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A Little Ocean Ambiance
Pastor Mark Montgomery
Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
One of the greatest, and most far-reaching movements to come
out of the Catholic Church was the Monastic movement. This movement
began in the fourth century A.D., and its influence is still being
felt in the twentieth century. Orders which exist within the
Catholic Church today have their roots in the monastic movements
of the early Christian church. For this reason, it is profitable
to examine the causes of monasticism, various movements within
monasticism, and those monks who were leaders within the movement
as a whole.
Christian monasticism(1) originated for a number of reasons.
The chief reason was the great influx of individuals into the
Christian church. The early Christians were a very small minority.
The fear of persecution helped to keep their number small. However, after Constantine ended the persecutions and became favorable
towards Christianity, a great number of people flocked to the
church. As the fear of persecution kept people away from Christianity,
the failure of the persecutions accelerated the flow of
people. Because of this great surge, the church dropped its
standards of purity. It got to the place where at the close of
the fifth century, the overwhelming majority of citizens
in Rome were professing Christians and had been baptized. It seems
obvious that in order to have this many church members
within an empire as ungodly as the Roman, the discipline of the
church must have become very relaxed indeed.
It was this laxity in the purity of the church which resulted
in the monastic movement. The laity of the church realized that
Christ and the apostles had taught that Christians were to lead
a pure life, and that the church was to take a leadership role
in maintaining the purity. Upon seeing that the church was not
leading in purity, but was in fact leading in degeneration, the
laity rebelled. This rebellion started out as a forsaking of the
Eucharist, and eventually turned into a total rejection of the
church and a separation from society as a whole.
Although this was the primary factor leading to monasticism,
other factors played a role as well. The first of these was the
prevailing philosophies of Gnosticism and Manichaeism. These philosophies
were dualistic: differentiating only between light and dark, evil
and good, flesh and spirit. The flesh was evil, and the spirit
was good. Retirement from the world was thus thought to help the
individual to crucify the flesh and to develop the spiritual life
through meditation and ascetic acts.(2) Another factor in
monasticism was the psychological fact that there is always
a temptation to try to escape from the problems which arise.
Moral contamination in the church, coupled with civil disorders
in the empire brought about a fleeing from society.
Along with this, monasticism also "afforded a compensation
for martyrdom."(3) Martyrdom had been highly desired by the
Montaniats during the Roman persecutions. However, as the persecutions
ended, so did the opportunities for martyrdom. Hence, an
alternative was sought. Monasticism became a "voluntary martyrdom,
a gradual self-destruction, a sort of religious suicide."(4)
Having examined some of the causes behind monasticism it
makes logical sense that the movement would start in Egypt.
Latourette gives seven basic reasons.(5) His first reason is that
the non-Christian circles in Egypt participated in much mysticism
and the contemplative life. His second reason is Manichaeism,
which was very popular in Egypt, having been taught there by Origen.
His third reason revolves around the political and economic disorders
which plagued Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. These events
brought an insecurity which individuals wished to escape.
Going along with this is Latourette's fourth reason which speaks
of the civil burdens which the Egyptians faced. His fifth reason
stems from the disgusting city life in Egypt, and the people's
desire to flee from it. The sixth reason is that the
geography and climate of Egypt were very suitable to an ascetic.
Little shelter was needed, and small amounts of food could
be obtained on tiny plots along the fertile Nile River. Finally,
many individuals attempted to flee the Decian persecution
by escaping into the desert. Some lived a hermit's life, while
others banded together into small groups and gave themselves to
prayer. Thus, comparing Latourette's conditions in Egypt with
those reasons which would lead to a "wilderness spirituality"
it is obvious why the monastic movement started in Egypt.
There were two basic branches of monasticism. One of those
was Eastern, the other was Western. While these two were very
similar in many regards, there were a few items which differentiate
them from each other. There are two main differences. The first
involves the organization of the monastics, which will be discussed
momentarily. The second involves the outworkings of the monastics,
which will be mentioned later in this paper.
Eastern monasticism had four basic stages of development.
The first stage involved carrying on ascetic practices
within the church. This was popular among the clergy, who Schaff
refers to as "half monks". The second stage was
hermit life. At this point, the monastics left the organized church
entirely and went into seclusion. Those who did this claimed Elijah
and John the Baptist as their examples.
Not content with partial or temporary retirement from common
life...the consistent anchoret secludes himself from all society,
even from kindred ascetics, and comes only exceptionally into
contact with human affairs, either to receive the visits of admirers,
especially of the sick and needy... or to appear in the cities
on some extraordinary occasion, as a
spirit from another world. His clothing is a hair shirt, and
a wild beast's skin; his food, bread and salt; his dwelling, a
cave; his employment, prayer, affliction of the body, and conflict
with Satanic powers and wild images of fancy.(6)
The first of these Christian hermits was Paul of Thebes. At
the age of twenty-three, he retired to a cave to escape the Decian
persecution. He enjoyed the solitude, and remained there for ninty
years. It is said that in his latter years the ravens fed him.
