Anchorites and cenobites; sarabaites and gyrovagues!

1st January | Caroline Shepherd

When he was still living in the palace, Arsenius (a well-educated citizen of Rome of Senatorial rank) prayed to God in these words, 'Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.' And a voice came saying to him, 'Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.' * Arsenius left the palace in 394 AD for the deserts of Scetis in lower Egypt. and became an anchorite; ultimately renowned for his austerity and silence. Wandering off into exile seems somehow to be connected with the spiritual life. When St. Anthony first received his calling to dedicate his life to God *, he went to the edge of his village to meet and converse with a holy hermit already living in solitude there. Anthony may have become 'Great', but he was not the first person to remove himself from the comforts of civilisation and the companionship of other men in pursuit of God. There may have been many such anchorites or solitary and wandering monks in these times.

From these early beginnings, monasticism (from monos - single or alone) developed and a monastery initially was a location of cells or caves for single monks to live the solitary life, meeting only informally together. These groups became more community-organised and were known as cenobium and the monks as cenobites (from koinos - common and bios – life). Cenobites worshipped together, received spiritual direction from an elder, pooled their craftwork and, infrequently, ate together. A few monks, still preferred their own solitude and continued to live either in complete withdrawal in a remote cave or sometimes, near others on the edge of a city; but others still, went a-wandering and these individuals received (still to this day) a very bad press from those in the settled communities.

Sarabaites (St Jerome calls them Remoboth) were solitaries who lived in their own homes, or together in or near cities but they acknowledged no monastic superior nor obeyed a definite rule and disposed individually of the product of their manual labour. John Cassian tells of their wide diffusion in Egypt and other lands; and both writers express a very unfavourable opinion concerning their conduct. But the real villains of the piece were the gyrovagues (from gyro – circle and vagrus - wandering, translated in English as land-loper). After discussing cenobites (who live together), anchorites or hermits (who live by themselves), and Sarabaites (who live for themselves), St Benedict ends the first chapter of his Rule discussing the gyrovagues, the 'worst kind of monks'. He says of them *:

“These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills, succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such, it is better to be silent than to speak.”

A modern critique of the gyrovagues is *:

“...restless wanderers, never content with what they find in one place, ever itching for novelty. The temptation to seek out a change of scenery, of diet, of brethren. The Gyrovague is a man incapable of submission, a kind of monastic philanderer ever moving from cloister to cloister, the way some men move from one relationship to another without ever making a life-long commitment.”

It may seem that those living in an ordered community or under a formal rule of authority, always resent those who shake themselves free, living obedient to themselves alone. Is this dislike of the non-institutionalised hermit simple sour grapes or is there more to it than that? Perhaps St. Benedict's point is much deeper than simply complaining of the wandering hermit's freedom: true holiness is about stability .The gyrovagues were the bottom of the pile because they moved about – the Sarabaites at least stayed put. The land-loper's restlessness is a sign of his interior instability - he is pulled here and there, this way and that by countless desires. St Augustine's phrase “our hearts are restless until they rest in you” is verified in the restlessness of these monks who refuse to let themselves rest in God.

This is relevant to our everyday practical lives as in-the-world-people, and to our prayer life as ordinary Christian meditators. Mundane life gets horribly cluttered and we get stressed and diverted from what really matters. We become restless when we’re busy, even with good works. Anxiety, cares, and stress can wrap around our hearts like the weeds and tares in the farmer's field of the Gospel, choking the charity within. And in prayer, our internal thoughts wander distractedly about and can only be brought to rest (albeit very fleetingly) when we gently submit them to the 'rule' of our mantra. When we worry if we are 'doing it right', and so read yet another book, or experiment with a different mantra; or check out a different prayer position, prayer time, group, or church, we are fatally disturbing ourselves, each new fad or distraction and novel idea moving us further from where we want to be, which is right here and right now.

So, as Br. Reese says, when we find ourselves distracted or anxious, when we find ourselves “tramping around” in our minds, always on the move, with no stability, here’s a practice to help keep us from becoming the worst kind of Christian: turn off the television, the computer and phone, put down the newspaper and your diary, put aside the demands from family and friends, housework and business, turn off the lights - set everything you’re doing aside; then take a few moments to let your mind rest on a single line from Psalm 46:

“Be still, and know that I am God.”
Caroline Shepherd