YOU ARE CONCERNED AND UPSET ABOUT MANY THINGS; ONE ALONE IS NECESSARY (Luke 10: 41, 42). This text is so familiar to most of us that, unless we make a special effort to allow it to speak to us, we are not challenged by the absolute quality of its demand. Already in antiquity some copyists felt it was too absolute, and altered the word for one to read a few. Apparently this scribe believed that Jesus was referring to the plates served at the meal Martha was preparing, and could not imagine serving but one dish to such a cherished visitor could be a norm for a good Christian. The text used by John Cassian in the fourth century included both words, with the reading: only a few things or one is necessary. The scribes responsible for another group of manuscripts seemingly could not decide between these variations. So they chose the radical solution of leaving the phrase out altogether! In this tradition Jesus tells Martha she is upset over a lot of things, and lets it go at that. Nothing is said about a few things or one thing alone being necessary. From the witness of early patristic citations of this passage, it appears that this uncertainty as to the original saying of our Lord arose very early and was rather widespread (cf. Aelred Baker, OSB "One Thing Necessary", CBQ 27 (1965), 132, 133). Exegetes as influential as Origen and St. Basil, among others, comment upon the variants and treat them as authoritative. The early Syriac versions also preserve alternate readings to the one thing necessary.
The result was that the faithful who had access to only one or other of these variant texts would not have been in a position to give this passage the spiritual meaning it has so long held for many, and above all, for monks. These faithful never heard that the Lord taught with emphatic insistence that only one is necessary. More recently, the finding of the Bodmer papyrus that preserves a second century text of this passage gives strong support to the reading we are familiar with, the one thing necessary which is the basis for the spiritual meaning. Since the Latin Vulgate preserved this reading, what Roman Catholics have consistently seen as the spiritual meaning of this passage is that Jesus here affirmed that listening to the word of God and keeping it, like Mary of Bethany was doing, is the one thing necessary. The Lord here corrected Martha, telling her she would do well to take that lesson enough to heart as to avoid being troubled by useless concerns, and to respect her sister's higher preference.
The one thing necessary, according to this understanding, is to focus on the words of the Savior. By implication the one essential is to seek God first and to leave the rest to His providence. He will see to it that all that is needful will be added, as the Lord taught on another occasion. For a Jewish audience to hear that one alone suffices is to be reminded of their most basic creed, the Shema, 3/:, a text they recited daily: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6: 4). This association would immediately suggest that Jesus is making a point about adhering to God in all things; the lesson he imparts is that of keeping priorities in their due place. For the subsequent verse of the Shema enjoins precisely this duty: And, you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Nothing is to escape from the scope of this first of the commandments, which flows from the uniqueness of the one God. Because God is one only one thing is needful, to love him by the service of the inner and outer powers of our being. Monks and nuns made use of this saying of our Lord to affirm the primacy of contemplation and so to justify the monastic manner of living which was established in view of favoring a life dedicated to the exclusive search for union with God. Nobody in this world, however, is altogether exempt from other obligations. Jesus himself made that clear. When he was called good, he corrected the youth who had addressed him as "Good Master", by stating "Nobody is good save only the One, God." He then went on to add that perfection consists in keeping the command-ments, including the one that says "You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 19: 19)." Applying this teaching that only one thing is necessary turns out to be more challenging than might appear at first. Not only must a human being care for his or her own physical needs in this life, but must have an efficacious care for the neighbor. The one thing needful turns out to include a number of obligations that are essential to the truth and purity of that one primary duty. Like the command given by St. Paul to pray always (1Thessalonians 5:17), this duty of focusing on the one thing necessary posed some very practical challenges to the faithful.
Monks in particular gave a great deal of thought to both of these obligations. They quite rightly considered each of these commandments to have a particular relevance for the perfection of their chosen way of life. Any number of stories and texts reveal the seriousness with which they sought to come to terms honestly with the obligations imposed by these injunctions. As happens rather regularly in human affairs, the absolute gave rise to polarization. Some insisted on the letter as the sole guardian of the purity of the ideal on the one hand and considered any modification to be a betrayal; others were persuaded that the literal formulation was a teaching device and that applying it with reference to other demands was the proper way to assure its intended aim. There is a short story found among the Sayings of the Fathers that witnesses to the presence of both trends from the early period of Egyptian monasticism.
The story is told that abbot John the Short said on one occasion to his older brother: " I wish to be secure like the angels, who serve God without intermission, doing no work." So he divested himself of his clothing and went off into the desert. After a week he re-turned to his brother and knocked at his door. His brother replied: "Who is there?" He answered: " It is John." His brother responded in turn: "John has become an angel and no longer dwells among men." He kept on knocking and insisted: "It is John." But he would not open and dismissed him to give him a hard time. Later though he opened the door and said to him: "If you are a man, you must work so that you can live; if you are an angel why do you want to enter a cell? He then did penance and said: "Forgive me, brother, for I have sinned (PL 73.1: 916- 917)."
