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Press: Early monasticism — a familiar but alien world

10 February 2023

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I KNOW you’re all burning to hear about the coverage of the General Synod’s sex debate, but let’s save that treat for later, since The New Yorker has published something even more interesting. The piece was not a review of The Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingian Kingdom, or even of Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West, much though I want to read those books now. Those were the earlier works of Jamie Kreiner, whose latest work, The Wandering Mind, got a wonderful review in The New Yorker. It is about the part played by distraction in early monasticism.

“She eschews nostalgia, rendering the past as it really was: riotously strange yet, when it comes to the problem of attention, annoyingly familiar,” the review says. “As John of Dalyatha lamented, back in the eighth century, ‘All I do is eat, sleep, drink, and be negligent.’”

I had never realised that I was myself a reincarnation of an eighth-century monk, but this does explain a great deal about my character. The debate depicted in this book reminds me of today’s anguished discussions of “personal-knowledge management” and “productivity” in places such as Reddit: “All these habits of being were an attempt to get closer to God, not least by stripping away worldly distraction, but how best to do so was a matter of constant experiment and debate. Routines and schedules circulated like gossip, with everyone wondering if some other order had arrived at a superior solution to the problem of focus, or yearning to know exactly how the apostle Paul or the Virgin Mary had arranged their days.”

The difference is that the monks thought that the object of their strivings was God, whereas today’s procrastinators wish to get closer to their own best selves. “By the twelfth century, the six-winged angel described by the prophet Isaiah doubled as what Kreiner calls an ‘organizational avatar,’ with monks inscribing holy subtopics on each wing and feather, while other monks filled an imaginary Noah’s Ark twosie-twosie with sacred history and theology.”

For all the similarities to the minds of these monks which we can find, there are two statistics that make their world seem completely alien: in late antiquity and after, Christians donated one third of all the land in Western Europe to monasteries and churches. And Bede’s library at Wearmouth, the largest in England at the time, held about 200 books.

Are we going back to those times of poverty, misery, and devotion? Do we need to? Some vague idea like this has been floating around ever since Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue — or perhaps even earlier, to one of the classics of science fiction, A Canticle for Leibowitz. It tends to be conflated with thoughts of Christendom as a political order, whereas, I think, MacIntyre was largely concerned with matters below the level of the State.

And, sometimes, the people lamenting the end of Christianity in the United States tend to identify Christendom with the American Empire — thus Sebastian Milbank, writing in The Critic, starts off with praise of Gladstone’s speeches against the Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria: “In Gladstone’s day, appeals to ‘humanity, freedom and justice’ as well as the ancient idea of ‘Western Christendom’ were not only enough to electrify public opinion and force concessions from the government, but played a major role in securing his return to power and the subsequent independence of Bulgaria.”

I don’t think that this passage could have been written by anyone who remembers clearly the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. We saw what happened to those ideals then.

Milbank’s more general point is undeniable: Christians are being persecuted all around the world, and there are no longer global Christian powers able and willing to defend them. But I am not sure that this is a religious observation rather than a geopolitical one. It is true that the West no longer understands itself as Christian, and, as a result — back to MacIntyre again — the fragments of Christian morality and myth which underpin secular humanism no longer cohere and reinforce one another.


THIS brings us to the unavoidable subject of gay marriage. What kicked that off were reports that the Archbishop of Canterbury had told a group of MPs that he would rather disestablish the Church than break up the Anglican Communion over the issue (News, 3 February).

I don’t myself believe that he said that, but never mind. It made a marvellous peg for hyperbole and general silliness: thus Jayne Ozanne, in The Times: “It is clear he is prepared to sacrifice some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the world for his misguided goal of ‘unity at any cost’. We are already split. It’s about time he accepted that and stood up for those who are paying the highest price in all of this.”

So, a gay Anglican denied a church wedding in England is more vulnerable and marginalised than a Sudanese refugee? It is difficult to read her remarks as meaning anything else.

Then there was the Revd Dr Ian Paul, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, comparing MPs who wanted to force the Church to conform to their doctrine of marriage to Adolf Hitler, among others — but not, curiously, to Henry VIII.

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