Benedict's Wisdom for the Ages: Gyrovagues, Sarabaites, and Anchorites—Oh My!
As we began to discuss a bit in my last post, widely varied ways of engaging the spiritual life have existed throughout history, even among monks. In the beginning pages of his rule, Benedict describes four different kinds of monks that he’s observed, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each group as he perceives them. Each of these different slants on the spiritual life still exists today, even if in a bit different expression than during Benedict’s time. Let’s explore how.
Cenobites, those to whom the Rule of Benedict is primarily directed, are what we typically think of when we think of monks. Having once attempted to live as a hermit, and subsequently having experienced life as a sarabaite of sorts, Benedict became firmly convinced that healthy spirituality generally required the more structured and shared way of life that a monastic community offered, and he wrote his rule to help guide just such a community. But we’ll save what he considers the best for last—and with good reason, for the cenobitic way of life is constructed precisely so as to avoid the excesses and immature applications of the other three expressions of spirituality, which we will explore today.
Perhaps least familiar to us in our own context is the concept of a gyrovague, but we see them among us nonetheless. In Benedict’s own time, gyrovagues would have moved from one monastery to another every few days, taking nothing with them, for they lived under a vow of poverty. But a way of life that began at one point as an honorable venture to build and demonstrate unqualified trust and complete reliance upon God’s provision devolved over time into a showy, self-centered, and often lazy excuse for spirituality. Yes, the gyrovagues may have required little, but they contributed even less. They lacked direction and focus, and as a result they were not able to offer anything of substance to the communities they encountered or to the kingdom at large. They were unwilling to settle down into any kind of commitment and stability, and thus the ephemeral lives they led did not have the richness, fullness, and meaning that should be characteristic of God’s people.
In our own time, we see some Christians living in this exact way. Some of them we revile. They are the church-hoppers of the always demanding, never satisfied sort. But others we often revere. Their spirituality looks impassioned, impressive, daring, and even exhilarating as they move from one big, exciting adventure to the next. But regardless of our reactions to them, these individuals (or even communities) have not learned the wisdom of stability and commitment in a world of transience and self-determination, so their lives of faith and their witness are weakened. Benedict had no patience for the gyrovagues, calling their way of life disgraceful. Perhaps the gyrovagues of our own time—or the gyrovagues in each of us—need to heed his assessment and consider how God may desire growth into a more mature way of life.
The sarabaites may be a bit easier to spot. These monks were known for pursuing spirituality intently, and usually in community with a few other likeminded people. Their faith was important to them, and they sacrificed a great deal to build it up and live it out. But they did so on their own terms, heeding the wisdom of no one but those who thought just like they did. You might say (and Benedict comes close to doing so) that they made themselves their own gods. You could certainly say that they lacked the humility we would hope for in the spiritually mature. The sarabaites, Benedict warns, “have a character as soft as lead,” and their spirituality is “detestable” (Chittister, p. 29).
I would venture to claim that each one of us, at least at one point in our life, has acted like a sarabaite. And many of our Christian communities and churches exhibit the tendencies of sarabaites, refusing to commune with or be challenged by—much less submit to!—those with whom they disagree. We pursue God fervently, but we do so on our own comfortable terms—and to our own detriment. For spirituality without the challenge of iron sharpening iron, without the guidance of wise leaders, and without the formative power of constructive and rigorous spiritual discipline, is vain and empty, and we and the world are poorer when that is the extent of our faith.
Next are the anchorites. Though we may not have many hermits (not) in our midst, nevertheless many American Christians idealize being something akin to an anchorite as the purest form of spirituality. These are the spiritual giants, we think, the ones who pursue God so fully that they leave behind the things of everyday life, retreating from the world in order to meet with God and do battle with the devil. This ethereal spirituality and the undistracted contemplativeness that accompanies it are what we should all aspire to, we think, for that is what God really wants of us. We inundate ourselves (and fuel an entire sector of the economy) with devotional literature, Christian music, and Bible reading plans, hoping always to find the next level of true spirituality that we haven’t yet reached. We envy our ministers and our missionaries the opportunity to do “God’s work” full time (and get paid for it, even). If only we could get away from the tumult and drudgery of everyday life like they do, or if we could somehow manage to get away from all these other distracting people, we think, then we could be truly connected to God, one-on-one, pursuing real holiness.
Now please don’t hear me claiming that retreat and personal spiritual growth and undistracted kingdom work are bad things. I wonder, though, if it’s at times more the escapist inside each of us (rather than the healthily maturing believer) that venerates and romanticizes these things. For as Chittister reminds us, “living life alone is nowhere near as searing of our souls as living it with others” (p. 28). And if this kind of refinement into the image of God is what we are truly after, it seems we often have things backwards and would do well to heed Chittister’s words:
If you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love. Then, if you want to go away from it all, then and only then will you be ready to do it alone. (p. 28)
Benedict agreed. It was only those who had “come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time” who, “thanks to the help and guidance of many,” had built up enough spiritual maturity and resilience to be able to survive the spiritual battles that arise when coming face to face, stripped of all external support but God’s presence, with the powers of the evil one (p. 27). Holiness and spiritual maturity don’t originate primarily out of escaping the things of everyday life and the commotion of community, then; rather, it is precisely through engaging with the formative presence of community in our lives that we are molded into spiritually robust individuals who may then safely, healthily choose to “go from the battle line in the ranks of their members to the single combat of the desert” where they will “grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind” (p. 27).
Gyrovagues, sarabaites, and anchorites—peculiar sounding terms for three ways of the spiritual life that are still present among us today. Each of them has the potential to offer something significant when lived well and healthily. But doing so is challenging—challenging to the point that Benedict believed it unwise for virtually everyone. He encouraged the cenobitic way of life as a better option.
Before we explore what this alternative entails, though, I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Now that you know a bit more about gyrovagues, sarabaites, and anchorites, what benefits and pitfalls do you see in their chosen ways of life? What correctives do you imagine Benedict might offer each group, or what would you yourself say to them?
Chittister, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. 2nd ed. New York: Crossroad, 2010.
Header image: Randy OHC. St. Benedict detail in fresco – plain version. Taken June 18, 2009 at St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved. Saturation and contrast adjusted by Karissa Herchenroeder for use on this blog.