This 62nd episode of CS is the 5th & final in our look at monasticism in the Middle Ages.
To a lesser extent for the Dominicans, but a bit more for the Franciscans, these monastic orders were an attempt to bring reform to the Western Church which during the Middle Ages had fallen far from the Apostolic ideal. The institutional Church had become little more than one more political body, with vast tracts of land, a massive hierarchy, a complex bureaucracy, & had accumulated powerful political across Europe. The clergy and some of the older orders had degenerated into little better than illiterate fraternities. Many priests and monks could neither read nor write, & engaged in gross immorality while hiding behind their vows.
It wasn’t this case everywhere. But it was in enough places that Francis was compelled to use poverty as a means of reform. The Franciscans who followed after Francis were quickly absorbed back into the Church’s structure and the reforms Francis envisioned were still-born.
Dominic wanted to return to the days when literacy & scholarship were part & parcel of clerical life. The Dominicans carried on his vision, but when they became prime agents of the Inquisition, they failed to balance truth with grace.
Modern depictions of medieval monks often cast them in a stereo-typical role as either sinister agents of immorality, or bumbling fools w/good hearts but soft heads. Sure there were some of each, but there were many thousands, who were sincere followers of Jesus & did their best to represent Him.
There’s every reason to believe they lived quietly in monasteries & convents; prayed, read and, if Benedictines, engaged in humble manual labor throughout their lives. There were spiritual giants as well as thoroughly wicked & corrupt wretches.
After Augustine of Canterbury brought the Faith to England it was as though the sun had come out. And that’s saying something in England!
Another among God’s champions was Malachi, whose story was recounted by Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th C. Stories like his were 1 of the main attractions for medieval people who looked to the saints for reassurance some had managed to lead exemplary lives, and had shown others how to do it.
The requirements for sanctity were relatively easy to stereotype. In the Life of St Erkenwald, we read that he was “perfect in wisdom, modest in conversation, vigilant in prayer, chaste in body, dedicated to holy reading, rooted in charity.” By the late 11th C, it was even possible to hire a hagiographer, a writer of saint-stories, such as Osbern of Canterbury, who would, for a fee, write a Life of a dead abbot or priest, in the hope that he would be canonized, that is – declared by the Church to be a saint.
There was strong motive to do this. Where there’d been a saint, a shrine sprang up, marking his/her monastery, house, bed, clothes & relics. All were much sought after as objects to venerate. Pilgrimages were made to the saint’s shrine. Money dropped in the ubiquitous money box. But it wasn’t just the church or shrine that benefited. The entire town prospered. After all, pilgrims needed a place to stay, food to eat, souvenirs to take home proving they’d performed the pilgrimage & racked up some serious spiritual points. Business boomed! So, the hagiographers included a list of miracles the saint had performed. These miracles were evidence of God’s approval. There was competition between towns to see their abbot or priest canonized because it meant pilgrims would flock to their city.
It was assumed that a holy man or woman left behind, in objects touched or places visited, a residual spiritual power, a ‘merit’, which the less pious could acquire for their assistance in their own troubles by going on pilgrimage and praying at the shrine. A similar power inhered in the body of the saint, or in parts of the body, such as the fingernails or hair, which could conveniently be kept in ‘relic-holders’ called reliquaries. People used these, praying & touching them in the hope of a miracle, a healing, or some other urgent request of God.
The balance between the active and the contemplative life was the core issue for those who aspired to be a genuine follower of Jesus & a good example to others. They struggled w/the question of how much time should be given to God & how much to work in the world? From the Middle Ages, there comes no account of the enlightened idea the secular & religious could be merged into 1 overall passion for & service of à God.
In the medieval way of thinking, to be truly godly, a sequestered religious life was required. The idea that a blacksmith could worship God while working at his anvil was nowhere on the horizon. Francis came closest, but even he considered working for a wage & the call to glorify God mutually exclusive. Francis urged work as part of the monk’s life, but depended on charity for support. It wouldn’t be till the Reformation that the idea of vocation liberated the sanctity of work.
Because the cloistered, or sequestered religious life, was regarded as the only way to please God, many of the greats from the 4th C on supported monasticism. I list now some names who held this view, trusting if you’ve listened to the podcast for a while you’ll recognize them . . .
St. Anthony of Egypt,
Gregory of Nyssa,
& Benedict of Nursia.
In the Middle Ages the list is just as imposing.
Thomas Aquinas, & Duns Scotus,
St. Bernard & Hugo de St. Victor,
Joachim of Flore,
Adam de St. Victor,
Anthony of Padua,
Bernardino of Siena,
Berthold of Regensburg, Savonarola,
& of course, Francis & Dominic.
The Middle Ages were a favorable period for the development of monastic communities. The religious, political & economic forces at work across Europe conspired to make monastic life for both men & women a viable, even preferred, option. As is so often case in movies & books depicting this period, sure there were some young men & women who balked at entering a monastery or convent when forced there by parents, but there were far more who wanted to engage the sequestered life who were denied by parents. When war decimated the male population & women outnumbered men by large margins, becoming a nun was the only way to survive. Young men who knew they weren’t cut out for the hard labor of farm life or for military service could always find a place to pursue their passion for learning in a monastery.
