Quaker Monasticism

Monasticism has always been on the periphery, out of the mainstream, of society. With that Quakers can certainly identify, not only in our worship practices, our understanding of spiritual authority, even our history of intervention, often in unpopular ways, with issues of injustice. The few who are drawn to a monastic life evidence little interest in recruiting others. They rely upon the Holy Spirit to draw others to this pursuit. So they go about their calling to give honest expression to their wholehearted dedication and to the deepest human desire of finding oneness with their creator.


 

 

Very early in the book In The Spirit of Happiness the writer seeks to answer the question that few of us have ever considered important: “What Is Monasticism?” What I hope we can do today is see how Quakerism, our life together, shares some interesting similarities with the monastic life. In doing so I need to make you aware that we will run into a couple of words whose root meanings need, what do they call it, Oh yes, a make over. These are monk or monasticism, the word anchorite and the third are a famly of words like cenobitic, cenobial, even cenacle. Words are onery things – what you just heard sounded like the more common word cynic or cynical, nowhere near the same word. You change a vowel or two and it makes a tremendous difference, even if it sounds the same.  

Monasticism has always been on the periphery, out of the mainstream, of society. With that Quakers can certainly identify, not only in our worship practices, our understanding of spiritual authority, even our history of intervention, often in unpopular ways, with issues of injustice. The few who are drawn to a monastic life evidence little interest in recruiting others. They rely upon the Holy Spirit to draw others to this pursuit. So they go about their calling to give honest expression to their wholehearted dedication and to the deepest human desire of finding oneness with their creator.

As a Christian movement monasticism is primarily an attempt to live the Christian life as fully as possible. The author of In The Spirit of Happiness states that monasteries prove that it really is possible for people to live together and strive to base every action on the love of one another, the love of God and the love of God’s Word, without trying to escape the realities of life. “It really is possible”, he argues, “to acquire peace, quiet, clarity of mind, self-control, and mutual understanding and cooperation.” This sounds a great deal like Quaker language, about living in that life and power that takes away the cause of war.

For many of us, the very idea of a “monk” conguers up visions of a hermit, one who withdraws from society and lives alone. Clearly we have had in Christian history people who, like John the Baptist, withdrew to the desert. The Greek word for withdrawing is anchor, which is why these were called anchorites. They withdrew from human contact to flee two things, the flesh and devil which to their minds were the two unavoidable enemies of salvation. What we have of the record of their experiences is that what they ran into in the desert was their own humanity and Satan himself to tempt them. One Catholic Priest of my acquaintance said:”The only thing you will ever do by yourself is go to hell.” It has only been in looking back that we have called these solitary souls Monks, thinking such a word comes from the same root from which we form words like monocle, monorail or Monarch. The 1783 book of word derivations by George Lemon challenges that notion – matter of fact, he calls it nonsense. His argument is that just as “Christianity gave us new invented Greek words for things Celtic, and we adopted them and forgot our own”, ‘monk’ and ‘monastery’ actually derive from the Celtic “mon” or “mein” from which we have words like mansion, per-man-ancy and words like minster which signify the missionary church, a place of temporary asylum or sanctuary. It has probabley been our cultural commitment to self reliance and rugged individualism which caused us to focus on personal salvation that clouded our being able to see that it was to a community of disciples that Jesus promised and then graced with his Spirit. First of all, Christianity is a spiritual pursuit while living in community.

In the early fourth century a man named Pachomius, seeking spiritual wisdom in the teachings of a desert father, an anchorite, named Palamon, was rejected and told to go home. But instead of going home he was instructed by the Holy Spirit to remain in the desert and create a place for pursuing the life of the Spirit because “very many eager to embrace the monastic life will come hither to thee”.

Pachomius is considered the father of cenobitic monasticism. Opps, there’s that other new word for us. Pachomius was not just a monk but a cenobitic monk. Just as “monk” has had a commonly accepted derivation, so has the word ‘cenobite’. Some say it comes from a joining of the Greek word ‘koinos’ or common and ‘bios’ or life. ‘Common life’ sounds like a good description of life in a monastery, maybe even life within a Friends Meeting, but I’ve discovered a much more persuasive and meaningful basis for this word.

Sr. Eleana Guerra (GOOAY-rah), the founder of the Oblate Sisters of the Holy Spirit, used the word ‘Cenacle’ when she prayed: “Oh, if only…unanimous and fervent prayers could be raised to Heaven in every part of Christendom, as they were one in the Cenacle [the upper room] of Jerusalem for a rekindling of the Divine Spirit.” She urged Pope Leo XIII to lead the Church back to the Cenacle, to the Upper Room, where the Holy Spirit was blown upon the infant church. She exhorted the Pope to invite the faithful to rediscover life lived according to the Holy Spirit. She called and prayed for a renewal of the Church, the reunion of Christianity, a renewal of society, and thereby “a renewal of the face of the earth”. The idea of a permanent Pentecost throbbed in her heart. She said, “Pentecost is not over. In fact it is continually going on in every time and in every place, because the Holy Spirit desired to give himself to all men and all who want him can always receive him, so we do not have to envy the apostles and the first believers; we only have to dispose ourselves like them to receive him well, and He will come to us as he did to them.” Sr. Elena challenged the Church to rediscovered life lived according to the Holy Spirit. She called for a return to the Upper Room, as she proclaimed “The first well-spring of renewing action is prayer, which connect us with the Spirit of Christ, He who renews the face of the earth.”

