Early and Medieval Monks Have Left the Building
Monks are not merely isolated recluses fleeing the world and this stereotype by the church should end.
In Missionary Monks: An Introduction to the History and Theology of Missionary (Cascade, 2016), author Ed Smither profiles individual monks in early and medieval Christian history whose service was not merely to other monks in their monastery, but who illustrated the expansive ministry that a monk often underwent. They were missionaries to local communities, to nearby rulers, and to entire countries of peoples.
Their range of ministries outside the monastic walls was wide. Willibrord engaged the Frisians for fifty years, destroying their temples and supplanting them with churches. Martin of Tours “strode across his diocese” (p. 50), preaching itinerantly to the people of France. Celtic monks were typically peregrini, or wandering monks who travelled as a lifestyle, encountering Christians in villages and confronting pagans in their own settings. Patrick is the image that should come to mind, climbing the hill at Tara, perhaps to present the Trinitarian shamrock to the pagan king. This picture is important, even though his disciples would found monasteries for community life. In fact, the stereotypical lifestyle that monks stayed home and remained inside was rejected by some in the ancient monastic community itself. For example, Basil of Caesarea criticized his peers who were so inwardly focused that were not serving in outreach ministries.
The mendicants were perhaps the greatest medieval illustration of a “renewed apostolic vision and a commitment to Christian mission” (p. 146). The Franciscans rejected materialism and embraced poverty, forcing themselves to rely on others for food and shelter. This pledge meant that large monasteries and large inheritances of land were initially absent. The friars travelled across North Africa and East Asia, encountering wealthy Muslim populations on their travels as a contrast to mendicant reliance on others.
Yet, even internal monastic life wasn’t quite as stereotypical as we might think. While there was a lifestyle of prayer, it intended to be “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) more than it was “pray long prayers that never seem to cease.” The great monk Benedict who provided a rule for monastic life instructed: “Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it happens to be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace” (Benedictine Rule 20).
Smither succeeds in breaking the stereotype that the church has too long held about monks. Individual after individual, he profiles their ministry external to the monastery to illustrate a lifestyle of engagement rather than of disengagement. Each chapter contains an “approaches to mission” section highlighting their activities after summarizing their historical accomplishments. While the book doesn’t seem to confess a reality that other monks were prone to internalization, or that the great itinerants had followers not quite so itinerant, Smither aptly illustrates that some of them broke the stereotype. Their influence of cultural engagement is a power lesson for the church.