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Monasticism

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By
Pastor Mark Montgomery
Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
(412)822-7255

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 Pachomius.

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 states,

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 to Heaven.

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 hospitals.

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 world today.


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.

4) Ibid.

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.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cairns, Earle.
Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961. Reverend Cairns has written a book which is both stimulating yet easy to read.
Kurtz, Professor.
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.
Latourette, Kenneth.
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 movement.
Newman, Albert.
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.
Schaff, Philip.
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.
Walker, Williston.
A History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.



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