One thing is necessary but a man must live and that means he must eat, clothe himself and provide a place to dwell in among other things. God has fashioned us in such a way that such necessities are conditions for serving him. They cannot then be in opposition to this greatest of com-mandments that require us to seek Him alone. But experience demonstrates how readily we give too much importance to what should remain subject to the one thing that is essential to give meaning to our existence. What begins as a necessity soon becomes an end in itself unless we remain watchful and firmly adhere to our original intent of serving God alone in all we do. The early monks were too honest to deny this fact and too conscious of the reality they observed every day in themselves and in the behavior of others to overlook the many obstacles to remain-ing faithful to this injunction consistently.
Work is a heavy burden at times, but it all too often becomes a diversion and then ends by becoming an end in itself. The same applies to other activities such as reading, study, and association with others. Curiosity, ambition, emotional dependence and self-affirmation can make of each of these legitimate occupations an obstacle to the service of God rather than a means of loving and seeking Him. The Christian faithful, and more especially the monk, must learn to guard the heart so that his motivation remains pure and ordered to the one thing necessary or else he will soon compromise his call and slip into paths that lead to sin.
The monastic vocation is a call to a form of singleness of purpose that is a direct response to Jesus' directive to give oneself to the one thing necessary. Baptism itself already constitutes the Christian in a relation to God that carries this same obligation. The monk is a sign of this vocation to devote oneself and one's whole life to the one thing that truly matters in the end, in the light of eternity. As George Lawless remarks (Augustine of Hippo and His Monastic Rule, Oxford U. Press 1987, 157), St. Jerome had pointed out in a letter to St. Paulinus of Nola the requirement of separating from the distractions of city life for the one called to be a monk.
And so because you ask fraternally by which way you should walk I will respond openly to you. If you wish to exercise the office of priest, if the work or the honor of the Episcopacy pleases you, live in cities or in towns. In this way you will make the salvation of others a gain for yourself. But if you wish to be what you are called, a monk, that is alone, what are you doing in cities which are the dwelling not of solitaries but of the many (Epistola 58.5 PL 22: 582-3).
Lawless contrasts this view of the requirements of monastic life with the opinion of St. Augustine who was both a Bishop and a monk. He felt strongly that he was called to be both at the same time and was sensitive to the criticism of those, who like St. Jerome, considered the two to be in opposition. He asks, "What do those say who insult us for bearing the name of monks?"
Why should not we also be called monks when the Psalmist says "How good and how pleasant for brothers to dwell together in unity!"? Monos means "one" and we are in some manner one. For in a crowd there is one but he is spoken of as one among many. He cannot be called monos in the sense of "alone", however. That it is truly said of those who so live together as one form, as it were, one man so that what is written "one soul and one heart" applies to them. Many bodies they are but not many souls; many bodies but not many hearts. Rightly then it is said : monos that is, one alone (Ennaratio in Psalmum CXXXII. 6 PL 37: 1732).
Ever since St. Augustine the Latin word "monachus" has had the larger sense that he gives to it. In the West we think first of all of a cenobite, a man with the classical vows who lives in community when we use the word "monk", not of a solitary. When we wish to speak of a solitary we commonly employ the term "hermit" in order to distinguish the one concerned from other monks who dwell together in a cenobium. A hermit is indeed a monk, but with this differentiating characteristic that he lives alone, without companions with whom he forms a community.
In practice, to be sure, even hermits have been associated with some form of community more or less loosely. This was already the case in Egypt where the monastic life was lived by a large number of monks who spent most of their time in hermitages but had a common liturgy on week-ends and a polity that was controlled by a Council of Elders. Since the excavations undertaken by the French and Swiss in the middle decades of this century the concept of the hermitage as constructed in Egypt has also been modified. Most hermitages were surprisingly commodious, consisting of a number of rooms to accommodate disciples, two or three at times. Even so the solitary nature of the desert qualified those who lived there as real hermits, that is to say people who lived essentially alone, with highly reduced contact with fellow humans.
In any case, it would seem that in actual practice the defining feature of the monk as such is not physical isolation but singleness of purpose that realizes its aim by the setting up of a special manner of life suited to its transcendent goal. This view of a monk reflects the absolute, transcendent nature of God who is One. In the Greek philosophical world Plotinus used the term monachos in connection with the First, his designation for God (cf. Enneads VI. 8.7). God then is the true monk for He is unique in His kind. If God is an absolute, then the one who seeks God devotes all he is and has and does to His service and to the cause of seeking union with this. His manner of living corresponds in principle to St. Augustine's concept of a monk. The monk is one heart and soul with all those who live with him in the same community. The basis of this unity is membership in the mystical body of Christ.
