In the News: Cistercian Monks

Last week I read a story on Deutsche Welle (an English-language news provider from Germany) about a Cistercian monastery in western Germany that is having to close its doors due to declining numbers of monks; you can read the story at this link.  We here in the USA are used to the idea of institutions having to close for these reasons, as in the case of churches that are dying off after a few generations.  But in this case, the monastery was NINE HUNDRED YEARS OLD!  It was part of the Cistercian movement (see their Wikipedia article at this link), the second major reform movement in the Benedictine tradition.  The most famous early Cistercian, Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot of the third monastery established in the movement, was responsible for a lot of its expansion, including the monastery in Germany about whom the original story was written.  Other famous monasteries that developed through his influence include Tintern Abbey in Wales, and Fountains and Rievaulx in Yorkshire.  It’s a spiritual tradition within the Catholic branch of Christianity that keeps on doing its thing, even if it is declining in some places.

Image credit: Langec – Own work, CC BY 2.0, (cropped by the blogger)

Links: The Patristic Period

The Muratorian Canon — This is an early (the first extant?) list of authoritative books for a particular community.  It’s interesting to read, and although there is some debate about how early it is, I think the most common dating is safe — around the year 200 AD/CE.  Notice that already the writer is talking about what books are “accepted” and what ones are “rejected.”  Notice also the interesting category he discusses toward the end: that a certain book (in this case, the “Shepherd” by a guy named Hermas) is good and should be read, but not in church.  Clearly, that book is helpful but is not on par with the “canonical” books that will become the New Testament.

The Epistle to Diognetus — This text is a second-century letter that nicely illustrates early Christian attitudes toward the world around them.  Notice especially chapters 5-6 of the Epistle, where the author clearly articulates the distinction between Christians and everyone else.  The reason I give you this text is that it helps illustrate the mindset that could be questioned in the situations regarding the martyrs.  Are Christians really that separate from the world?  We need strong leaders to guide us when we fall.

Clement of Alexandria on Philosophy — Here are a few selections from Clement’s work.  In terms of his high opinion of Greek philosophers, notice how he says about halfway down the page that Plato can speak “as though divinely inspired.”

Irenaeus on Bishops — This is a text from the second-century Christian writer Irenaeus, in his writing Against Heresies.  What’s interesting to me is Irenaeus’ perspective on the importance of the bishops in preserving apostolic teaching and connecting back to those early days.  He wrote this against some Gnostics whom he accused of inventing “new teaching,” which was a bad thing in those days.  Notice that, for Irenaeus, the bishops are important for doctrinal reasons, not so much power reasons.  This text connects nicely with our reading about bishops.  However, because Irenaeus was writing his text (called “Against Heresies”) against those Gnostics, he’s also interesting if you look at that material, too.  If you want to explore more on Irenaeus, you might start with something like this link.

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity — This text from the early third century will help illuminate the material on persecution.  It is a “martyrdom account” — a narrative purporting to tell the story of a Christian martyr.  In this case, the text is especially interesting because it both concerns women and also seems to come (in part) from the actual hand of one of them — the noblewoman Perpetua.  If you are interested in other martyrdom accounts, the other most famous one is that of Polycarp (died around 150 AD/CE), which you can read at this link.

Tertullian’s On Spectacles — This text comes from the early-third-century writer Tertullian, and is the first extended argument we have from a Christian writer about why Christians shouldn’t attend gladiatorial games.  Notice the various kinds of arguments Tertullian uses.

Origen — Origen was a hugely important early biblical scholar from the third century.  Here is a slightly long, oddly-formatted site that has lots of good information about him.  Notice especially his three-fold method of interpreting Scripture, which includes both literal and figurative (or”spiritual”) interpretations.

