The Monk as Merchant: Economic Wisdom from a Desert Hermit

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2015 by citydesert

“Before Max Weber ever conducted his study of the “Protestant ethic” of hard work and commerce as a matter of one’s election before God, there was the ascetic ethic of the ancient Church. A story from the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” illustrates this ascetic business ethic well:
A brother said to Abba Pistamon: “What am I to do? I find it painful to sell what I make.” Abba Pistamon replied: “Abba Sisois and others used to sell what they made. There is no harm in this. When you sell anything, say straight out the price of the goods. If you want to lower the price a little, you may and so you will find rest.” The brother said: “I have enough for my needs from other sources, do you think I need worry about making things to sell?” The old man answered: “However much you have, do not stop making things, do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.”

Weber knew about the monastic ideal, and there are some important differences between the desert ethic and what he called Protestant “worldly ascetisicm.” There is nothing here about “mak[ing] [one’s] call and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) through material success in one’s work, but there is a lot about economics. Let’s examine this saying piece by piece to see how it can teach us about the good of production, exchange, subjective pricing, labor, and profit.

The unnamed brother begins with what has been a common dilemma for some, even today: profiting from providing for the needs and uses of others. “I find it painful to sell what I make,” he says. He seems to find any participation in commerce at least a violation of his monastic discipline, if not in some way sinful. Abba Pistamon provides a different perspective: “There is no harm in this.”

Far from a gnostic allergy to any involvement with the material world, Abba Pistamon acknowledges the good of production and exchange, appealing to past precedent of other revered monks before him (“Abba Sisois and others”). Commerce, he says, was common. In fact, according to the size and expansive enterprise of ancient monastic communities, we can say that his assessment is more than anecdotal. In ancient Christian sources, contempt for the merchant and trader is common, but the reality is more complicated. Sometimes traders and merchants went by a more respectable name: monks. We should not be surprised, then, that Abba Pistamon displays a certain natural business sense. But he does not stop at the merely economic aspects of production and exchange.

First of all, he’s against excessive haggling: “When you sell anything, say straight out the price of the goods.” He doesn’t want the brother starting high with the hope of reeling an unsuspecting patron into a price that he himself would not pay. However, Abba Pistamon seems to understand the subjective aspect of prices as well: “If you want to lower the price a little, you may.” This may be an accommodation for the brother who would rather give away his wares for free, but it may also be an acknowledgement that the price that the monk initially sets may not actually meet consumer demand. So while the starting price should be honest, there is room for a little haggling after all.

Second, the brother is not completely satisfied with this answer and pushes the old man one step further: “I have enough for my needs from other sources, do you think I need worry about making things to sell?” This is an interesting oddity: The brother has left everything to live in poverty in the desert, but he somehow thinks he can get by without working—anything to avoid participating in commerce, apparently. Though dressed in rags, he has the luxury of leisure. Abba Pistamon, however, denies that leisure is enough: “However much you have, do not stop making things.”

In her study of wealth and poverty in the early Church, Helen Rhee notes, “The monastic poverty in reality was more patterned after economic self-sufficiency than destitution.” It is not enough for Abba Pistamon that the brother live in comfortable poverty; he has a responsibility to provide for himself. As St. Paul wrote, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Ancient Christians were known for their almsgiving and care for the disabled, so it would be a mistake to read Paul’s conviction in too absolute of terms. By Abba Pistamon’s response, however, we may safely surmise that the brother was an able-bodied man of relatively sound mind. As such, he needed to work to provide for himself and for others through exchange.

The brother also needed to work for his soul. We may recall the common Benedictine adage, “ora et labora”: “pray and work.” Work—especially physical labor—wards off the passion of acedia, a sort of spiritual listlessness that causes laziness, boredom, and discontent. Even if the brother has all the material things that he needs, he still needs to work for his own spiritual good.

Last of all, Abba Pistamon cautions against pursuing profit to an excessive degree, compromising one’s conscience: “do as much as you can provided that the soul is undisturbed.” Yet he does not say, “Do as much as you can until all your needs have been met” or even “only to meet your own needs.” Rather, he acknowledges that not all profit is necessarily bad. Assuming it is made licitly, profit is only good or bad depending on its use for good or evil, respectively. As St. John Chrysostom put it, “neither is wealth an evil, but the having made a bad use of wealth; nor is poverty a virtue, but the having made a virtuous use of poverty.” So too with profit.
Chrysostom’s comment acknowledges something of a common and timeless prejudice with which many still struggle today. It is the same problem that prompted the brother in this story to ask his first question: the presumption that the profit-motive is a species of greed, and therefore, by extension, that anyone who has profited greatly must have succeeded through selfishness. This is a common error from Ayn Rand (who thought selfishness was therefore good) to the Occupy crowd (which assumes that great wealth is therefore always bad).

Reality, on the other hand, favors Abba Pistamon, St. John Chrysostom, and others like them. While one may profit unjustly or prove an unfit steward of the wealth one acquires, profit serves an extremely vital economic (and charitable) function: investment—in greater production, more workers, better employee benefits, new products, or even shares in other companies. Without gains beyond one’s expenses and without going beyond meeting one’s needs, one has nothing left over to use for the greater good of others. As Pope John Paul II put it, justly ordered profit is “an indication that a business is functioning well” and “that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied.”
Paradoxically, denial of the potential good of profit may turn out to be the more selfish economic practice: to make enough only to provide for oneself can leave the unemployed without jobs, the entrepreneurial dreamer without investors, and the needy without benefactors. This is an error that Abba Pistamon, at least, bids us to avoid. Rather, with the important caution that we firstly tend to the peace of our souls, we ought to do as much good as we can through our labor, production, profit, and exchange. This economic wisdom from the ancient Egyptian desert proves timelessly prudent, still relevant for our own context today.”

