Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 10

Here is the new installment of the St. Martin saga. Here we learn about St. Martin's monastery and monastic vision.

Text:
I am not able to set out how great a man he proved to be after he took up the bishopric. For he persevered very firmly in the way of life he followed before. (2) He had the same humility in his heart, the same thrift in his clothing. He was full of authority and grace and fulfilled the dignity of bishop. Yet, he, nevertheless, did not abandon the lifestyle and virtues of a monk. (3) Therefore, for a long time, he used the cell which was connected to the side of the church. Then, when he was unable to bear the disturbance of those crowding around him, he established a monastery for himself almost two miles outside the town. (4) The place was so secret and remote that he did not miss the solitude of a hermit. On one side, it was bounded by a precipitous cliff of a high mountain. The river Loire shut in the remaining plain in a gradual sweep of the bay. It could only be reached by a narrow road. He himself had a cell built of wood, many of the brothers built cells in this way: (5) The majority made shelters for themselves by hollowing out the rock from the overhanging mountains. There were nearly eighty followers who were instructed in the example of their blessed master. (6) Nobody had anything of their own. Everything was owned in common. It was not permitted for them to buy or to sell as is the habit of most monks. No art was practiced there except that of the scribe in which duty the younger members were assigned, while the elders were freed up for prayer. (7) Rarely did anyone leave their cell unless they were gathering at the place for sermons. They all received food after the hour of fasting. No one knew wine unless some illness forced him to. (8) Most were clothed in camel hide; softer clothing was considered a crime. This must be considered the more astonishing because there were many nobles among them, who had been brought up very differently, but whom he urged to this humility and patience. The majority of them we have seen became bishops. (9) What city or church which does not desire a priest from the monastery of Martin?

Commentary:
Now that Martin is bishop, Severus moves on to set out the establishment of the monastery of St. Martin. Of course, Martin has been setting up monasteries as he moved around in northern Italy, Illyricum and Gaul, but he keeps finding either that he is crowded out by eager spiritual seekers or he is driven out by resentful ecclesial authorities. This is not an unusual state of affairs for a monastic life (as this one is in some ways), since even St. Antony had to move his hermitage several times in his life time.

This monastery is, of course, the final one and, like the final hermitage of Antony, it is all but inaccessible. That is, of course, rather the point because Martin is trying to establish a community outside the constraints of urban life in the Late Empire. Solitude, as a result, is necessary.

The rule at St. Martin's monastery is quite strict, as one would expect from the subject of a saint's life. The description tells us quite a bit about the monasticism of St. Martin's day; that it was starting to become laxer than Martin or the great ascetic athletes would tolerate. What Severus provides here is a picture of classic monasticism as a kind of template of the ascetic life as an antidote to easier, softer ways. The fact that work is not really a part of this monastery (except for copyists) points in that direction because it took the Benedictines to combine work and prayers as nearly equal elements of the monastic movement.

The comment about nobles is striking in this context. The implication is that the lifestyle of this monastery is not so far removed from the poor, but the adherence of a noble to this lifestyle which is so different from the lifestyle which they had grown accustomed to makes their discipline so much more remarkable. Mind you, Edward Gibbon would have a few harsh things to say about nobles pulling themselves out of Roman civil/political life, but this passages establishes Martin as the educator of bishops. This points to Martin's major influence on the development of the Gallic Church in the later 300s AD.

I admit that I tend to baulk at this kind of hard-core monasticism, largely because, all too often, it was based on a neo-Platonic contempt for the body which I neither find wholly biblical (yes, there are passages, notably in Paul's letters which could support it) nor consistent with a theology of a body characteristic of Judaism and a major element of early Christianity which sees body and soul was inseparable. While this is, at least, a monastic community as opposed to hermits (who themselves display an almost freakish devotion to a kind of ascetic Olympics in which one hermit strives to outdo his brothers in the severity of their body-denying disciplines), I worry about this particular version of monasticism. Perhaps I'm rather too used to Benedictine monasticism to entirely feel comfortable with this, admittedly, commendable monastic vision.

Yet, I also cannot deny the devotion of these ascetic athletes in prayer and in trying to make themselves develop spiritually. There is, clearly, much wisdom in the monastic tradition, even for those of us involved in the world. That wisdom explains the appeal of monasticism over the ages, both as a calling and as a source for non-monastics to find wisdom. St. Martin is a little hardcore, but not crazy about it. No one was tying themselves onto pillars or indulging too much in self-flagellation, it seems in this community. Instead, what we have is a community of prayer which is rather the point of the monastic vision.

Of course, we can learn much from this vision. In our particularly consumerist society, the idea of holding property in common is just plain strange and subversive. The idea of not going out to buy and sell is positively freakish. I am, of course, just as enmeshed in the consumer society we find ourselves in today. One does have to buy things, especially when one has a family to support and take care of. Nor would I say that is bad in itself. Ideally, buying and selling is what is necessary to get what we need to have for ourselves and families and, if engaged upon with honestly and integrity, can be an honourable profession. What is problematic in our culture is the compulsion to buy which infects our mass media and individual desires. St. Martin speaks against that compulsion both to his own culture and our own.

Peace,
Phil

2 comments:

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm very fond of the anti-consumer / communal property / vow of poverty / vow of simplicity strains of monasticism. I think we could use a groundswell like that right now.

The hermitage concept seems strange from a Great Commission viewpoint, and (given that the greatest of Christian virtues is love) the ascetical exercises seem strangely focused; they tend to develop self-control or self-denial rather than love. So I think your concern about the non-Christian direction of certain exercises is well-founded. (Enjoyed the "spiritual Olympics" bit.)

Take care & God bless
WF

Phil S. said...

Hi WF;

I agree with the counter-cultural element of monasticism, especially in this consumer economy of ours. It is one reason why I like reading monastic literature. Of course, we humans are adept at finding ways to pervert any beneficial practice which is how I understand 'ascetic (or spiritual) Olympics'. At the end of that day, that impulse to out-ascetic your fellow monks is an expression of pride (masquerading as humility or self-denial) and, as any sound abba or amma would say, is also counter to the monastic ethos.

Peace,
Phil