Thursday, August 11, 2005

More Monkery

I am going to cite a few precepts from Jerome’s letters here in the space below, but before I do I would like to clarify why I am doing this. It is important for those who honor celibacy and virginity to understand what it was the repulsed Luther about monasticism. How can you refute the charge if you don’t know what it is? Likewise, fairness to Luther means demonstrating what the problems he had with it were.

From Jerome’s letter XXII to a young virgin:Instructing her avoid the company of married women, he writes, Why should you, who are God’s bride, hasten to visit the wife of a mortal man? In this regard you must learn a holy pride (superbiam sanctam); know that you are better than they (p. 85).

Rejecting the charge that he disparages wedlock, he writes It is not disparaging wedlock to prefer virginity. No one can make a comparison between two things if one is good and the other evil. Let married women take pride in coming next after virgins (p. 91).

I praise wedlock, I praise marriage; but it is because they produce me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorn, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the oyster (p. 95).

Letter XIV is addressed to a young Italian man who had pledged virginity and was now the sole support of his family and would not come out to the desert of Palestine with Jerome:

But, you will say, the Scripture bids us to obey our parents. Nay, whosoever loves his parents more than Christ loses his own soul. . . . Shall I desert from my army because of my father, to whom in Christ’s cause I owe no rites of burial, although in Christ’s cause I owe them to all men? . . . The battering-ram of affection must be beaten back by the wall of the Gospel: 'My mother and my brethren are these, whosoever do the will of my father which is in heaven' (pp. 33-35).

Jerome pictures the temptations Heliodorus will have to face in selling his property and leaving for Palestine, assuring him he had gone through the same:

Your widowed sister clings to you today with loving arms; the house slaves in whose company you grew to manhood, cry 'To what master are you leaving us?' [Who knew ‘selling all your property’ could include putting all your slaves on the auction block?] Your old nurse and her husband, who have the next claim to your affection after your own father, exclaim, 'Wait for a few months till we die and then give us burial.' . . . The love of Christ and the fear of hell easily break such bonds as these (p. 33).

Why are you such a timid Christian? Consider him who left his father and his nets, and how the publican rising from the receipt of custom became at once an apostle. 'The Son of man hath not where to lay his head,' and are you planning wide colonnades and spacious halls? Are you looking for an inheritance in this world, you who are joint-heir with Christ? (p. 39).

Addressing his feeling that he can serve the Lord just as well in Italy, Jerome rhetorically concedes, Perhaps you can do so in your own country, although the Lord could do no signs in His. He then explains that in your own country you will be despised which will create bad feelings in you that will be a distraction. Zeal will be lessened and when a thing is lessened it cannot be made perfect. We may sum up our account by saying that a monk cannot be perfect in his own country; and not to wish to be perfect is a sin (p. 43).

And this obsession with discipline influenced his whole understanding of Christian life. As an example, in letter CVII (as elsewhere), he demands teetotaling and vegetarianism for adult monks in this way: What Jewish superstition does in part, solemnly rejecting certain animals and certain products as food, what the Brahmans in India and the Gymnosophists in Egypt observe on their diet of only porridge, rice, and fruit, why should not Christ’s virgin do altogether? If a glass bead is worth so much, surely a pearl must have a higher value (p. 357). In other words, Jews and Hindus have food laws, so perfect Christian should have more and stricter food laws! If this is not what Paul denounces in Colossians 2-3 and 1 Timothy 4, then what is?

Why do people become monks and why do people admire monasticism? My overwhelming impression is that protest against Constantinianism or worldliness in the church, or even differing gifts of different people is not the core issue. Rather people (certainly Jerome, certainly Theodosius) become monks to literally fulfill the words of the Gospel as they understand them and so (they think) save their souls from hell:

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

. . . every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.

But if these commands are taken literally, as the monastic writers do, then they establish monasticism as an ideal for everyone, not a gift for a few. Those who give up all they have, those who abandon father and mother, are thus clearly more truly Christ’s disciples than those who don’t. And while modern defenders of monasticism may demur, the claim that monasticism is better is the natural result of this "monastic hermeneutic."

Jerome is reputed the third great Latin father, after Augustine and Ambrose, and one most closely associated with monasticism. When Luther decided monasticism was rotten to the core, this was the point of view he meant. If you think Jerome’s views are correct, then do not say monasticism is simply "another path" but go ahead and say it is the only perfect Christian path. On the other hand, if you believe monasticism is indeed simply another path, then admit that many of the most respected fathers would vehemently oppose that view, and their whole legacy needs to be looked at anew, and that part of that "looking anew" will involve paying serious attention to the Protestant, Lutheran critique.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

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