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May  2014 02
Community Beyond Retirement

This past week I was reading the mid-term exams in our new conversation matters course that I am teaching with Sarah Morice-Brubaker. A student was writing about the origins of monasticism and mentioned two classic types of monks, the anchoritic and the cenobitic. The student went on to point out that the word cenobite comes from the Greek for “common life,” while anchorite comes from the Greek meaning to “retire” or “withdraw.” Thus, cenobitic monks live in community while anchoritic monks live apart from the community in greater seclusion.

The distinction caught my eye because we have several colleagues this year who are moving from their work in the common life of the faculty and administration of the seminary to the work of retirement. And while no one would mistake a protestant seminary for a monastery, the shared traditions of an intentional community, organized around what Jean Leclercq called “the love of learning and the desire for God,” remain suggestive.

What I enjoy in considering these two terms is that in the context of monasticism each is an expression of a dynamic and often interconnected commitment. The anchoritic monk of the Middle Ages often remained connected to a cenobitic community. Because retirement in our culture often comes with an unfortunate and undeserved sense of diminishment, the language of the anchoritic tradition can help us imagine a continuing sense of relation and joint commitment.

As I think of John Imbler, Brandon Scott and former Dean Don Pittman, each of whom remains committed to their scholarly work and the well-being of Phillips Theological Seminary, I imagine them entering this new phase of their lives discerning lines of continuity, as well as discontinuity, as they withdraw from the day-to-day common life of the faculty and administration of the school.

What this retrieval of monastic categories also makes evident is the spiritual dimension of retirement and the sense of connection in working together while working alone. Too often, we think of retiring in the simplistic terms of “done with that.” When our work has been a constant frustration and source of depression, then such an expression might be liberating.  In many cases, however, retirement is not simply shaking the dust from one’s feet; more often, retirement involves a practice of letting go of work commitments, schedules and practices even as one keeps to what one learned and practiced in those years of common life. Thus, one turns one’s attention, eye and heart to research, interests and loves that were often pushed aside because of more pressing needs of institutional life. In this sense, retirement enables a new kind of work, a new way of flowering, connected in spirit to the values and commitments of our common life.

Robert Frost’s poem “The Tuft of Flowers” captures quite beautifully the common thoughtfulness that can occupy those who work separately. His final lines of the poem put it like this: “‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, ‘whether they work together or apart.’” To what greater depth can we see this connection than when we, who have been working together for so long, now begin to work apart? If Frost’s laborer can feel affection for another never met, how much more can we affirm a community unbroken by the new discipline of retiring from the common work of the school?

Of course, one might contend that my comparison of retirement to the anchoritic form of monastic life is a bit strained. True enough; the analogy is itself a chance one as I noted at the outset. But having been moved by it, allow me to confess what moves me more.

In truth, when I hear the word anchorite, or anchoritic, I do not hear the Greek word meaning “retire,” but the English word, “anchor.”  I think of how these colleagues have anchored our work at Phillips over recent decades in the areas of administration and academics, in the collaborative work of teaching and learning, in the dense interplay between the introspective, almost monastic, work of reaching inward, and the more public work of presentations, publications, teaching, participation in committees and governing. My cenobitic/anchoritic analogy is not about finding a way for them to remain tethered to us, but just the opposite. I long for our work and integrity to remain mindful of theirs and for us to draw strength from our continuing connection to them.

As the 14th century anchoress, Julian of Norwich, famously prayed that “all will be well,” so do we pray this blessing upon our colleagues and upon our continuing work.


Browse more posts by: Joseph Bessler, Phillips Faculty
Phillips offers Christian graduate theological education in service of intelligent, just, and
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