This 58th Episode of CS is titled – Monk Business Part 1 & is the first of several episodes in which we’ll take a look at monastic movements in Church History.
I realize that may not sound terribly exciting to some. The prospect of digging into this part of the story didn’t hold much interest for me either, that is until I realized how rich it is. You see, being a bit of a fan for the work of J. Edwin Orr, I love the history of revivals. Well, it turns out each new monastic movement was often a fresh moving of God’s Spirit in renewal. Several were a new wineskin for God’s Spirit & work.
The roots of monasticism are worth taking some time to unpack. Let’s get started . . .
Leisure time to converse about philosophy with friends was highly prized in the ancient world. Even if someone didn’t really have the intellectual chops to wax eloquent on philosophy, it was still fashionable for 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 was the ancient version of, “I just don’t have any ‘Me-time’.”
Sometimes, as the famous Roman orator & Senator Cicero, the ancients did score the time for such reflection & enlightened discussion & retired 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 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 Bible known as the Vulgate, felt the same tug, & he, too, made a series of attempts to live apart from the world so he could give himself to philosophical reflection.
Ah – the Good Life!
This sense of a divine ‘call’ to a Christian version of this life of ‘philosophical retirement’ had an important difference from the older, pagan version. While reading & meditation remained central, the call to do it in concert w/others who also set themselves apart from the world both spiritually & physically was added to the mix.
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 to attempt to obey to the full the commandment to love God with all one is & has. In the Middle Ages, is was also understood to be a fulfillment of the command to love one’s neighbor, for monks & nuns prayed for the world. They really did believe they were performing an important task on behalf of a morally & spiritually needy world 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.
A difference developed between the monastic movements in the East & West. In the East, the Desert Fathers set the pattern. They were hermits who adopted extreme forms of piety & asceticism. They were regarded as powerhouses of spiritual influence; authorities who could assist ordinary people w/their problems. The Stylites, for example, lived on high platforms; sitting atop poles, & were an object of reverence to those who came to ask their advice. Others, shut off from the world in caves or huts, sought to deny themselves any 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 evil.
I want to pause here & make a personal, pastoral observation. So warning! – Blatant opinion follows.
You can’t read the NT w/o seeing the call to holiness in the Christian Life. But that holiness is a work of God’s grace as the Holy Spirit empowers the believer to live a life pleasing to God. NT holiness is a joyous privilege, not a heavy burden & duty. NT holiness enhances life, never diminishes it.
This is what Jesus modeled so well; & it’s 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. And everywhere 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, we’d have to admit that for the vast majority, holiness is conceived 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 – Bwuahahah!”
NT holiness is a mark of Real Life, the one Jesus rose again to give us. It’s Jesus living in & thru us.
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 the 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.
In the East, while monks might live in a group, they didn’t seek for community. They didn’t converse or work together in a common cause. They simply shared cells next to one another. And each followed his own schedule. Their only real contact was that they ate together & might pray together. This tradition continues to this day on Mount Athos in northern Greece, where monks live in solitude and prayer in cells high on the cliffs, on food lowered to them in baskets.
A crucial development in Western monasticism took place in the 6th C, when Benedict of Nursia withdrew w/a group of friends to live an 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 mother house 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 C.
The Rule of St Benedict achieved a good working balance between the body & soul. It aimed at moderation & order. It said that 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 shouldn’t 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—their real work for God. There were to be 7 regular acts of worship in the day, known as ‘hours’, that were attended by the whole 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.
In the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, nuns formed a significant part of the population. There were several ‘double monasteries’, where communities of monks & nuns lived side by side. Several female abbots, called ‘abbesses’ proved to be outstanding leaders. Hilda, the Abbess of the double monastery at Whitby played a major role at the Synod of Whitby in 664.
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 choose to become monks. The houses of monks & nuns were the recipients of noble & royal patronage, usually because the noblity thought by supporting such a holy endeavor, they were promoting their own spiritual case 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 vie with their elder brother in gaining the birthright. So these ‘spare’ children of good 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 kind of “spiritual surrogate” whose task was to produce a surplus of godliness the rest of the family could draw from. Rich and powerful families gave monasteries lands and estates, for the good of the souls of their members. Rulers and soldiers were too busy to attend to their spiritual lives as they should, and ‘professionals’ drawn from their own families could help them by doing it on their behalf.
A consequence of this was that, in the late 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 C caricature of a prioress depicts a woman who would have been much more at home in a country house playing w/her pet dogs.
In these features of noble patronage of the religious life lay not only the stamp of society’s approval, but also the potential for decay. Monastic houses that became rich & were filled with those who’d not chosen to enter the religious life, but had been put there in childhood, often became decadent. The Cluniac reforms of the 10th C were a consequence of the recognition that there would need to be a tightening up if the Benedictine order was not to be lost altogether. 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 life.
At the end of the 11th C, several developments radically altered the range of choice for those in the West who wanted to enter the monastic life. 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. Adult entry of this sort was by those who really did want to be monks and nuns, and it had the potential to alter the balance in favor of serious commitment.
But these mature adults weren’t the only one’s entering monasteries. It became fashionable for younger people to head off to a monastery where education had become top-rank. Then monasteries began to specialize in various pursuits. It was a time of experimentation.
Out of the 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.
“Too rich?” you might ask. “How’s that possible if they’d to take a vow of poverty?”
Ah à 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 ingenious methods for going about their work in a more productive manner, enhancing yields of crops & products. Being deft businessmen, they worked good deals and maximized profits, which went in to the monastery’s account. But individual monks, of course, didn’t 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 itself. The monks’ cells got nicer, the food better, the grounds more sumptuous, the library more expansive. The monks got new outfits. Outwardly things technically 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 social classes who had vocations but wanted to give themselves more completely to God for a period of time. These were called “lay brothers.”
The rather 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 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 & in politics. He spoke so well and so movingly that he was useful as a diplomatic emissary, as well as a preacher. You may remember he was one of the premier reasons the Crusades were able to rally so many to their campaign.
Other monastic experiments weren’t so successful. The willingness to try new forms of the monastic 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 done. Either because they lack common sense or have no skill at recruiting others, they fall apart. So many were engaged in pushing forward the boundaries of monastic life one writer thought it would be helpful to review the available modes in the 12th C. His work covered all the possibilities, from the Benedictines & reformed Benedictines, to priests who didn’t live enclosed lives, but who were allowed to work in the world—and the various sorts of hermits.
The only real rival to the Rule of St Benedict was the ‘Rule’ of Augustine, which was adopted by church leaders. These differed from monks, in that they were priests who could be active in the wider social community, for example, by serving in a parish church. They weren’t living under a monastic rule which confined a monk for life to the house in which he was consecrated. Priests serving in a cathedral, for example, were encouraged to live in a city but under a code like the Augustinian rule which was well-adapted to their needs.
The 12th C saw the creation of new monastic orders. In Paris, the Victorines produced leading academic figures & teachers. The Premonstratensians were a group of monks who took on the monumental task of healing the rift between the Eastern & Western churches by attempting to engage their brothers in the Eastern Church. The problem was – there was no corresponding monastic group in the East.
We’ll pick it up at this point next time.
Monasticism is an important part of Church History because of the huge impact it had shaping the faith of common Christians throughout the Middle Ages & on into the Renaissance. Some of the monastic leaders are the great pillars of the faith. We can’t really understand them without knowing a little about the world they lived in.