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    colorful houses in Horb, Germany

    The “New Monkery”

    Michael Sattler and the Benedictine Roots of Anabaptism

    Timothy Troutner

    September 16, 2020
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    • Paul Brandenburg

      Thank you, Timothy, for your unique and thought-provoking synthesis. Maintaining a balanced sense of universality and intimacy in the mystical Body of Christ has been so stubbornly elusive. As a Catholic who has long admired the witness of the Bruderhof, I do believe you're on to something in holding up to us the model of a "monkish vanguard community."

    The year was 1527, and a new challenge confronted the Reformation in Switzerland and its neighboring territories. Ulrich Zwingli and his allies found their young Protestant state church threatened by an upstart movement. In sharp polemics, Reformed critics quickly swung into action, insinuating a connection between the fledgling group and monasticism. In its separatist communities, devoted to rigorous imitation of Christ, they sensed the whiff of the cloister.

    The reformer Wolfgang Capito warned of “the beginning of a new monkery,” while Jacobus Ottelinus criticized the movement’s leader for his “monastic position.” Zwingli himself decried “a full monkish system.” The Lutheran Urbanus Rhegius wrote against a “new baptizing order,” and the famous Formula of Concord denounced “a new sort of monkery.” What was this “order,” this shadowy “monastic” group? A crypto-Catholic vanguard, working for counter-reformation? A “high-church” Protestantism retaining ascetic elements Martin Luther and Zwingli had left behind?

    It might be shocking to learn that this “new monkery” was in fact Anabaptism. For Anabaptists are commonly lumped in with the Radical Reformation, suggesting greater distance from Roman Catholicism – with the Lutheran and Calvinist Magisterial Reformation falling somewhere in between. Yet the magisterial reformers saw in Anabaptism a return to the form of Catholicism perhaps most bitterly attacked by Luther for its supposed works-righteousness: monastic life.

    This unexpected connection becomes even more tantalizing when we turn from polemics to history. The new monkery did not merely resemble Catholic monasticism – it had real, historical roots in Benedictine spirituality. Now one must not forget that there were and are many “Anabaptisms.” They arose independently from disparate influences, and range from peasant uprisings and anti-Trinitarian sects to the more well-known peace churches. Yet the leader of one of these Anabaptisms – the man Ottelinus had criticized for his “monastic position” – owed a crucial debt to St. Benedict, leaving a mark on subsequent Mennonite, Hutterite, and Bruderhof traditions.

    Michael Sattler, whom scholars believe was the primary author of the Schleitheim Confession (the most important early Anabaptist manifesto), had previously been a Benedictine monk and probably even the prior of the monastery at St. Peter’s in the Black Forest. Sattler’s vision, rather than abandoning his monasticism, actually universalized it. The whole church was to become a cloister.

    A Personal Journey

    For me, this unexpected bond is not confined to the distant past. As a convert to Catholicism from Anabaptism, I have experienced both its appeal and its challenge. I grew up in a historically Anabaptist, albeit functionally evangelical, denomination that had largely forgotten its heritage and distinctive practices. I spent my years as an undergraduate history major looking for deeper roots, simultaneously rediscovering and reclaiming the radicalism of my Anabaptist identity and falling in love with the intellectual richness of the Catholic tradition. Both attractions were intensified by a class on the Reformation for which I wrote on Sattler’s Catholic connection.

    In my senior year, I was received into the Catholic Church at Easter. Yet I never saw this as a rejection of my heritage or admiration for Sattler, and I’ve recently felt an increasing need to reckon with the curious links between Anabaptism and Catholicism, both in his life and my own. What do they mean for me and for the church as a whole?

    I believe that the encounter between monasticism and the Radical Reformation highlights what, at its best, the Christian tradition has always known: the radical discipleship and tight-knit solidarity sometimes associated with monks or nuns are not theirs alone. Imitation of Christ through common life together is implied by the baptismal promises made by all Christians. Whether monastic or lay, communities dedicated to this kind of monkery serve as vanguards of the body of Christ, exemplifying the fellowship in holiness to which all are called. Here Anabaptist and Catholic traditions can be mutually corrective, each identifying problematic shortcuts the other has taken in their quest for visible communal holiness.

    Michael Sattler, Benedictine and Anabaptist

    Sattler transferred the ethos of his Benedictine monastery outside its walls, creating a theology in which every Christian is called to perfect imitation of Christ and to the sharing of a common life. The baptism all believers share takes the place of the profession of vows. After formation, Sattler the monk would have taken a vow which his biographer C. Arnold Snyder reconstructs as the following: “I, brother [Michael Sattler] promise stability, amendment of my way of life and obedience to the Rule of Saint Benedict.” Sattler the Anabaptist explicitly echoed this vow, itself based on the rule of St. Benedict, in the first article of the Schleitheim Confession. It instructed that “baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life.” Since baptism was now reserved for adults only, the rite became a voluntary vow of radical discipleship. Sattler intended for everyone, by virtue of common baptism, to aspire to the “perfection of Christ” previously reserved for monks. As Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier insisted, if the church had simply “observed” the “correct baptismal vow,” “all other oaths and obligations of the monks and nuns would have been unnecessary.”

