Sunday, 17 January 2010

St Antony in His Cave, or The Puzzle of Monasticism

Today, being Jan. 17, would ordinarily be the feast of St Antony. But this year today is Sunday, so it isn't. Still, why should that stop me venerating him and meditating on his life? Accordingly, I offer two related excerpts from the account I sent several family and friends of my own visit to St Antony's cave last October.

"Confronted by the life of Antony, my Protestant hackles go up. What kind of a response to Christ is it to flee into the desert and keep oneself away from all human contact? How does that fulfill the Great Commission? Expressions and images leap to mind- visions of fat friars, "so heavenly minded he's no earthly good" and such sayings. This instinct is strong, and has something in it. There are legitimate fears at work here- the fear that one will, through asceticism, believe one can work one's way to heaven; the fear that the obligation of evangelism will be neglected. Stereotypes of monastic and eremitical hypocrisy inevitably crowd in also.
To this there are two responses, which naturally overlap and interweave with each other.

The first is a story, one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. There are many such stories and sayings, collected by monks in the very early days of monasticism here in Egypt, and I have made the collection of them my spiritual reading this trip, dipping into them and meditating upon them whenever I have a moment. One such story tells of three brothers, who all decided to dedicate their lives totally to Christ. The first brother decided to be a peacemaker, following Our Lord's words in Matthew 5:9 and also in mind of James 3:18. The second chose to minister to those who were ill. The third decided to go into the desert and live in quiet and solitude. After some time had passed, the first brother became frustrated, because he could not settle everyone's disputes. He went to find the second brother to see how he had fared, and discovered he was similarly frustrated, drained and emotionally exhausted from his ministering. So they both went out into the desert to find the third brother. Upon finding him, the two poured out their hearts to him with all their difficulties and asked him how he had fared. The third brother was silent for a while, and then poured some water in a bowl. "Look at the water," he said, and they did, but they couldn't see anything in it. He waited a couple of minutes and then said, "Look at the water now". They did, and could see their faces reflected in it because the water had settled and become still. The third brother said to them, "This is why you are failing in spirit. You are working in a crowd and because of the turbulence, you cannot see your own sins and faults. But if you are still, you will see your sins." Only if we see our sins, what keeps us from God, can we allow grace to work on us in those areas. As long as we cannot see those things, they will not be healed and they will sabotage whatever kind of good work we endeavour to do.

How many evangelists, taking seriously the command to preach to all men, preach to others but neglect to preach to themselves? "All men" must include myself. Far better to preach to oneself alone than to preach to others and have one's unconscious sins and faults undermine the message. Only by preaching first to myself will I prevent myself from preventing God saving those I meet.

But, it will be protested, such a way of life, if undertaken seriously and rigorously, would prevent any real evangelism from taking place. If the serious Christians go out into the desert or off into the woods alone to live by working and praying in solitude and quiet, what will happen to those who have never heard the Gospel? Where will the missionaries come from?

That brings us to the second response to such questions. It is a simple recognition of an undeniable historical fact, and it is this. Almost all the peoples of Western Europe (and many in the East as well) were converted by monks.

This is simply a fact. The conversion of the Franks was set on foot when St Remigius preached to and baptised King Clovis. He was a Benedictine monk. St Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo) began and made great progress towards the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in England. His entire missionary team was composed of monks. St Boniface preached in the north of Germany and his mission had great success. He was also a Benedictine monk, hailing from a monastery near Winchester. In the East, Sts Cyril and Methodius began the conversion of the Slavic people, and Cyril's name is still attached to the alphabet he created to translate the Scripture into the Slavic language- it is called Cyrillic, and those are the letters you see on all those Russian signs. They were also monks. Nor should it be forgotten that it was principally because of the efforts of Benedictine monks, such as Dunstan, Aethelwold, and my good friend Aelfric, that the Faith was renewed in England after the wars with the Danes.

