Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity

Article excerpt

Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity. By Daniel Caner. [Transformation of the Classical Heritage, Volume XXXIII.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2002. Pp.xv, 325. $65.00.)

For many, the history of early Christian monasticism has lingered in remote spaces, whether desert, cell, monastery, or cave. Thanks to the work of James Goehring, David Brakke, and now Daniel Caner, our picture of urban monasticism is coming into sharper focus, with a detailed study of vagrant monks who dedicated their lives to wandering and prayer, while living off alms. Focusing on disputes between bishops and monastics over voluntary poverty, Caner's six chapters capture the regional diversity of vagrant monasticism between the 360's and 451, the year the Council of Chalcedon imposed strict limits on monastic wandering. Although the tension between church order and itinerancy goes back to the earliest decades of the Jesus movement, Caner draws attention to a fascinating period, when problems of vagrancy and material support intersected with pitched theological controversy and rising urban homelessness.

Informed by close study of sermons, spiritual guides, ecclesiastical histories, and saints' lives, Caner tracks bishops' growing embarrassment with, and disdain for, wandering monks. At issue was what constituted legitimate forms of voluntary poverty and who would control material support of these monks. Should monks be expected to support themselves through manual labor? Or, might itinerant teachers expect material support from the lay Christians they instructed and visited? Opponents of mendicant itinerancy appealed to passages in Paul's letters that stressed the value of respectable manual labor, whereas itinerant groups invoked Jesus' call to simplicity and freedom from care. That critics relied so heavily on Paul's advice in the letters raises interesting questions about the legacy of other memories of Paul, such as the Acts of Paul, which stressed his wanderings as a radical ascetic.

Caner devotes the first three chapters to the Egyptian and Syrian countryside. Although Egyptian monastic lore highlighted the settled monk, Caner detects a nostalgia for wandering combined with an impulse to keep the monk in place, both physically (through manual labor) and mentally (through careful regulation of thoughts). …

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