TRUE AND FALSE BENEDICTINES: CAVEAT EMPTOR
The North American Abbots of the Western-Rite Benedictines within ROCOR, have the mission and duty to defend and preserve in its integrity the Benedictine tradition as handed down to us from the days of our Holy Father Benedict. This tradition has been preserved in an unbroken line through fifteen centuries. In 1910 in North America, the Monk Dom Augustine Harding, recognizing the lack of true Orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Abbey to which he belonged, restored the Benedictine heritage and tradition to Holy Orthodoxy. Under Dom Augustine Whitfield this primitive and contemplative tradition was preserved in the Russian Orthodox Church throughout the twentieth century, and led to the founding of the two present Benedictine communities of Christminster in New York and Holy Rood in Florida.
As the heirs of so precious a heritage, we are naturally concerned to see it preserved and fostered in its fullness and purity. Hence it is of grave concern for the seekers of authentic Orthodox Benedictine tradition to be familiar with the true marks of that tradition. There are some places in Orthodoxy which have chosen, for whatever reason, to label themselves “Benedictine.” In North America any one is free under the law to use such a designation. This freedom has also give rise to dozens of alleged non-canonical groups which call themselves “Orthodox,” though they are not recognized as such by any canonical Orthodox authority. Nevertheless, they remain free under the civil law to exist and operate. Thus it becomes the task and duty of those seeking true Orthodoxy to distinguish the true from the false, the authentic from the imitation. Similarly there are monastic groups labeling themselves as Benedictine who have no valid or historical claim to the title. We feel that true monastic seekers should be aware of this and equipped to make their own fair and informed judgment on any particular group or place.
It would seem that the best standard for judgment and evaluation is that of Saint Benedict himself. In his rule he is careful to provide the signs and marks of the authentic tradition, and he is clear in his condemnation and dismissal of those that are false or misleading. It is our wish in the remainder of this article simply to set forth Saint Benedict’s own standards for those who truly belong to the tradition that bears his name. With these details in mind, any honest and sincere person will be able to judge for himself the authenticity of anything being presented as “Benedictine.”
We preface these remarks, however, with the plain and clear assertion that we do not thereby judge the inner disposition, piety or sincerity of any monastic falsely labeled as “Benedictine.” We wish only to ascertain whether the outward observance can be honestly and validly characterized as Benedictine. These standards in no way signify the absence -- or the presence -- of true monastic piety. “By their fruits you shall know them.” The reader will be equipped to judge whether the “fruits” is rooted in authentic Benedictine soil or some other tradition -- the Byzantine or even no tradition at all.
In the first chapter of his rule Saint Benedict says there are four kinds of monks, two of which he approves and two he condemns as false. The first kind he calls the “strong race of the cenobites” -- those who “live in monasteries, and serve under a rule and an abbot.”
The second kind are hermits who are not merely those who prefer a solitary life but are qualified to do so precisely by spending many formative years in a stable coenobitic community under a rule and abbot. Over years of probation they will have learned “in association with many brethren” the art of the monastic struggle. The truly Benedictine hermit is not someone who goes off and calls himself such, but a monastic who has served many years in a Benedictine community and is judged by his abbot to be ready for the solitary life. There are no “instant” or self-appointed hermits in the authentic Benediction tradition.
The remaining two kinds of monks are characterized by Saint Benedict as “detestable.” He calls them Sarabaites and Gyrovagues, and is scathing in his criticism and condemnation of them. In the mind of Saint Benedict these kinds of monks are unworthy of the true monastic life and should never lay claim to be “Benedictine.” Sarabaites are those “who, not having been tested as gold in the furnace, by any rule or by the lessons of experience ... they still conform to the standards of the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God. They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is their own good pleasure: whatever they think of or choose to do, that they call holy; what they like not, that they regard as unlawful.”
As for Gyrovagues, Saint Benedict writes the following: “These spend their whole lives wandering from province to province, staying three days in one monastery and four in another, ever roaming and never stable, given up to their own wills and the allurements of gluttony, and worse in all respects than the Sarabaites. Of the wretched observance of all these folk it is better to be silent than to speak. Therefore, leaving them on one side, let us proceed with God’s help to provide for the strong race of the Cenobites.”
It is clear that Saint Benedict strongly rejects three kinds of monastics:
• Those who set themselves up as hermits without a long formation in a coenobitic community under an abbot;
• Those who set themselves up in small communities without canonical approval and the supervision of a canonically constituted abbot;
• Those who wander from one community to another, never submitting themselves to a vow of stability in one community under an abbot.
Obedience and stability are two of the three vows that characterize Benedictine monasticism, along with the third vow of the perpetual reformation of one’s life according the mind and Rule of Saint Benedict. Aware of the hardness of the coenobitic life, Saint Benedict warns against a quick and easy admission to the monastic life. In Chapter 58, he says the newcomer must be firmly discouraged at first. Then admitted, he must be ready to accept harsh conditions and humiliations and all the pains of living in charity with others. If he can do this over several years, then he may be permitted to make a formal commitment to the monastic community. This commitment of profession is made in the presence of the church as vested in the canonical office of the abbot, and is accepted and ratified by the abbot in the name of the Church. This solemn public promise is similar to marriage vows, binding oneself in marriage to one spouse, and in monasticism to one’s community -- for richer or poorer, for better or worse -- until death. No monastic may simply presume on his own initiative to abandon the monastery, but must seek a canonical release.
The whole thrust and purpose of the Benedictine life is the death of the old fallen self -- an idol which, from our earliest years, seeks to be its own god, to be in control and in charge. This idol of the false self is the root and source of all our pride and sinfulness; and so long as it is enthroned in us, our true God and Father is ignored, hidden and obscured.
“HEARKEN, my son, to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of thy heart; freely accept and faithfully fulfil the instructions of a loving father, that by the labour of obedience thou mayest return to him from whom thou hast strayed by the sloth of disobedience. To thee are my words now addressed, whosoever thou mayest be that renouncing thine own will to fight for the true King, Christ, dost take up the strong and glorious weapons of obedience.
To summarize these reflections briefly:
• Authentic Orthodox Benedictinism will adhere faithfully to Saint Benedict’s Rule and his definition of true monasticism.
• Authentic Orthodox Benedictinism will be grounded in the historical continuity of the Benedictine tradition from the time of Saint Benedict himself.
• Authentic Orthodox Benedictinism will exist with a blessing of a canonical Orthodox bishop and under a canonically instituted abbot.
With these conditions in mind the seeker of authentic Orthodox Benedictinism should be equipped to make a clear and objective judgment on the authenticity of anyone or any group claiming to be Benedictine.
Quotes are from The Rule of Saint Benedict in English and Latin / translated and edited by Abbot Justin McCann, OSB published by Roman Catholic Books, Fort Collins, CO.