Random Thoughts on Monastic Bishops

The kids are already on vacation and we go to join them tomorrow meaning that M and I got to run together this morning (I just did a light 10 then relaxed while she did another 8 miles…). In the process, I found myself pondering once again Sulpicius Severus and the transmission of the monastic tradition from East to West. In particular, I’m considering the shift of the ascetic ideal from, essentially, hermits to bishops.

Consider–the main texts of the monastic movement in its initial eastern flourishing were Athanasius’s Life of Antony and the various collections of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. These were then translated into Latin by Jerome & friends. Suplicius who, in an unguarded moment in the Dialogues, lets slip that he hopes to replace Jerome altogether writes the Life of Martin, the Dialogues, and the Epistles. He shifts the ideal away from the unlettered desert hermit and places it onto the noble Gaulish bishop. Likewise, among Jerome’s correspondents are a number of letters to bishops–like those to Paulinus of Nola who turns out to be a friend of Sulpicius as well.

I’m not making an argument at the moment, more lining up some evidence and seeing what patterns emerge. It is fair to say, though, that both Sulpicius and Jerome seem to assimilate monasticism into the western hierarchies more firmly than what we see in the first generations of monastic writings from the East.

Furthermore, I’m now suddenly intrigued by the Celtic bishops. Authentic classical “Celtic Christianity”–as we’ve discussed before–was far more similar to desert asceticism than other models, and one of its most recognizable features is that the bishops were usually abbots. Is this some kind of anomaly or is this the logical outcome of the strand of tradition that runs through Sulpicius Severus?

Still pondering…

11 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on Monastic Bishops

  1. bls

    Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Probably has mostly to do with the centralized nature of Roma n Catholicism, wouldn’t you think? The “autocephalous” thing in the East would seem naturally to give rise to “independent contractor” monastics, while Rome’s emphasis on hierarchy brings ’em into the fold of the church itself. And then there’s the scholarly aspect, too; the East is less into theology as study (they seem more into theology as mysticism) – and scholarship flourishes in a social setting. Exchange of ideas and all that. And the Greek (and classical Roman) heritage probably drove it, too.

    Probably something to do with political, geographical, and social conditions, too; Europe is smaller in area than the vast East, and communication was probably a lot better – via the church.

    Have fun on vacation! Relax and enjoy….

  2. Derek Olsen

    Well, it’s anachronistic to think of the Western Church at this point as the “Roman Catholic Church.” Yes, there was more emphasis on the the bishops in the West but we also have to recall some of the out-and-out fighting in the East between the monks and the church establishment. The Western translation does domesticate them to a degree where you don’t have that happening as much. On the other hand, don’t forget Benedict’s insistence that the monks elect their own abbots rather than having them appointed by bishops…

    Communication in the West wasn’t necessarily better depending on the period–wandering barbarian tribes frequently disrupted such things–especially those who were Arian Christians!

  3. bls

    Hmmm. I guess I was thinking you were talking about later – but then, I don’t know when Sulpicius Severus lived. Will have to go look that up….

    OK, 363 or so. Yes, that’s early!

    Never mind! ;-)

  4. bls

    (You have to remember that many of us don’t think the way you do, or know anything much about the things that are foremost in your head….

    ;-) )

  5. Michelle

    The Irish landscape at the conversion resembled a desert more than Romanized Gaul. There were no cities or even villages in Ireland for many centuries after Christianity became established, not really until the Viking period. Raths were dynastic, the ruler’s family only. Monasteries then became the only other settlements. Metropolitan bishops – Patrick’s role models (like Germanus of Auxerre) – wouldn’t work in Ireland as there were no cities for a bishop to rule from. Anyone wanting a lasting organization for Christianity in Ireland must have leaped at the monastic model, especially considering early Christians may have been shunned by their pagan clans.

    Irish Christianity seems to draw equally from the Life of Anthony and the Life of Martin. I seem to recall that Columba’s contemporary Irish poetic eulogy refers to both Basil and John Cassian as well. It calls him a student of Basil and praises how well he knew Cassian’s rule. Of course, the namesake of St Boisil of Melrose is Basil. I have a paper on that somewhere but I don’t remember who its by at the moment.

  6. Br. Dunstan, OJN

    Perhaps it was just a case of seeing where things could go in the scarcity both of established bad relationships and politically powerful western bishops.

    The time of William the Conqueror provides an interesting contrast along the same lines. In England monk/bishops and cathedral monasteries were relatively common, while south of the Channel they were largely unheard of.

  7. Derek Olsen

    Hi Br. Dunstan,

    The issue with late Anglo-Saxon England is that it was an attempted revival based largely on literary antecedents. Monastic institutions were favored targets of the Danish raiders and when the English governments needed to raise funds they went to the monasteries as well. As a result, the monastic life was all but stamped out by the end of the ninth/beginning of the tenth centuries. King Edgar in about the middle of the tenth century had the leisure, the lands, and the funds to attempt a renewal of the monastic life and found willing compatriots in your blessed namesake, Aethelwold, and Oswald. While they had experienced continental monasticism, they had precious little to go on in terms of consciously “English” monasticism–and there was a healthy “English” component to this revival. As a result, they turned first and foremost to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History where they did seize upon the pattern of monastic bishops. Thus, one of the main platforms of what is now called the “Benedictine Revival” was enacted at Winchester where Aethelwold tossed the secular canons out of the cathedral and installed a monastery instead following Benedict’s rule as read through the Regularis Concordia, the largely Cluniac customary he and Dunstan put together. This started the pattern but the degree to which it actually took hold is another story. (The fact that there are only two surviving copies of the Regularis Concordia and that Aelfric of Eynsham, one of Aethelwold’s direct students, put out a version with substantial changes makes us wonder further about its success.)

    So, yes, you do find monastic bishops in pre-Conquest England, but it wasn’t terribly common, and in the sees where it occurred it had been a relatively recent innovation.

  8. Derek Olsen

    Michelle–thanks for the added detail!

    Bls–You have to remember that many of us don’t think the way you do, or know anything much about the things that are foremost in your head….
    Yeah, M reminded me of that just this morning… :-)

  9. bls

    Well, it’s my fault for speaking out of turn, though. Blah, blah, blah.

    (Blogging makes you think you have something to contribute to every conversation, even when you don’t. Sorry!)


Comments are closed.