From “The Monk as Merchant: Economic Wisdom from a Desert Hermit” by Dylan Pahman January 12, 2015
Dylan O’Brien Pahman is assistant editor of the “Journal of Markets & Morality” at the Action Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He has a Master’s of Theological Studies in historical theology with a concentration in early Church studies from Calvin Theological Seminary. He is also a layman of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Helen Rhee “Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation”, [Baker Academic, 2012]
Susan R. Holman (Editor) “Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society” (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) [Baker Academic, 2008]
Justo L. Gonzalez “Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money” [Wipf & Stock, 2002]
Saint John Chrysostom “On Wealth and Poverty” [St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999]

Spirituality in the Australian Desert

Posted in Uncategorized on November 23, 2015 by citydesert

Ian Robinson “If Anyone Thirsts. Biblical Spirituality from the Desert” [Morning Star Publishing, 2015]
“All through scripture, the people of God have found true freedom in a journey through the desert. It is a simple trajectory – the exodus, the exile, the forty days, the cross. This book aims to lead you down the lost seam of gold that is desert spirituality in the Bible. The desert makes a powerful spiritual impact on those who go there. It encourages us to realise that we know who we really are only when we have nothing. But looking around the wealthy churches of the western world, we hang on to what we’ve got for fear that God has no more to give. We desperately need to recover a dimension of our faith that has been left out. If you are tired of the dogmatic pathways of religion, or if you have departed the church for fear of shrivelling, this book will steer you back to the best of biblical spirituality, to claim Jesus offer of a resource of strength and simplicity.”
Ian Robinson “This Thirsty Heart – A Journey in the Deserts of Australia” by Ian Robinson [MACSIS Publishing, 2012]
“Visually stunning read of a 4WD journey though the Australian desert. Campfires under immense star field backdrop. The desert is the great heart of Australia. Some people think of deserts with affection and awe and others with dread. Yet most people have never been to the desert. Waiting for them are majestic sunsets, and nights around the campfire under the sizzling clear stars where the immensity touches the soul. The power of the desert is something humans have known for thousands of years but have lost in the concrete busyness of modern urban lift. This books helps us rediscover that beauty. In this book you will travel for a week in the desert with Ian and fellow travellers and follow the explorers and the Aboriginal custodians into a transforming place. The stories resonate. Writing in a distinctive Australian context and accent, Ian challenges us to journey physically and spiritually from the edges to the heartland, from superficiality to depth.”
Ian Robinson PhD (CSU), MA (Oxon), BA (UWA), is a minister of the Uniting Church in Australia and part-time Uniting Church Chaplain at the University of Western Australia. He has been taking groups into the deserts of Australia since 2002 through Spirit Journeys Australia: see

Fighting Demons In The Desert

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by citydesert

“The man acclaimed as “the father of monasticism” never dreamed of the huge impact he would have. But the new mode of discipleship he helped bring to birth in Egypt in the early 300s A.D. turned out to be one of the most momentous innovations in the church’s first thousand years.

Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (298-373) was exiled five times from his beloved church at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors. In one of these exiles, the staunchly orthodox, diminutive firebrand fulfilled a long-time dream by traveling to the desert to share the life of the hermits there. During what became a lengthy ascetic sojourn, he wrote what historian Derwas Chitty correctly calls “the first great manifesto of the monastic ideal.” This was not some tidy, orderly rule of life, but rather a biography of the most gripping sort—of the best-known early monk and first “desert father,” Antony of Egypt (251-356).
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Antony was the son of a prosperous Egyptian peasant-farmer. Shortly after his father died, he heard at a church service the gospel words “Sell all you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me.” In response, he sold his birthright—200 acres of lush, fertile Nile valley land—and began to live as a solitary at the edge of his small town.

This sort of hermit lifestyle was already a known practice in Egypt by Antony’s youth, and it fascinated the young man. He apprenticed himself to a local holy man, absorbing from his elder everything he could learn about the ascetic life. Askesis meant “training”—especially the body-building the Greeks had always been so keen to practice in their “gymnasiums.” It never entailed merely giving up things, like food or sexual relationships. Rather, it was a mode of exercising and training the heart.
Seeking further separation from the distractions of town life, the intense young man went out into the desert. This was real desert, not for the faint of heart: the scorching expanse of sand that covered the vast majority of Egypt outside the thin strip made green by the Nile’s seasonal flooding. It was said that nothing could live in those parts except demons. This suited Antony. Like many Eastern Christians who followed him, he had a keen sense of the spiritual battle that surrounds all of us.

First the young man sealed himself in a tomb not far into the desert, depending on some villagers to bring him food. Then he moved farther out to a ruined Roman fortress on a mountain by the Nile, which became his home for 20 years. There he indeed encountered demons, in the form of wild beasts, sent by the devil to intimidate him. But Antony mocked them, reminding them that Christ had robbed them of any authority and cast them down. And not being able to withstand his scornful ridicule, they disappeared.
anthony of egypt
In 305, the second year of the last great persecution of the church, Antony emerged from his ruined fort with the help of some villagers who broke down the fort’s door. After 20 years shut away in solitude, he stood before them cheerful and in glowing health, in full possession of his senses, having attained the Greek ideal of apatheia or emotional equilibrium.