How is this to be explained? How does one reconcile the nature of the monastic lifestyle with such successful missionary efforts? How can something that begins with a man following Christ by running out into the desert to live away from people end with masses of people accepting Christ and whole cultures being drenched in the Gospel (in most of these countries, the people and the culture are only now, more than a millenium later, beginning to lose their faith- I'd call that some successful evangelism!)?

I don't have any easy answers to those questions. Indeed, it is something I am still digesting and mulling over. Part of the answer lies, I think, with the story above. So eager to get out there and win the world for Christ, we have not taken the time to let grace get its claws into us. Thus we sabotage ourselves. There is another story about a man who declared that he was completely sanctified and, taking Matthew 5:48 as his text, said that in Christ he had been made perfect. One of the monks went to visit him and asked him if he had really said this. He replied that he had. So the monk asked him, "Suppose you came in here and found a woman on your mat. Could you speak to her as though she was not a woman?" The man said, "No, but I would resist any temptation and refrain from touching her." The monk said, "Then you are not perfect. You have imprisoned lust but it is still in you. But suppose you were walking along and saw some stones on one side of the road and a jar of gold on the other. Could you think they were the same value?" The man said, "No, but I would resist any temptation and leave the gold where it was." The monk said, "Then you are not perfect. You have imprisoned greed but it is still in you. But suppose one man loved you and spoke well of you and another man hated you and slandered you, and suppose they both came to visit you one day, would they both be equally welcome to you?" The man replied, "No, but I would force myself to treat them the same." The monk said, "Then you are not perfect. You have imprisoned vanity, but it still lives in you. Your passions have been conquered but they have not been redeemed."

Another part of the answer, illustrated to some extent by the above story, lies in this. One of the things that strikes one about the monks is their total realism. Not for them lofty and abstract theological concepts. Grace, redemption and the work of Christ are found in the nitty-gritty. Sin is not a concept, an idea. It is a lived reality to be recognised and fought against intelligently, and sometimes one wins and sometimes one loses. Solitude and quiet are the prerequisites of self-knowledge, so you can know how sin gets at you specifically, and thus where grace is needed. The monastic lifestyle forces one to be honest. And only when we are honest about ourselves can we stand before God and let Him have His way with us. As long as we hide from ourselves, even subconsciously, we will also, like Adam, hide from God.

Another story tells of how a man tried to make a donation to a hermit. The hermit refused, saying, "I have enough for my needs from the work that I do." The man insisted, saying, "Then you could give the money to the poor," but the hermit refused even more vehemently, saying, "Then I should sin doubly. I would have accepted what I do not need, and then be vain from doing a good deed." That kind of moral realism, sprung from self-knowledge, is highly to be prized. To recognise that externals are ephemeral, and that whatever leads my soul to God, no matter what it is, should be sought, and whatever leads my soul away from God, no matter what it is, should be shunned.

I do not think these are the whole answer to this paradox, but they are clues.

What then, in a related set of questions, are we to make of Protestantism's traditional ambivalence towards monasticism? Of course, part of that no doubt owes something to Martin Luther's own experience of it as a bed of legalism and a hindrance to his relationship with Christ. That experience, being part of the foundational narrative of Protestantism, has, I suspect, been formative. There is also the general stereotype of monks (particularly during the Reformation period) being hypocrites, engaging in sinful and lewd lifestyles while putting forth a veneer of piety and devotion, entering the monastery because they were lazy and didn't want to work (the Desert Fathers would, one imagines, have stern words for such men), etc. It is undoubtable that these stereotypes, though open to the charge that many exceptions existed, had some foundation in reality during that period. One has only to read a little of the troubles Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross had in reforming the Carmelites in the same period to realise that monasticism was not in particularly good shape in the sixteenth century. And again, as that era was Protestantism's formative period, its birth and childhood, the contours of the culture of the time have characterised it to some extent ever since.