As in most institutions, the fate of the brothers & sisters depended on the quality of their abbot or abbess. If he was a godly & effective leader, the monastery thrived. If she was a tyrannical brute, the convent suffered.
In those monasteries where scholarship prevailed, ancient manuscripts were preserved by scribes who laboriously copied them, and by doing so, became well versed in the classics. It was from these intellectual safe-houses that the Renaissance would eventually emerge.
By drawing to themselves the best minds of the time, from the 10th well into the 13th C, monasteries were the nursery of piety & the centers of missionary & civilizing energy. When there was virtually no preaching taking place in churches, the monastic community preached powerful sermons by calling men’s thoughts away from war & bloodshed to brotherhood and religious devotion. The motto of some monks was, “by the cross and the plough.” In other words, they were determined to build the Kingdom of God on Earth by preaching the Gospel and transforming the world by honest & hard, humble work.
Monks were pioneers in the cultivation of the ground, &, after the most scientific fashion then known, taught agriculture, the tending of vines & fish, the breeding of cattle, and the manufacture of wool. They built roads & some of the best buildings. In intellectual and artistic concerns, the convent was the chief school of the times. It trained architects, painters, and sculptors. There the deep problems of theology and philosophy were studied; & when the universities arose, the convent furnished them with their first and most renowned teachers.
So popular was the monastic life that religion seemed to be in danger of running out into monkery & society of being little more than a collection of convents. The 4th Lateran Council tried to counteract this tendency by forbidding the establishment of new orders. But no council was ever more ignorant of the immediate future. Innocent III was scarcely in his grave before the Dominicans and Franciscans received full papal sanction.
During the 11th & 12th Cs an important change came. All monks were ordained as priests. Before that time it was the exception for a monk to be a priest, which meant they weren’t allowed to offer the sacraments. Once they were priests, they could.
The monastic life was praised as the highest form of earthly existence. The convent was compared to Canaan and treated as the shortest and surest road to heaven. The secular life, even the life of the secular priest, was compared to Egypt. The passage to the cloister was called conversion, and monks were converts. They reached the Christian ideal.
The monastic life was likened to the life of the angels. Bernard said to his fellow monks, “Are you not already like the angels of God, having abstained from marriage.”
Even kings and princes desired to take the monastic vow & be clad in the monk’s habit. So even though Frederick II was a bitter foe of the Pope as he neared his death, he changed into the robes of a Cistercian monk. Rogers II & III of Sicily, along with William of Nevers all dressed up in monks robes as their end drew near. They thought doing so would mean a better chance at heaven. Spiritual camouflage to get past Peter.
Accounts from the time make miracles part & parcel of the monk’s daily life. He was surrounded by spirits. Visions and revelations occurred day and night. Devils roamed about at all hours in the cloistered halls. They were on evil errands to deceive the unwary and shake the faith of the careless. Elaborate accounts of these encounters is given by Peter the Venerable in his work on Miracles. He gives a detailed account of how these restless spiritual foes pulled the bedclothes off sleeping monks &, chuckling, left them across the cloister.
While monasteries & convents were a major part of life in Middles Age Europe, & while many of them were bastions of piety & scholarship, others didn’t live up to that rep & became blockades to progress. As the years marched forward, the monastic ideal of holiness degenerated into a mere form that became superstitious & suspicious of anything new. So while some monasteries served as mid-wives to the Renaissance others were like Herod’s soldiers trying to slay it in its infancy.
As we end this episode, I thought it would be good to do a brief review of what are called “the hours, the Divine Office or the breviary.” This was how monks and nuns divided up their day.
The time for these divisions varied from place to place but generally it went like this.
In the early morning before dawn, a bell was rung that awakened the monks (or nuns) to a time of private reading and meditation. Then they all gathered for Nocturns, in which a psalm is read, there was antiphonal chanting, then some lessons either form scripture or the Church Fathers.
After that they went back to bed for a bit, then got up at dawn for another service called Lauds.
Lauds is followed by another period of personal reading & prayer, which resolves in the cloister again gathering for Prime at about 6 AM.
Prime is followed by a period of work, which in turn ends with Terce, a time for group prayer at about 9.
Then there’s more work from about 10 to just before Noon, when the nuns & brothers gather for Sext, a short service where a few psalms are read. That’s followed by the mid-day meal, a nap, another short service at about 3 PM called None, named for the 9th hour since dawn.
Then comes a few hours of work, dinner about 5:50, and the Vespers service at 6 PM.
After Vespers the nuns & monks have a time of personal, private prayers; regather for the brief service Compline, then hit the sack.
Protestants & Evangelicals might wonder where the idea for the canonical hours came from. There’s some evidence that they derived from the practice of the Apostles, who as Jews, observed set times during the day for prayer. In Acts 10 we read how Peter prayed at the 6th hour. The Roman Centurion Cornelius, who’d adopted the Jewish faith, prayed at the 9th hour. And in Acts 16, Paul & Silas worshiped at Midnight; though that may have been because they were in stocks in the Philippian jail. As early as the 5th C, Christians were using references in the Psalms as cues to pray in the morning, at mid-day and at midnight.