Who am I to criticize monks? They give up private possessions and the freedom to pursue personal desires in search of the most perfect Christian service possible on earth. I on the other hand have my warm coffee in a Starbucks mug and my glowing computer. I very definitely could go much farther in devoting my thoughts and activities to God rather than to my own comfort. But I sometimes think that monks go too far.
John Cassian’s Institutes of the Cenobia (which I read using the Kindle app on my shiny new Google Nexus) introduced Egyptian monasticism to the West. His work outlines a plan and justification for monks living in a group, not for hermits living in caves or on top of pillars: in other words, he favors cenobites, not eremites. And in laying out the life of a monastery, John shows wisdom and mercy but also some excessive harshness.
Two examples of wisdom: (a) Constant prayer and work keep a person from entertaining many tempting thoughts. (b) A simple uniform encourages humility and equality.
Two examples of mercy: (a) Not everyone can go without food for even one day; fasting should mean restricted and regulated intake of food, which can look different for each brother. (b) A few people should be assigned to sing the chants at each prayer office; some of the others will nod off during the prayers, and they shouldn’t be disturbed.
But then John commends surprisingly harsh treatment as tests. For instance, he says that other monks should taunt novitiates and treat them poorly to see if they really want to live humbly. Maybe that’s a reliable test of the firmness of a young man’s decision to enter the monastic life, but what does it do to the monks who spit on him and call him names? In another place, John says that superiors should give new monks impossible tasks in order to test their obedience. Humility and obedience are good, and we all need to work to increase these virtues. But doesn’t God also want us to be as wise as serpents and to make good use of our time? Watering a dead plant every day for a year doesn’t grow wisdom any more than it grows the tree – except perhaps the wisdom of knowing that some people profess Christianity and then blatantly lie every day.
But the worst moment of the book involves the story of a boy who entered a monastery with his father. The boy was beaten for days and then thrown into a river in order to test the father’s preference of the “life of Christ” over the welfare of his son. First of all, the life of Christ entails care for the safety of children; the two aren’t in opposition to each other. I seem to remember Jesus saying something about children and millstones, but in that lesson, it wasn’t the children who were thrown into the water. Secondly, why was the boy only seen as a means of testing the adult? Apart from being horrified by the thought of using a human being as a means to an end (OK, so John hadn’t read Kant, but surely he could have seen that this was wrong), I wish those cenobites had thought about the boy’s own needs for mercy and wisdom and instruction in his new way of life.