For the Sake of the World: The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism
By Patrick G. Henry and Donald K. Swearer
Reviewed by John S. Romanides
The authors of this valuable and interesting book understand "contemplation" and an "urge for transcendence" to be a basic similarity between Buddhist and Christian monasticism. This is true for Augustinian neo-Platonism, which is the position adopted by this book as normative for the Christian monastic tradition.
However, the Augustinian synthesis between neo-Platonism and the Bible was never accepted in the East, and was rejected in the West by both Celtic and Gallo-Roman monasticism. It did not, finally, take hold in Merovingian Gaul; this is why St. Gregory of Tours, an admirer of Sts. Basil and John Cassian, never mentions Augustine. That is to say, such Gallo-Romans as Sts. Martin of Tours, Aridius, Patroclos, and the Lombard Stylite Vulfailac belong to the same biblical tradition as the fathers in the East. In 529 Emperor Justinian closed the Platonic school of Athens, and when Augustine's writings became known in the East he was dropped from the list of "fathers of the church," as these were understood there.
These church fathers rejected the neo-Platonic attempts at penetrating transcendental reality by ecstasy, and at liberating the soul from its bondage to the realm of time. They likewise rejected what they saw as neo-Platonic "flights" into motionless eternity and happiness as mere figments of the imagination. In the West, Augustinian theology and monasticism became the sole tradition of the Carolingian Franks from the eighth to the twelfth century. But what they finally accepted from the Eastern and Western fathers they forced into Augustinian categories and so created the myth of the "Platonic" Eastern fathers which is still dominant.
God is "unmoved mover, but moved" and "it is impossible to express God and even more impossible to conceive him." Thus say the great fathers who are supposed to be Platonists. The quest for happiness is a "sickness" which is the cause of all personal and social ills, and of the abuses of nature. Its cure is not satisfaction, nor extinction, but transformation into selfless love by unceasing prayer in the heart and glorification in this life. It is God's glorification of the prophet's soul and body which, according to both Old and New Testaments, initiates revelation.
The core of Orthodox monasticism is Christ's prayer in John 17, i.e. that the apostles and their followers may see Christ's uncreated glory which he has, as part of his very nature, in their glorification in this life. By contrast, Augustine defined glorification with neo-Platonic happiness in the next life.
Monasticism evolved from the apostolic congregations. St. Paul summarizes this as an unceasing vision of the uncreated glory of God in Christ: (1) "in a mirror dimly," by means of unceasing prayers and psalms in the heart, i.e. various kinds of tongues, or illumination, which (2) may be interrupted by an encounter with the resurrected Christ face to face in glorification. Unceasing prayers in the heart are active while the intellect and the body engage in their normal activities, while the person is either awake or asleep. Thus one prays with one's spirit in the heart unceasingly, and one prays with the intellect at given times. Thus "I will pray with the spirit, but I will also pray with the intellect. I will recite psalms with the spirit, but also I will recite psalms with the intellect" (1 Cor. 14:15).
One who prays and recites psalms unceasingly in the heart is Paul's "child in Christ" (1 Cor. 13:12). When glorified (1 Cor. 12:26), one sees the resurrected Christ in God's glory face to face in this life (1 Cor. 13:12; 15:1-11) and returns to unceasing prayer as a grown person (1 Cor. 13:12), i.e. a prophet. It is this glorification (1 Cor. 12:26) which makes a prophet second to the apostles (1 Cor. 12:28) and puts him or her (1 Cor. 11:5) in the very foundation of each local church (Eph. 2:19-22). It is about apostles and prophets that St. Paul says: "For the spiritual person examines all, but he is examined by no one" (1 Cor. 3:15).
The authors discuss the question of the continuity between monasticism and the Bible, in dialogue with the views of Peter Brown. The latter sees the importance of the "elder" ("old man") in the early Roman empire, but does not understand this figure as St. Paul's prophet. Our authors' distinction between the apostles and St. Anthony is neither Pauline nor pentecostal. The tradition of the glorification of prophets in history is related to the mystery of Pentecost in history. Cornelius was not at the historical event itself, but he had the same and equal grace with the apostles, even before his baptism. The prophets throughout history are the only foundation of "the church", just as we may say that doctors are the "foundation" of hospitals.
Utterance in "kinds of tongues", 'i.e. ceaseless prayers and psalms in the heart, are the minimum requirement for membership in the body of Christ and royal priesthood. The private individual who says "amen" during worship services (1 Cor. 14:16) is not yet a member of the body of Christ; baptism by water has not yet become baptism by the Spirit, which is to hear prayers and psalms coming from one's own spirit, uttered ineffably within one's physical heart. When one's spirit is not praying in the heart, it is sick in the intellect, and enslaved to the environment.
Monasticism is one of the celibate ways of completing the baptism of water by the baptism of the Spirit. Marriage is another way. "Habits of the monastic heart" can be no different from the "illumination of the heart" which is enjoyed by other members of the body of Christ. The distinction between active and contemplative can exist only outside the body of Christ.
The authors compare Bernard of Clairvaux's humility to Abbe Suger's pompousness. Bernard's humility is even more evident from his "To the Knights of the Temple, a book in praise of the new chivalry", which put scores of Muslims and "us heretics" to the monastic sword during the so-called crusades.
The great value of this volume is the very fact that Buddhist and Augustinian monasticism are studied together and compared. The patristic claim that monastic communities are simply apostolic congregations needs to be looked at more carefully, perhaps in a second edition.
Prof. John Romanides was a professor of systematic theology at the University of Salonika, Greece. He is a member of the WCC's central committee.
Source: The Ecumenical Review, April 1992.