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The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism, edited by Bernice M. Kaczynski

by
13 August 2021

The surge in scholarly interest is reflected here, says John Binns

MONASTIC life has been written about and studied since the first monks ventured in the desert in the fourth century. During the past 30 or so years, however, there has been a rapid growth, as scholars have applied new approaches and disciplines to monastic studies. There is — the editor notes at the start of this book — widespread interest in Christian monasticism, with diverse motivations behind these interests, and the growth in research has involved many disciplines.

The handbook addresses this interest with a set of 44 articles by academics and religious on a range of subjects, which takes us across the monastic world and through monastic history. The articles are grouped in sections, which cover four stages in the story of monasticism: the origins and early centuries before the Great Schism divided the Church into East and West; the medieval period in the Western and Eastern Churches, when monasteries were set up widely and were politically influential; then the modern period from the Reformation onwards; and, finally, the present day, with a look ahead to future prospects.

Since the handbook seeks to guide the reader through the terrain of current research, each chapter follows a clear pattern. There is a preliminary summary of issues that have engaged scholars; a narration of the events, with reference throughout to the literature in which these are discussed; suggestions for future directions of research; a guide to the literature; and a full bibliography. This approach provides both a general introduction, with many insights, and suggestions for further research.

The treatment of the medieval period is by far the fullest. This reflects the importance of monasteries in medieval society and the research that has been carried out. As well as a historical survey describing the monastic orders and their distinctive ways of life, there is a set of essays showing how new research has added to understanding of monastic life and its place in society. As well as forms of prayer, music, and art, there has been analysis of the social composition of the communities, the links with noble families through benefactions, the provision of medical care, and the management of land. These are some of the ways in which monasteries were integrated into medieval society. A recurrent theme is the recognition of the place of women in the monasteries — as a part of growing gender studies. These approaches from various disciplines add to our understanding of the life of the monks.

agefotostock/alamyThis Virgin and Child in Majesty (Auvergne, 12th century), the Morgan Madonna, now in the Metropolitan Musem, New York (gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1916), features in the book

Other sections describe how monasticism has extended into new areas. These concern Eastern Christianity, with varied forms in Syria, Ethiopia, and across Asia; and the introduction of monasticism in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Among the many areas that are discussed, and where further research will lead into new understandings, are the resilience of monastic life, in spite of — or possibly because of — persecution in Soviet Russia; the part played by monasteries in the missionary extension of the Church of the East across Asia between 700 and 1000; and the dramatic growth of Benedictine monasteries in South Korea and Vietnam during the past half-century.

The theological and spiritual dimensions of the monastic tradition are less discussed — partly because these are more familiar parts of monastic studies and the emphasis of this volume is on recent research.

Work on texts has resulted in the re-examination of narratives and the alignment of textual material with archeological evidence rather than the theological and spiritual dimensions of monasticism. It is noticeable that, for example, the influential figure of St John of the Cross does not appear in the chapter on monasticism in the Iberian peninsula, and St Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus are also absent.

While there are valuable chapters on prayer and liturgy in both Eastern and Western traditions, it is the final sections, on the present situation, which contain sections on the spiritual traditions that make up monastic life. Here, there are discussions of lectio divina; the potential of monasticism to bring monks of different faiths together in dialogue; and the application of the tradition to contemporary life in the “new monasticism”. These are pointers to the roots of monastic vocation in a faithful living out of the gospel, and show how monasticism finds new expressions for each age.

This strength of the book is its versatility. As a history of international monasticism, it can be an introduction for a general reader; as a reference book, it can be consulted for information about a specific topic; with its bibliographies, it will guide the researcher. It will be a widely used resource.


The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.

 

The Oxford Handbook of Christian Monasticism
Bernice M. Kaczynski, editor
OUP £125
(978-0-19-968973-6)
Church Times Bookshop £112.50

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