Origen on Scripture — Here’s a sample of Origen’s writings, and in fact, it’s among his most famous material.  Scroll down to section 11, and read sections 11-16.  You will get a sense of Origen’s discussion of Scripture, his idea that the Spirit is the divine author of Scripture, and that we can sometimes look for the “literal” meaning of Scripture (the “flesh” of Scripture) but other times its allegorical or symbolic meaning (its “soul” or “spirit”).  He is very tuned in to a devotional way of thinking about Scripture.

Origen’s Hexapla — One of Origen’s major contributions to biblical scholarship was his so-called “Hexapla” (which, being translated, means “six-fold”).  This site probably has way more information than you want, but the top portions of it give you a good sense of what the Hexapla was about, contained, and may have looked like (approximately).

More on Cyprian — If you are interested in reading more about the third-century African bishop Cyprian, this site will help.  It includes discussion of his two most important treatises for this chapter, namely, “On the Lapsed” and “On the Unity of the Church.”

Apocryphal Gospels — Wikipedia has a nice article on the New Testament apocryphal texts – that is, texts that are not included in the New Testament, despite containing reflection on Scriptural topics and sometimes being ascribed to Scriptural authors.  Most of these were written several decades after the New Testament books.  For perspectives on alternative stories of Jesus, see the “Gospels” section in the linked article.

How to Make a Papyrus — This is an interesting site and slideshow about modern folks making papyri like the ancients did.  How time-consuming!

Codex Sinaiticus Online — This site is the online home for the digital version of Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century manuscript of the Bible that is *hugely* important for helping textual scholars establish the best text of the Bible.  This site is explorable and is the result of years of work by many folks.

Jerome — Jerome was a very important early biblical scholar who flourished in the late fourth century.  He was the one who translated the Bible into Latin, in what became known as the Vulgate translation.  This translation was the Latin Bible used by Catholic Christians all over the world for 1,500 years.  Here’s a little more about him.

A Sample of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History — Eusebius is often called the “father of church history,” and this text gives you a little flavor of his work.  It deals with some early issues in the church; for the famous section describing the (fictional) correspondence between Jesus and Abgar, see this link.

Constantine and the “Sign of Christ” — This is a cool site that shows the emergence of Constantine’s use of the Christ-symbol (sometimes called the “Chi-Rho,” after the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek) by means of coins that he had minted, and then with those of his successors.  Nice commentary, too.

Images of Constantinople — Here is a source for images of Constantinople.  It can give you a better sense of the ancient city founded by Constantine.  Incidentally, some of our Leipzig study abroad students have visited Istanbul, which means they’ve seen the (former) churches of Hagia Sophia and Chora.

Selections from Arius’s Writings — Here is a portion of Arius’s writing, as it was quoted by Athanasius in one of his texts.  Notice the contrasts he draws between “God” and the Son — very stark!

Athanasius’s Easter Letter — Athanasius’s letter of 367 is the text that contains the first record of our 27 New Testament books.  This site gives the pertinent excerpts.  Note that Athanasius calls Hebrews a letter written by Paul – that was the common belief in those days, and it continued for many centuries afterward.

Gregory of Nazianzus on Analogies for the Trinity — Here is a selection from a text by the Cappadocian father (mentioned toward the end of the chapter) Gregory of Nazianzus on the Holy Spirit.  It’s a late-19th-century translation, so the English is rather Victorian.  At the very end of this text — sections 31-33 — he discusses two different analogies for the Trinity and also their weakness.  It’s a nice counterpoint to our attraction to some of those analogies.

Athanasius’s Life of Antony — We have read some about monks in the early church.  This is a narrative about the most famous early monk — Antony of Egypt — written by Alexandria’s most famous bishop.  Here is the text in full, after a good bit of prologue, should you want to read some of it.

Celibacy in the Early Church — On a related topic, many early Christians saw celibacy as an important part of their Christian discipleship.  Here are some quotations (in rather awkward, dated translation) that back this up.

A Summary of the “Rule of St. Basil” — Here is a summary of the monastic “rule of St. Basil,” an early guide for the monastic life in a monastery (that is, with others, and not living alone somewhere).

