SEEKING THE ABSOLUTE:
The Founders of Christian Monasticism
by Mayeul de Dreuille OSB
(Gracewing, 1999, 145pp, $21.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
If any institution stands in stark contrast to contemporary material culture, it would have to be that of monasticism: too many people in the modern world simply cannot conceptualise how any individuals would forego marriage, a family and a career to dedicate themselves entirely to God through the monastic vocation.
Fr de Dreuille, a French Benedictine monk who has been extensively involved in the formation of Benedictines in developing countries, provides a short, but well written overview of the development of monasticism, which in Western Europe culminated in The Rule of St Benedict and the Cistercian reforms of the twelfth century.
Interestingly, de Dreuville begins his work by examining the works of Clement of Alexandria, who pre-dated Christian monasticism, as his ideal of how living a life fully consecrated to God was to form the rationale of the monastic movement.
After considering Origen, who also pre-dated monasticism, de Dreuville examines Anthony of Egypt at length, the proto-Christian monastic. Although he had disciples and gave spiritual advice, Anthony's life was largely eremitical [that of a hermit]. It was his disciples who were to form Monastic communities and write rules for these communities.
Along with most other scholars, de Dreuville argues that the monastic movement began in the fourth century because, with the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, being a Christian was no longer synonymous with living a life totally dedicated to the service to God, with many converting out of convenience.
After examining the major Eastern developments, particularly the writings of Sts Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen and John Chryostom, the influence of the Latin Fathers, particularly Sts Jerome and Augustine, is examined. However, de Dreuville argues that Cassian was to play a major influence in the transmission of the ideas of Eastern monasticism to the West and this contribution laid the foundations for St Benedict's Rule and monastic ministry.
The chief strength of Seeking the Absolute is that de Dreuville presents his material succinctly and clearly. The links and developments of the tradition are carefully signposted and each chapter ends with an excellent summary of the influence of the particular monastic movement/author considered therein. Primary sources form the basis of the analysis and material is thoroughly documented.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.