Learning of the persecution, Antony returned to the city and sat in court in silent solidarity with his Christian brothers and sisters soon to be martyred. Antony himself sought martyrdom, but it was not to be. Once he returned to the desert, a stream of people increasingly sought him out—some, perhaps, to escape the threat of death to Christians in the cities, others to prepare themselves for martyrdom, and still others simply coming to see what all the fuss was about. This was the time when, as Athanasius said, “the desert became a city,” and Antony’s fame spread far and wide as he dispensed healing miracles and words of wisdom to the gathering crowd of imitators and devotees.

Saint Anthony cave.

Saint Anthony cave.

Finally, in his sixties, Antony again grew restless for solitude and sought a deeper, more private corner of the desert in which to pursue God. Moved by the Spirit, he went with a caravan of Arabs several days’ journey into the desert toward the Red Sea, to an isolated oasis at a mountain’s foot. However, Antony’s last attempt at solitude failed. Even at this remote retreat in the Eastern Desert, he found himself needing to maintain an herb garden to feed the many seekers who trekked through the desert to receive spiritual food from his lips. There, at his “inner mountain,” where today stands the monastery of Saint Anthony the Great, Antony lived out the rest of his 105 years.
Apart from being compellingly written and describing a larger-than-life subject, Athanasius’s biography of Antony commanded attention by its discerning description of the monastic life’s twin energy. This double dynamic, learned from the apostles and early martyrs, consisted on the one hand of athletic, near-heroic self-exertion and self-interrogation, and on the other of God’s gracious help from heaven through Christ—a duality that would shape all future monastic movements.

Within a few decades after Athanasius completed the “Life of Saint Antony” in 357, not only the Greek-speaking Christians of the eastern Mediterranean but also the Latins in Italy and Gaul knew of Antony. By 400, he was already a figure of legendary proportions—perhaps the first real “Christian celebrity.”

As the Middle Ages dawned, only a dwindling few chose to imitate Antony’s solitary form of spiritual life, while most flocked to the cenobitic (communal) form. Antony remained, however, the beloved father of all monks. Throughout the medieval period, each monastic revival looked back in filial devotion and held itself up to the glass of Antony’s ancient Egyptian movement. In this way, the life story of Antony has become for his heirs, says the late Dom Jean Leclercq, “a living text, a means of formation of a monastic life.”

Indeed, the open secret of monasticism is that it has always spread by imitation rather than theoretical instruction. Monasticism is ultimately a thing you do rather than think about or learn. Thus it is fitting that a biography, rather than a rule, is really the founding document of the movement. Says the modern English translator of the “Life”, Robert Gregg, “The testings and miracles of Antony fixed themselves in the consciousness of the Church and of Western culture as a sharp image of what a life committed to God demands and promises.”
In a symbolic act at the end of Antony’s life, he had one of his two sheepskin cloaks given to his friend Bishop Athanasius. In response, Athanasius felt that the greatest and most important tribute he could pay his treasured friend and model Antony would be to spread the contagion of his special style of discipleship by making the monk’s story known in a short biography. Thereby, thousands who had never met this spiritual warrior of the wastelands would fall under his magnetic influence. Never have a writer’s aspirations been so powerfully fulfilled.”

Chris Armstrong is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary and a senior editor of “Christian History & Biography”.
Robert C. Gregg “Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter To Marcellinus”
[Paulist Press, 1979]

Leaving the “Christened Empire”

