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The Sin of Singularity

Arnulf, a lay brother in a French Cistercian abbey, practiced self-mortification. One of the abbey’s monks, Goswin, recorded his habits in the 1220s: “We beg you, for Christ’s sake, take pity on your flesh, that poor, frail flesh without which you cannot live.”1 Arnulf believed that self-induced physical pain would enhance personal piety. He beat himself with whatever he could find: “bushes with thorns or prickly leaves, metal implements, horse hair, and hedgehog pelts.”2 Though Goswin respected Arnulf’s passion for holiness he also cautioned, “[B]eware of transgressing the common practices of our order and adopting without permission the austerity and singularity of a harsher life.”3 This “sin of singularity” was a matter of singling oneself out by extreme behavior, however admirable it might seem.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 and is named for its first abbey in Cîteaux. The founders wanted a movement that held more strictly to the Benedictine Rule, namely those standards governing the daily affairs of monks laid down by St. Benedict. Cistercians devoted themselves to communal living and embraced manual labor, including farming. Lay brothers like Arnulf were an important part of abbey life, helping the monks manage the demanding estate. And, in some cases, their desire for righteousness could rival that of the monks, even leading to self-mortification.

In this same vein, Peter Damian, a prominent, reforming cardinal of the 11th century, argued that believers ought to make Christ’s atonement visible “physically on the body as well as internally on the soul.” He beat himself as he recited the Psalms, a thousand blows for every ten Psalms. And then there was Stephen Obazine, the 12th–century ascetic who soaked his clothes and wore them frozen “for the sole desire of suffering.”4

However, Bernard of Clairvaux, the most famous Cistercian monk, was not impressed with displays of extreme austerity. He thought that, too often, they had more to do with outward appearance than inner transformation. To make this point, he imagined a monk who did “not so much want to be better as to be seen to be better . . . While he is at his meals he casts his eyes around the tables and if he sees anyone eating less than himself he is mortified at being outdone and promptly and cruelly deprives himself of even necessary food. He would rather starve his body than his pride.’”5

The presence of a few believers on fire for God, eager to witness and serve sacrificially, can make the idle uncomfortable. If the pathetic King Saul had had the language of singularity, he might have used it to batter the heroic David. And had the expression been current in Paul’s day, perhaps one of his enemies would have employed it to dismiss the recitation of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. But that would have missed the point that God’s people are often called to be manifestly singular.

Still, the warnings of Goswin and Bernard stand. Consecration can deteriorate into ambitious demonstration, holiness into self-aggrandizement. Ironically, there is money to be made, power to be gained, and fame to be enjoyed from conspicuous sacrifice. So woe to the pastor who seeks to engineer notoriety and advancement by saintly posturing. And when he points his people to higher ground by precept and example, he should say, “Follow Christ,” not “Admire me.”


Martha G. Newman, “Disciplining the Body, Disciplining the Will: Hypocrisy and Asceticism in Cistercian Monasticism,” in Asceticism and Its Critics: Historical Accounts and Comparative Perspectives, ed. Oliver Freiberger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 91.




Ibid., 104. Italics added.


Ibid., 96.