Vol. 3, Chapter IV (Cont’d) – Influence and Effect of Monasticism


The influence of monasticism upon the world, from Anthony and Benedict to Luther and Loyola, is deeply marked in all branches of the history of the church. Here, too, we must distinguish light and shade. The operation of the monastic institution has been to some extent of diametrically opposite kinds, and has accordingly elicited the most diverse judgments. “It is impossible,” says Dean Milman, “to survey monachism in its general influence, from the earliest period of its inworking into Christianity, without being astonished and perplexed with its diametrically opposite effects. Here it is the undoubted parent of the blindest ignorance and the most ferocious bigotry, sometimes of the most debasing licentiousness; there the guardian of learning, the author of civilization, the propagator of humble and peaceful religion.” The apparent contradiction is easily solved. It is not monasticism, as such, which has proved a blessing to the church and the world; for the monasticism of India, which for three thousand years has pushed the practice of mortification to all the excesses of delirium, never saved a single soul, nor produced a single benefit to the race. It was Christianity in monasticism which has done all the good, and used this abnormal mode of life as a means for carrying forward its mission of love and peace. In proportion as monasticism was animated and controlled by the spirit of Christianity, it proved a blessing; while separated from it, it degenerated and became at fruitful source of evil.

At the time of its origin, when we can view it from the most favorable point, the monastic life formed a healthful and necessary counterpart to the essentially corrupt and doomed social life of the Graeco-Roman empire, and the preparatory school of a new Christian civilization among the Romanic and Germanic nations of the middle age. Like the hierarchy and the papacy, it belongs with the disciplinary institutions, which the spirit of Christianity uses as means to a higher end, and, after attaining that end, casts aside. For it ever remains the great problem of Christianity to pervade like leaven and sanctify all human society in the family and the state, in science and art, and in all public life. The old Roman world, which was based on heathenism, was, if the moral portraitures of Salvianus and other writers of the fourth and fifth centuries are even half true, past all such transformation; and the Christian morality therefore assumed at the outset an attitude of downright hostility toward it, till she should grow strong enough to venture upon her regenerating mission among the new and, though barbarous, yet plastic and germinal nations of the middle age, and plant in them the seed of a higher civilization.

Monasticism promoted the downfall of heathenism and the victory of Christianity in the Roman empire and among the barbarians. It stood as a warning against the worldliness, frivolity, and immorality of the great cities, and a mighty call to repentance and conversion. It offered a quiet refuge to souls weary of the world, and led its earnest disciples into the sanctuary of undisturbed communion with God. It was to invalids a hospital for the cure of moral diseases, and at the same time, to healthy and vigorous enthusiasts an arena for the exercise of heroic virtue. It recalled the original unity and equality of the human race, by placing rich and poor, high and low upon the same level. It conduced to the abolition, or at least the mitigation of slavery. It showed hospitality to the wayfaring, and liberality to the poor and needy. It was an excellent school of meditation, self-discipline, and spiritual exercise. It sent forth most of those catholic, missionaries, who, inured to all hardship, planted the standard of the cross among the barbarian tribes of Northern and Western Europe, and afterward in Eastern Asia and South America. It was a prolific seminary of the clergy, and gave the church many of her most eminent bishops and popes, as Gregory I. and Gregory VII. It produced saints like Anthony and Bernard, and trained divines like Chrysostom and Jerome, and the long succession of schoolmen and mystics of the middle ages. Some of the profoundest theological discussions, like the tracts of Anselm, and the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, and not a few of the best books of devotion, like the “Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas a Kempis, have proceeded from the solemn quietude of cloister life. Sacred hymns, unsurpassed for sweetness, like the Jesu dulcis memoria, or tender emotion, like the Stabat mater dolorosa, or terrific grandeur, like the Dies irae, dies illa, were conceived and sung by medieval monks for all ages to come. In patristic and antiquarian learning the Benedictines, so lately as the seventeenth century, have done extraordinary service. Finally, monasticism, at least in the West, promoted the cultivation of the soil and the education of the people, and by its industrious transcriptions of the Bible, the works of the church fathers, and the ancient classics, earned for itself, before the Reformation, much of the credit of the modern civilization of Europe. The traveller in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, England, and even in the northern regions of Scotland and Sweden, encounters innumerable traces of useful monastic labors in the ruins of abbeys, of chapter houses, of convents, of priories and hermitages, from which once proceeded educational and missionary influences upon the surrounding hills and forests. These offices, however, to the progress of arts and letters were only accessory, often involuntary, and altogether foreign to the intention of the founders of monastic life and institutions, who looked exclusively to the religious and moral education of the soul. In seeking first the kingdom of heaven, these other things were added to them.