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by citydesert

“Monasticism was, to a great extent, an attempt to evade the Imperial problem. The period of the bitter struggle between the Church and the Empire, under the Arianizing Caesars of the fourth century, was also the period of Monastic expansion. It was a kind of a new and impressive “Exodus.” And the Empire always regarded this “Exodus,” the flight into Desert, as a threat to its claims and to its very existence, from the times of St. Athanasius to the cruel persecution of monks by the Iconoclastic Emperors. It is often suggested that people were leaving “the world” simply to escape the burden of social life, with its duties and labors. It is difficult to see in what sense life in the wilderness could be “easy” and “leisurely.” It was, indeed, a strenuous life, with its own burdens and dangers. It is true that in the West at that time the Roman order was falling to pieces, was sorely endangered, and partly destroyed by barbarian invasions, and apocalyptic fears and apprehensions might have crept into many hearts, an expectation of an imminent end of history.
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Yet, we do not find many traces of this apocalyptic dread in the writings of the Desert Fathers. Their motives for desertion were quite different. In the East, where the Monastic Movement originated, the Christian Empire was in the process of growth. In spite of all its ambiguities and shortcomings, it was still an impressive sight. After so many decades of suffering and persecution, “this World” seemed to have been opened for the Christian conquest. The prospect of success was rather bright. Those who fled into the wilderness did not share these expectations. They had no trust in the “christened Empire.” They rather distrusted the whole scheme altogether. They were leaving the earthly Kingdom, as much as it might have been actually “christened,” in order to build the true Kingdom of Christ in the new land of promise, “outside the gates,” in the Desert. They fled not so much from the world’s disasters, as from the “worldly cares,” from the involvement with the world, even under the banner of Christ, from the prosperity and wrong security of the world.
Nor was the Monastic endeavor a search for “extraordinary” or “superrogatory” deeds and exploits. The main ascetical emphasis, at least at the early stage of development, was not on taking “special” or “exceptional” vows, but rather on accomplishing those common and essential vows, which every Christian had to take at his baptism. Monasticism meant first of all a “renunciation,” a total renunciation of “this world,” with all its lust and pomp. And all Christians were bound to renounce “the world” and to pledge an undivided loyalty to the only Lord, Christ Jesus. Indeed, every Christian was actually taking this oath of undivided allegiance at his Christian initiation. It is highly significant that the rite of Monastic profession, when it was finally established, was made precisely on the pattern of the baptismal rite, and the Monastic profession came to be regarded as a kind of “second baptism.” If there was a search for “perfection” in the Monastic endeavor, “perfection” itself was not regarded as something “peculiar” and optional, but rather as a normal and obligatory way of life. If it was a “rigorism,” this rigorism could claim for itself the authority of the Gospel.
It is also significant that, from the very beginning, the main emphasis in the Monastic oath was placed precisely on “social” renunciation. The novice had to disown the world, to become a stranger and pilgrim, a foreigner in the world, in all earthly cities, just as the Church herself was but a “stranger” in the earthly City, paroikousa on earth. Obviously, this was but a confirmation of the common baptismal vows. Indeed, ail Christians were supposed to disown the world, and to dwell in this world as strangers. This did not necessarily imply a contempt for the world. The precept could also be construed as a call to its reform and salvation.
St. Basil the Great, the first legislator of Eastern Monasticism, was desperately concerned with the problem of social reconstruction. He watched with grave apprehension the process of social disintegration, which was so conspicuously advanced in his time. His call to the formation of monastic communities was, in effect, an attempt to rekindle the spirit of mutuality in a world which seemed to have lost any force of cohesion and any sense of social responsibility. Now, Christians had to set a model of the new society, in order to counterbalance the disruptive tendencies of the age. St. Basil was strong in his conviction that man was essentially a social or “political” being, not a solitary one — zoon koinonikon. He could have learned this both from the Scripture and from Aristotle. But the present society was built on a wrong foundation. Consequently, one had first of all to retire or withdraw from it. According to St. Basil, a monk had to be “home-less” in the world, aoikos, his only home being the Church. He had to go out, or to be taken out, of all existing social structures — family, city, Empire. He had to disown all orders of the world, to sever all social ties and commitments. He had to start afresh. The later custom or rule to change the name in taking the habit was a spectacular symbol of this radical break with the previous life. But monks leave the society of this world in order to join another society, or rather to actualize in full their membership in another community, which is the Church. The prevailing form of Monasticism was “coenobitical,” the life in common. The solitary life might be praised as an exception for a few peculiar persons, but it was firmly discouraged as a common rule. The main emphasis was on obedience, on the submission of will. “Community” was always regarded as a normal and more adequate manner of ascetical life. A monastery was a corporation, “a body,” a small Church. Even hermits did dwell usually together, in special colonies, under the direction of a common spiritual leader or guide.
This communal character of Monasticism was strongly re-emphasized by St. Theodore of Studium, the great reformer of Byzantine Monasticism (759-826). St. Theodore insisted that there was no commandment of solitary life in the Gospel. Our Lord Himself lived in a “community” with His disciples. Christians are not independent individuals, but brethren, members of the Body of Christ. Moreover, only in community could Christian virtues of charity and obedience be properly developed and exercised. Thus, monks were leaving the world in order to build, on the virginal soil of the Desert, a New Society, to organize there, on the Evangelical pattern, the true Christian Community. Early Monasticism was not an ecclesiastical institution. It was precisely a spontaneous movement, a drive. And it was distinctively a lay movement. The taking of Holy Orders was definitely discouraged, except by order of the superiors, and even abbots were often laymen. In early times, secular priests from the vicinity were invited to conduct services for the community, or else the neighboring Church was attended on Sundays. The monastic state was clearly distinguished from the clerical. “Priesthood” was a dignity and an authority, and as such was regarded as hardly compatible with the life of obedience and penitence, which was the core and the heart of monastic existence. Certain concessions were made, however, time and again, but rather reluctantly. On the whole, in the East Monasticism has preserved its lay character till the present day. In the communities of Mount Athos, this last remnant of the old monastic regime, only a few are in the Holy Orders, and most do not seek them, as a rule. This is highly significant. Monasticism cut across the basic distinction between clergy and laity in the Church. It was a peculiar order in its own right-Monasteries were at once worshipping communities and working teams.
Monasticism created a special “theology of labor,” even of manual labor in particular. Labor was by no means a secondary or subsidiary element of monastic life. It belonged to its very essence. “Idleness” was regarded as a primary and grievous vice, spiritually destructive. Man was created for work. But work should not be selfish. One had to work for common purpose and benefit, and especially to be able to help the needy. As St. Basil stated it, “in labor the purpose set before everyone, is the support of the needy, not one’s own necessity” (Regulae Justus tractatae, 42). Labor was to be, as it were, an expression of social solidarity, as well as a basis of social service and charity. From St. Basil this principle was taken over by St. Benedict. But already St. Pachomius, the first promoter of coenobitical Monasticism in Egypt, was preaching “the Gospel of continued work” (to use the able phrase of the late Bishop Kenneth Kirk).
His coenobium at Tabennisi was at once a settlement, a college, and a working camp. On the other hand, this working community was, in principle, a “non-acquisitive society.” One of the main monastic vows was the complete denial of all possessions, not only a promise of poverty. There was no room whatsoever for any kind of “private property” in the life of a coenobitical monk. And this rule was sometimes enforced with rigidity. Monks should not have even private desires. The spirit of “ownership” was strongly repudiated as an ultimate seed of corruption in human life. St. John Chrysostom regarded “private property” as the root of all social ills. The cold distinction between “mine” and “thine” was, in his opinion, quite incompatible with the pattern of loving brotherhood, set forth in the Gospel. He could have added at this point also the authority of Cicero: “nulla autem privata natura”. Indeed, for St. John, “property” was man’s wicked invention, not of God’s’ design. He was prepared to force upon the whole world the rigid monastic discipline of “non-possession” and obedience, for the sake of the world’s relief. In his opinion, separate monasteries should exist now, in order that one day the whole world might become like a monastery.
As it has been well said recently, “Monasticism was an instinctive reaction of the Christian spirit against that fallacious reconciliation with the present age which the conversion of the Empire might seem to have justified” (Pere Louis Bouyer). It was a vigorous reminder of the radical “otherworldliness” of the Christian Church. It was also a mighty challenge to the Christian Empire, then in the process of construction. This challenge could not go without a rejoinder. The Emperors, and especially Justinian, made a desperate effort to integrate the Monastic Movement into the general structure of their Christian Empire. Considerable concessions had to be made. Monasteries, as a rule, were exempt from taxation and granted various immunities. In practice, these privileges only led ultimately to an acute secularization of Monasticism. But originally they meant a recognition, quite unwillingly granted, of a certain Monastic “extra-territoriality.” On the other hand, many monasteries were canonically exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishops. During the Iconoclastic controversy, the independence of Monasticism was conspicuously manifested in Byzantium. Up to the end of Byzantium, Monasticism continued as a peculiar social order, in perpetual tension and competition with the Empire.

