I enjoyed Neil’s post on discipleship earlier this week. Please read it over if you’re new to our site and haven’t yet seen it. I’d like to add a few additional thoughts from my outsider-looking-in perspective on the monastic movement, branching off from Neil’s contribution, tieing in a few other threads as I go.
My own readings are limited to Thomas Merton, the Rule of Benedict, and a few assorted monastic authors over the past twenty-five years. But as I recall the various stories of the desert, as well as my own retreat experiences with the Benedictines, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Jesuits, I can see how the training of disciples is steeped in the notion of apprenticeship for a craft.
The desert tradition was steeped in parables, like the teachings of Jesus. The Lord himself was clearly devoted to and knowledgeable of the written Scriptures of Judaism. But through his stories, he was able to capture holy truths and communicate them effectively. The scribes of the monastic tradition did likewise in preserving various interactive adventures between novices and masters.
That’s not to say that the cultivation of the intellect isn’t to be prized in the Christian tradition. But I think it’s accurate to say that ideally, the Christian way of life precedes its elaboration into words or theology. Aidan Kavanagh captures something of what I’m trying to communicate:
For in Catholic tradition at its best, faith is not a creedal confession that gives rise to certain forms of life. Faith is, rather, a definite way of life in common that generates creedal confessions not as surrogates for but as symptoms of its vitality. In this sense, the Church is neither a religion nor a denomination. It is simply the way a re-created world coheres in constant praise and adoration of the one who is its source. (The Shape of Baptism, Pueblo Publishing Co, 1978)
And again, in the text of the Rite of Baptism:
Dear parents and godparents … On your part you must make it your constant care to bring (the child) up in the practice of the faith.
Note that’s practice, not knowledge. When I recruited and trained sponsors for RCIA, I was careful to explain their role was different from and complementary to their catechists. Their job was to show newcomers the practice of the faith. Invite the newcomer to dinner and see how grace was prayed, how children were put to bed, how the Bible or other spiritual reading was ready to go next to the easy chair. Invite the newcomer to various parish activities and see how we pray the rosary, the stations, or hang out, praying before and after meetings. Take the newcomer to church and see how you pray the Mass.
As an intellectual person I think and hope I’m fairly safe in promoting the way of apprenticeship above the way of the scholar. Some Christians will be discerned as scholars and theologians. But I think we might all agree we are all apprentices of the Master.