Antony claimed to have been led to Paul, who told him of his
experiences in the wilderness. On Antony's second visit, he found
Paul dead. It is said that Antony buried him without a spade,
for two lions came and scratched a grave in the sand specifically
for the body. Antony kept Paul's coat, and wore it for special
days such as Easter and Pentecost.
Although Paul of Thebes was the first Christian hermit, St.
Antony of Egypt is known as the father of anchoritic monasticism
in the East. He was born in Egypt to Christian parents. At the
age of eighteen, his parents died, leaving him the charge of his
younger sister, and a large estate. Shortly thereafter, he heard
a message from Matthew 19:21, to "sell all, and give to the
poor." He did this, but left a sum for his sister. But upon
hearing another message on "Take no thought for the morrow",
he gave away what little money he had left and gave his sister
over to the care of virgins. He left his hamlet and lived
in a cave
where he had daily conflicts with demons.(7) He then went
to a crumbling castle, where he abode for twenty years. He finally
chose a barren mountain to live on, which was later called Antony's
Mount. He wore the same clothing day and night, and never
washed himself. He ate only once a day, and his meals
consisted of bread and salt, and sometimes dates which grew on
the mountain. He rarely left his solitude; those instances when
he appeared publicly were in hopes of gaining the martyr's crown.
He was frequently visited, for many men had heard of him, and
moved out into the caves to be near him. With him they
formed a kind of loose community. In his final years, he
withdrew completely from visitors. At the age of 106 he died,
having resigned the direction of the hermits over to his friend
Although Antony was primarily a hermitic monk, he bridged
the gap between the second and third stages of Eastern monasticism.
The second stage was the hermit's life, which he practiced for
most of his life. But in drawing some companions to himself in
a loose community, he moved into the third stage, which was
the cenobitic stage. Actually, this type of monasticism was Laura.
But it became cenobitic, or in other words a tight fellowship under
the leadership of Pachomius. Herein lies one of the two differences
between Eastern and Western monasticism. Western monasticism
did not have a hermitic stage. "It was too eccentric and
unpractical for the West, especially in rougher climates."(9)
It was particularly the colder climate in the West which forced
the monks to live in a close community to avoid destruction.
As previously mentioned, Antony turned his movement over
to Pachomius. He was born in Egypt to heathen parents. While
in the military he was converted and later introduced to the ascetic
life by Palamon. He rose to be a leader in the cenobitic movement.
As leader, he set down a number of rules to be followed by his
three thousand monks. Among these rules were,
1) monasteries must be surrounded by walls
2) each monk had his own cell
3) each house had a library, kitchen, and worship room
4) the head monk made and enforced all rules
5) dress was to be simple
6) prayer time was to be regulated
7) Eucharist was celebrated twice a week
8) monks must sleep sitting, not lying
9) monks must study and memorize the Bible
10) manual labor was compulsory
11) chastity and poverty were compulsory
12) conversation was to be limited to spiritual subjects.(10)
Rules like these brought order to the monastic
movement. This also enabled the monks to spend more time in meditation.
It also opened the door for women. Up to this point, the hermitic
life had been too hard for women. Pachomius established a cloister for his sister, which opened the door to other nunneries and convents.
However, it should be noted that much care was taken to insure
that men and women did not meet.
Out of the second and third stages came the "Athletes
of God", who were monks who had extreme practices. Some of
these were known as the sleepless ones, because of their
passing many days without rest. Others ate only grass which
they cut with sickles. Others lived in cells which were so small
that they could neither stand at full height nor lie at full length.
Still others were polesitters. The most famous of these was Simeon
the Stylite who lived on top of a pole in Telanissus for the last
thirty years of his life. All these various extremes were practiced
for the purpose of obtaining salvation. It is at this point that
one last cause of monasticism should be mentioned. Latourette
To a certain degree, monasticism represented the triumph of
ideas which the Catholic Church had denounced as heretical. Into
it crept something of the legalism, the belief that salvation
can be earned and deserved, which is opposed to grace and which
had been theoretically rejected when the Ebibnites were appraised
as untrue to the Gospel.(11)
Thus, since monasticism represented the doctrine of
salvation by works, it was only logical that the more ascetic
or extreme the individual lived, the better his chances of going
Herein lies the second difference between Eastern and Western
monasticism. While Eastern monks practiced much asceticism, Western
monks were more practical. Monasticism in the West, "rejected
idleness and deplored purely ascetic acts. Work as well as devotion
was emhasized."(12) When Basil the Great became a leader
in the Eastern monastic movement, he attempted to move away
from extreme asceticism. He wanted the monks to become concerned
about others as much as they were about themselves. In addition,
he organized the monks into even closer fellowship than did Pachomius.