Obviously, actual Monasticism was never up to its own principles and claims. But its historical significance lies precisely in its principles. As in the pagan Empire the Church herself was a kind of “Resistance Movement,” Aionasticism was a permanent “Resistance Movement” in the Christian Society.”

From “Christianity and Culture” by Fr. Georges Florovsky
“Protopresbyter Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (August 23, 1893 – August 11, 1979) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, and writer, active in the ecumenical movement. His writing is known for its clear, profound style, covering subjects on nearly every aspect of Church life.”

Solitude: A View from Religious Studies

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by citydesert

“Christian tradition contains many points of view on how to balance solitude with the claims of other people. Some advocates of solitude made extremely harsh judgments about social existence and justified total withdrawal. Other desert fathers spoke powerfully about the importance of human communion and fellowship in the spiritual life. Critics of solitude seized upon hermits’ most antisocial statements as evidence of their inconsistency with basic tenets of Christian faith. From the early centuries until today, Christian opponents of solitude assert that since the essence of Christian life is love of the neighbor, a hermit turns his back on a crucial duty and joy of a life grounded in faith.
Basil of Caesarea (329–379) was one of the most outspoken opponents of Christians living a solitary life. He made two criticisms of solitude that recur through the ages. A Christian needs other people to protect him from the dangers of pride and self-delusion by pointing out error. And the Christian life necessarily demands communion with and service of the neighbor, concrete opportunities to practice the law of love. The mainstream of Christian tradition discerns a combination of benefits and dangers in solitude. The desert fathers soon discovered their need of each other for practical necessities and religious guidance. Colonies of hermits, sometimes called sketes or lauras, developed, where periods of solitude alternated with communal worship, conferences, and shared labor. In the evolution of Western monasticism, eremitical isolation became rarer. Most of the monastic tradition affirms cenobitical (communal) existence as normative while acknowledging solitude as a valuable although minor part of a Christian life. When cenobitical monasticism became the norm, the monk became the model not of solitary life but of the ideal of fellowship and communal religious living. In Saint Benedict’s Rule, for instance, the common life is the normal one for monks, although Benedict grants the possibility of becoming a hermit after many years of formation by group discipline….
Just as solitude has its biased detractors, some of its advocates, both religious and secular, are unbalanced in their refusal to consider how solitude can be integrated with social concerns. Wisdom about solitude involves understanding both the spiritual value of experiences of aloneness and the dangers when solitary pursuits are severed from the relationships, social activities, and contexts that give solitude much of its meaning and value. Solitude helps certain people to understand and feel connected to the fundamental sources of meaning and value in their lives. Alone, they may better study ancient texts, examine conscience, discern God’s will, create works of art or literature, appreciate the natural world, or forge a distinctive identity. Some people explicitly correlate their view of solitude with a conception of God and find a religious community that supports their aloneness, while secular solitaries do not link their ultimate values to the divine or an institutional tradition. The spiritual but not religious person usually seeks contact with transcendent meaning, but does not affiliate with a community, and often understands experiences of solitude as confirming his/her sense of estrangement or detachment from the official institutions of religion.
Sometimes aloneness is primarily an escape from the negative aspects of social existence: the boredom, conflict, or anxious striving to please that drain one’s energy and spiritual vitality. More positively, solitude allows a person to focus on some dimension of reality that is better appreciated or engaged when one is not distracted by the need to attend to others. Thus, solitude can be both a retreat from unwanted social interactions and a commitment to positive values and dimensions of reality that are more fully experienced alone. From some points of view, the very idea of spiritual or religious solitude is an oxymoron. If religion is understood as a matter of self-transcendence or commitment to a religious community, then aloneness seems the antithesis of genuine spiritual development. This perspective however fails to grasp how the purpose of solitude is not necessarily attention to oneself. In solitude some persons practice a certain kind of attentiveness that they cannot achieve when distracted by the presence of other people. For these individuals, solitude is a necessary condition of meditative awareness or full concentration on something beyond the self that connects them with the world and often with what they believe to be sacred, divine, holy, or most valuable. Solitude at its best – when it realizes its fullest ethical and spiritual value – is not oriented toward escaping the world, but toward a different kind of participation in it, as made possible by disengagement from ordinary social interactions. Solitude is a return to the self, but it is not necessarily narcissistic; it may also be a return to what is most important in one’s life and an encounter with sources of meaning and truth beyond oneself.
From John D. Barbour [Department of Religion, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN, USA] “A View from Religious Studies: Solitude and Spirituality” in “The Handbook Of Solitude Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone” Edited by Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker [Wiley Blackwell, 2014] pp:547-571

