Noll’s chapter 4 moves from theological questions to practical ones: what might a Christian do if he/she really wants to live in an intentional way in discipleship to Jesus? What might the options be? Well, as Noll says, one way that that happened is in the phenomenon called “monasticism,” in which a person chooses to withdraw from “society” or “the world,” in order to live alone or in community. Noll does a good job of describing some of the important historical names and movements (Antony in Egypt, John Cassian, Simeon Stylites, etc.), but the focus of the chapter is the Italian monk Benedict of Nursia.
As Noll says, Benedict is truly the father of monasticism in the “West” – that is, Western Europe and eventually North America. The reason we can rightly call him by this name is that the vast majority of monastic orders that have arisen since then have been part of the Benedictine “family tree.” The groups that Noll discusses in his “Brief Outline” (starting on p. 91) came from Benedict’s original movement, either in direct descent or in responding to the dominant Benedictine movement in Western Europe.
Noll’s description of Benedict’s rule (starting on p.86) is quite accurate. Many of the most important elements of the rule come from its focus on the practical realities of communal life, like how to help the members of the community encourage one another, how to respond to the local conditions where the monastery is located, and how to account for various weaknesses in the monks themselves. Also, Benedict’s rule is not one that encourages only “spiritual work,” like prayer and worship, or only manual labor, but rather both. The link I’ve provided will give you a good sense of some of the elements of the rule, since it is still in use today.
Side note: there are still Benedictine monasteries all over the world, and so you can find good resources at their websites, like this one. Feel free to look, explore, and discover how Benedictine monks and nuns are still living in community today.
Here’s a potentially helpful link to some excerpts from Benedict’s Rule: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/rul-benedict.asp
Here are some questions to respond to:
- This chapter presents the rise of monasticism as largely beneficial to Christianity. Is that how you tended to view monasticism before reading this chapter? Have your views on monasticism changed after reading this chapter? To what extent was your evaluation of monasticism affected by the presence (or lack thereof) of monastic movements in your religious background?
- Noll notes that knowledge of Benedict’s life does not equal our knowledge of his historical importance (p. 81). Do you find it encouraging or disheartening that work done for Christ can leave an impact that outlasts the knowledge or memory of the individual’s personality?
- Noll presents monasticism as a means of preserving rigorous Christianity in the face of Christendom (p. 82). In contexts where Christianity is generally accepted or at least tolerated, in what ways can the church preserve its rigorous witness? Is monasticism a viable option in areas where the church is small or persecuted?
- Simeon Stylites’s story is one of the odder ones of church history. How does his narrative strike you? Did his extreme self-denial help anybody? Did it help proclaim Christ?
- Noll praises Benedict’s Rule for combining zeal with stability (p. 87). In religious matters, can zeal and stability be reconciled? If there is a conflict between the two, which do you favor more?
- Noll notes that monasticism allowed women an opportunity to actively participate in the life of the church (p. 90). Is it surprising to think that monasticism helped elevate the role of women in Christianity? Could monasticism be helpfully reclaimed by feminists today?
- The last portion of the chapter is a partial evaluation of monasticism from a Protestant perspective. How did you respond to that evaluation? Based on what you have read, do you think monasticism promotes legalism? How might your religious background affect your answer?
Image credit for the detail of St. Benedict from a fresco of Fra Angelico: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_of_Nursia
Suggested next click: Chapter 5