Poetic Faith: The Monkhood of All Believers?

I said last time that the next blog post would be on lived religion. I’d intended for that to incorporate David Hall’s Lived Religion in America (1997), one of the watershed collections that made the French sociological concept of “lived religion” mainstream in the American academy. I’ll have something to say about that another time, because my reading both slowed down and took me in a very new direction in thinking about religion and the history of hymnody (and lots of other things). The book that marked this major turning point is Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty (2013).

Agamben is an Italian philosopher, specializing in ancient and medieval philosophy—not an obvious contender for a major theorist (at least, if one forgets that Derrida developed deconstruction as a response to theology and that he basically began and concluded his career by studying Augustine). For over a decade, Agamben has been publishing a series of short-ish volumes collectively titled Homo Sacer, the phrase coming from an obscure concept of Roman law whereby someone could be unexecutable by the state but also outside the state’s protection. Over a long, winding route of painstaking philological research, detailed readings, and massive sweeps across space and time, Agamben has developed what has become an increasing compelling argument that the roots of law in the Western liberal state are intended not to preserve life but to preserve power, and that the concentration camp is not an anomaly in Western liberalism but is actually its logical conclusion. Agamben’s ideas became especially prominent in academic discussions during the Bush administration, as the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib raised new concerns about what America’s democratic state’s relationship was to its law and to its citizens (as well as those outside the circle of citizenship). Agamben’s bleak picture of the history and future of Western law has gotten attention among philosophers, cultural theorists, and political theorists, among others.

Yet Homo Sacer is not merely casting a cold eye to diagnose the fatal flaw of Western liberalism. Agamben in recent years has been exploring possible ways out of the trap of law as he has outlined it. One alternative he explores is Roman Catholic monasticism, and he is most particularly interested in the Franciscans as a model for a community that carves a way of life beyond the realm of law, both civil and religious. Agamben’s argument is complicated and multi-layered, but I will try to focus on the elements of the argument that especially grabbed my attention and imagination.

Agamben begins by exploring the history of the monastic rule, the guidebook/code by which a monastic community lives. Monasticism began as a solitary venture, a hermit’s life in the desert as a new form of martyrdom (religious historians have often argued that this solitary hermit-as-martyr lifestyle was a response to the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, whereby the early church’s highest ideal of Christian witness in a martyr’s death presumably evaporated). As hermits began to form communities, they developed plans for those communities that often took the form of a conversation or other vocal act that was in the process of being captured in writing as it took place; it was as if the rule was a transcript of a prayer-filled brainstorming session. In some cases, the rules were not so much lists of prescriptions as biographies of the founders. The way a great Christian monk lived was the path for that person’s community. Agamben gives careful attention to the ways in which prescription and description fold in on each other, such that the norms become not a goal for life but merely the shape of it—rule and life become, in a sense, the same thing. This is one way of moving beyond the world of civil or even canon law, as the norms that are meant to govern lives don’t do so by means of controlling the life since the life is actually the expression of the norms. For the monastic communities, the entire day was broken into hours measured not by minutes but by prayers, a cycle of reading, singing, praying, and working that accounted for every moment of the day but in a way that the community was somehow already fulfilling by the time the rule was committed to parchment.

What especially caught my attention was the way that Agamben saw liturgy at the heart of this. He says that he originally expected to see certain values or ideals at the root of the monastic rule, but he found that instead of an ideal the practice of liturgy was the foundational principle. He identifies the typical direction in most rules to have the rule read to the community daily, usually during meal times. This meant that the rule was always being experience as text in a lectio continua manner; just as monks would sing through the whole book of Psalms in order and begin again over so many days, the rule would be read in order and started over again. And this while the rule was being lived out, every minute of every day, by the people who were reading and listening to the text of that rule. Reading and living became reflections of each other so that Divine Office itself (the traditional name for the cycle of prayers the monastic communities used) became not a set of prayers to perform but a life to live. This spiritual approach made its way into the church as a whole, as ordained clergy were also required to say Divine Office, at least at some of the hours, and as the word-based liturgy worked more fully into celebrations of the Eucharist. Agamben asserts that these “two liturgies,” the word-based monastic life and the sacramental duty of the priests, have been in tension with each other ever since.