“The Handbook Of Solitude”

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by citydesert

“The Handbook Of Solitude Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone” Edited by Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker [Wiley Blackwell, 2014]
“The experience of solitude is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Historically, solitude has been considered both a boon and a curse, with artists, poets, musicians, and philosophers both lauding and lamenting being alone. Over the course of the lifespan, humans experience solitude for many different reasons and subjectively respond to solitude with a wide range of reactions and consequences. Some people may retreat to solitude as a respite from the stresses of life, for quiet contemplation, to foster creative impulses, or to commune with nature. Others may suffer the pain and loneliness of social isolation, withdrawing or being forcefully excluded from social interactions. Indeed, we all have and will experience different types of solitude in our lives. The complex relationship we have with solitude and its multifaceted nature is reflected in our everyday language and culture. We can be alone in a crowd, alone with nature, or alone with our thoughts. Solitude can be differentially characterized along the full range of a continuum from a form of punishment (e.g., time-outs for children, solitary confinement for prisoners) to a less than ideal context (e.g., no man is an island, one is the loneliest number, misery loves company), all the way to a desirable state (e.g., taking time for oneself, needing your space or alone time). In this Handbook, we explore the many different faces of solitude, from perspectives inside and outside of psychology….
solitude (2)
The study of solitude cuts across virtually all psychology subdisciplines and has been explored from multiple and diverse theoretical perspectives across the lifespan. Accordingly, it is not surprising that there remains competing hypotheses regarding the nature of solitude and its implications for well-being. Indeed, from our view, these fundamentally opposed differential characterizations of solitude represent the most pervasive theme in the historical study of solitude as a psychological construct. In essence, this ongoing debate about the nature of solitude can be distilled down to an analysis of its costs versus benefits.”
Table of Contents
Foreword: On Solitude, Withdrawal, and Social Isolation xii
Kenneth H. Rubin
Part I Theoretical Perspectives 1
1 All Alone: Multiple Perspectives on the Study of Solitude 3
Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker
2 Studying Withdrawal and Isolation in the Peer Group: Historical Advances in Concepts and Measures 14
William M. Bukowski and Marie-Hélène Véronneau
3 An Attachment Perspective on Loneliness 34
Mario Mikulincer and Phillip R. Shaver
4 Shyness and the Electrical Activity of the Brain: On the Interplay between Theory and Method 51
Louis A. Schmidt and Vladimir Miskovic
5 The Origins of Solitude: Psychoanalytic Perspectives 71
Evangelia Galanaki
6 Experiences of Solitude: Issues of Assessment, Theory, and Culture 90
James R. Averill and Louise Sundararajan
Part II Solitude Across the Lifespan 109
7 The Causes and Consequences of “Playing Alone” in Childhood 111
Robert J. Coplan and Laura Ooi
8 Peer Rejection in Childhood: Social Groups, Rejection Sensitivity, and Solitude 129
Drew Nesdale and Melanie J. Zimmer-Gembeck
9 Affinity for Aloneness in Adolescence and Preference for Solitude in Childhood: Linking Two Research Traditions 150
Luc Goossens
10 Social Withdrawal during Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood 167
Julie C. Bowker, Larry J. Nelson, Andrea Markovic, and Stephanie Luster
11 Introversion, Solitude, and Subjective Well-Being 184
John M. Zelenski, Karin Sobocko, and Deanna C. Whelan
12 Social Approach and Avoidance Motivations 202
Jana Nikitin and Simone Schoch
13 Ostracism and Solitude 224
Eric D. Wesselmann, Kipling D. Williams, Dongning Ren, and Andrew H. Hales
14 Social Isolation among Older People 242
Elaine Wethington and Karl Pillemer
Part III Solitude Across Contexts 261
15 Anxious Solitude at School 263
Heidi Gazelle and Madelynn Druhen Shell
16 Loneliness and Belongingness in the College Years 283
Steven R. Asher and Molly Stroud Weeks
17 Single in a Society Preoccupied with Couples 302
Bella DePaulo
18 Loneliness and Internet Use 317
Yair Amichai-Hamburger and Barry H. Schneider
19 Mindfulness Meditation: Seeking Solitude in Community 335
Paul Salmon and Susan Matarese
20 The Restorative Qualities of Being Alone with Nature 351
Kalevi Korpela and Henk Staats
Part IV Clinical Perspectives 369
21 Social Anhedonia and Solitude 371
Thomas R. Kwapil, Paul J. Silvia, and Neus Barrantes-Vidal
22 Social Anxiety Disorder and Emotional Solitude 391
Lynn E. Alden and Karen W. Auyeung
23 Loneliness and Social Isolation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders 409
Connie Kasari and Lindsey Sterling
24 Solitude and Personality Disorders 427
Kevin B. Meehan, Kenneth N. Levy, Christina M. Temes, and Jonathan J. Detrixhe
25 The Intersection of Culture and Solitude: The Hikikomori Phenomenon in Japan 445
Alan R. Teo, Kyle W. Stufflebam, and Takahiro A. Kato
Part V Disciplinary Perspectives 461
26 A View from Biology: Playing Alone and with Others: A Lesson from Animals 463
Elisabetta Palagi
27 A View from Anthropology: Anomie and Urban Solitude 483
Leo Coleman
28 A View from Sociology: The Role of Solitude in Transcending Social Crises – New Possibilities for Existential Sociology 499
Jack Fong
29 A View from Computer Science: From Solitude to Ambient Sociability – Redefining the Social and Psychological Aspects of Isolation in Online Games 517
Nicolas Ducheneaut and Nicholas Yee
30 A View from Political Theory: Desire, Subjectivity, and Pseudo-Solitude 539
Matthew H. Bowker
31 A View from Religious Studies: Solitude and Spirituality 557
John D. Barbour