A Prayer to “Baby Jesus” — This is a moderately ridiculous clip from Will Ferrell’s movie Talladega Nights (with a bit of inappropriate language — please excuse it), but it connects nicely with the controversy between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople, who argued about Jesus’s humanity and divinity.  Nestorius did not go with the idea that the divine nature could be born of a woman — he would not have liked Will Ferrell’s language of “dear baby God.”  He would have agreed with Grandpa Chip — “he was a man; he had a beard!”  I assume Nestorius would have seen the intra-prayer conversation as indicative of what can happen when one sees Jesus however one wants.

Thumbnail image credit (John Chrysostom):

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the medieval period)

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 2)

bede windowWelcome back to the CHEF and to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People!  In the first post I talked about some background info and about Book I of the work, which gets us up to ca. 600 AD/CE.  In this post I’ll have some things to say about Books II and III, and then in the last one I’ll discuss books IV and V.

First, though, the big picture.

  • Chronology: while Book I consists of several centuries of history, Books II and III are focused on only about 60 years — from ca. 605 to about 665.
  • Geography: Books II and III discuss events that happened all over what we now think of as England, but it also includes stories and personalities connected with places like Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, and even Rome!  In other words, medieval England included a lot more “coming and going” than we might think of for the early Middle Ages.
  • The big points: 1) slowly, and in fits and starts, the various tribes that make up the “English people” are becoming Christian; and 2) the Christianity in England is becoming more and more influenced by “Roman Catholicism” as the native Celtic traditions are replaced by Continental ones.