But on the other hand, monasticism withdrew from society many useful forces; diffused an indifference for the family life, the civil and military service of the state, and all public practical operations; turned the channels of religion from the world into the desert, and so hastened the decline of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the whole Roman empire. It nourished religious fanaticism, often raised storms of popular agitation, and rushed passionately into the controversies of theological parties; generally, it is true, on the side of orthodoxy, but often, as at the Ephesian “council of robbers,” in favor of heresy, and especially in behalf of the crudest superstition. For the simple, divine way of salvation in the gospel, it substituted an arbitrary, eccentric, ostentatious, and pretentious sanctity. It darkened the all-sufficient merits of Christ by the glitter of the over-meritorious works of man. It measured virtue by the quantity of outward exercises instead of the quality of the inward disposition, and disseminated self-righteousness and an anxious, legal, and mechanical religion. It favored the idolatrous veneration of Mary and of saints, the worship of images and relics, and all sorts of superstitious and pious fraud. It circulated a mass of visions and miracles, which, if true, far surpassed the miracles of Christ and the apostles and set all the laws of nature and reason at defiance. The Nicene age is full of the most absurd monks’ fables, and is in this respect not a whit behind the darkest of the middle ages. Monasticism lowered the standard of general morality in proportion as it set itself above it and claimed a corresponding higher merit; and it exerted in general a demoralizing influence on the people, who came to consider themselves the profanum vulgus mundi, and to live accordingly. Hence the frequent lamentations, not only of Salvian, but of Chrysostom and of Augustine, over the indifference and laxness of the Christianity of the day; hence to this day the mournful state of things in the southern countries of Europe and America, where monasticism is most prevalent, and sets the extreme of ascetic sanctity in contrast with the profane laity, but where there exists no healthful middle class of morality, no blooming family life, no moral vigor in the masses. In the sixteenth century the monks were the bitterest enemies of the Reformation and of all true progress. And yet the greatest of the reformers was a pupil of the convent, and a child of the monastic system, as the boldest and most free of the apostles had been the strictest of the Pharisees.


35. Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony

I. Athanasius: Vita S. Antonii (in Greek, Opera, ed. Ben. ii. 793-866). The same in Latin, by Evagrius, in the fourth century. Jerome: Catal. c. 88 (a very brief notice of Anthony); Vita S. Pauli Theb. (Opera, ed. Vallars, ii. p. 1-12). Sozom: H. E. l. i. cap. 13 and 14. Socrat.: H. E. iv. 23, 25.

II. Acta Sanctorum, sub Jan. 17 (tom. ii. p. 107 sqq.). Tillemont: Mem. tom. vii. p. 101-144 (St. Antoine, premier père des solitaires d’Egypte). Butler (R.C.): Lives of the Saints, sub Jan. 17. Möhler (R.C.): Athanasius der Grosse, p. 382-402. Neander: K. G. iii. 446 sqq. (Torrey’s Engl. ed. ii. 229-234). Böhringer: Die Kirche Christi in Biographien, i. 2, p. 122-151. H. Ruffner: l.c. vol. i. p. 247-302 (a condensed translation from Athanasius, with additions). K. Hase: K. Gesch. §64 (a masterly miniature portrait).

