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Monasticism As The Institutional Matrix Of Spirituality

During the last decades of the twentieth century, postmodernists began to conflate the idea of monasticism with that of spirituality. The latter word means a process of inner transformation in the presence of God such as Christian monastics pioneered from the fourth century onward. In the twelfth century the Latin word spiritualitas came into use among Cistercians to denote the presence of the Holy Spirit within a monastic. Both the adjective spiritual and the noun mysticism sprouted in seventeenth-century France to describe inner religious experience of monastics and laity alike. But only in the 1920s did Roman Catholic theologians of asceticism adopt the noun spiritualité to denote anyone's experience of the divine within. Although many Eastern Christian monastics hesitate to apply this Latin-derived word to the process of inner re-conditioning that they call theosis (i.e., divinization), no one doubts that it was monastics in East and West who propounded what has come to be called "spirituality." The years of postmodernity of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in the West saw treasures from seventeen centuries of monastic interiority exit the cloister and invade the mainstream of religious publishing—for example, in the series The Classics of Western Spirituality published since the 1970s by the Paulist Press.


A scholarly controversy of utmost delicacy affects interpretation of the reputed founder of Western monasticism, the author of its major rule, St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–547). The words of his Rule have been pondered in thousands of monasteries, and episodes from his life have animated countless paintings and hagiographies. Regrettably, apart from his Rule, all record of St. Benedict and his life comes from a single source, Book II of the Dialogues, supposedly written in 593 by Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604; ruled as pope 590–604). That account interweaves miracle stories of a rural wonder-worker with tales of the saint's periods of residence at mountain locations in central Italy such as Nursia, Subiaco, and Monte Cassino. Since the sixteenth century, the authenticity of Gregory's authorship of the Dialogues has occasionally been questioned, but never so comprehensively as by Francis Clark in The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues (1987). Clark argues that Benedict's rule appeared only in 655 in Gaul and around 675 in Britain, being acclaimed only after 717 when Monte Cassino began to be built; and that a clerk in the papal archives ("the Dialogist") compiled the Dialogues (first reported to exist in the 680s) and ascribed the document falsely to Gregory I. The Dialogist's "literary patchwork" intersperses miracle legends (some originating after Gregory's death) with eighty genuine Gregorian passages presumably culled from archives in the Lateran Palace. These genuine passages comprise 25 percent of the whole, half of them in Book IV. The Dialogist recounts prodigies of recluses in a legalistic style quite different from Gregory's own. In themes, allusions, and word frequencies, the Dialogues differ from every known work by Gregory. Moreover, the tales glorify many persons, including St. Benedict's sister Scholastica, whom no other text from before 690 so much as mentions. Thus Clark's argument revises the entire account of "Benedictine" monasticism down to the 730s. In his view its true creators were not, as previously believed, monastics at Monte Cassino in the 540s or at the Gregorian papal court of the 590s, but rather Italian and French monastics of the 720s who drew inspiration from the newly available Dialogues. As yet only a few Benedictines have accepted this revision, not least because it demolishes their order's foundational narrative. Cognitive dissonance between the 1300-year-old account and Clark's revision remains too acute, but as Clark's sequel The "Gregorian" Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism (2003) shows, the tide is beginning to turn. One can no longer affirm the traditional account of how Benedictine monasticism began. All that is known is that a rule ascribed to a certain Benedict had surfaced by the 650s and had begun to establish its preeminence by 720. The idea of Western monasticism no longer enjoys an agreed-upon foundational story. Seldom has a legend accepted for so long dissolved so abruptly. A gigantic task of rethinking looms.

The Dutch literary scholar M. B. Pranger calls into question postmodern infatuation with spirituality by contrasting its eclecticism with the monotony of textual memory within pre-1200 monasteries. The practice of lectio divina invited a monastic to nestle inside a text as if it were a cloister, where the mind encountered memories of other scriptural passages. Across a lifetime of rereading the same texts, a monastic recalled previous acts of remembering, as each act of memory condensed previous ones into an eternal moment. Thus lectio divina called into being a community of monastic reciters of the same texts, above all of the psalms, the Gospels, and the Rule of St. Benedict. Naturally, no medieval author could have imagined the popularity that monastic writings rooted in centuries of lectio divina would attract at the turn of the twenty-first century. Mass marketing undermines the idea of monasticism as a life spent in a reciting community ruminating on a few texts.

Postmodernity has enlarged the community of readers of monastic texts to include nearly everyone who pursues a spiritual quest. Just as Western Buddhists are de-monasticizing the practice of Buddhism, so the "Spirituality Revolution" among Christians in Europe, North America, and Australia is de-monasticizing the legacy of Christian interiority. The very idea of monasticism as lifelong commitment to a rule is being diluted. At a time when texts of monastic origin are read more widely than ever before, consumers of these distillations of the cloistered life probably understand less of the idea of monasticism (i.e., of religious orthopraxy) than ever before. In response to the postmonastic ethos of the early twenty-first century, the idea of spirituality is being de-institutionalized, while texts by monastics are being spiritualized. Scholars such as M.B. Pranger, Marilyn Dunn, Frank Senn, and Kees Waaijman are laboring to re-insert the study of Christian spirituality into a monastic context, where obedience to a rule governs all.


Clark, Francis. The "Gregorian" Dialogues and the Origins of Benedictine Monasticism. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2003. Updates the controversy and refutes attempted rebuttals of the 1987 work.

——. The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues. 2 vols. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987. Summarized 1:10-30, the argument challenges the authorship of the Dialogues traditionally ascribed to Gregory I. See sidebar.

Dunn, Marilyn. The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Covers East and West to c. 650.

Jantzen, Grace. Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Reconceptualizes methodologies for interpreting male and female monastic mystics.

Johnston, William M., ed. Encyclopedia of Monasticism. Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000. More than 500 articles on Buddhist and Christian monasticism of all periods and places with bibliographies. Whalen Lai's twelve articles abound in comparisons.

Kardong, Terrence, OSB. "Who Wrote the Dialogues of Saint Gregory? A Report on a Controversy." Cistercian Studies Quarterly 39:1 (2004): 31–39. Endorses Francis Clark's conclusions and acknowledges the Rule as our sole source of knowledge about Benedict.

McNamara, Jo Ann Kay. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Compares male and female Christian monastics in depth with massive bibliography.

Mitchell, Donald W., and James A. Wiseman, OSB, eds. The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics. New York: Continuum, 1998. Judicious essays by twenty-four authors on a wide range of issues.

Pranger, M.B. The Artificiality of Christianity: Essays on the Poetics of Monasticism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Exhilarating reassessment of modes of reading and remembering among Western Christian monastics to 1700.

Senn, Frank C. Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997. Delineates Western monastic liturgies in chapters 4–7, 16–18.

Speake, Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Superbly illustrated volume evokes Orthodox monasticism's archetypal site.

Waaijman, Kees. Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, Methods. Translated by John Vriend. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2002. Reconfigures methodology in light of dozens of case studies of Christian monastics.

William M. Johnston

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Monasticism - History, Twentieth-century Changes, Monasticism As The Institutional Matrix Of Spirituality, What Do We Know About St. Benedict?