Was Calvin a monk?

Yes, I know, the one who was a monk was Luther. But I was wondering if part of what makes the Reformation so profound is the fact that both these luminaries were men gifted with a tremendous amount of courage to confront themselves before God, first, and then to turn around and inspire others to join them, despite the warnings of the institution which controlled just about every facet of people’s live at the time (yep looking at you Leo X) which kept warning them “Here be Dragons” and that it was safer to stay huddled in the arms of the Mother Church, and let Mother deal with all that scary stuff.

But the Reformers were gifted (cursed?) with at least one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: fortitude. To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church (yes, I am enjoying the irony) this gift allows us to “overcome our fear and are willing to take risks as a follower of Jesus Christ. A person with courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm. The gift of courage allows people the firmness of mind that is required both in doing good and in enduring evil.”

What has this to do with monasticism? To start here is a rather lengthy quote which connects Calvin’s enterprise with my monastic leanings:

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes, and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. . . . We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. . . . It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” (John Calvin, The Institutes: Book 1)

In short: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.”

This kind of inner work, of course, meshes very well with monastic practices. If there is one thing that monastic life leads you to is to true self-knowledge. Well, it COULD lead you to self-knowledge. We are slippery creatures, and quite capable of rationalizing away just about any piece of truth or good news we come across, and most certainly avoiding any uncomfortable, sinful and downright embarrassing knowledge.

Going back a few centuries (ok almost a millenia), the first monastics turned their backs on the corrupt church – in their view the church sold out to the Roman Empire, the very Empire that just a few years before was persecuting and killing Christians, was now giving them power and prestige.

So they felt that the church had lost its way, and turned their backs on it and walked off into the desert. Literally. The Reformers did basically the same. They too walked off into the desert, though theirs was more metaphorical (not much desert in the Alps).

Obviously, Calvin was not a monk in the canonical sense, and his dissolution of the monasteries seems to point in the other direction, but as I have argued repeatedly, I am not so sure that the walls make a monk, no more than the habit! Taking a page from Paul who in Romans 2 talks of “true Israelites” being the ones who are so internally:

“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” (v. 28-29).

So I would say that it is not the wearing of a habit, or the tonsure (which no one wears any longer), or living in a cloister (lovely as it is) that makes one a monk. Rather it is to be found in a fearlessness to listen to God’s word, and a desire to be as faithful to God as possible, sacrificing everything. In this sense, Calvin does meet some of the conditions for a true monastic calling….and even though he dissolved the monasteries, he went on to impose a (not very nice) theocracy in Geneva, trying to ensure that all its citizens lived under a holy rule…hmmm…Cavin the Abbot of Geneva?

I am sure he has just dropped his harp in Heaven at the suggestion! Where he failed (and he did so spectacularly with banishments and executions under his rule), would be nothing but another chapter in the long history of monasticism, even St. Benedict himself survived attempts at assassination…


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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