This episode of CS is titled – Monks.
We took a look at the hermits in Episode 18 and delved into the beginnings of the monastic movement that swept the Church. The hermits were those who left the city to live an ultra-ascetic life of isolation; literally fleeing from the world. Others who longed for the ascetic life could not abide the lack of fellowship and so retreated from the world to live in sequestered communes called monasteries & nunneries.
The men were called monks and the women; the feminine form of the same word – nonnus, or nuns. In recent episodes, we’ve seen that the ascetic lifestyle of both hermits & monks was considered the ideal expression of devotion to God during the 4th & 5th Centuries. We’re going to spend more time looking at monastery-life now because it proves central to the development of the faith during the Middle Ages, particularly in Western Europe but also in the East.
Let’s review from Episode 18 the roots of monasticism . . .
Leisure time to converse about philosophy with friends was highly prized in the ancient world. It was fashionable for public figures to express a yearning for such intellectual leisure, or “otium” as they called it; but of course, they were much too busy serving their fellow man. It became hip to adopt the attitude, “I’m so busy with my duties, I don’t get much ‘Me-time’.”
Occasionally, as the famous Roman orator & Senator Cicero portrayed it, they scored such time for philosophical reflection by retiring to write on themes such as duty, friendship & old age. That towering intellect & theologian Augustine of Hippo had the same wish as a young man, & when he became a Christian in 386, left his professorship in oratory to devote his life to contemplation & writing. He retreated with a group of friends, his son & his mother, to a home on Lake Como, to discuss, then write about The Happy Life, Order & other such subjects, in which both classical philosophy and Christianity shared an interest. When he returned to his hometown of Tagaste in North Africa, he set up a community in which he & his friends could lead a monastic life, apart from the world, studying scripture & praying. Augustine’s contemporary, Jerome; translator of the Latin Vulgate, felt the same tug. He too made an attempt to live apart from the world.
The Christian version of this yearning for a life of philosophical retirement had an important difference from the pagan version. While reading & meditation remained central, the call to do it in concert w/others who set themselves apart from the world was added.
For the monks and nuns who sought such a communal life, the crucial thing was the call to a way of life which would make it possible to ‘go apart’ & spend time w/God in prayer and worship.
Prayer was the Opus Dei, the ‘work of God’.
As it was originally conceived, to become a monk or nun was an attempt to obey to the full the commandment to love God with all one is & has. In the Middle Ages, it was also understood as a fulfillment of the command to love one’s neighbor, for monks & nuns were supposed to be primarily praying for the world. They really did believe they were performing an important task on behalf of lost souls. So among the members of a monastery, there were those who prayed, those who ruled, and those who worked. The most important to society were those who prayed. Ideally, while monks & nuns might have different duties based on their station & assignment, they all engaged in both work & prayer.
But a difference developed between the monastic movements of East & West.
In the East, the Desert Fathers set the pattern. They were hermits who adopted extreme forms of asceticism, and came to be regarded as powerhouses of spiritual influence; authorities who could assist ordinary people w/their problems. The Stylites, for example, lived on platforms on high poles; an object of reverence to those who came to ask their spiritual advice. Others, shut off from the world in caves or huts, denied themselves contact with the temptations of the world, especially women. There was in this an obvious preoccupation with the dangers of the flesh, which was partly a legacy of the Greek dualists’ conviction that matter was inherently evil.
I want to pause here & make a personal, pastoral observation. So warning! – Blatant opinion follows.
You can’t read the New Testament without seeing a clear call to holiness. But that holiness is a work of God’s grace as the Holy Spirit empowers the believer to live a life pleasing to God. New Testament holiness is a joyous privilege, not a heavy burden & duty. It enhances life, never diminishes it.
This is what Jesus modeled so well, and why genuine seekers after God were drawn to Him. He was attractive! He didn’t just do holiness, He WAS Holy. Yet no one had more life. Where He went, dead things came to life!
As Jesus’ followers, we’re supposed to be holy in the same way. But if we’re honest, for many, holiness is conceived of as a dry, boring, life-sucking burden of moral perfection.
Real holiness isn’t religious rule-keeping. It isn’t a list of moral proscriptions; a set of “Don’t’s! Or I will smite thee w/Divine Wrath & cast thy wretched soul into the eternal flames.”
New Testament holiness is a mark of Real Life, the one Jesus rose again to give us. It’s Jesus living in & thru us. The holy life is a FLOURISHING life.
The Desert Fathers & hermits who followed their example were heavily influenced by the dualist Greek worldview that all matter was evil & only the spirit was good. Holiness meant an attempt to avoid any shred of physical pleasure while retreating into the life of the mind. This thinking was a major force influencing the monastic movement as it moved both East & West. But in the East, the monks were hermits who pursued their lifestyles in isolation while in the West, they tended to pursue them in concert & communal life.