But I suspect it goes deeper even than that. The sixteenth century has been and gone. From an historical perspective it ought to be clear, especially in Evangelicalism whose origins are later than Protestantism more broadly defined, that monasticism as a way of life has a particular dynamic to it and that the abuses and dodginess widespread in the sixteenth century and afterwards are not of its essence. So why, apart from a few Anglican efforts which are clearly lifted pretty directly from Catholicism (the Anglican Franciscans leap to mind), has Protestantism not given rise to any monastic movements of its own? Is there a particular reason why it should, alone of all forms of Christianity, excise from itself a lifestyle that has proved vigorous, dynamic and gospel-centred in every other branch of Christians?

This is something I have wondered about for some time, primarily as simply an historical curiosity. I don't think I have a definite answer but I have some suspicions which may be more or less on the mark. I submit them for what they are worth.

It seems to me that Protestantism, particularly Evangelicalism, has a very specific understanding and practice of prayer. Prayer is there to get things done. All forms of prayer are subordinate to, and converge towards, petitionary prayer. One can see this in the kind of language used. The standard kind of opening, "Lord, we just want to praise You and thank You..." or "Lord, we are so blessed to be able to come into Your presence..." naturally leads to sentences beginning with verbs like 'help', 'use', 'allow', etc. All very active. Lord, do stuff! I should add, in case there is any doubt, that this is a perfectly legitimate kind of prayer and I am not criticising it, much less condemning it. But what I find interesting is that for Protestantism generally, and Evangelicalism in particular, this is the whole of prayer. And this naturally leads to an inherent suspicion of all kinds of prayer that do not have as their stated objective the intention of getting something done.

I think this idea of prayer is the basis for much that is good in Protestant culture. The gung-ho, pro-active "Let's win some souls for Christ!", "Let's church the unchurched!", "Let's reach out to the lost!", "Let's let our good works shine before men so that they praise our Father in heaven!", "Let's make Sydney 10% Christian by 2015!" attitude is laudable and challenging to those of other Christian cultures who are unused to such in-your-face Christianity.

But for those raised in such an atmosphere, monasticism constitutes a blindspot. "You can't cut yourself off from everybody. That's not biblical." "Following Christ means bearing witness to the good news in your home, in your workplace, not leaving everything behind and doing nothing on your own." For all of these objections, my suspicion is that the fundamental problem is that monasticism doesn't seem active enough. I recall a seminar offered once in the Sydney Uni Evangelical Union. The advertisement ran thus: "GET THEE TO A NUNNERY! Or, for a serious discussion of Christian femininity, come to the Women's Forum on Thursday at 1pm." The implication was that doing manual work, praying, and singing Psalms every day in an enclosed community was no way to be a Christian woman.Why not? At the risk of completely misreading the intentions of whoever came up with the advertisement, I would hazard a guess that it was because such a lifestyle appeared ineffective. It didn't affect anything. With no evangelistic or other outlet for outreach of some sort, the nunnery looks rather like hiding your light under a bushel. The scandal of that approach is that, with the Great Commission firmly embedded in her mind and heart, a person who takes up such a lifestyle seems to be opting out. Shirking her God-given responsibilities as a Christian.

There may, of course, be more to it than I have suggested, but I think that this dedication to what is outwardly and explicitly active and effective, this results-driven spirituality, is at least a large part of Protestantism's historic distrust of the monastic way of life. There may be more to it than that, and I may not be completely on the mark with that hypothesis. But its something to think about anyway.