The first known Christian hermit, as distinct from the earlier ascetics, is the fabulous Paul of Thebes, in Upper Egypt. In the twenty-second year of his age, during the Decian persecution, a.d. 250, he retired to a distant cave, grew fond of the solitude, and lived there, according to the legend, ninety years, in a grotto near a spring and a palm tree, which furnished him food, shade, and clothing, until his death in 340. In his later years a raven is said to have brought him daily half a loaf, as the ravens ministered to Elijah. But no one knew of this wonderful saint, till Anthony, who under a higher impulse visited and buried him, made him known to the world. After knocking in vain for more than an hour at the door of the hermit, who would receive the visits of beasts and reject those of men, he was admitted at last with a smiling face, and greeted with a holy kiss. Paul had sufficient curiosity left to ask the question, whether there were any more idolaters in the world, whether new houses were built in ancient cities and by whom the world was governed? During this interesting conversation, a large raven came gently flying and deposited a double portion of bread for the saint and his guest. “The Lord,” said Paul, “ever kind and merciful, has sent us a dinner. It is now sixty years since I have daily received half a loaf, but since thou hast come, Christ has doubled the supply for his soldiers.” After thanking the Giver, they sat down by the fountain; but now the question arose who should break the bread; the one urging the custom of hospitality, the other pleading the right of his friend as the elder. This question of monkish etiquette, which may have a moral significance, consumed nearly the whole day, and was settled at last by the compromise that both should seize the loaf at opposite ends, pull till it broke, and keep what remained in their hands. A drink from the fountain, and thanksgiving to God closed the meal. The day afterward Anthony returned to his cell, and told his two disciples: “Woe to me, a sinner, who have falsely pretended to be a monk. I have seen Elijah and John in the desert; I have seen St. Paul in paradise.” Soon afterward he paid St. Paul a second visit, but found him dead in his cave, with head erect and hands lifted up to heaven. He wrapped up the corpse, singing psalms and hymns, and buried him without a spade; for two lions came of their own accord, or rather from supernatural impulse, from the interior parts of the desert, laid down at his feet, wagging their tails, and moaning distressingly, and scratched a grave in the sand large enough for the body of the departed saint of the desert! Anthony returned with the coat of Paul, made of palm leaves, and wore it on the solemn days of Easter and Pentecost.

The learned Jerome wrote the life of Paul, some thirty years afterward, as it appears, on the authority of Anathas and Macarius, two disciples of Anthony. But he remarks, in the prologue, that many incredible things are said of him, which are not worthy of repetition. If he believed his story of the grave-digging lions, it is hard to imagine what was more credible and less worthy of repetition.

In this Paul we have an example, of a canonized saint, who lived ninety years unseen and unknown in the wilderness, beyond all fellowship with the visible church, without Bible, public worship, or sacraments, and so died, yet is supposed to have attained the highest grade of piety. How does this consist with the common doctrine of the Catholic church respecting the necessity and the operation of the means of grace? Augustine, blinded by the ascetic spirit of his age, says even, that anchorets, on their level of perfection, may dispense with the Bible. Certain it is, that this kind of perfection stands not in the Bible, but outside of it.

The proper founder of the hermit life, the one chiefly instrumental in giving it its prevalence, was St. Anthony of Egypt. He is the most celebrated, the most original, and the most venerable representative of this abnormal and eccentric sanctity, the “patriarch of the monks,” and the “childless father of an innumerable seed.”