    Imitation of Christ through common life together is implied by the baptismal promises made by all Christians.

    Sattler emphasized what became a core Anabaptist commitment: Nachfolge Christi, the imitation of Christ. Christ’s example was always the ethical key: “we should also do as He did and follow after Him.” This Christocentrism resonated with Catholic devotional texts popular at the time, like Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and the Rule itself grounded obedience to the superior of the monastery in “imitating the Lord.” Like vowed religious, Anabaptists were to model their lives after Christ through practices distinct from those of the surrounding world, including nonviolence and the rejection of political office.

    Sattler’s Anabaptists did not pursue this radical discipleship as solitary individuals. Resembling the Benedictine brotherhood, the community shared a structured common life. Partaking in the Eucharist together made them “one loaf” and rigorous church discipline – “the ban” – preserved a sharp, unified contrast to the outside world. Sattler even composed a “Congregational Order” to regulate communal life. It prescribed meeting “at least three or four times a week,” recreating the regular devotion of the monastery. Its proposal of a communion of goods referenced the same passage from Acts that the Rule invoked to reject private property in the cloister. Believers were to read the Psalter at home and, when celebrating communal meals, receive “soup or a minimum of vegetable and meat,” reminiscent of Benedictine dietary restrictions. Sattler’s Anabaptism did indeed function as a new monkery, making the solidarity and radical discipleship of Benedictine life the vocation of every Christian.

    Horb, Germany where Michael Sattler worked

    Horb, Germany, where Michael Sattler worked before his death Image courtesy of Jason Landsel

    A Lesson for the Universal Church

    Sattler’s vision reminds us of something precious that the church has often forgotten (although never entirely, for the Holy Spirit has never tired of using the saints to jog our memory). Every Christian, by being buried with Christ in baptism and raised in newness of life, is called to the imitation of Christ. As Sattler insisted, this vocation is not optional. The Sermon on the Mount does not come with the disclaimer “only for clerics.” Christ insisted that no one could follow him without taking up the cross and leaving father and mother (Luke 14:26-27) and that following would inevitably incur opposition (John 15:19). Everyone who receives baptism dies to the world; in a theme dear to the Anabaptists, “here we have no lasting city.” But since what “we are looking for” is nevertheless a city (Hebrews 13:14), we are never lone disciples. Summoned on pilgrimage as the people of God, we are born anew into a new, familial solidarity. Acts 2:42-47 gives a portrait of the common life all are invited to share simply by belonging to the church.

    We must not forget that the “old monkery” has a similar goal. Since the church constantly falls short of her ideal while on pilgrimage, monasteries promote the universal call to holiness by reminding us of our baptismal promises. As John Paul II put it, religious life is “an eschatological sign” “of the fundamental values of the Gospel.” Through formal commitment to chastity, poverty, and obedience, monks and nuns follow Christ by living “in a particularly radical way . . . the demands flowing from baptismal participation in the Paschal Mystery.” Catholic teaching, though it affirms the “objective superiority of the consecrated life,” lets no one off the hook. Exemplary radical witness is a “means of promoting and supporting every Christian’s desire for perfection.” Rather than partitioned vocations, there is an intrinsic link between the monk’s discipleship and the identity of every Christian. Similarly, the tight-knit solidarity of monastic life is meant to be “an eloquent sign of ecclesial communion.” The monastery should be, as Louis Bouyer described it, a “vanguard community” leading “the whole body of the Church towards its final destiny.” The great monks and mendicants understood this. Francis’s order, for example, was a response to Christ’s call to “rebuild my church which is in ruins,” and monastic reform typically played an important role in broader church reform. Moreover, lay communities like the Beguines in late medieval Europe show that monkery was not confined to the cloister. Before their marriage, Sattler’s wife, Margaretha, had been a Beguine.

    Yet since the embrace of Christianity by the Roman Empire, there has been a persistent temptation to delegate Christianity’s lofty baptismal demands to nuns and monks, thereby freeing the rest of us from the call to discipleship and a common life of solidarity. In the fourth century, Eusebius placed a gulf between a life “beyond common human living,” which involved perfection, celibacy, and pacifism, and “a secondary grade of piety” that was “more humble, more human” and made concessions to the supposed “needs” of temporal existence. In practice this became a division of labor that reserved Christ’s radical ethic for the vowed religious, while the laity were free to immerse themselves in temporal (as well as military) affairs. Magisterial Protestants, meanwhile, often lost sight of Christianity’s radical call in their own way: by suspecting monasticism, and all requirements of strict discipleship, of works-righteousness.

    Sattler’s new monkery responded to this danger, uttering a cry of protest against the replacement of shared baptismal promises with a division of labor. In many ways, he has been heard. With the rise of lay ecclesial movements, Catholic Worker houses, and the “base communities” promoted by the Latin American bishops, twentieth-century Catholicism realized new forms of monkery, accompanying Vatican II’s renewed emphasis on the universal call of holiness. Mennonite and Bruderhof communities continue their countercultural witness, while many Protestant churches have shown fresh interest in monasticism. However, since radical imitation of Christ and tight-knit solidarity are too often absent in our parishes and congregations, Michael Sattler –the Benedictine and the Anabaptist – still has something to say to us.