Here’s what’s significant about that tension: Agamben got so interested in the idea of Divine Office (officium in Latin, meaning duty, task, and expectation) that he wrote a separate volume on it (Opus Dei [2013]) as a companion to The Highest Poverty. In that companion book, he articulates the teaching of the medieval church that the work in the eucharistic rite is the work of the priest and the people, but more fundamentally the work of God (hence the title Opus Dei, which means exactly that); this meant that even a priest unworthy to administer the Eucharist could not actually nullify the Eucharist itself—God would still show up even if his assistant failed. In contrast, Agamben asserts that there is no such thing within the monastic rule as an unworthy monk. That life is to be lived so wholly, inside and outside, that corruption or failure doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It simply means you’re not doing it. The priest presides over special times in which the heavy lifting is done by God, but in the monastery all of time is filled with the work of God through the labor of the monk. And here Agamben makes an astonishing claim that I find has the ring of truth to it: the Protestant Reformation was in essence the liturgical authority of the monk rejecting the liturgical authority of the priest (Agamben reminds his readers that Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk). For the Reformers, outward actions and priestly authority were at best outward signs and at worst deadly distractions from the work of God in the individual soul. As Agamben points out, the emphasis on the word in worship and theology over the sacraments was not an accident in the Reformation but had thousand-year-long roots going back at least to the Benedictines of the fifth century. The emphasis on Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers may have been, in the end, something of a red herring. Perhaps what was most important about Luther’s call for all Christians to lift their hands to God, open the Scriptures, and shape their lives around the Gospel was that it envisioned a monkhood of all believers.

This finally gets me to some new thinking about the hymns I’ve been studying. The fusion of private devotion and corporate singing of the same texts represents another attempt to return to something of the monastic rule-as-life that Agamben describes. This blended use of hymns, themselves based both on ancient liturgical texts and on post-Reformation devotional poetry, shares the same impulse with the monastic rule, though it is expressed in much more clealry individualistic ways and diffused across much vaster populations (thanks in no small part to the invention of print and, later, stereotyping). One of the favorite biblical texts quoted in prefaces for hymnals in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was I Corinthians 14:15b: “I will sing with the spirit; I will sing with the understanding also.” Head and heart, text and prayer, reading and living all ran together in the vision these books’ compilers had for the ways the books’ users would live with them. The seeming eruption of hymnody into English-speaking Protesantism in the early eighteenth century had a Puritan and Anglican background, as numerous scholars have pointed out—but there’s a deeper logic to it that runs much more deeply into the heart of Christian experience than has been previously acknowledged.

But what of the Franciscans that Agamben is so interested in? Unfortunately, that dimension of his argument is not nearly as useful for my present work, but it’s powerful and astonishing enough (at least to me) that I’ll give a very simplified version here. Once the monastic rule had established its alternative space away from the requirements of law, it was gradually reabsorbed into the episcopal authority of the church. When Francis of Assisi organized his order of Friars Minor (“little brothers”), he exploited the alternate space of monasticism by making the life of a Franciscan his rule, such that his commitment to poverty, prayer, and preaching would shape a life not only not dominated by law but, in a way, now freed from the liturgy. While Francis submitted to the Divine Office just as he also submitted to the authority of the Pope, he imagined a life without property that basically amounted to a life so radical that it could not be controlled by any legal authority, civil or religious. At a time when several new radical movements were appearing on the fringe of the church (this led to the Inquisition), the Pope recognized the danger that the Franciscans could pose to the order of the day. What Agamben says allowed them to survive for about a century with their initial vision intact was the fact that the radical relinquishment Francis enacted and advocated did not place him in conflict with the church, as there was no ground to defend or attack—the Franciscans simply wanted to live the Gospel, and if submitting to the Church was a requirement of that life, they would submit rather than rebel. Francis is famous for his love for animals, but Agamben links this love of animals with the name Francis chose for his order to highlight the position Francis’s followers came to articulate as they were increasingly called upon to defend themselves: just as animals and children had use of the things that allowed them to live (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) but could not in any recognizable way own them, so the Franciscans were. Ownership, like the sharp lines of separation we draw between humans and other animals, or between adults and children, is ultimately an intellectual crutch for a sadly distorted view of reality. Francis and his followers, most significantly Bonaventure, saw that at the heart of our Western notion of property are simply two things: the will to own something and the ability to defend property in court. On these silly, paltry legs the entire system of law, ownership, property, and material power stood. For Agamben, this is the great unthinkable new reality that Western thought has refused to consider, but that has haunted its dreams ever since Francis walked barefoot over the hills of Tuscany. What if this monkhood of all believers were to receive the response and attention it deserves? Just imagine. John Lennon had nothing on these guys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *