Monday, March 7, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE FRONTIERS OF PARADISE – A Study of Monks and Monasteries” by Peter Levi (first published 1987).
You will pardon me this week if I present as a “Something Old” a rather specialised book, which is likely to appeal to a limited audience.
Peter Levi’s the Frontiers of Paradise, first published nearly 30 years ago, is exactly what its subtitle says – “A Study of Monks and Monasteries”. It is not a theological discussion of monasteries. It is not a systematic history of monasticism. It is a “study” in the sense of being a personal reaction to monks and monasteries and their place in world culture, giving a sketch of the history of monasticism but allowing much leeway for the author’s own opinions. And Levi has many opinions.
Perhaps a quick portrait of the author is appropriate.
Peter Levi (1931-2000) had a Catholic mother, and a Jewish father who converted to Catholicism. Both his sisters became nuns. He himself became a Jesuit priest and was for some time Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He left the priesthood after 27 years and married (apparently very happily) the widow of the literary critic Cyril Connolly. While he had some criticisms of the Catholic Church – especially concerning the matter of mandatory priestly celibacy – his outlook remained essentially Catholic and there is no evidence that he or his Jesuit superiors felt badly about each other after he had decided to quit. In his very industrious writing life, Levi published over 60 books. As well as novels and a prodigious amount of poetry, Levi produced many translations. He was polyglot. When I was studying Scripture, I remember the pleasure of reading Levi’s new translation of St John’s Gospel – a translation that got the knotty and sometimes slangy colloquialism and abruptness that is apparently in the original Koine Greek. I remember, too, as a student in the early 1970s, reading Levi’s translations from the Russian of the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. (Years ago some swine nicked my Penguin Poets paperback copy of Yevtushenko and I’ve never been able to replace it.) Levi’s interests were broad; and English, Latin, Greek and Russian were not the only languages he had at his disposal.
So, in dealing with monks, Levi brings a broad and urbane culture with him.
He begins with an anecdote of his seeing Buddhist monks visiting a Christian monastery, and noting the two quite different traditions easily mingling with each other and soon settling down to the same sort of domestic activities – preparing a communal meal, praying and chanting, with each group quite quickly grasping the importance and significance of these activities to the other.
From this, Levi postulates that the monastic impulse – the impulse to join a community that is contemplative and somehow withdrawn from the world – is an impulse that transcends cultures:
“Every monastery in the world, of whatever religion, has its own ritual monotonies, and its own monotonous music, its own ceremonies of light and darkness and water. The drama brings nothing about except for the individual soul, though it is always thought to have some connection to a spirit world. Christian monks pray for the souls of the dead and guard their relics. The friends of Epicurus pursued philosophy free from worldly care, in mutual charity. The followers of Plato and Aristotle pursued the mind’s journey to God in the same place for nine hundred years. Christianity and the Dark Ages built up a liturgy and an architecture, with all the bells and black robes and processions and lights and hymns instead of work-songs, which dramatize these pursuits to the monks themselves and to their audience, to ourselves.” (Part One, “The Monks”)
The second part of Frontiers of Paradise looks at the history of monks. Levi rejects the unscholarly suggestion that Western monasticism came from the East, from Buddhists via Syria etc. There is no evidence for this. Instead, it is clear that Western monasticism began in the Egyptian deserts in the third and fourth centuries. It was at first tinged with extreme mysticism and otherworldiness as it was affected by Monophysitism (the belief that Christ was God but not man). That was in the age of Saint Antony and solitary penitents living the withdrawn life of hermits. But, says Levi, as Christianity became the institutionalised state religion of the Roman Empire after the late 4th century, there was a dilution of the original “pure” Christian attitude to sacrifice. “Now true and full Christianity could no longer be easily tested by martyrdom and must be tested in monasteries. There is a sense in which ordinary members of the Church have been treated only as aspirant Christians ever since.” To adhere to a strict and circumscribed monastic life was a way of maintaining Christian “purity” when Christianity was becoming a social norm to which many people conformed simply for convention’s sake. Also, for the general Christian population who were lax in their observances, the strict monastic life was seen as a means “to discharge all the most inconvenient commands of the Gospel” without actually having to participate in them. Let the monks do the daily praying and the works of charity that were theoretically the province of all Christians.
