BMCR 2018.04.36

Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity: Cognition and Discipline

, Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity: Cognition and Discipline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xii, 350. ISBN 9781107184015. $120.00.

Looking at the title of this work, and indeed at the structure adumbrated in the Table of Contents and the Introduction, one would anticipate a book very much at the working face of current monastic scholarship. The structure is based on a division into three parts: “Evaluating Postulants,” “Cognitive Disciplines,” and “Collective Heart-Work.” The notion that monks (and we shall come to the meaning given that word) were engaged in some way in “the care of souls,” plus an explicit appeal to the importance of “cognitive science,” bespeaks a clear understanding of where scholars in this field are headed. And the book does move along those paths—let there be no doubt about the logical momentum of the author’s argument, his detailed appeal to primary sources, and the reflective force of his judgments. He has provided us with an account at once full of interest and immensely useful.

The first section, on “Evaluating Postulants,” did not immediately fit for me into what seemed to be the thrust of the whole. Yet the issue of recruitment—for that seems to be what is at stake here—is rarely treated so fully in the secondary literature. (Paul Dilley provides nearly a hundred pages.) That has been a pity: for, one does need to know why such large numbers of people, men and women, were attracted to a life of ordered asceticism during Late Antiquity. The care with which their commitment was tested, and yet their unrelenting eagerness to undergo “monastic resocialization” (the phrase is quoted from Bentley Layton), are all too infrequently attended to, as if we can take such a desire for granted. The testing (which could amount to a species of pastoral care, especially when combined with the follow-through) was, by Paul Dilley’s account, entirely oriented towards what he later calls “cognitive disciplines”: is that what the postulant is looking for, and does he (most often he) have the proven ability to make progress in that direction? A sense of advance, as well as of initiation, gives the opening section, therefore, its place within the book more generally.

The second section, “Cognitive Disciplines,” provides us with the real meat (well over another hundred pages). The central preoccupation of the engaged monk is a move inward, “a heightened attention to inner thoughts and temptations.” The result was “a new theory of mind”—new, I think, largely in virtue of the “disciplines” made use of. The author singles out three resources for this change of perception (largely “technologies of the self,” à la Foucault): a steeping of the mind in Scripture, a special development of the fear of God, and an ever-uplifting experience of prayer, carrying the monk to a fuller awareness of God’s presence. This is not, and does not claim to be, an entirely original description of the monastic experience; but it is cognitive in that it is based at every stage on a clear- headed understanding of how the mind functions and of how its specifically monastic form can be perfected.

This second section has some interesting details lodged in its account. Paul Dilley builds a great deal around the Pachomian evidence; and this seems to be his way of focusing somewhere between Antony and Basil—bringing, in other words, some order to what was, it has to be admitted, a wide range of traditions. Probably true, however, of all ascetics—although they undoubtedly expressed the achievement in different ways—was that “prayer” (which, modern scholarship now shows, took many forms) certainly carried you out of present circumstances and made its practitioners displaced in some sense, wanderers, exiles, even when domiciled in groups. This solitude in the crowd was never entirely absent, even in coenobitic communities: to that extent the reading, the self-criticism, the ascent remained inner, mental experiences.

The “monastic soundscape” (a pleasing phrase) made the ascetic essentially a listener; but the outcome was to an important degree private. The ultimate desideratum was a “personal attitude” that was “maintained,” as by an engineered governor, ensuring a consistent response to unforeseeable stimuli. This was preferable to self-deprecation for its own sake, which could drag the mind back to what had already been resolved. A confident watchfulness was the ideal; and prayer was a consequent need, because the root of one’s caution was precisely an awareness of the ultimate “watcher,” God: not as a threat, but as the goal of the mind’s capacity to reach beyond itself. The monastic life represented a transition from repentance to commitment: what had been left behind was increasingly overshadowed by the reward of effort, a progress from the “practical” to the “contemplative” life. When he turns specifically to prayer, Paul Dilley depends heavily on these dualities—perhaps better, these constant shifts from past to future. One had to be guided as to the wholesomeness and effectiveness of one’s “thoughts” (within), and yet respectful also of the “rule” (without). One had to be obedient, therefore, and open, and yet ultimately capable of government by “conscience.” Only with that maturity assured could one exercise without risk one’s God-given freedom of choice. In the Pachomian corpus, therefore, “vigilance,” a recollection of one’s “promises,” was what the author himself calls “a technology of the imagination,” enabling the monk to keep his eye on “the road to the city, your dwelling place … the city of Christ.”