To ingrained objections like these, the only thing to say is what I pointed out before- those two responses from earlier. Firstly, grace cannot work on sins of which we are unconscious and, unless we have the experience of being quiet and alone, engaging in contemplative as well as active prayer (i.e. prayer that does not seek to get things done but simply to know God), we will not see our sins nor will they be cured and they will sabotage all our efforts. Secondly, the counter-intuitive but undeniable fact that monks have been more successful and more effective missionaries and evangelists than anyone else to date."
- - - - - - -

"To our right, leading up and behind one of the large formations of rock that characterised the mountain, we saw a set of steps. This, we assumed, must be the way to Antony's cave. So we left Ahmet with the car and began to climb. Having reached the top of these steps, we realised that an error of judgement had been made. We had assumed that the cave must be just beyond this rise. Having reached the top of it, however, and therefore being able to see farther than before, we perceived that in fact the steps led halfway up the great massif, and that we had a long way to go. Moreover, we had not brought any water with us.

With an ever-so-slight devil-may-care attitude, Tanta Suzie, Jeanne and I decided to continue up anyway. We wanted to see Antony's cave. Well, we would see Antony's cave! So the climb began.

There were actually huge numbers of people going up and down the mountain. Interestingly, every one of them was Egyptian and almost all of them were young. Coptic Christianity is clearly doing pretty well these days. To either side of the steps as we climbed were little plaques stuck into the ground, each featuring a verse of Scripture or one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers in Arabic. Tanta Suzie was kind enough to translate a couple of these for Jeanne and myself. The climb was maybe half the distance that the Steps of Repentance had been on Sinai (I found out later it was 1200 steps) and not as gruelling as the climb up Sinai had been. But it was still fairly gruelling, especially given that we had not brought water...

Eventually, after a good 45 minutes, we reached the small area where Antony's cave was. There was a precipice at its edge, and a tall fence had been built to prevent any accidents. The rockface stretched up from where we were more or less vertically, though in one small crevice one could see a Coptic cross placed, and in another one could see pigeons nesting (the first animals we had seen in the area- it is after all in the middle of the desert). Around the cave were quite a number of people, mostly young. One group of young men from a church in Cairo were eager to get a group photo with the curiously-dressed Westerner, and, slightly reluctantly, I obliged them. It was, at any rate, a good opportunity to practice my Arabic, much to their delight and occasional amusement.

The cave itself was tiny. A small gap in the rockface, nothing more. In gaps and small crevices in the rock around the entrance, pieces of paper had been placed with prayers inscribed, as at the Burning Bush at St Catherine's. And around the entrance on the ground were shoes and sandals belonging to those who had entered. The concept of going barefoot in holy places a la Moses is still very much alive among the Copts.

Jeanne and I went in, but Tanta Suzie, who was not feeling the best after the climb, decided to wait outside. It was, as I said, nothing but a crack in the rockface. I mean that literally. There was no floor as such and not enough space to stand, just two walls of rock that curved narrowly on either side, meeting in a sharp point below one's feet (or foot, as it was often too narrow to put both feet down at once) and the same again a short space above one's head. One was forced to half-crawl, half-skip, half-walk (yes, I know that makes three halves but one-third sounds odd) in order to progress, and this became even more interesting as the daylight faded behind and one became enveloped in darkness as the cave bent away and into the mountain. Someway in, it opened out to a space that was a little larger and where there were candles to give some light. There were a couple of steps down and there an altar, with one of those Bedouin mats laid out in front of it. Above the altar was an icon of St Antony and above that a larger icon of Our Lord. I thought that was as it should be. There was a man who came in with us and stood at the top of the steps where the cave opened out a bit. He spoke to us and gave us some background on the place, but, being in Arabic, I was only able to grasp a small part of what he was saying.