On January 1, 1901, at the request of Sr. Elena, Pope Leo XIII in the name of the entire Church invoked the Holy Spirit by singing the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Hear these words:

 

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,

and in our hearts take up Thy rest;

come with Thy grace and heav’nly aid,

To fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

 

O Comforter, to Thee we cry,

Thou heav’nly gift of God most high,

Thou Fount of life, and Fire of love,

and sweet anointing from above.

 

O Finger of the hand divine,

the sevenfold gifts of grace are thine;

true promise of the Father thou,

who dost the tongue with power endow.

 

Thy light to every sense impart,

and shed thy love in every heart;

thine own unfailing might supply

to strengthen our infirmity.

 

Drive far away our ghostly foe,

and thine abiding peace bestow;

if thou be our preventing Guide,

no evil can our steps betide.

 

Praise we the Father and the Son

and Holy Spirit with them One;

and may the Son on us bestow

the gifts that from the Spirit flow

 

 

There’s an amazing story in Roman Catholic tradition attached to that. It holds that on that very day, halfway around the world, Agnes Ozman, at Charles Parham’s Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas, began speaking in tongues, initiating an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which, to some historians of the movement, is the beginning of Pentecostalism.

In 1996, in the invocation of the Papal coronation of John Paul II these words, which should now be familiar to you, were included: “Come Holy Spirit, come and renew the face of the earth! Come with your seven gifts, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Communion and Love! The Church and the world need you. Come Holy Spirit, and make ever more fruitful the charisms (gifts) you have bestowed on us. Give new strength and missionary zeal to the sons and daughters of yours who have gathered here. Open their hearts; renew their Christian commitment in the world. Make them courageous messengers of the Gospel, witnesses to the Risen Jesus Christ, the Redeemer and Savior of men. Strengthen their love and their fidelity to the Church.”

Why would a study of the history of Christian Monasticism, be important for contemporary Quakers? It is in the experience of these peculiar characters that we find expressed what is most dear to the Society of Friends, an understanding of inward and unmediated communication with the Holy Spirit. From the earliest of times there have been Christians who expected that they would communicate, without mediation, with the Holy Spirit and be led. It is in seeing how the desert fathers fled the society of their day for a time to find their calling and then returned for service to God’s creation that we can better understand George Fox’s period of searching for spiritual reality and then returning with a message that shook the culture of his day.   It is seeing Robert Barclay’s focus on work of the Holy Spirit as the primary foundation of Christian life and truth in a broader context. It is humbling for us to understand that we, as Friends, hold no patent on such Spirituality. Followers of the living Christ can be found in every time and place.

Fr. Thomas Hopko in Speaking of Silence tells that one day a man came to the cenobium (there’s that word again) and said, “I’d like to join the community.” When Pachomius asked him why, the fellow said, “I’d like to see God.”   “You’re coming here because you want to see God?” “Yes. What do I have to do? How many prostrations, how many Psalms, how many prayers, how much fasting …?” Pachomius answered, “Listen, if you want to see God, you don’t have to pray and fast. You don’t even have to join the community. Just come along with me, and I will show you God.”   Pachomius took him inside and, indicating the meanest, lowliest, dirtiest, most demented of the brethren, said to him, “Look. There is God.” The visitor said indignantly, “You mean to tell me that’s God?” Pachomius answered, “If you don’t come to see God in him, you will see God nowhere.” Does that sound like ‘that of God’ Quaker language to you? From the beginnings of monasticism there has been a commitment to welcome into the community of faith the least of humanity and serve their needs.

Quakerism may not be cloistered. We don’t reside in the Meeting House. Yet today we will share in the common life by worshiping with one another, in eating together and together doing our business. But we can’t stay here, in this place, even if here we experience “a sweet, sweet spirit”. William Penn stated it well when he said: True Godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.” Our form of Christian monasticism has a rhythym about it – we gather that our spiritual life may be fed, maybe even resusitated. And then, we go out into the world carrying with us the peace of heart, the quietness of spirit, the clarity of mind, self-control, and mutual understanding and cooperation, only to return again – back to the upper room, to that place where the Spirit of Christ which was blown upon the infant church now breathes new life into us. Do you see this connectedness with the pursuit of the life of the Spirit, the need for community and the unequivocal call to respond to the needs of the world?

 

.

 

 

 

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Pastor's Page. Bookmark the permalink.