Spiritual Exercises in Christianity: Monastic Roots (1/4)

Spiritual Exercises: Monastic Roots

Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important for it promises a reward in both this life and the next…  [1 Timothy 4:7-9 (NLV)].

Spiritual exercises can provide a customized vehicle for increasing piety and devotions. By adopting practices suited to our personal lifestyle and discipline, we can approach the Divine Reality from a less formal perspective, and still enhance our connection to the sacred.

Those who live the Exercises in an authentic way experience the attraction and the appeal of God, and return renewed, transformed in ordinary life, in ministry, in daily relationships, bringing with them the fragrance of Christ. [Pope Francis].

The main purpose of spiritual exercises is to develop awareness and remembrance of the God, while dispelling and diminishing secular and profane distractions. All religious rituals are, in essence, spiritual exercises designed to promote Divine consciousness and bring us closer to God.

Perhaps it is the stress on personal salvation and one’s own personal experience of Christ that must be initiated without the mediation of rituals of the past. But the Lord’s Supper teaches the exact opposite: Rituals are good, and they are instituted and used by God to ‘connect’ his people with him. [Peter Enns, Exodus, p. 263]

Sometimes however, we need more than prescribed rituals and sacraments to develop the spiritual strength we seek. So, we try to improve our spiritual condition with supplemental spiritual exercises.

When the mind becomes more capable of abstraction and analysis this old unity (between rituals and God) breaks up. And no sooner is it possible to distinguish the rite from the vision of God than there is a danger of the rite becoming a substitute for, and a rival to, God Himself. Once it can be thought of separately, it will; and it may then take on a rebellious, cancerous life of its own. [C. S Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms].

Sons of the Prophets

In Jewish Scripture, prophets at times isolated themselves in groups [2 Kings 4:38; 6:1] seeking to be more receptive to the word of God, or trying to avoid persecution.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. [1 Kings 17:2-3].

They adopted spiritual disciplines often out of necessity and engaged in spiritual exercises designed by the harsh, desolate environment in which the lived.

On Mount Carmel, prophets Elijah and Elisha organized what could be called a monastic order. Their followers are known to us as “sons of the prophets.”[2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22].

Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “Behold now, the place before you where we are living is too limited for us. Please let us go to the Jordan and each of us take from there a beam, and let us make a place there for ourselves where we may live.” So he said, “Go.” Then one said, “Please be willing to go with your servants.” And he answered, “I shall go.” [2 Kings 6:1-3].

This Mount Carmel tradition resurfaces in later religious communities, first Jewish then Christian. Under Roman occupation, Jewish sects such as the Essenes and the Therapeutae isolated themselves to countered pagan encroachment into their lives.

The Therapeutae lived separately as anchorites, practiced absolute sexual abstinence, and renounced personal property. They fasted often, prayed daily at set times, and spent hours studying the Old Testament. [On the Contemplative Life, purportedly by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria].

According to the Christian tradition of the Carmelite Order, Elijah was the first monk  to withdraw into the desert, and the first Carmelites were his successors. These “sons of the prophet … retreated far from men, living in the wilderness and solitary places” where they became “wrapt in divine conversation, to which they clung, keeping their hearts pure…” [See: Corpus Christi Carmelites].

Our communal lifestyle is . . . according to the plan outlined in the Rule, which our tradition traces back to the experience of Elijah, who founded on Mount Carmel a community of justice and peace. [Carmelite Formation: A Journey of Transformation].

Desert Fathers

Spiritual exercises can be spontaneous responses to overflowing faith. The early martyrs of Christianity were not products of spiritual exercises but of an overwhelming devotion to God.

Spiritual exercises can also be prompted by impinging worldly influences and encroaching secular affluence. The paganism of Rome and the compromises to Hellenistic culture of Jewish authorities drove many believers to extreme measures.

After persecution ended, asceticism became the primary alternative to demonstrating faith and countering spreading secular influences in the Church. In the 4th century C.E., large numbers of hermits and ascetics began living in the desert of Egypt.

When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Luke xviii. 18-22].

Many followed the example of Saint Anthony (ca. 251–356) who is recognized as the founder of desert monasticism. They renounced the world for a life of solitude, poverty, fasting, charity and prayer. They engaged in spiritual exercises that became the foundation for the rules that governed later religious orders of both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Around the year 325 Pachomius was inspired by God to found in or near Tabennesi the first monastery in which the monks lived together under one roof and lived according to a common Rule… In particular it emphasizes poverty, fasting, common prayer, collaboration at work, silence, moderation, and discretion in eating, and the institution of a general chapter. [Peter H. Görg, The Desert Fathers: Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism, p. 83].


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