The Lavra I

Posted in Uncategorized on November 4, 2015 by citydesert

The Lavra – 1
“In the Encyclopedia of Community, which might qualify as the bible of the communal studies field, the entry on Monastic Communities states: “there are two kinds of monastic life—eremetic (hermit) and cenobitic (community).”
Indeed, these were the two primary models that survived, but it is more helpful to see the monastic world as a spectrum between these two extremes. In fact, the majority of monks in places like Palestine and early on in Egypt were neither coenobitic nor eremitic, but were a part of lavras.

Lavras were communities in which the monks lived in clusters surrounding a series of central building that included (normally), a church, a bakery, storage facilities, and perhaps a few other common buildings such as an infirmary or guest quarters. The monks lived within walking distance of the central area, but showed a surprising degree of diversity and independence: some lived alone, others lived with two or three others and occasionally one would see homes of up to five people, usually under the direction of a spiritual elder. Each cell or house followed their own rule away from the central church and could even hold distinct theological perspectives, but they would come together one to three times throughout the week for common meals and worship; undoubtedly, they came together other times as well, but the primary paths converged at the core.

The Greek term “lavra” (Λαύρα) meant in ancient Greek a passageway, lane, or a back alley. However, it should not be seen as a lonely, empty path but a place of congregation. When lavra was translated into Syriac as the model spread north, it was translated as Shouka (suq, in modern Arabic), which is a a marketplace, a vibrant and bustling place full of discussion, commerce, and social intercourse. So lexically the term meant something like a place where pathways connect, a sort of intersection of souls.
Evagrius Ponticus
The fifth century monastic theologian Evagrius Ponticus gave a definition that seems to capture the broader picture: the lavra is a place “where the dwelling place is separate and distinct, but the common life accomplishes a single goal: divine love.”
The origins of the lavra system in Egypt is a bit obscure but the first lavra in Palestine was founded by Chariton in 330CE, who was captured by bandits while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and decided to stay and found a community at the place of his captivity. The pinnacle of the movement was in the sixth century with St. Sabbas (439- 532).
The most important primary sources are “The Lives of the Monks of Palestine” by Cyril of Scythopolis (6th century) and “The Spiritual Meadow” by John Moschus (d 619 or 634). The period of decline begins in the seventh century and by the 9th century, there are none left in the traditional form.

Even at their peak, however, individual lavra communities never grew too large by coenobitic monastic standards: most were between a dozen to seventy people, though there are a couple of examples swelling to 150 individual monks. The constraining factor, as with most things in the Middle East, was water: they needed to find unsettled places in the Judean desert that had an adequate water supply, which usually meant inhabiting fierce cliffs and ravines. Many of the cells and houses were caves or structures built attached to the caves, which provided natural air conditioning as well as protection from the weather and robbers. From above, they could almost appear almost as spiders with a network of paths leading to a central core.

The lavras were designed so that most of the formal interaction between the monks occurred in these shared core structures while the cells or houses were kept private. The cells and houses were not too distant from the core: monks write about being able to hear their brethren’s singing and all could hear the talon striking the board in the central area to mark the time periods of the day. The central complexes varied from little more than a chapel and a common room to rather robust central facilities: one abbot known as Gerasimus created a model where the common areas were more far more instrumental and vibrant than the original lavras.
His form of lavra had a church, storeroom, and refectory as with others but it also had a kitchen, living quarters for staff including abbot’s quarters, and guest quarters. Regardless of the size and form of the core complex, there were always private zones and common zones with differing sets of rules applied to each area. Herein lies one of the most the distinctive element of lavra versus coenobitic forms of monasticism: searching for a balance between individualization/privatization of life with the inherent value and advantages of a life in community.