Levi speaks admiringly of some of those who imposed general rules upon monks, especially Benedict who had the humility to realise that even an abbot has to take good advice from others. But he also remarks:
“The spirit, like the wind, blows where it chooses. But it is wrong to think of monasteries as the simple result of a spiritual need or the movement of an age. In Western Europe they were deliberately fostered by the Papacy, and in the East by the Byzantine Emperors. They were instruments of policy, and conscious centres of missionary activity and Christian learning, and they were agents of reform, being themselves constantly reformed. The unmarried clergy of the West were the result of papal and monastic pressure, and it is not surprising that priestly celibacy took a long time to impose. One cannot avoid the thought that it was the fox who lost his brush who persuaded the other foxes to cut off theirs. Damasus the Pope who was Jerome’s patron was the son of a priest and nobody seemed to mind; his mother is buried beside him. But the celibacy of the monasteries slowly extended like an ice age to cover the ordinary clergy. The offices chanted by the monks were made the daily obligatory reading of every Western priest. To this day if the Vatican releases a priest it is customary to let him choose release from celibacy or release from the monastic prayers, but not both….”
This is probably fair comment, but we remember too that these are the words of a former Catholic priest who might have been happy to continue as such if celibacy were not a condition of such service.
Levi gives a very potted history of Western Monasticism from Augustinians to Benedictines to Cistercians to Carthusians (whom he interprets as the most meditative of all monks). He takes some shots at Dominicans, the order of preaching friars who were not monks and who, he says, “became the watch-dogs and guard-dogs of an orthodoxy defined largely by themselves, and sniffers-out of everything unorthodox, from mystics to Jesuit theologians.” And again we are aware that this is written by a man from the Jesuit tradition, probably fully versed in theological controversies between Dominicans and Jesuits.
In Part Three, “Various Examples in More Detail”, Levi backs up and repeats himself somewhat to give just that – various examples of what he has already been talking about. Considering Bernard of Clairvaux, he damns him, even if he did bring about admirable monastic reforms, for mixing in politics and promoting “a wicked, stupid and utterly disastrous Crusade. If ever a saint spent time in purgatory it must have been Bernard. He may be said to have invented the Christian European God of 1914.” He notes that orders of nuns and sisters came and went more rapidly that orders of monks and friars, as nuns and sisters had no written “rule” and they were often very much under the thumb of men – although of course there were influential and charismatic figures like the Abbess of Whitby and Hildegarde of Bingen. And even in the Middle Ages, there was still some survival of the old tradition of “double monasteries” where communities of vowed, celibate men and vowed, celibate women lived close to each other.
While some parts of the text of Frontiers of Paradise could be taken as a gentle critique of the whole concept of monasticism, Levi is nevertheless very clear in refuting the kind of superior condescension towards Papists and their monks that was taken by Protestants such as Goethe and agnostics ever since. Considering Edward Gibbon’s notorious sneer in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Levi writes:
“The disdainful view Gibbon took of the barefoot friars chanting on the Capitol is well enough known. It was extremely odd of him, since the Romans after all had bare feet and chanted, and he would not have liked the bloody splashing and grunting and heaving of their sacrifices… He had learnt from Montesquieu and other French writers an irony and a style, and sought in history an area where they might be indulged. One might also point out that the Vestal Virgins of the Romans were very like an aristocratic convent of nuns. They were enclosed, they had religious duties, their virginity was sacrosanct, and the ruins of their house in the Forum have the look of convent ruins. Horace used them as a metaphor for eternity: ‘My praise shall freshen while the Capitol still knows the silent virgin and the Priest.’ ”
Given his own wide knowledge of pre-Christian classical culture (Greek and Roman), Levi was fully qualified to throw Gibbon’s sneer back in Gibbon’s face – and to expose in Gibbon the type of snobbery that assumed Christians were a vulgar herd while pre-Christian pagans were somehow all people of great refinement.
Perhaps the fourth part of Frontiers of Paradise, “Monastic Culture”, is a little more pedestrian as Levi outlines the types of buildings, the ground plans and the medicines derived from herbs, which monks concocted. He speaks, as any honest Western chronicler must, of the preservation of literacy and of classic texts by the scriptoria of monasteries, in an age when most of the population was illiterate. But, noting that Western monks preserved Latin while Eastern monks preserved Greek, Levi laments the loss of an intellectual edge to monasteries and the loss of their poetic creativity with the loss of the Latin language culture. Nevertheless, Levi’s liveliness revives somewhat in the last part, “The Everyday Life of Monks” where he once again comes to the concept that monks create in their environment a particular atmosphere that can transcend doctrinal differences.
As you might have worked out from this review, Frontiers of Paradise is not a book that is all of a piece. I have seen negative reviews that rebuke Levi for not telling a coherent history. Perhaps this is a fair judgment. The book is more a set of musings on the phenomenon of monasticism, and (as well as sometimes repeating itself) it often assumes that the reader already knows some of the background, which Levi does not bother to explain. Even so, it is a rewarding set of reflections and comments, and does highlight an ongoing cultural phenomenon too often dismissed as a vestige of the past.