Major Elements in Books II and III

  1. As noted above, a primary part of this middle part of Bede’s History is the slow move of the various Anglo-Saxon tribes toward Christianity.  The Danes and the Normans are not yet in view; rather, one reads a great deal about the West Saxons, the East Saxons, the Mercians, the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, etc.  These are all Germanic groups and are Bede’s primary focus; the Britons and Irish are mentioned but are the groups he finds to be imperfect in their Christian beliefs (see below).  In fact, if you’re like me, you find it hard to keep straight the different kingdoms and kings — names like Oswin and Oswald, Ethelwald and Ethelbert, and Edwin and Egbert are WAY too similar to make it easy for casual readers.  Happily, the Internet can help us here.  You can find lists of the kings of the various kingdoms at this link (although a comparative chart would be very helpful, and I haven’t found one yet).  Also this link gives you more information about the different kingdoms at this time, and the decent-enough map to the left can hopefully help you visually.
  2. But it’s not just about the places; for Bede, it’s about their conversion.  At the beginning of the 600s, Britain was a largely “pagan” place, but by the end of Book III, most of the English kingdoms have become Christian.  In one sense, this development occurs rather quickly, in that someone born around 600 (and living to 665) would have seen his surroundings change drastically.  On the other hand, it is important to note that Bede doesn’t present a smooth transition.  Sometimes one king converts, only for his son(s) to revert to paganism (see, e.g., King Ethelbert of Kent in II.5); at other times, a preacher comes to convert the king, but it takes him a long time to decide what to do (as with Edwin of Northumbria in II.13).  This picture helps nuance one of the aspects of early medieval Christianity that is sometimes troubling: the conversion of whole people groups upon the conversion of a king.  While these are not forced conversions (as discussed in this link), as modern people, we worry about the thoughts and actions of the individuals involved — whether they REALLY knew what they were doing.  But as we see here, it was an unsurprisingly complex phenomenon.
  3. Speaking of early medieval Christianity, there are a number of aspects of this portion of the text that are very “medieval,” that is, that fit our stereotypes of “the Middle Ages.”  We see things like daily Mass becoming normal (as in II.9), the “sign of the cross” becoming a cipher for Christianity and Christ (as in II.10 and III.2), “the Pope” becoming the standard name of the bishop of Rome (II.11), the use of saints’ relics or their derivatives for the purposes of healing or protection (III.2, 9-13, etc.), and a picture of continually developing church hierarchy (II. 17, where we see archbishops having some amount of authority over “just regular” bishops).  Personally, it had never really occurred to me to question our traditional delineation of the “Middle Ages” as a discrete thing, but Bede’s history shows me that there really is value in our thinking this way — that there were aspects of medieval Christianity that are just plain different from what came before and what would come after.
  4. A central event in Books II and III is the so-called “Synod of Whitby,” of which Bede is a major source (III.25).  MUCH more has been written elsewhere (for example, here and here), and so I’ll just offer a few comments.  First, this conflict gets set up from the very beginning of Book II, with Bede’s panegyric on Gregory I.  The fact that he praises a Roman bishop so highly shows us where his sympathies lie (notwithstanding Gregory’s role in evangelizing the English people).  Second, Bede makes it very clear (in several places, like II.4 and III.4) that the Britons, while they have admirable spiritual leaders, are not “doing Easter” right, specifically in the timing of their observance.  This may seem like a trivial problem, but for Bede, it represents their being out-of-step with the rest of the Christian world, especially with its center in Rome.  Third, we get a sense that there is a top-down urgency to this situation (much like Constantine’s motivations in calling the first Council of Nicaea in 325): King Oswiu of Northumbria followed the Celtic traditions, while his wife Eanfled (from Kent) followed the Roman ones.  As a result, as Bede says, there could be a time when the king was feasting and the queen was fasting!  Fourth, Bede does acknowledge that other issues were a part of the synod, like the so-called “tonsure” — the image below shows a drawing of the Roman practice on the left, with what might have been the Celtic practice on the right (we’re not exactly sure — but he doesn’t make a big deal about these “other matters.”  Finally, it’s interesting to me how the conversation ends.  Both sides have “tradition” on their side, and both claim apostolic origins for their practices.  However, when it becomes clear that the Celtic argument is largely based on the holiness of their saints, but that the Roman one is based on the authority of Peter, the king chooses Peter.  I might disagree with him historically, preferring the preservation of cultural diversity, but it’s hard for me to disagree with him personally.  Notice, by the way, that this is another chapter in the long and convoluted history of Britain and the continent of Europe (see the Anglican Reformation in the 1500s, the “Brexit” referendum of 2016, etc.).

celtic vs roman tonsure

Other Elements of Note in Books II and III

  1. I have read that Bede is the author that really popularized the “AD” dating system (anno Domini = “in the year of the Lord”).  I don’t have independent attestation of that fact, but I’m content to accept it.  We certainly see him using it all over the place, e.g., in II.1 about Pope Gregory.
  2. In his description of Gregory’s life (II.1), we see Bede (a monk) clearly contrast his ideal of monasticism as a pure, unsullied way of existing that seems to be clearly better than a life in the dirty, secular world.  This view makes sense, but it’s also problematic (as later thinkers would help us understand), chiefly in light of Jesus’ incarnation.  Our Lord came into a dirty world — and he took it on himself in the form of a breakable human body!
  3. Bede occasionally uses the word “catholic” in ways that mean “universal.”  He usually does this when talking about heretics or misguided Christians (here, in II.2, regarding the Britons).  However, the translation I’m using usually prints the word as capitalized “Catholic,” which has the presumably unintended connotation of “Roman Catholic,” which is not what Bede means.  He means something like, “Why do you think you’re so special?  EVERYBODY ELSE does it this other way!”
  4. Bede includes interesting and thought-provoking remarks about being a historian.  In III.2 he talks about how all the chroniclers basically decided to wipe a really terrible year (one marauding, invading king, and other apostate ones) off the record, by assigning it to the reign of “their successor King Oswald,” a good and pious ruler!  Then, in III.17, in discussing the death of the great and pious Saint Aidan, Bede says that he can’t “commend or approve his inadequate knowledge of the proper observance of Easter.”  However, he says that “as a truthful historian” he’s told the truth about Aidan’s life, and that he must commend all the virtues of the great saint’s life and actions, concluding by saying, “I greatly admire and love all these things about Aidan.”  A good model for us of how to deal with those with whom we disagree!

