Desert with mountains on the horizon

The Value of Monastic Ideals

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Scott Hamilton, YTI Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

September 4, 2018

Love for God is one of the essential beginning places for the Christian ascent to holiness. As I mature, I have realized my ability to love others flows through the relationship I have with God. In some ways, living into Christian holiness is like throwing a fine piece of pottery; it comes from a long obedience in the same direction (Peterson, 2000). We can see just such a long obedience exhibited in the practice of early monastic ideals.

Centering and Shaping

Living in a loving relationship with God is a bit like being clay worked by a potter; submission to centering and acceptance of the process is crucial. A potter works a piece of clay with her hands then throws (slams) it onto the wheel where the centering process begins. Hands working pottery on wheelShe dampens her hands before wrapping them around the clay spinning on the wheel. She’ll leverage her grip on the clay with her elbows and squeeze the clay into the center of the wheel. The potter’s strength and love for the clay are what manipulates the clay into a centered position from which she can form the vessel of her choosing. God’s act of loving us is the process of being formed into the vessels of God’s choosing.

In Matthew 22:37 (NRSV), Jesus reiterates numerous Old Testament texts when admonishing us to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” To suggest this process is easy sounds trite when it is not; yet, through the effort to maintain such commandments, God transforms us into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. On a personal level, I must consciously love God with my entire being as an acquiescence to the process of centering. Through this love for God, I can love my neighbor. Such love for God empowers my poverty of spirit, which then prompts my obedience.

The relationship I enjoy with God infuses love for other. After the centering takes place, the potter begins the task of shaping and molding the clay into a usable vessel. Ironically, God may use our “neighbors” to complete this process.

Monastic Ideals and Pottery?

My reading of some of the Christian “classics” many years ago taught me a number of things about early monastic ideals, one of which coincided with my understanding from Scripture: Alone, I can do nothing. Any thought, feeling, or behavior depends on the Holy Spirit to empower the process of loving anyone, even myself. God’s love is unconditional and unrestricted; it comes without merit. We call it grace. When I choose to live into God’s grace, I can be light for others to see, even if they’re unaware. This same grace also prompts me to live into others’ suffering. In other words, God’s grace loves others in ways that are best for them instead of me loving them for my benefit.

As the Potter uses hands to mold and shape us into what the Potter desires, the Potter will also use specialized tools to cut away unnecessary pieces to help the vessel take shape. The centering process hollows the center of the clay and allows the Potter to form the clay into something usable for divine purpose.

One of the “tools” the monastics used was their physical withdrawal from cities and retreat into the desert. Their intention was to lessen the distractions influencing their experience of God. One of the overarching goals of early monasticism was, using contemporary language, deliverance from the false self. In other words, those who retreated to the desert wanted God to purify them in ways that killed the false self and prompted the emergence of the true self. What some may have considered selfish inactivity on the monastics’ part (retreating to the desert) was actually a proactive spiritual engagement with forces bent on frustrating the processes of spiritual purification.

This is the first in a short series of posts designed to better understand a few of the early monastic ideals. The next post will consider a few definitions and start unpacking ways the early monastics used their retreat into the desert to deepen their spiritual resolve and empower depth of relationship.