He brought monasticism to heights of popularity which had never
previously attained. By the end of his life more than one hundred
monasteries had been started.
Before discussing the fourth stage of development, monasticism
in the West should be touched upon. Monasticism was first brought
to the West by Athanasius on one of his exiles from Constantinople.
The real pioneer in the West was Martin of Tours. He was converted
at an early age through a vision of Christ. He built a monastery
in Poitiers, destroyed many temples of idols, and performed many
miracles. He was followed by Jerome, who was the connecting link
between Eastern and Western religion. He traveled extensively,
and did much writing. While in Rome, he became a spiritual leader
to a group of women, among whom was Paula. Jerome and Paula ultimately
left Rome, travelled to the Holy Land and built monastaries and
It was during the time of Basil and Martin that the monastic
movement began to get reacquainted with the Catholic Church. Both
Basil and Martin were requested to become the bishops of their
respective cities, and both accepted. Jerome was commissioned
by Pope Damascus to translate the Bible into the common language.
Ever since its inception the movement had practiced taking the
Eucharist and remaining celibate. But these were the first instances
of the monks reuniting with the Church.
The fourth stage of monastic development involved "monastic orders, and unions of a number of cloisters under one
rule and a common government."(13) This stage began with the
Cluny and Cistercian movements in France in an attempt to correct the
decay within monasticism. What separated this stage was that, instead
of individual monasteries, there were now families of monasteries,
each coming under the rule of one central government. An
offspring of this was the Friar Movement. Some of the Friar Orders were the Dominicians, the Augustinians, the Jesuits, and the
Franciscans. These orders were more practical then previous movements. For example, the Dominicians emphasized well-educated preaching. The Jesuits were dedicated to instructing individuals in
the Bible and building homes and orphanages. They opened the Gregorian University in Rome, and ultimately became the Pope's Apologists. By this time the monks and the Church were walking hand in hand again.Francis Xavier evangelized many Catholics, and was canonized by the Catholic Church. Thus, by the fourth stage of monasticism (which continues until this day), the monks and the church
had gone a complete cycle and were once again working together.
The monastic movement is important because its affects continue
until this day. It is also important because it shows how futile
separation is outside of the proper Biblical concepts of the local
church and evangelism. Finally, it shows how separation, when
mishandled, will lead right back into the original problem. Thus,
the roots and stages of monasticism have great importance in the
1) The term "Christian monasticism" is used to differentiate
it from the asceticism of the Jewish and pagan religions. Asceticism
was not originated by the monks of the fourth century. However,
from this point on is this paper, all references to Christian
monasticism will simply be termed "monasticism". Kenneth
Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 1 (New York:
Harper and Row, 1953), p. 22.
2) Earle Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), p. 163
3) Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889), p. 155.
5) Latourette, op. cit., p. 225.
6) Schaff, op. cit., p. 156.
7) It was said that the Devil appeared to Antony often, both
in dreams and in daylight. Sometimes he appeared as a friend,
sometimes as a woman, sometimes a dragon. Once he struck Antony
so hard that when a friend found him he was thought to he dead.
Another time, the Devil broke a hole in the wall, and filled the
room with lions, bears, and serpents. Ibid., p. 184.
8) Professor Kurtz, Church History (New York:
Funk and Wagnalls Co. [N.D.] ), p. 250.
9) Schaff, op. cit., p. 156.
10) Latourette, op. cit., p. 227.
11) Ibid., p. 222.
12) Cairns, op. cit., p. 166.
13) Schaff, op. cit., p. 158.
Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House, 1961. Reverend Cairns has written
a book which is both stimulating yet easy to read.
Church History. New York: Funk and
Wagnalls Co. [N. D.]. This book gives more of an overall view
of monasticism than just a Christian view.
A History of Christianity, vol. 1. New York: Harper and Rwo, 1953. Latourette gives an excellent
overview of the origin of monasticism, and returns to update the
A Manual of Church History vol. 1.
Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1899. Newman does not devote a Great
deal of time to monasticism, but does have some interesting thoughts,
particularly in the area of gnosticism.
History of the Christian Church. New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889. This is probably the greatest work
ever on the history of Christianity. The chapters on monasticism
provide not only a keen insight into the movement, but also deal
with the lives of those monks who sparked the movement.
A History of the Christian Church.
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.
His Majesty's Service
In His Service,
Teaching the Word
To Glorify Our Lord
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