Encyclopedia of Monasticism

By Hill, Bennett | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Encyclopedia of Monasticism


Hill, Bennett, The Catholic Historical Review


Encyclopedia of Monasticism. Edited by William M. Johnston. 2 volumes. (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. 2000. Pp. xxxiv, 797; xii, 799-1556. $295.00.)

The torrent of research in many disciplines over the last thirty-five years has brought us to the age of synthesis or synopsis. In the last two decades we have been given dictionaries or encyclopedias of the Middle Ages, of Byzantium, of the Christian Church (revised 1997), of the Renaissance, the Reformation, of Islam, of World History (promised for September, 2001), of the Elizabethan World, of the North American Indians, and an Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, to mention just a few. The two hefty volumes under review here originated in the "publisher's intuition that the time is right to undertake a conspectus of monastic life past and present . . ." (p. ix). To undertake so colossal an enterprise as a summary or synopsis providing an overall view (conspectus) of world-wide monasticism past and present without rational thought and influence (intuition) strikes this reader as disingenuous; don't publishing houses exist to make profits?

The publishers proceeded to gather an international body of scholars and advisors from twenty-five countries, decided to focus on three great strands of monasticism: the Buddhist, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Western Christian, and then to take special pride in the work's (supposed) comparisons among those forms of monasticism. Comparisons would have been very welcome, but they are difficult to find. For example, while the Editor's Introduction promises comparisons between Buddhist and Eastern Orthodox monasticism in an article on "Monasticism, Definitions of: Buddhist Perspectives," one searches that essay in vain for any comparisons. A comparison of the motives behind the Japanese samurai Nobunga's destruction of the great Buddhist school-- monastery-fortress on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto in 1571 and, say, Henry VIII's dissolution of the English monasteries in 1536-1539 could have provided fascinating cross-cultural insight into the two societies. The Introduction notwithstanding, editors and advisors seem to have resisted such opportunities.

This project was planned as a reference tool for scholars; as such it generally succeeds. In addition to the usually sound articles on such well-known persons and topics as Pachomius, Anselm, Bernard, Symeon the New Theologian, Boniface Wimmer, and Zen, there are useful entries based on recent research, such as food, death, transvestite saints, and sexuality. On the latter issue, Richard M. Price's "Sexuality: Christian Perspectives" provides a very good overview of post-Vatican Council II teaching, though the article is only marginally related to monasticism and on homosexuality it lacks the directness and honesty of Rita M. Gross's "Sexuality: Buddhist Perspectives." As a collaborative project, the interests, approaches, and value of contributions vary widely. Some entries focus on the evidence of archaeology (Spain: Sites); many concentrate on spiritual ideals to the neglect of practical results; a (very) few articles place their topic within the social and economic contexts of their times; and some entries use the essay to explore the current state of the scholarly literature: see the provocative but controversial article on the "Cistercians: General or Male" by Constance H. Berman, where she holds that most previous scholarship is "wrong." With so many methodologies and interpretations, the advanced student can glean some of the complexities of issues relating to monasticism in its many forms, cultures, and over many centuries. On the other hand the novice-student should approach these volumes with caution. He is apt to become confused by the many inconsistencies and contradictions, some of which informed editorial work might have eliminated. As an example of widely divergent understandings of the origins of coenobitic life, contrast John McGuckin, "Pachomius St.," and Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin, "Spirituality: Eastern Christian. …

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