Review of The Story of Monasticism
Greg Peters. The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality. Grand Rapids, MI, 2015. Pp. ix + 278. ISBN: 978-0-8010-4891-3. $22.99 [Paperback]. Reviewed originally in Fides et Humilitas: The Journal for the Center of Ancient Christian Studies (Winter 2016).
In this new work, Biola University professor Greg Peters has crafted a work “on the history of Christian monasticism geared toward a ressourcement of the tradition for the twenty-first century” (p. 2). Peters’ book bears resemblance to other introductory works on monasticism—such as Harmless’ Desert Christians (2004) and Dunn’s Emergence of Monasticism (2003)—however, his work has a broader scope and aims to capture the entire narrative of monasticism down to the present day. His interest in making connections (ressourcement) for his tribe (evangelical Protestants) is similar to the goals of Dennis Ockholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People though Ockholm’s work is limited to reflection on Benedictine monasticism.
In a brief introduction, Peters communicates his rationale for writing, offers a definition of monasticism, and then builds a case for monastic spirituality from the Scriptures. The book is divided into four parts and is organized both chronologically and biographically around the lives of innovative monks. In part 1 (“Antony to Benedict”), he spends three chapters discussing the origins of monasticism, distinguishing between anchorites and coenobites, and describing the rise of monastic rules. In part 2 (“Benedict to Bernard”), Peters begins with the sixth-century innovation of Benedict of Nursia and narrates the monastic story and its key players and contexts through the medieval period until the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153). Part 3 (“Bernard to Luther”) continues to survey medieval monasticism until the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Finally, in part 4 (“Luther to Merton”), the author discusses both Roman Catholic and Protestant monasticism from the time of the Reformation through the twentieth-century. Each chapter ends with a brief ressourcement reflection for the modern reader and the closing epilogue offers some thoughts on how monastic values might shape the future of Christianity.
In terms of strengths, Peters succeeds in accomplishing his goal of narrating nearly two millennia of monastic history in a personal and inviting manner and the ressourcement portions of each chapter are effective in showing the relevance of aspects of monastic life for modern evangelicals who are not monks. Second, as most works on monastic history begin sometime in the fourth century, Peters does a good job (pp. 6-17) of showing monastic-like spirituality among biblical characters and rooting his narrative there. Third, and quite related, by appealing to Jewish and earliest Christian ascetic practices, he provides a fresh perspective on monastic origins that pre-date the fourth century (pp. 23-34) and makes a good case that “monastic impulse was a part of the Christian church from its very birth” (p. 35). A final strength of the book (parts 2 and 3) was Peters’ ability to guide the reader through the details, people, and events associated with medieval monasticism. The author has filled in the gaps of understanding in a period that is often under appreciated by evangelicals.
I do have a few points of constructive feedback. First, in the beginning of chapter 3, Peters seems to suggest that within a developing Christendom paradigm, the Emperor Constantine gave life and support to the development of coenobitic monasticism in the West (p. 54). In my reading of this period, it seems that Christianity’s approved and later favored status actually worked to push spiritual men and women away from such a status toward isolated and cloistered withdrawal in which a new martyrdom could be pursued. So I struggle to see how Constantine or any of the subsequent Christian emperors promoted monasticism.
Second, while Peters’ survey of medieval monasticism is a strength of this book, I was a bit surprised at the relative lack of detail given to some monastic innovators in the first few chapters. Specifically, I think the book would have been strengthened by more discussion of Pachomius, Basil, and Augustine and their monastic rules. Also, more space could have been given to Syrian and Egyptian monasticism and semi-hermitic innovators such as Abba Shenoute (d. 466).
Finally, one key element of the monastic story that seems absent is the work of missionary monks. Though Peters has discussed Basil (pp. 54-56), Francis (pp. 179-181), Celtic monks, (pp. 88-96), and the Jesuits (pp. 216-19), it seems that their rich cross-cultural missionary work—clear evidence of their active spirituality—has been overlooked.
Critiques aside, this is a good book for undergraduate and seminary students—particularly those with little background in monastic studies—that could be read in church history and spiritual formation classes. I think it is also a great resource for members of new monastic communities to inform and deepen their convictions as they engage monastic history and thought.