    Avoiding Shortcuts Together

    Yet while it’s helpful to identify areas where Catholics and Anabaptists already find common ground, responding to Sattler should also challenge and unsettle us. Since my conversion, I’ve had to face difficult questions that go beyond the shared commitment to the universal call to holiness. Can the Catholic Church, which claims to be where the “fullness of truth” subsists, genuinely learn from Anabaptism, from the ecclesial “outside”? Can it repent for the sins it has committed against Anabaptists (among others)? I had nearly forgotten that it was Catholic authorities who cruelly tortured Sattler before executing him for heresy. Yet as a Catholic, I also believe there are serious limits to Sattler’s vision. What contribution might another tradition offer to supplement his witness?

    For me, responding to the challenge posed by the new monkery means allowing my Catholic present and Anabaptist past to mutually correct one another. Each exposes ways in which the other tradition has sometimes chosen shortcuts over the visible communal holiness to which Christ calls us. As Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, once wrote regarding another schism, we need not the capitulation of one party to the other but “a conversion on both sides.”

    As noted above, Sattler’s legacy warns Rome that vowed religious life can become a substitute for lay holiness. Yet his martyrdom should also remind Catholics (especially those who wish to revive an “integralist” past) that the visible unity of the Church cannot be restored through the shortcut of violent and coercive means, even if the “dirty work” is relegated to lay executioners. As the new monkery emphasizes, every Christian must make Christ visible. What becomes visible, however, with the stake or the rack is not the suffering Christ, but the principalities and powers who nailed him to the cross. Such methods can only mediate the lust for domination, not love; they echo the confusion of Babel. Or if Christ does become visible here, it is in the church’s victims rather than her inquisitors. If Rome’s witness is to be truly catholic, it will involve modeling repentance to an unrepentant world.

    This balance between the already and the not-yet gives the church both the patience and confidence to accompany the weak and both acknowledge and bind up ecclesial wounds.

    Yet a Catholic might gently note that Sattler was not without his own shortcuts to visible communal holiness. He could only claim to have achieved the united and pure church that his perfectionist ethic demanded by excluding from the picture the vast majority of professed Christians. He wanted a visibly holy church now, even if that meant rooting out the “tares” from the “wheat” before the eschatological harvest. He thus confined God’s people to a small band of dedicated believers, labeling Catholic and Protestant communions “abominations” and relegating them to a Satanic realm which could not tarnish the church’s purity. Contemporary Anabaptists may reject this narrow vision, but have they too easily accepted the denomination divisions which Sattler’s commitment to visible unity rightly could not tolerate?

    At its best, Catholicism refuses the shortcut to unity offered by Sattler’s exclusivism and the later notion of an invisible church existing above denominational division. These solutions bypass the real problems posed by lukewarm believers and Christ’s fractured body. Instead, Catholicism refuses to either totally immanentize or abandon to invisibility the church’s eschatological ideal. She holds that there are “eschatological signs” of the church’s identity visibly existing even now. Along with the saints, monks and nuns prefigure the church’s destined holiness; meanwhile, the Bishop of Rome serves as a visible emblem of her final unity, a unity which is anticipated in another way by the solidarity of monastic life. Yet Christ’s church is not found only in these signs of future perfection. In her historical pilgrimage she also extends beyond them, to individual believers or entire segments of Christ’s body struggling to live out the holiness and unity Christ will one day consummate. This balance between the already and the not-yet gives the church both the patience and confidence to accompany the weak and both acknowledge and bind up ecclesial wounds. She can have this patience, refusing the shortcuts of a church restricted to the pure few or one only united invisibly, because she is confident that by the Spirit’s power holiness is still lived, at her heart, by the saints and vowed religious, just as at her center a real but imperfect visible unity subsists in communion with Peter’s successor. These exemplars do not substitute for the wider church’s sanctity and unity, but are nuclei from which the fullness of her identity can radiate outward.

    Catholics have retained some practices Anabaptists have rejected, such as infant baptism and the distinction between monastic and lay vocations. These do not imply denial of the universality of our baptismal promises, but faith that God’s grace reaches even those who cannot or do not yet fully live them out. Lay sanctity and visible unity remain as pressing as ever, but there are no shortcuts to final perfection. In the meantime, Rome offers the body of Christ the leaven of the old monkery and the charism of Peter as powerful aids for a church still on pilgrimage.

    Not everyone will agree with this attempt to do justice to the challenge posed by Sattler’s strange Catholic connection, tied as my answers are to my own journey and commitments. Yet I am confident of one thing: until the eschaton, all baptized Christians will require monkery, both old and new, to remind us of who we are.

    Contributed By

    Timothy Troutner is a third-year PhD student at the University of Notre Dame studying Systematic Theology, with particular interests in the theology of language, ecclesiology, and political theology.

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