I knelt there for a while, praying, asking for Antony's prayers, and meditating on the significance of the place. Looking around and up at the cave walls, with the candle-light flickering and casting shadows among the formations in the cave ceiling, it was extraordinary to think that Antony had lived here for years, on his own in the dark. Getting to know himself truly. Getting to know God truly. Letting grace chip away at him bit by bit. How familiar these rock walls must have become to him. And yet how lonely. How far away from everything. This niche in a cliff-face was miles out into the desert, far from anything. Dangerous to live here. So little to sustain even basic necessities. What kind of happiness or fulfillment could a man find here? No one to talk to. Surely a person would go mad, like those people one hears about isolated on islands for years. Yet Antony did not go mad. In fact, the opposite. He became sane, saner than most anybody else around, so that people would travel out into the desert to get spiritual counsel and advice from him. Holiness and sanity are related, as Frank Sheed reminds us, because they both involve living in accordance with reality, a reality that ultimately derives from and consists in God. Far from going mad, Antony's relationship with the Lord made him into the kind of man that could ease the sufferings of the whole Christian population under Diocletian, and build up and encourage the orthodox in their struggle with the Arians.

It was not right to flee the world and isolate himself in the desert, cry the critics. It was not right to flee the world and isolate himself in the desert, cry my own spiritual instincts. What good did it do? demand both.

Ask that of the Alexandrian Christians under Diocletian. Ask that of Athanasius and the orthodox during the Arian crisis. Ask that of the Anglo-Saxons, of the Franks, of the tribes of northern Germany, of the Slavs. Ask that of the Coptic young people who climbed the mountain yesterday and placed their prayers in the rocks. Ask that of the Patriarch of Alexandria at prayer in his chapel. "Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor and come, follow Me."

I also thought of something else, which I had been thinking about since Sinai. It had always seemed to me that Moses got a rather raw deal. All those years of working, all those years of wandering. But no pay-off. The Israelites get their reward, their homecoming. They finally enter the Promised Land. But Moses, after everything, doesn't get a thing. It seems so unfair. Where is his happy ending? Shouldn't God reward him after all his faithfulness, his tireless work, his sacrifices? But then I realised. What am I expecting or wanting for Moses? I'm wanting something for him that God will give him. A crown, a sense of fulfillment, some kind of closure, something. But Moses has learnt the most important lesson, and I'm one step behind even grasping what that is- Moses has learnt to desire God Himself, in preference to any of His gifts. God Himself is Moses' reward at the end of his life. That is his only closure. That is all the closure he needs. All Moses' experiences have led up to that and it is that that is the essence of the Torah - "Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength." - and it is that that Moses finally learns to desire on the mountain when he says "Show me Your glory." The Israelites have received their home, their land, a place for themselves. But they have not learned to desire God simply in Himself, and thus they will continue to fall from Him for centuries to come. Moses has learnt this. He has come to desire God simply for Himself. So, for him, the Promised Land is superfluous. In the desert, Antony learned to desire the same thing."


Anonymous said...

You get some people who are talkers, and some people who are listeners. Probelm is, the people who sit and listen or study don't talk, and the people who do all the talking don't listen.

Ever read the O series by Maurice Gee? It was something my Mum got me to read when I was younger. There was something said by one character about good not being the absemce of evil but something that was one every day in the battle that never ends. Sort of like bravery not being the absence of fear but the defeat of it.

Kiran said...

I suppose one thing that needs to be clarified in the modern world is that God loves each one of us, personally (which I prefer to individually), and as part of the body of Christ. So, as long as we are parts of the body of Christ, we are still contributing in some way. [As an aside this is the way I interpret "Only one thing is necessary." Not (in itself) as indicating superiority of vocation, but as saying that so long as you listen to Jesus and are transformed by it, the accidents (to use a Thomistic phrase) could be different.] But if God loves each one of us, then there is a point to the desert as the place where he leads some of us, so that we can love each other better, as He promises us.

Also, there is the interesting case of Bl. Charles de Foucauld, who decided that all he wanted to do was to go out into a non-Christian place and "make Christ present in their midst." Which is precisely what he did. He went to the middle of the desert and offered Mass. He converted exactly no one until he died (was murdered I think). But I think he lived out his vocation in making Christ present where He was not.

Likewise our very own St. Peter Chanel, who again converted no one until he was martyred, and then the entire island converted. God works in funny ways, and cannot be tied down by our expectations.