When we come to the third section, “Collective Heart-Work,” we have already dealt with “cognition” and “discipline” (in the second section), which makes it difficult to know exactly what this final part of the book is centrally about. It can only (and indeed does) refer to the “care of souls” in the book’s main title; but “cognition” is given thereby an added weight (it is, after all, a work of the heart), which shows how these ascetics were supposed to use their new mindset to change also their understanding of their fellows, of other minds. In this section, the sources on which the analysis rests are limited explicitly to Theodore and Shenoute, Pachomians and Egyptians both (I shall return to this comment).

I do not think it is unfair to say that, as he proceeds, Paul Dilley makes this “collective” achievement less important than what has gone before. He is anxious to defuse, however, the voyeurism, as it were, of exemplarity and imitation, which could so easily undermine the genuine desire to understand why this or that monk behaved before others in the way he did. The hypocrite and deceiver always lurked in the company of the holy ones. (Discernment, therefore, continued to be of the essence.) One cannot help noting how this inevitably included those observing an ascetic regime from outside. Everyone had to learn how to spot sanctity (and spot it accurately) in settings where to many it might remain hidden. One must, therefore, include the laity in this “care,” both as characters in and as readers of, for example, hagiography.

Shenoute is allowed the last word in this account. Quite apart from his notorious engagement with the wider community around his monastery, I find it perpetually puzzling how so richly illustrated a formula of leadership could yet have betrayed so much self-doubt and provoked so much resistance—the paradox of the man. The inner conflict undoubtedly governed, nevertheless, the outer persona. Paul Dilley calls this Shenoute’s sense of a “heart of darkness.” It is a sobering conclusion, and I have never allowed myself (I do not think Paul Dilley does, either) to believe that it could ever exhaust the phenomenon of “care.”

Let me identify some other misgivings. There is, first, a quirk of method. A principle or theme is announced, and then an often exhaustive array of nevertheless disjointed illustrations follows after. The illustrations are picked out here and there across the empire and the centuries, obscuring difference of circumstance and a shifting attitude among ascetics themselves. We gain little sense of an arch of endeavor that was driven by a developing sense of how a human being functioned in its relations with others and with its creator.

This is connected with a second difficulty. There is an overwhelming emphasis on the early Egyptian evidence—paradoxically, on an ascetic milieu that was passing its prime. Cyril of Scythopolis (Beit She’an) was the Palestinian summarizer of an ascetic tradition (in the middle of the sixth century) that even he thought was under threat; and the Apophthegmata Patrum, barely used here, were—especially in their “systematic” form—marshalled in writing (only shortly before) outside the province they described. About the West, even in the persons of Jerome and Cassian, the author has much less to say, suggesting (to my mind, unjustly) that western figures have less to tell us about the “care of souls in late antique Christianity”—after all, a sweeping term.

We also have to accept—and this is perhaps a third misgiving—the term “monasteries”: for, the overriding assumption seems to be that the “care” in the title was exclusively the preoccupation of coenobitic communities. Even more arresting is the impression that the members of such communities were “caring” mostly for themselves. There is little readiness to explore ways in which cognition and discipline featured in other social forms of asceticism and addressed itself to the needs of the pious laity (not least in written form).

These three misgivings—logical structure, territorial restriction, and coenobitic focus—cannot be allowed, however, to question the value and depth of the work. Paul Dilley’s understanding of the cognitive features of the ascetic life, in particular, brings it into the forward ranks of current inquiry, and with positive effect. It reminds us in essential ways how much we need to bring into play this new inner awareness (this “theory of mind”) and this new sense of responsibility for others ( the Pachomian emphasis). Every ascetic lived in the world and had a gift for the world and a care for the world—an ideal not always lived up to, but an increasingly forceful impetus to self-examination and shared destiny on the grand scale.