As we go on we’ll see that some monastic leaders realized casting holiness as a negative denial of the flesh rather than a positive embracing of the love & truth of Christ was an error they sought to reform.
Indeed, one of the premier teachings of Jesus adopted by monks & applied literally was Matt. 19:21, “Sell your possession, give to the poor.” Jesus & the Twelve Apostles were cast as ideal monks.
The early Church also faced the challenge of several aberrant groups who espoused a rigorous asceticism & used it as a badge of moral superiority. So some Christians thought a way to refute their error was by showing them up when it came to austere devotion.
Even those believers who rejected the error of dualism justified asceticism by saying they renounced what was merely good in favor of what was best; a higher spiritual mode of living.
Understood this way, the monasticism began as a protest movement in the Early Church. Church leaders like Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea & even Augustine co-opted & domesticated the monastic impulse, bringing it into the standard Church world.
In the East, while monks might live in a group, they didn’t seek for community. They didn’t converse & work together in a common cause. They simply shared cells next to one another. Each followed his own schedule. Their only contact was that they ate & prayed together. This tradition continues to this day on Mount Athos in northern Greece, where monks live in solitude & prayer in cells high on the cliffs. Food is lowered to them in baskets.
Monastic communities and those seeking to be monks or nuns exploded in popularity in the 4th Century. This popularity was born out of a protest on the part of many at the growing secularization they witnessed in the institutional church. The persecution everyone was so ready to be over not long before was now looked back upon almost nostalgically. Sure the Church was hammered, but at least following Jesus meant something and the seriousness with which people pursued spiritual things was palpable. Now it seemed every third person called themselves a Christian without much concern to be like Jesus. The monastic life was a way to recover what had been lost from the glory days of the persecuted but pure Church.
One of the first set of rules for monastic communities was developed by someone with whom we’re already familiar, Basil the Great, leader of the Cappadocian Fathers who hammered out the orthodox understanding of the Nicene Creed. Basil was born into one of the most remarkable families in Christian history. His grandmother, father, mother, sister, & two younger brothers, were all venerated as saints. Wow – imagine being the black sheep in that family! All you had to do to qualify for that dubious title was fail to make your bed.
Besides taking the lead with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus in hammering out the exact terminology that would be used to define the Orthodox position on the Trinity, Basil was an early advocate & organizer of monastic life. Taking a cue from his sister Macrina, who’d founded a monastery on some of the family’s property at Annessi, Basil visited the ascetics of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, then founded his own monastery, also at Annessi around 358. For the monks there he drew up a rule for their lives called Asceticon; sometimes referred to as the Longer & Shorter Rules. It consisted of 55 major regulations & 313 lesser guidelines. While each monastery during this time followed its own order, more and more began adopting Basil’s template.
The first rule to present a rival to Basil’s was the Rule of Augustine.
In our last couple episodes on Augustine, we saw that when he returned to Tagaste, he and his friends formed a community committed to serving God. At the bishop of the church at Hippo, Augustine founded a monastery, turning the episcopal digs into a monastic community specifically for priests. It became a spiritual nursery that produced many African bishops.
These priest-monks were a corporate reflection of Augustine’s ideal of the whole Church: a witness to the future kingdom of God. The Rule associated with Augustine, and the monastic orders of monks and nuns that bear his name, emphasize “Living in freedom under grace.” They sought for their monastery to be a microcosm of the City of God, longing for mystical union with Him, but firmly rooted in the love and service of others, both within the community and the world.
There’s no mention of Augustine’s Rule, in his own literary work called Retractions or Possidius’s Catalogue, but there’s evidence of a monastic rule attributed to Augustine a century after his death. Benedict of Nursia, who we’ll get to next, knew of & was influenced by it, as were several other founders of religious orders. There are existing monastic communities today that still hearken back to the Augustinian Rule as the core of their order’s life.
A crucial development in Western monasticism took place in the 6th Century when Benedict of Nursia withdrew w/a group of friends to try to live the ascetic life. This prompted him to give serious thought to the way in which the ‘religious life’ should be organized. Benedict arranged for groups of 12 monks to live together in small communities. Then he moved to Monte Cassino where, in 529, he set up the monastery which was to become the headquarters of the Benedictine Order. The rule of life he drew up there was a synthesis of elements in existing rules for monastic life. From this point on, the Rule of St Benedict set the standard for living the religious life until the 12th Century.
The Rule of St Benedict achieved a balance between body & soul. It aimed at moderation & order. It said those who went apart from the world to live lives dedicated to God should not subject themselves to extreme asceticism. They should live in poverty & chastity, & in obedience to their abbot, but they should not feel the need to brutalize their flesh w/things like scourges & hair-shirts. They should eat moderately but not starve themselves. They should balance their time in a regular & orderly way between manual work, reading & prayer—which as their real work for God. There were to be 7 regular acts of worship in the day, known as ‘hours’, attended by the entire community. In Benedict’s vision, the monastic yoke was to be sweet; the burden light. The monastery was a ‘school’ of the Lord’s service, in which the baptized soul made progress in the Christian life.
