The Problem of Monastic Cliques

In his warmly pastoral Friends in Christ: Paths to a New Understanding of Church, Brother John of Taizé discusses the rise of monasticism as a response to Scriptural injunctions to brotherly love. Monasticism, in this account, was the place where a uniquely Christian theology of friendship came into its own. But monastic orders were also the places where the unique dangers of friendship became apparent: “Within a community, human friendships, notably among brothers or sisters with little experience of the spiritual life, could easily have a divisive effect on the whole body, leading to the formation of cliques or factions, even if of only two members.” Anyone who has spent time in Christian communities of whatever variety knows what he means.

The response to this drawback was increased surveillance. For religious superiors,

it often seemed easiest to deal with the matter simply by prohibiting outright “particular attachments” in religious life. In later centuries, this prohibition became a commonplace of formation to community life and to the celibate ministry. In their understandable zeal to avoid the dangers of uncontrolled affectivity, the superiors seemed never to realize that they were courting an even greater danger, that of eliminating the human dimension of Christian love, reducing it to a kind of vague and ultimately abstract goodwill by which all are “loved” in general, and no one in practice. Worse still, in many cases they drove human friendship underground and caused it to be viewed as somehow incompatible with the Gospel or at least worthy of suspicion—an attitude whose nefarious consequences are still with us today.

Much of this is immediately relevant to those of us who are trying to develop a workable model of pastoral care for gay and lesbian Christians. Some are understandably worried about the temptations that can come with close friendship between two people who could potentially be attracted to one another, and in this way they resemble the religious superiors Brother John mentions here.

On the other hand, there’s the problem of what Brother John calls the “greater danger”: how can we not leave gay and lesbian Christians prey to isolation, and how can we speak of celibacy not simply as something that makes wider love possible (as it does) but also as a discipline that allows for deeper love among a few? Ron Belgau’s recent post makes a start at answering these questions, highlighting the way that love among friends can become a training ground for loving others beyond that circle, ensuring that “love” doesn’t dissolve into sentimentality (“It’s easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor,” etc.). But more reflection—specifically on the practical questions of what this looks like “on the ground,” in the parish, outside of monastic contexts—is needed.

3 thoughts on “The Problem of Monastic Cliques

  1. I think it’s also worth noting that the worry about “particular friendships” arises in the context of a deep commitment to a particular monastic community. “Particular friendship” is downplayed, in order to focus on friendship with the community as a whole.

    If you are talking about a person who is not part of a religious community to begin with, extending the prohibition on particular friendship within a religious community, in the absence of a religious community, is a complete misunderstanding of the whole question.

    • I don’t know that the misunderstanding is as great as it may seem. A particular friendship within a religious community potentially distracts the individuals involved in it from the larger objectives of the community. Individuals, especially those experiencing same-sex attractions, are also tasked with objectives in service to the larger community of the Church. Since the “affective immaturity” which makes those with same-sex attraction unsuitable for religious life is still a problem in the individual, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the friendships which have the potential to undermine a religious community’s objectives could also undermine the individual’s personal objectives and wouldn’t that make the prohibition on particular friendships especially relevant for such individuals, even outside of a formal, religious community?

  2. This is really interesting – something I’ve always wondered and thought about. There are elements of the first linked post that trouble me. I have gay female friends who live in committed friendships with other women and feel that these platonic, non-sexual relationships are healthy and helpful to their Christian growth and general well-being. They are not married, and are not living as if they are, but they have pledged friendship to each other, and I can’t see that this is sinful, or indeed an inherently unhelpful set of circumstances in which to live. It’s a difficult one, for sure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s