Essay / Theology

The New Monasticism?

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

Monastaries often get an undeserved bad reputation. Chaucer may have something to do with it or the fact that our culture cannot imagine real community and giving things up. If you believe, as I do, that the culture is in real trouble, then monasticism looks more appealing. There are forms of monasticism that allow for marriage and family life. Most monastaries are cultural centers and not isolated from society. Those communities that are isolated provide service through prayer. All encourage the life of the spirit over the life of the flesh. What is not to like? Well, some things. . . as a brief review of the history of monasticism shows.

Monasticism was one of the most important innovations of Church history. It passed through several stages and was shaped by a number of remarkable personalities. In the West, it is safe to say that Christendom owes much of the its culture, philosophy, and historical memory to the labor of monks. In the East monasticism, ultimately helped shape the very liturgy of the church.

The early Church was a persecuted Church. Cut off from the protection of the Jewish exemption from emperor worship, the first Christians were the frequent targets of a hostile government. This shaped their demands and expectations regarding the Christian life. Living in the light of the martyrs’ divine sacrifice, the early Church developed high standards for personal conduct and holiness. With any decline in persecution, and the sudden influx converts that would inevitably follow, the Church would notice a decline in the personal holiness of her members. What could be done about this?

Monasticism was one answer to that question. The end of martyrdom and the sanction of the state only increased the demand for some way in which the supremely dedicated Christian could show their love of Christ and His Church. Walker also suggests (125) that liturgical formalism demanded a way for individuals to express their devolution more freely. These secular rationalizations for monasticism may have some merit, but they over look the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Monasticism did much to evangelize the world, preserve culture and order in decaying lands, and renew the Church whenever nominalism threatened her. It is clear that the growth of monasticism was an important part of the providential work of God to bring His Creation back into right relationship with His Divine Nature.

Christian monasticism finds its origins in Egypt. This in itself is not surprising. The very climate of Egypt is ideal for inspiring the life of contemplation. Saint Anthony (c. 250) gave up all his worldly wealth, lived as a hermit, and battled his sinful flesh and many demons. This move to the desert was a natural one by the time of Anthony. Christians had always admired the ideal of celibacy, poverty, and the contemplative life. Origen, the great Alexandrine teacher, was a strict ascetic. (Walker, 125) The strong Platonic element to the Alexandrine way of thinking may also have encouraged the monastic life. Platonism, or at least neo-Platonism, places a great value on philosophy and the life of the mind while placing little worth in the body or its needs. In Phaedo, Plato compares the body to a tomb. The life of the guardian and the philosopher king of Republic also is in many ways similar to that of the monk.

This Platonic influence can be overdone, but it is too plain to be purely coincidence. Most important, of course, is the fact that the monastic ideas are the ideals of the New Testament. John the Baptist is a forerunner not only of Christ, but of one type of Christian monastic. Jesus, Himself pure and celibate, had much to say about the misuse of personal wealth and the life of poverty. (See Matt. 19:21) Paul gave his blessing to the life of the celibate and was, perhaps, the model for the later missionary monk. In short, whatever reasons there were for its appearance, monasticism was a natural, evolutionary step for the Christian faith. Monasticism early on divided between those like Saint Anthony who pursued a more or less solitary life as a hermit and those that lived with others in community. Saint Pachomius established the first monastic community from 315 to 320. He worked hard to secure a life where the common life under the rule of an abbot would create an ideal Christian community. He opened the monastic life to women and tried to avoid some of the spiritual problems found in some of the more extreme hermits.

Simeon Stylites (died 459) was one example of such a rigorous hermit. He lived on top of a pillar for thirty years. Such men are, perhaps, easy to ridicule in a naturalistic age, but one should be careful about doing so. Often such “holy folly” as that of Simeon can be a window for many folk to the deeper things of God. It also serves as a rebuke to secularism and to nominalism in the Church. These men, by their very “folly,” set an example of the absolute holiness of God and His total demands on the life of a Christian.

The common life of monasticism continued to develop in the East until it reached a point that would prove seminal for all later advances. Saint Basil in Asia Minor began to develop an orderly and much improved common life (360-379). The Rule of Saint Basil, which is either his or one of his many followers, stressed the common life. Good deeds and religious activity were tightly regulated and encouraged. Such monastic were widely seen as friends of the poor and oppressed.In the West of the Empire, the situation was less stable. Athanasius brought the monastic movement to the West, but it long lacked organization. Martin of Tours brought the movement to France by 362.

Still many in the West opposed monasticism. Unlike the East, monastic in the West were not always of the best character. Much later Chaucer would give a splendid example of this in his Monks and Reeves Tale in Canterbury Tales. Much of Western monasticism became centered on various reform movements to solve these problems. In one move in this direction, Eusebius of Italy, who died in 371, required all of his clergy be monastic. This helped guide the wild excesses of a lay monastic movement, but it did not solve the problem in the end.The first and greatest of these reform movements was that of Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Disgusted with the evils of Rome, he left to become a hermit and eventually founded the great monastic community of Monte Cassino. His Rule was one of the most important documents of the Christian Middle Ages. In it, Saint Benedict created (in the words of Walker, 1270, a “garrison of Christ’s soldiers.”

Benedict’s rule was very strict, it was after all an antidote to laxness. It was also very fair, by the standards of the time. Though the abbot had ultimate power in the community, all the monks had a say in many of the decisions. The monasteries were built around the ideal of constant worship. Saint Benedict also stressed hard work and intellectual activity. In a day when the fall of Rome in the West meant that literature was dying, Benedictine monasteries became centers of learning and culture. They were an ordered garden in a Western Europe that was rapidly becoming a wasteland. Western civilization was largely preserved and recreated within the walls of that secret garden.

Further to the West, there existed the Celtic monastic. Learned, artistic, and free of the control of Rome, they made far away lands like Ireland cultural centers. Before being absorbed by the Latin church, they created a Christian culture that is only now being discovered. By the time of Charlemagne, the rule of Benedict was nearly universal in Western Europe.

The monastic movement went, therefore, through three early phases. First, it was born as the reaction of individual Christians to the evil world that was around them. This early movement centered in the individual and extreme ascetic practices. Second, some monastic became more communal. Finally, this life was organized by spiritually gifted figures like Basil and Benedict. The monk or nun, for all their imperfections became a model for the lay Christian to follow. This was not without its disadvantages. Too often the Church came to rely on the rigors of the monks, the renewal that would seemingly always flow out of the monasteries. (As would be the in the case, for example, with Saint Francis in the West and the Fathers of Mount Athos in the East.)

As Walker points out, the monastic themselves often simply retreated from the world, allowing the good works in the community so stressed by Basil to fall into decay. In the West monasteries became (oddly) centers for indulgence and high living. Too few common folk raised a cry in England, for example, when Henry VIII seized the property of the monasteries of England. This suggest that the life of service had died out in those monasteries. For all the dangers and problems that beset the movement, however, it is difficult to think of the church surviving the rigors of the fall of the Western Empire, Islam, secularism, Communism, and the other evils she has endured without the special strength of the Christian monastic. Is it time for another revival of intentional Christian community? Is there any reason that all the historical divisions of Christianity cannot embrace this idea?

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