The boundaries of community are not so sharply defined, as we can see from a careful study of monastic history. In our own Cistercian Order lay brothers were technically not monks, but they did form one community with the choir monks. Oblates were not recognized legally as being monks yet were and are members of the community, as our Constitutions explicitly state. Family brothers, associates, benefactors, friends, relatives of the monks and many neighbors are not monks but nevertheless have bonds with the community that unite them with it in spirit, sometimes very intimately. This has been true from the beginning of monastic life. St. Scholastica only visited her brother, St. Benedict, rarely, but was spiritually one with him. The two were able to share profound experiences in the course of their exchanges.
The definition of a monk then from very early times has proved to be a rather fluid concept, as Augustine rightly saw. Others too were aware of the need to respect the blurred boundaries that separate the monk from other states of life. Perhaps that tradition is wisest which explains the term "monk " as deriving from monotropos, that is the man of one way, single-minded. This is the term used in the Septuagint of Psalm 67.7 where it is written: "He makes men of one manner to dwell in a house." Interestingly, the Ebionite translator Symmachus, writing in the 2nd century, employs the word monachos, monk, rather than monotropos in his rendition of the Hebrew word yahidim utilized here. Interestingly, this is the only occurrence of the work monkin any of the translations of the Bible as a whole. In commenting on this text the church historian, Eusebius, writing in 330 A.D. noted this version of Symmachus. He was convinced that this was the proper word to describe the order of male celibates who, as he puts it, "are in the first rank of those who are progressing in Christ." He observes that they are few in number, a fact he does not find surprising in view of their high calling [for this and following comments cf. E. A. Judge, "The Earliest Use of Monachos for "Monk" (P.Coll. Youtie 77) And The Origins Of Monasticism", in Jahrbuch fuer Antike und Christentum 20 (1977), 74.] Eusebius considered that the 4 other Greek versions of this text, each of which uses a different word to translate the Hebrew, has monks in mind and that their terms bring out distinct features of the monk's character.
This use of monachos to designate Christian celibate men is the first time it is employed by any ecclesiastic. From his discussion of this group of ascetics it appears that they already formed a defined order in the Church, just as widows and orphans did. This conclusion is born out by the only earlier surviving instance of the word. This text is preserved in a papyrus document dated 324 A.D. that registers a complaint to an official against two men who beat a farmer for removing their cow from his field. The author states that if it had not been for the appearance of a deacon and the monachos Isaac who rescued him, his assailants would have ended by killing him. The text presumes that monachos was a class of men readily recognizable by the official. It seems pretty certain that it refers to ascetics who lived in the town or close by and freely associated with the populace. It was Athanasius in his Life of Antony who, by applying the term monachos to his hero once he moved out into the solitude of the desert, assured that the classical concept of monk included a distinctive separation from the world.
From the point of view of spirituality, however, perhaps the more significant description is that provided by Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite.
The highest order of all the perfect is that of the holy rank of monks . Accordingly, our holy leaders honored them with sacred names. Some called them worshipers, others named them monks from their pure service and worship of God and of their undivided and unified life which makes them one, by means of sacred bonds of divided things, with the divine monad and bestows that perfection which is pleasing to God they ought to be oriented to the One and joined to the holy Monad (De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia III PG 3: 532-533).
ONE ALONE IS NECESSARY, Jesus told Martha, and that one is the absolute Good of every creature. He is, as Jesus so often made clear, our Father in heaven. We are made for Him alone, according to the image of His only begotten Son. The word for the only-begotten in Hebrew is yahid which is the term translated by Symmachus as monachos in Psalm 67. It would not be altogether amiss, then, to say of Jesus that He is the first monk, as the only-begotten of the Father! Everyone is called to that transcendent solitude before God in which alone he and she finds ultimate fulfillment. This solitude is populated by all those who have become one Spirit in Christ. The Christian vocation in its perfection is symbolized by the monk who is called to identify as fully as possible, by the grace of God, with Jesus, the beloved Son of the eternal Father. This is the ideal to which we are called. We are daily humbled by our remaining at so great a distance from fulfilling it. But let us not be discouraged. Rather, with confidence in Jesus our Savior and High Priest who gives himself to us in so many ways in our monastic life, let us renew our dedication to this high calling by seeking Him alone in all things. This is the true work of the monk; by fidelity to this striving for union with God we shall best serve the Church and our fellow Christians in our time.!
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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