From St. Benedict’s Rule:
The third kind of monks, a detestable kind, are the sarabaites. These, not having been tested, as gold in the furnace, by any rule or by the lessons of experience, are as soft as lead. In their works they still keep faith with the world, so that their tonsure marks them as liars before God. They live in twos or threes, or even singly, without a shepherd, in their own sheepfolds and not in the Lord’s. Their law is the desire for self-gratification: whatever enters their mind or appeals to them, that they call holy; what they dislike, they regard as unlawful.
–Chapter 1: On the Kinds of Monks
Sarabaites live in small groups without a leader and without a rule to guide them. Remember, St Benedict distinguishes the sarabaites from the coenobites (the monks who live according to a rule in community under an abbot); the gyrovagues (who, like the sarabaites are slaves to their own wills and appetites, but differ in that they are always on the move, always guests, never anchored); and the anchorites or hermits (who after long testing in the monastery live their lives in solitude and prayer).
St Benedict reserves his harshest approbation for these sarabaites. They are essentially religious consumers, monastics in name only who seek experiences which conform to their preferences. Although they are not like the gyrovagues in their unstable restless wanderings, the sarabaites are as unstable in their spiritual lives not being grounded in a community under a common discipline and godly leadership. They lack any check on their sinful inclinations and habits, their blindnesses and prejudices. Their asketical zeal is unchecked by the wise moderation of the Rule. Their asketical laxity is reinforced by the absence of any external motivation. Theirs is a life wholly contained within themselves. They are the measure of all things. But because they have the outward form of a monastic appearance, they deceive the undiscerning. The gyrovagues are here and gone. Perhaps they will attract one or another to run after them, but they do not linger long in any one place to form attachments. The sarabaites however, appear to be what they claim to be. And therein lies the danger. One of the tools for good works in the Rule is not to be called holy before one is truly holy.
The life in the coenobium, the monastic community, is not an exciting one. It is a regular round of work, prayer and study. Every day the office is prayed, every week the same psalms are sung round again. There is discipline to be endured when one steps outside the way of life ordered by the Rule. Mutual submission and poverty and chastity are not exciting things. Duty is far less comforting than following one’s own inclinations.
But, as the Benedictine way of life demonstrates, it is precisely this sort of ordered constraints on ourselves that we need. Few of us lack the strength of character to hold ourselves to an ordered way of life. And those who do have the strength for such often lack the wisdom. Very few of us would seek out hermitage for ourselves. Some of us may find a life of vagrancy somehow appealing. But given the chance, most of us would choose the sarabaites over the Benedictines, having all the appearance of religiousness under the guise of self-centeredness. But these third kind of monks serve as a warning to us. They are empty vessels caught up wholly within themselves.
The better life is in an ordered community under godly leadership, one of mutual submission, generosity and fidelity.