Making Monks, Forming Souls

Making Monks, Forming Souls May 4, 2018

I have been reading an important new book called Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity: Cognition and Discipline (Cambridge University Press, 2017). This is by my former colleague Paul Dilley, an excellent scholar whose work I have discussed in the past. The book is important because of its Egyptian setting, using many texts that are only available to those scholars with a knowledge of Coptic, besides the familiar Greek. Egypt is so critical to the making of early Christianity, right up through the sixth and seventh centuries and beyond, but our standard Western emphasis often means that this is underplayed. Also, given the central importance of monasticism through much of Christian history, Dilley’s book addresses a central if under-explored question: just how did people become monks? Not just how did they sign on to the profession, but how did they discover and absorb the lifestyle, its particular ways, assumptions and ideologies? How did they learn to live its world?

This would be a fine book if it just offered a straightforward historical analysis, but it is much more daring that that, and approaches its subject from the field of cognitive studies. Dilley describes such key cognitive disciplines as “meditation on scripture, the fear of God, and prayer.” He also discusses  “various rituals distinctive to communal monasticism, including entrance procedures, the commemoration of founders, and collective repentance.” That emphasis on ritual behavior fits so well with what we know about religious practices across the faith spectrum.

The book has a great deal to say about the process of admitting and evaluating postulants. The whole work has many implications for the study of monks (and nuns) in many different societies through the ages, not to mention the whole idea of spiritual direction.

My particular favorite among the sections was the chapter on “scriptural exercises and the monastic soundscape.” It makes brilliant points about the history of reading and writing and the ways in which the Bible was absorbed and understood. In this area, as in prayer, one added difficulty was the firm belief that the voices playing in one’s mind could be demonic as well as divine, making discernment a crucial talent that needed to be learned, and taught. When did you last encounter a history of listening? This is provocative stuff.

The resulting book is something really innovative: a true psychological history, in the sense of the history of the development of new models of mind, and the means by which they were cultivated and transmitted to new generations. It is nothing less than the history of how souls were made.

Reading the book took me back to work I have done through the years on new religious movements (NRMs), sects and cults. I am not so much suggesting rival ways of looking at Dilley’s topics, but rather offering some analogies from the way in which scholars look at other much later periods.

When I taught courses on these matters, I warned students to be careful about using words like “conversion,” which implies a life changing moment. Don’t say that “X converted to sect or cult Y” There are multiple stages in joining a religious group. You begin with the act of formal joining, of recruitment, but that does not necessarily mean much in terms of your mindset. Perhaps you are just trying a kind of experiment, to see how it works for you – checking it out. Over time, you increase your degree of commitment, and then at that advanced stage, we might talk of conversion, an inner spiritual experience. The three stages – recruitment, commitment, conversion – are quite different. Those distinctions also apply to how people join political groups, or even terrorist movements.

Sects and cults are awfully good at manipulating the degree of commitment you experience, and leading you to full conversion. Commonly, they control and manipulate the boundaries – physical, emotional and symbolic – so that you have ever more contact and connection with other members of the group, and are progressively detached from the outside.

Those boundaries might involve physical removal from “normality” – living in a compound or special house – or they might be symbolic, wearing a special haircut, beard, or garb. Perhaps you speak a special language, a jargon or set of phrases, which you know and mere worldlings don’t. Food and drink can be particularly effective markers: you are what you refuse to eat. Are members even required to choose new names? Sexual behavior (including celibacy) can be another form of boundary.

When you are researching a sect or NRM, always begin by identifying and mapping those boundaries. We are on this side of the line; They are outside. These tokens all serve to separate you from “The World” while identifying you with that special in-group. They also pose real obstacles to leaving on a whim. All those points suggest analogies with the early monastic world.

I think back to an excellent book that Rosabeth Moss Kanter published back in 1972, on Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective. (Kanter has had a wildly successful and prestigious career, but I believe that was her very first published book). She looked at the ways in which nineteenth century sects and utopian movements reshaped their members through what she called a six point commitment building process. The phases were sacrifice, investment, renunciation, communion, mortification and transcendence. It’s a great working model, although obviously it won’t fit each and every circumstance. Specifically:

Sacrifice. Members give up something of value to join – the greater the sacrifice, the more the love of the group, to justify such a renunciation. This weeds out potentially weak members. Such renunciations might include worldly goods, higher education, and other enticing prospects.

Investment.  Members contribute resources to the group, in terms of property or time. The more they invest in the group, the more stake they have in continuing to work for its survival and continuation. Group needs outweigh selfish individual desires.

Renunciation. Members relinquish interpersonal relationships that damage group cohesion, or that might cause to question beliefs and values.

Communion. literal or symbolic. Such group activities and rituals enhance the sense of the collective “we” – “we” are not “them.” There might be communal events, and perhaps a distinctive calendar.

Mortification. The death of the private self, as private autonomous selves perish. The self flourishes only as part of the group. Members need the group in order to feel whole and fulfilled. Among the Amish, for example, this means condemning self-pride, or pride in one’s own achievements. There must be a group consciousness, based on humility. The self must die.

Transcendence. This is a special power or virtue that results from being part of the group. The group membership lifts members above the ordinary and everyday. “Transcendence strengthens commitment because those who experience it seek to increase their devotion to the group that gave them such an elevated sense of being.” This creates a cyclical and self-feeding effect.

Reading such a list, you will see why I was tempted to apply this model to the monastic system that Dilley portrays, especially because it too draws on psychological concepts of the self. In that sense, principles invented to comprehend New Religious Movements can usefully be applied to religious structures  that are very old indeed.

I’d love to see a comparative review of Dilley’s book by someone who understands Buddhist monasticism! They would find so much in common between east and west.




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