The early monastic world, much like our own today, struggled with the question of community. The earliest monks were the hermits, especially in the deserts of Egypt and the wilds of Syria. They were fierce individualists, whose goal was to be “alone with the Alone.” Later monastic writers such as St. Basil the Great was so appalled by this form of religious life that he argued that being a hermit was not only unchristian (for how do you love one another when you are alone) but also inhuman, since to be human is to be social. For those of the second camp, a coenobium or life in common that sought uniformity in all areas of life—all the monks looked the same, prayed the same way, followed the same schedule, etc…—was the ideal. In the midst of these extremes stood the lavra, which allowed for diversity of life with varied degrees of individualization and privacy yet sought to harness the resource advantages of communal life and the opportunity to practice Christian virtues with one another. This diversity and individualization was apparent in many areas of life.

For example, they did not have a common rule to guide their life, across different lavras in the same region or even among the population of a particular lavra. Some communities met formally multiple times a week for meals in common and long church services; others hardly met in common at all, sometimes only in feast days. One should see it as a sort of spectrum where some lavras functioned very closely to the coenobium model while others functioned practically like a collection of hermits. The point is that the monks themselves decided where on that spectrum their community would place themselves and there was not one norm among the lavras.
While the amount of time dedicated to community varied, the primary energy in all the lavras would be dedicated to the private and individualized zones comprised of their cells and houses. Typically, they would divide their days into the classic monastic tri-part: prayers and reading, work, and eating/peace (sleep). However, the specific mix and form would differ between cells. Some might wake up every morning before dawn for long prayers; some might have a more relaxed or informal schedule that depended on shorter prayers. The spiritual exercises also differed. For example, fasting was the central ascetic act of the period for monks. All Christians and especially monks fasted to degrees that seem unimaginable to the modern world. Gerasimus mentions it was normal to eat only bread, water, and dates within his Lavra. However, Moschus tells us of a monk who ate only once slice of bread every four days; another was content to eat only the holy bread on mass on Sunday. Unlike the coenobium where fasting was more or less uniform regardless of personal capability or aspirations, the mark of the lavra was its relative spiritual diversity.

This diversity would have been apparent even to the casually observer. Unlike the coenobium where the monastic habit would quickly identify a monk as belonging to a particular monastery, clothing was also not uniform or mandated. Clothing always represents charged symbols that communicate social messages, but the monks were allowed to decide these messages for themselves. St Sabbas, for example, wore regularly such tattered rags that he was frequently mistaken for a beggar.
However, there were certain fashions and trends, so to speak: most of the monks in Palestine seemed to wear a sort of sleeveless tunic with a hood. However, the point is that clothing was another area of diversity within the lavras.
The apparent diversity would also have been noticeable in the ethnicities of the monks of Palestine. The monks tended to be from all over the Roman Empire: from Italy, Asia Minor, and throughout North Africa. In fact, one of the earliest leaders, a man named Euthymius, had only one native Palestinian at his lavra but it was often that many different areas of the Roman Empire would be represented within the lavras of Palestine. Clearly, these were still all Christian males, so grandiose claims of progressive values are not appropriate, but its international flavor stood in stark contrast to the provinciality that marked monasticism in other areas and kinds. Unarguably, the international character of the lavra monasteries was due to their location near Jerusalem, which was a beacon for pilgrims the world over. But it also speaks to the genetic structure of the community that allowed for a diversity of practices and norms. Much like today, the traditions and norms of life and faith varied across the empire. If one were a faithful monk from Gaul who travelled to a coenobium in Palestine, he would be asked to forgo all that he knew to conform to the uniform practice of the monastery. However, if he were part of a lavra, he could retain most of the traditions and practices that were familiar to him because most of his life was spent in his cell or house. In fact, the literary record shows some signs that some houses within lavras were comprised of people from a certain region. Therefore, the structure of the lavra model fostered diversity within an overarching unity.



This diversity tended to foster the cross-pollination of ideas. In the earliest lavra in Palestine, one of the monks could write in Greek, Latin, and Syriac and became a teacher to others. In fact, one interesting subgroup of the lavra population was immensely popular bishops and theologians who sought quietude in remote lavras, where their anonymity could be protected since they spent most of their time on their own. One can imagine a healthy and perhaps heated exchange on one of the lanes leading to the central church between a new young lavra resident from Egypt with an aging bishop from Rome about the proper way to divide up one’s prayers for the day or a myriad of other theological questions. Once again, the structure of the lavra compared to the coenobium or the hermits fostered such an intellectually dynamic environment. Unlike the coenobium where the spiritual life along with every other aspect of life was merely given to you, the proper way to live would be a point of discussion because each cell or house would be deciding the contours of their specific form for themselves. Inevitably, debates would emerge that would foster reflection and experimentation. By creating a diverse environment that fostered debate, the danger of division and schism would inevitably also rise—and, as will be apparent, it was precisely such a debate that contributed to the decline of the lavra system as a whole—but the structure of the lavra tended to encourage reflection, debate, and experimentation.”

An excerpt from Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, “The Long Lost Lavra” “Social Sciences Directory” 2: 3 (August 2013) 1-20.


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