Sunday, August 25, 2013

Chapter 1: The Different Kinds of Monks

           It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind is the Cenobite, that is, the monk who lives under a rule and an Abbot. The second kind is that of Anchorites, or Hermits—those who, trained for combat in the desert, are able, with the help of God, to fight evil single-handed, without the help of others. But a third and most despicable class of monks is that of the Sarabites, who, living without a shepherd make their own cloister, not in the Lord's sheepfold, but in their own. The gratification of their desires is their law; because what they like they call holy, but what they happen to dislike they call unlawful. There is, in fact, a fourth class of monks which we call Gyrovags. These so-called monks keep constantly moving, staying three or four days at a time in different cells as guests. Always roving and never settled, they indulge their passions and the cravings of their appetite, and are in every way worse than the Sarabites. It is better to pass these over in silence than to speak of their most wretched life.

             There was an old monk in my monastery who used to joke at the start of every Lent that he was going to fast whenever he wasn’t hungry. His point, I think, was that all of us love the rules that are easy to obey, but find reasons to disobey when the rules get difficult. Saint Benedict doesn’t have much patience for this kind of hypocrisy. He utterly despises wannabes—the do-it-yourselfers who make up their own rules as they go…or worse yet, make up rules that just happen to coincide with what they’re already doing.
            I teach Theology at a prep school in Saint Louis, Missouri. Not long ago, a kid raised his hand and point-blank declared that the Church’s teaching on Purgatory was stupid. Frankly, I think he was just trying to get a rise out of me, but before I could answer, the kid in front of him turned around and said, “So who died and made you pope?” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Unless you are truly convinced that you are holier, wiser, and smarter than the combined resources of the entire Catholic Church, you might as well concede that the pope speaks with more authority than you do.

            In class a few days later, the same kid raised his hand. When I called on him, he turned around to the rest of the group and said, “I see you guys at parties and on the weekends. You’re no holier than anyone else. At least I’m true to myself.” There’s a part of me that has to admire a kid like this. He certainly had the courage of his convictions, and I congratulated him on that.[1] The problem was that he actually didn’t know what his convictions were. After all, anyone can claim to be true to himself. If you want to do something really courageous and admirable, try being true to someone better than yourself—like, say, Jesus.

[1] Tom is in college now, and stirring up just as much trouble there as he stirred up back in high school—except that he discovered he could make much more trouble by defending the Church’s teachings!

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