The Worst Kind of Monk

Monastic Monday
Oh don’t give me that look! We both know you.

We learned about a new mission statement last time on Monastic Mondays, but some of you may be wondering perhaps what Br. Monday’s rejected statement was. Fortunately, I found it crumpled up in the corner of the chapter room after he sulked away. Here it is: “To seek myself and share nothing anywhere.” In case you haven’t noticed, Br. Monday is a gyrovague. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he just wanders from abba to abba asking for a word, and maybe a bean or two, never settling down, never choosing one holy mountain to live out his life.

But, “What is a gyrovague?” you may ask. Well of the four kinds of monks, it’s one you don’t want to be. Here’s Abba Benedict of Nursia to explain (Source):

It is well known that there are four kinds of monks. The first kind are the Cenobites: those who live in monasteries and serve under a rule and an Abbot.

The second kind are the Anchorites or Hermits: those who, no longer in the first fervor of their reformation, but after long probation in a monastery,
having learned by the help of many brethren how to fight against the devil,
go out well armed from the ranks of the community to the solitary combat of the desert. They are able now, with no help save from God, to fight single-handed against the vices of the flesh and their own evil thoughts.

The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the Sarabaites. These, not having been tested, as gold in the furnace (Wis. 3:6), by any rule or by the lessons of experience, are as soft as lead. In their works they still keep faith with the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God. They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.

The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues. These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such it is better to be silent than to speak.

Maybe it would be wiser and more prudent to be silent than to speak further about Br. Monday and his fellow gyrovagues, but that’s not how we do things on Monastic Mondays. You may be thinking that this kind of wandering monk sounds a bit familiar. Well, you would be right, because in some ways the monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the worst kind of monk. Here is a “translation” by Ecker and Cook, followed by the original Middle English.

A MONK there was, a fine outrider of
Monastic lands, with venery his love;
A manly man, to be an abbot able.
He had some dainty horses in the stable,
And when he rode, his bridle might you hear
Go jingling in the whistling wind as clear
And loud as might you hear the chapel bell
Where this lord not too often kept his cell.
Because Saint Maurus and Saint Benedict
Had rules he thought were old and rather strict,
This mounted Monk let old things pass away
So that the modern world might have its day.
That text he valued less than a plucked hen
Which says that hunters are not holy men,
Or that a monk ignoring rules and order
Is like a flapping fish out of the water
(That is to say, a monk out of his cloister).
He held that text not worth a single oyster,
And his opinion, I declared, was good.
Why should he study till he’s mad? Why should
He pore through books day after day indoors,
Or labor with his hands at all the chores
That Austin bids?  How shall the world be served?
Let such works be to Austin then reserved!
And so he was a pricker and aright;
Greyhounds he had as swift as birds in flight,
For tracking and the hunting of the hare
Were all his pleasure, no cost would he spare.
His sleeves, I saw, were fur-lined at the hand
With gray fur of the finest in the land,
And fastening his hood beneath his chin
There was a golden, finely crafted pin,
A love knot in the greater end for class.
His head was bald and shinier than glass.
His face was shiny, too, as if anointed.
He was a husky lord, one well appointed.
His eyes were bright, rolled in his head and glowed
Just like the coals beneath a pot. He rode
In supple boots, his horse in great estate.
Now certainly he was a fine prelate,
He wasn’t pale like some poor wasted ghost.
Fat swan he loved the best of any roast.
His palfrey was as brown as is a berry.

And now, Chaucer in his full glory from Project Gutenberg

A MONK there was, a fair for the mast’ry, above all others
An out-rider, that loved venery; hunting
A manly man, to be an abbot able.
Full many a dainty horse had he in stable:
And when he rode, men might his bridle hear
Jingeling in a whistling wind as clear,
And eke as loud, as doth the chapel bell,
There as this lord was keeper of the cell.
The rule of Saint Maur and of Saint Benet,
Because that it was old and somedeal strait
This ilke monk let olde thinges pace, same
And held after the newe world the trace.
He gave not of the text a pulled hen, he cared nothing
That saith, that hunters be not holy men: for the text
Ne that a monk, when he is cloisterless;
Is like to a fish that is waterless;
This is to say, a monk out of his cloister.
This ilke text held he not worth an oyster;
And I say his opinion was good.
Why should he study, and make himselfe wood mad
Upon a book in cloister always pore,
Or swinken with his handes, and labour, toil
As Austin bid? how shall the world be served?
Let Austin have his swink to him reserved.
Therefore he was a prickasour aright: hard rider
Greyhounds he had as swift as fowl of flight;
Of pricking and of hunting for the hare riding
Was all his lust, for no cost would he spare. pleasure
I saw his sleeves purfil’d at the hand worked at the end with a
With gris, and that the finest of the land. fur called “gris”
And for to fasten his hood under his chin,
He had of gold y-wrought a curious pin;
A love-knot in the greater end there was.
His head was bald, and shone as any glass,
And eke his face, as it had been anoint;
He was a lord full fat and in good point;
His eyen steep, and rolling in his head, deep-set
That steamed as a furnace of a lead.
His bootes supple, his horse in great estate,
Now certainly he was a fair prelate;
He was not pale as a forpined ghost; wasted
A fat swan lov’d he best of any roast.
His palfrey was as brown as is a berry.

Now that’s Br. Monday’s kind of monk. He might not have a horse or know how to ride, but this is his ideal of monasticism.

Br. Monday and Chaucer’s Monk might not give a fig about sharing, or community, or place, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t…

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