Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity

Cognition and Discipline

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Paul C. Dilley
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The aim of the monastic life in antiquity was to enable the monk or nun to transform their life into the image of Christ, to attain the salvation of their soul by changing from the “old self” to the “new self.” This was done through an intentional socialization process, which provided spiritual care and guidance for the monk or nun throughout their spiritual journey at the monastery. 

Grounded in a background of Christianity in Late Antiquity, with emphasis in Egypt and Syria, Paul Dilley focuses Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity: Cognitionn and Discipline on the study of these monastic practices of spiritual and physical care from a cognitive anthropological view, analyzing coenobitic monastic communities as cognitive communities “in which disciples were taught to monitor, evaluate and regulate their thoughts and emotions, guided by the advice, support and discipline of their superiors” (12). Such mental training resulted in emotions, individual  cognition, and the ability to be aware of others’ mental states, which Dilley calls “theories of mind.” His hypothesis is that the Late Antique monastic community created a monastic theory of mind peculiar to its environment, fostered through the monastic cognitive disciplines that shaped monastics’ thoughts and emotions and through which they were to survive and thrive in that world. 

Dilley depends on early monastic literature to build his image of the monastic world of monastic leaders and writers such as Pachomius, Theodore, and Horsiesius of the Koinonia, Shenoute of Atripe, Basil of Caesarea, Jerome, Cassian, Augustine, Benedict, and others in Egypt, Syria, Jerusalem, and the West. This corpus includes canons, counseling letters, and biographical records as well as widespread apocryphal literature. 

This book is divided into three main parts, each of which analyzes a specific phase of the monastic life and its socialization processes, both cognitively and psychologically. Part 1 explores that process in the early discernment phase and postulancy, including the monastic leaders’ role in guiding the postulant to engage in personal reflection, self-examination, listening to one’s heart, and responding to God’s urging. It also examines the institutional practices that sought to embed the monastic “otherness” in the postulants.

Part 2 presents monastic life after postulancy, battling temptations and demonic attacks in order to attain the prized goal: purity of heart. Leaders discerned their disciples’ thoughts through cognitive frameworks of sin, based on the Evagrian [Evagrius Ponticus] system of passionate thoughts, and of the human soul, which possesses the psychic faculties of conscious free will, discernment, perception, and wisdom. They would then guide the monk or nun, helping them to develop the cognitive disciplines of scriptural readings, the fear of God, and prayer. These disciplines functioned as a training ground for body and mind, and aimed to imprint the monastic theory of mind permanently on their pupils. 

Part 3 is concerned with monastic collective rituals: highly emotionally rituals performed by the whole community, which refocused the  monk or nun on their spiritual shortcomings, and created a cognitive, spiritual, and emotional bond amongst them. These bonds were established and utilized by the monastic leaders to care for the community’s souls and fulfill their pastoral role of declaring God’s ordinances to the monks, reforming them when they sinned and giving an account to God for each individual soul in their care.

Ultimately, the monastic theory of mind aimed at creating a complete cognitive shift that would enable the monk or nun to become totally detached from the outside world and live in the monastery, which then became their chosen surrogate family. This shift enabled them to cultivate both their mental and spiritual awareness, and the external influences surrounding them in the monastic life—whether divine, human, or demonic. This was a life-long, deliberate, and difficult process that did not come easily to the  monk or nun or their leaders. 

In this book, Dilley contextualizes ancient spiritualities by restructuring them around the modern categories of psychological and cognitive anthropology, bringing the ancient monastic world closer to modern understanding. This is important given that the book deals with the full socialization process of “normal” people—not exceptional saints or ascetics—and their transformation process into “monk-hood.” 

Monasteries and the Care of Souls does an excellent job of covering the very deliberate process of spiritual care in the early Christian monasteries. Yet its representation, although accurate in many ways, is still one that makes these ancient monasteries seem like totally unique and foreign worlds. The explanation lies in the realization that the author is writing for a specialized audience, one that is already familiar with Late Antique Christianity. The text presents a very methodical, strict, and unearthly world, one which sounds foreign and may be even considered exotic today. The monk or nun is not given a voice, but rather is presented as a homogenous group equally subjected to the same process, and whose responses are, more or less, similar and predictable. This is due to the nature, brevity, and cryptic style of the texts that have come down to us across the centuries and which cannot present a full picture given that they are mostly canons, instructions, and letters steeped in the daily lives of the monasteries, and for readers in their own time and environment. 

Dilley’s work serves as an excellent resources for scholars in the field of Christianity and Christian monasticism in the Late Antique Middle East, as well as for psychological historians. It is painstakingly detailed, very skillfully written, and recreates—as well as possible within its constraints—the emotional, spiritual, and cognitive process by which postulants gained a monastic theory of mind and were transformed into the monks and nuns of Late Antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Monica Mitri is a graduate student in Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. 

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul C. Dilley is assistant professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions at the University of Iowa and has published widely on early Christianity in Late Antiquity, especially in Egypt and Syria. He is co-editor of the Dublin Kephalaia Codex and co-author of Mani at the Court of the Persian Kings (2014).



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