By J.K. Jones
I acknowledge the title of this article is strange, perhaps even offensive to some. Our Christian church and church of Christ ears are not accustomed to such unusual language.Â
I also admit that the title sounds very Catholic. Of course, this may cause some to react negatively and stop reading. I hope not. I am a Christian whose heritage is found in and among Restoration churches. I am an immersed believer who holds no creed but Christ and has no book but the Bible. I don”t claim to be the only Christian, but I simply seek to be a Christian only. Perhaps that helps you; perhaps it doesn”t.
Some of my spiritual ancestors might be appalled that I would write an article (or a book) like this or even suggest Catholic monks and nuns could be invaluable resources for 21st-century Jesus followers. I sympathize with and understand that perspective. To say that I approach this cautiously and carefully would be a major understatement!
Yet, something has happened in my life over the past three decades that has compelled me to put my thoughts on paper. I have met a group of ancient Christian monks and nuns who have blessed and challenged me in ways I cannot totally explain. I want to attempt to tell you about how all of this began and what I have learned. I hope it proves helpful.
Values AssaultedÂ Â Â Â Â Â
I confess that I do not always grasp what is going on in North American culture. I do know that Christian values and thinking are being assaulted on every front. The gigantic problems of our day give evidence that our culture is eroding. That same erosion is making its way into churches. In our busyness and fragmentation we often hurry past the mess. Let me name a few of the problems I observe.
First, we are a self-absorbed culture. Everywhere we look, individualism is epidemic. When that particular “ism” works its way into the life of a local congregation it opens the door to a second problem. I”ll label it materialism. When self is exalted, the need for accumulating “stuff” becomes the drug of choice. Jesus” followers must regularly ask themselves, “Am I managing the possessions God has entrusted to my care, or are my possessions managing me?”
In the church there is a disturbing greed that is evidenced by the attention we give to financial concerns, budget plans, and administration of funds, rather than to Scripture, prayer, and witness.
Individualism and materialism are tied closely to another “ism”””spiritualism. Spiritualism is the belief that “truth is located in the inward Spirit or inner light” (Donald Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety [Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1988], 53). The final authority of spiritualism resides in the person. There is a hideous paganism located in the worship of the human will. Anything becomes permissible when God is no longer acknowledged as the center of reality.
Violence, sensualism, racism, Christian secularism, the worship of pragmatism, and all sorts of other idols in need of destruction not only dominate the landscape, but make their way into the life and breath of local congregations. This brief article cannot address all the reality and necessity of slaying those dragons.
Faithful, Flawed Guides
What I can tell you is that Benedict (480″“543), one of the most famous monks in church history, can help direct us from self-preoccupation to selfless service. I can also tell you a monk named Bede (673″“735) can instruct us on ways of defeating the demon of materialism. Augustine (354″“430), Boniface (675″“754), Peter Damian (1007″“72), Hildegard of Bingen (1098″“1179), Teresa of Avila (1515″“82), and so many others, with all their quirks and weaknesses, still pose for us an army of good and faithful guides to a Christian spirituality that is athletic and muscular.
Of course, everything they have said must be placed under the lens of Scripture. With that said, let me face something honestly and squarely. The monks and nuns of the past did not always “shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15). Sometimes they were as boneheaded and sinful as those who did not claim to be Christians. Sometimes they were as belligerent and rebellious as I am.
There were monstrous errors and colossal abuses in the monastic movement. Some of these well-intentioned folks lived a solitary life on top of pillars. Some chained themselves to rocks in caves or in public spaces where people could see them each day. Other ascetics lived in old cisterns, while subsisting on only five figs a day. Still others lived without clothing, only covering their bodies with their own long, uncut hair. Some hung weights around their necks, or placed themselves in cages, or ate but once a week, or ate only while kneeling, or only drank water from the dew that was collected from rocks. Some of these people stood while sleeping. Some lived in swamps, abandoned caves, or even tombs. Some never bathed!
In all of this misplaced asceticism there was a passion to renounce self and seek to please God (Walter Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal [Boston: Beason Press, 1962], 44, 45). We know that some mutilated themselves, like Origen, believing that Matthew 19:12 (“For some are eunuchs . . .”) must be interpreted literally. The biblical and doctrinal misunderstandings and mistakes made by many of these monks and nuns are plentiful. With all of that said, let me get to the heart of the matter.
I have searched for the perfect mentor since my high school days. I know I sound like a naÃ¯ve Ponce de LeÃ³n. Regardless, I think John Maxwell and Jim Dornan are right, “Mentors impact eternity because there is no telling where their influence will stop” (Becoming a Person of Influence [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997], 123). Years after high school, when I was preaching and serving a local congregation, I would have given up my salary to find a mentor who could help me through the sticky and thorny challenges of ministry.
Sometime in the mid-1970s I providentially stumbled onto the writings of what I affectionately refer to as the “dead guys.” Richard Foster”s footnotes, in Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), led me through a thick, lush rainforest of spiritual giants. Many of them I have read slowly. My relationship with those monks and nuns has, at times, been filled with ecstasy, like being alone with my best friend, my wife. I have hungered to be with them, intimately, quietly grateful to simply listen.
Some, truthfully, I have read swiftly. I just didn”t find a connection. The problem, I am sure, is on my side of the equation. I have felt myself avoiding a few of the monks and nuns like I might avoid a draining and demanding neighbor. In some strange way, however, many of those giants have become mentors for me.
Mentors are not necessarily dispensers of answers. They are, though, an extra set of ears and eyes to the mysterious storm of God”s grace. They help us listen for God”s presence and activity.
It seldom enters the mind of most people to consider finding a mentor who has been dead for some time! I know that sounds insane. It is not what usually comes to mind when we think of a mentoring relationship. These faithful followers of the past can assist us in training ourselves to love God and neighbor, renounce self, observe God”s daily presence, pray, obey, practice silence and solitude, and work to the glory of God!
May I place a humble suggestion in your heart? Find a great saint from the past. Dig deeply into his or her life and words. See how they might point you ever closer to Jesus. Listen to what the monks can teach you.
May God be glorified.
J.K. Jones is chairman of the Christian ministries department at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College. This article is excerpted from his book, What the Monks Can Teach Us: An Ancient Practice for a Postmodern Time (Joplin: College Press, 2004).