1986), 1:4, 1:6.

[12] Cf. Ibid., 4:6.

[13] Ibid., 5:2.

[14] Ibid., 6:5.

[15] Ibid., 7:1.

[16] Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1980), 3:4.

[17] Augustine, The Rule of Saint Augustine, 6:3.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Athanasius, The Life of Antony, §§89–94.

[20] Benedict XVI, General Audience: “Saint Benedict of Norcia” (April 9, 2008).

[21] Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1952), 286.

[22] Luigi Giussani, Why the Church?, trans. Viviane Hewitt (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001), 96.

[23] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (April 2005), §424.

[24] Augustine, The Rule of Saint Augustine, 6:3.

[25] Walter G. Moss, The Wisdom of Dorothy Day (2001), 49.

[26] Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, 56:18.

[27] G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanctity (Norfolk: IHS Press, 2001), 109.

[28] Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, 2:2.

[29] Compendium to the Social Doctrine of the Church, §394.

[30] Ibid., §396.

[31] Ibid., §418.

[32] Leslie Fain, “Dorothy Day: A Saint to Transcend Partisan Politics” in The Catholic World Report (January 3, 2013).

[33] Moss, The Wisdom of Dorothy Day, 49.

[34] Ibid., 46.

Stephen Adubato

Stephen Adubato is pursuing his masters degree in moral theology at the Immaculate Conception School of Theology at Seton Hall University, and teaches religion and philosophy at a Benedictine high school in New Jersey. He also blogs at Cracks in Postmodernity.