That’s it for Books II and III of Bede.  Next time we’ll finish up with Books IV and V.  See you there!  In the meantime, be thinking: What is an issue in Christianity on which you disagree with someone who is a really good follower of Jesus?  How might you focus more on your unity with that person than on your disagreements?

Image credits: (the Bede stained-glass window), (the map of Anglo-Saxon Britain), and a student’s account at (the image of monastic tonsures, apparently captured from a book that I can’t find; if you know what the original source is, please let me know!)

Suggested next click: Ecclesiastical History, Part 3

Noll, Ch. 4: Benedict’s Rule (530 CE)

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:

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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:

Suggested next click: Chapter 5

New Monasticism

benedict of nursiaMany American Christians know something about “monks” and “nuns” — people who give up their “normal” lives in various ways to live in a way that is dedicated to God.  Those dedicated lives sometimes play out in intentional communities, sometimes called “convents,” “cloisters,” or “monasteries.”  But most people do *not* know much about the history of monasticism in the Christian tradition, despite its relevance for our world.

In fact, monastic impulses go back almost all the way to the time of Jesus.  Beginning in the third century, we begin to hear stories of people going out into the wilderness in an attempt to follow Jesus more fully.  In the Western tradition that has influenced the Christianity with which most of us are familiar, the most important early movement was that of Benedict of Nursia at Monte Cassino in Italy.  In fact, Benedictine monasteries still exist all over the world, still living out the ancient ideals with which their movement was founded.

But I don’t want to discuss “ancient monasticism” today — you can read about that in many good places — but rather a phenomenon called “new monasticism,” which you may know something about.  New monasticism is a movement that has arisen in the last 20 years or so, and it tends to be rather like the “coenobitic” (or “communal”) monasticism of the ancient world.  Further, it tends to be a rather urban phenomenon; most new monastic communities are not going out into the desert or mountains, but rather trying to transform neighborhoods and cities from within.

New monasticism is an attempt to revive the ideals of ancient monasticism in our modern world, and just as ancient cloisters were different, so new monastic communities are different.  Some highly emphasize a form of poverty, with members selling all their possessions and holding a common bank account.  Many emphasize chastity, whether by having men’s and women’s houses, or by having a number of chaste, single members.  A challenging virtue for many new monastic communities is that of obedience; the members are influenced both by American individualism and by our ideals of democracy, so that leadership and authority can be challenging things to negotiate.

Why are these relevant for us?

  • First, these are people who are trying to follow Jesus in a radical, thoroughgoing way.  And you know how compelling such intense lives can be in our culture.
  • Second, most new monastic communities are indeed communal, and people in our fragmented, individualistic society really value communities in which people can find authentic relationships with other human beings.
  • Third, many people in our world are rather anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment, and new monastic communities often exist outside the bounds of traditional church structures.  It’s not that the people involved are not part of a church, but that the communities themselves are not under the authority of a particular church leader.  Also, the communities themselves may not be anti-establishment, but people may be drawn to them because they can seem that way.

new monasticism

So, what if you want to know more?  Well, a first step is to learn about some of the “new monastic” communities that are well-known in American Christianity.  Two examples are the Simple Way community associated with Shane Claiborne, and the Rutba House in North Carolina, for whom Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove often serves as something of a spokesperson.   Then, you might spend a little time reflecting on and learning more about the movement/impulse as a whole, as in this news story or this feature piece.  And finally, you might look around and see if there is anything like this in your hometown.  For example, students from the university where I teach have founded a couple of these movements.  I have had wonderful conversations with many of them about their common work.  You may find your own faith challenged and stretched… and then manifesting itself in new ways in your life!

Image credits: and