A common feature of monastic life in the West was that it was largely reserved for the upper classes. Serfs didn’t have the freedom to become monks. The houses of monks & nuns were the recipients of noble & royal patronage, because a noble assumed by supporting such a holy endeavor, he was earning points w/God. Remember as well that while the first-born son stood to inherit everything, later sons were a potential cause of unrest if they decided to contest the elder brother’s birthright. So these ‘spare’ children of noble birth were often given to monastic communes by their families. They were then charged with carrying the religious duty for the entire family. They were a spiritual surrogate whose task was to produce a surplus of godliness the rest of the family could draw on. Rich and powerful families gave monasteries lands, for the good of the souls of their members. Rulers and soldiers were too busy to attend to their spiritual lives as they should, so ‘professionals’ were drawn from their family to help by doing it on their behalf.
A consequence of this was that, in the later Middle Ages, the abbot or abbess was usually a nobleman or woman. She was often chosen because of being the highest in birth in the monastery or convent and not because of any natural powers of leadership or outstanding spirituality. Chaucer’s cruel 14th Century caricature of a prioress depicts a woman who would have been much more at home in a country house playing w/her dogs.
This noble patronage of monastic communities was both a source of their economic success & their eventual moral & spiritual decay. Monastic houses that became rich & were filled with those who’d not chosen to enter the religious life, but had been put there by parents, usually became decadent. The Cluniac reforms of the 10th Century were a consequence of the recognition there needed to be a tightening up of things if the Benedictine order was not to be utterly lost. In the commune at Cluny and the houses which imitated it, standards were high, although here, too, there was a danger of distortion of the original Benedictine vision. Cluniac houses had extra rules and a degree of rigidity which compromised the original simplicity of the Benedictine plan.
At the end of the 11th Century, several developments radically altered the range of choice for those in the West who wanted to enter a monastery. The first was a change of fashion, which encouraged married couples of mature years to decide to end their days in monastic life. A knight who’d fought his wars might make an agreement with his wife that they would go off into separate religious houses.
But these mature adults weren’t the only ones entering monasteries. It became fashionable for younger people to head off to a monastery where education was top-rank. Then monasteries began to specialize in various pursuits. It was a time of experimentation.
Out of this period of experiment came one immensely important new order, the Cistercians. They used the Benedictine rule but had a different set of priorities. The first was a determination to protect themselves from the dangers which could come from growing too rich.
You might ask, “Hold on Lance, how could people who’ve taken a vow of poverty get rich?”
There’s the rub. Yes, monks & nuns vowed poverty. But their lifestyle included diligence in work. And some brilliant minds had joined the monasteries, so they’d devised some ingenious methods for going about their work in a more productive manner, enhancing yields for crops & the invention of new products. Being deft businessmen, they worked good deals and maximized profits, which went into the monastery’s account. But individual monks did not profit thereby. The funds were used to expand the monastery’s resources & facilities. This led to even higher profits. Which were then used in plushing up the monastery even more. The cells got nicer, the food better, the grounds more sumptuous, the library more expansive. The monks got new habits. Outwardly, things were the same, they owned nothing personally, but in fact, their monastic world was upgraded significantly.
The Cistercians responded to this by building houses in remote places & keeping them as simple, bare lodgings. They also made a place for people from the lower classes who had vocations but wanted to give themselves more completely to God. These were called “lay brothers.”
The startling early success of the Cistercians was due to Bernard of Clairvaux. When he decided to enter a newly founded Cistercian monastery, he took with him a group of his friends & relatives. Because of his oratory skill & praise for the Cistercian model, recruitment proceed so rapidly many more houses had to be founded in quick succession. He was made abbot of one of them at Clairvaux, from which he draws his name. He went on to become a leading figure in the monastic world & European politics. He spoke so movingly he was useful as a diplomatic emissary, as well as a preacher.
We’ll hear more about him in a later episode.
Other monastic experiments weren’t so successful. The willingness to try new forms of the life gave a platform for some short-lived endeavors by the eccentric. There are always those who think their idea is THE way it ought to be. Either because they lack common sense or have no skill at recruiting others, they fall apart. So many pushed on the boundaries of monastic life that one writer thought it would be helpful to review the available modes in the 12th Century. His work covered all the possibilities of monastic & priestly life.
The 12th Century saw the creation of new monastic orders. In Paris, the Victorines produced leading academic figures & teachers. The Premonstratensians were a group of Western monks who took on the monumental task of healing the rift between the Eastern & Western churches. The problem was, there was no corresponding monastic group IN the East.
But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves as we try to keep to a closer narrative timeline.
In future episodes, we’ll revisit the monks & monasteries of the Eastern & Western Church because it was often from their ranks the movers of church history were drawn.