Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mad Monks

At the beginning of this year, I wrote an assignment about the early monks. I hadn’t really learnt too much about the early monks before. And I have to tell you, my first impression was that they were all completely mad!

These are not just people who left some of the pleasures of life for a while. Not only did many of them live alone for years, but they chose extreme self-deprivation. Going without food and sleep. Sometimes doing seemingly inexplicable things like standing on top of columns or spending months in a mosquito-infested swamp. Their aim was to forego all fleshly desires. The more they suffered, the more they believed they pleased God.

I think the reason why those monks seem so mad is because they have a completely opposite worldview to people who live today. Nowadays, everyone seems to be telling us that we should be comfortable and happy. Sadly, it’s sometimes even the churches are spreading this messages. Instead of seeing sacrifice as something we do for God, many churches tell us that God wants to make all of our prayers/dreams/wishes come true. I’ve even heard it said that, if we are suffering, it may be because we have sin in our life or we’re not praying enough or we don’t have enough faith.

You would almost think that the religion of the early monks was an entirely different religion from the Christianity practised in the 21st century.

But maybe we’re the ones that are mad. Maybe we’re mad for thinking that our one aim in life should be for comfort and happiness. Maybe we’re mad for thinking that we can get (and should strive to get) everything we want. Maybe we’re mad for believing that Christianity is a religion where we receive, rather than one where we give up.

I got a letter from my bank today. It very nicely informed me that I don’t need to wait for anything I want. All I need to do is apply for a loan. It didn’t really explain to me what exactly is wrong with waiting until I have the money. I guess that’s a question we’re not supposed to ask. If you want something, you get it. Now. End of story. Who would wait when you don’t have to? In fact, trying to convince someone that waiting for something is actually good can sometimes feel like a losing battle.

I still think those early monks were mad. But I think they have something valuable to teach us. Trying to live like they did would be almost impossible for most normal human beings. But maybe if we learnt to live a little bit more like them, learnt not to be so concerned about our own happiness and comfort, look to deprive ourselves just a little bit, learned that Christianity is about sacrifice and not just blessings, we and the world would be a much better place.

Maybe the monks were mad. But maybe we could all do with a little bit of that same madness.

Monks and Mystics: Chronicles of the Medieval Church (History Lives series)    Ordinary People As Monks & Mystics: Lifestyles for Spiritual Wholeness    The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics)


  1. Hello Liz,

    I was wondering when you were going to do another post. You always have something interesting to say and, clearly, you think about things deeply and seriously and you always get me thinking.

    Mad monks? I think it is unfortunate when people (monks, or not)take suffering for God to the extreme.

    The thing about intense deprivation - when it is chosen - is that it focuses the mind and the spirit on what lies beyond the physical realm; how passing the physical is and how everything that really matters lies beyond this. Of course, enforced deprivation can be offered up to God in the same way.

    What I think is unfortunate is when people begin to see suffering as an end in itself. Suffering, for suffering's sake achieves nothing.

    I haven't read about mad monks('tho I am thinking, right now, about a movie I saw about Rasputin - the mad monk), but I understand the intense desire to connect with God that may have driven them to extreme measures.

    I do believe that God wants us all to be happy and that our journey is towards happiness (as in, connection with God). I think it's just that people confuse or don't undersrtand what it is that will make them happy. Or that it is sometimes necessary to endure and overcome intense suffering in order to find true happiness. God always gives you what you need, but not always what you desire.

    I get what you are saying about everyone today being concerned with their own comfort and happiness. It is a sad sad reflection of what seems to be a selfish and self-important mind-set in our world. To me, a lot of people seem completely lost.


  2. Hi Teresa,

    Nice to hear from you.

    A lot of the things done by those early monks seems quite pointless to me. But then I'm sure that a lot of my life would seem quite pointless to them.

    It's a completely different mindset. And it's one that I think is particularly hard for people living now to understand. In fact, I don't think we can. We look at the world in a different way.

    And I guess the monks didn't see it as suffering as an end in itself. They saw it as suffering that would bring them closer to God.

    I don't believe that the best way to God is necessarily to suppress all desires. Because I think God gave us the desire for food and laughter and company. And I also think we're meant to enjoy life.

    But then I think there's a difference between enjoying what God means for us to enjoy - and enjoying everything we want. I guess just because something is enjoyable doesn't mean it's necessarily bad. But it doesn't necessarily mean it's good either. But it's sometimes hard to know the difference.


  3. Hi Liz,

    What is bad and what is good (or, right and wrong). That is something that have I struggled with myself.

    I think that anything that you enjoy must be good, unless it causes harm to others or to yourself.

    But, following that line of thinking... sometimes a thing can be measured as harmful, in some way, yet it seems the only(therefore, right) thing to do. It is a real dichotomy that can only be balanced if you accept your failings and know that God accepts them, too. And God works in mysterious ways!

    Sometimes, it just isn't possible to do the best thing. You just have to do the best that you can do. And what else can that be, but the 'right' thing?

    I am thinking,particularly,about 'smoking' here. Maybe because I know that you smoke.Or maybe because it was something that I felt intense guilt about, but was unable to stop until I finally stopped beating myself up about it.

    I guess I should add (though I don't want to) that I am smoking right now.


  4. Hi Teresa,

    Well none of us are perfect. And I think we need to take account of those imperfections when figuring out what to do. Sometimes it's not about doing the best you should do but the best that you are capable of at that time.

    With food, ideally I would like to give my boys natural, unprocessed food all the time. But I'm just not capable of that. Sometimes I don't have the time. Sometimes I don't have the money. Sometimes I don't have the energy. Somtimes we all just feel like something unhealthy or processed.

    But then I know there are also times I give my boys quick, processed food when I'm capable of doing more. It's not really what I feed them, but whether it's the best that I can do at that time.

    Each year, on the first day of Spring, me and the boys have a spring party. It was meant to be a picnic outside, but the last two years have been so cold it's been a picnic on the loungeroom floor. It's our biggest junk food day of the year. We have icecream sodas, frankfurts, fairy bread, cupcakes and usually a couple of extras.

    But it's a special event for us. And I think the family bonding and the enjoyment we get out of it is worth the bad food. I tried suggesting this year that maybe we should eat fruit instead. The kids weren't impressed. And I think that eating bad food is actually the best food we could eat on that one day of the year.

    But just because we enjoy it doesn't mean we should do it everyday.

    But maybe that comes back to what you said about harming others. One big junk food day a year doesn't harm anyone - and I think it does a lot of good in terms of family bonding etc. But if we did it everyday, it would be harmful. But I guess it still comes back to knowing when something slides from 'enjoyable' into 'harmful'.


  5. Dear Liz,

    The only people who will ever understand the sanity of the madness of the saints are those whose only aim in life is to become a saint.

    David ...

  6. Hi David,

    Do you think all of the early monks were saintly though?

    I know that many of them have been recognised as saints by the church and seem truly remarkable men of God. But I wonder whether, for some of the monks, they did it more out of pride than anything else. (Remembering that there were a lot of monks that have not been written about.)

    But even with the recognised saints, although I don't understand any of them, I find it much easier to admire a hermit like St Anthony than I do to admire someone like St Symeon the Stylite.




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