Anthony sprang from a Christian and honorable Coptic family, and was born about 251, at Coma, on the borders of the Thebaid. Naturally quiet, contemplative, and reflective, he avoided the society of playmates, and despised all higher learning. He understood only his Coptic vernacular, and remained all his life ignorant of Grecian literature and secular science. But he diligently attended divine worship with his parents, and so carefully heard the Scripture lessons, that he retained them in memory. Memory was his library. He afterward made faithful, but only too literal use of single passages of Scripture, and began his discourse to the hermits with the very uncatholic-sounding declaration: “The holy Scriptures give us instruction enough.” In his eighteenth year, about 270, the death of his parents devolved on him the care of a younger sister and a considerable estate. Six months afterward he heard in the church, just as he was meditating on the apostles’ implicit following of Jesus, the word of the Lord to the rich young ruler: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” (Mat_19:21) This word was a voice of God, which determined his life. He divided his real estate, consisting of three hundred acres of fertile land, among the inhabitants of the village, and sold his personal property for the benefit of the poor, excepting a moderate reserve for the support of his sister. But when, soon afterward, he heard in the church the exhortation, “Take no thought for the morrow,” (Mat_6:34) he distributed the remnant to the poor, and intrusted his sister to a society of pious virgins. He visited her only once after — a fact characteristic of the ascetic depreciation of natural ties.

He then forsook the hamlet, and led an ascetic life in the neighborhood, praying constantly, according to the exhortation: “Pray without ceasing;” and also laboring, according to the maxim: “If any will not work, neither should he eat.” What he did not need for his slender support, he gave to the poor. He visited the neighboring ascetics, who were then already very plentiful in Egypt, to learn humbly and thankfully their several eminent virtues; from one, earnestness in prayer; from another, watchfulness; from a third, excellence in fasting; from a fourth, meekness; from all, love to Christ and to fellow men. Thus he made himself universally beloved, and came to be reverenced as a friend of God.

But to reach a still higher level of ascetic holiness, he retreated, after the year 285, further and further from the bosom and vicinity of the church, into solitude, and thus became the founder of an anchoretism strictly so called. At first he lived in a sepulchre; then for twenty years in the ruins of a castle; and last on Mount Colzim, some seven hours from the Red Sea, a three days’ journey east of the Nile, where an old cloister still preserves his name and memory.

In this solitude he prosecuted his ascetic practices with ever-increasing rigor. Their monotony was broken only by basket making, occasional visits, and battles with the devil. In fasting he attained a rare abstemiousness. His food consisted of bread and salt, sometimes dates; his drink, of water. Flesh and wine he never touched. He ate only once a day, generally after sunset, and, like the presbyter Isidore, was ashamed that an immortal spirit should need earthly nourishment. Often he fasted from two to five days. Friends, and wandering Saracens, who always had a certain reverence for the saints of the desert, brought him bread from time to time. But in the last years of his life, to render himself entirely independent of others, and to afford hospitality to travellers, he cultivated a small garden on the mountain, near a spring shaded by palms. Sometimes the wild beasts of the forest destroyed his modest harvest, till he drove them away forever with the expostulation: “Why do you injure me, who have never done you the slightest harm? Away with you all, in the name of the Lord, and never come into my neighborhood again.” He slept on bare ground, or at best on a pallet of straw; but often he watched the whole night through in prayer. The anointing of the body with oil he despised, and in later years never washed his feet; as if filthiness were an essential element of ascetic perfection. His whole wardrobe consisted of a hair shirt, a sheepskin, and a girdle. But notwithstanding all, he had a winning friendliness and cheerfulness in his face.

Conflicts with the devil and his hosts of demons were, as with other solitary saints, a prominent part of Anthony’s experience, and continued through all his life. The devil appeared to him in visions and dreams, or even in daylight, in all possible forms, now as a friend, now as a fascinating woman, now as a dragon, tempting him by reminding him of his former wealth, of his noble family, of the care due to his sister, by promises of wealth, honor, and renown, by exhibitions of the difficulty of virtue and the facility of vice, by unchaste thoughts and images, by terrible threatening of the dangers and punishments of the ascetic life. Once he struck the hermit so violently, Athanasius says, that a friend, who brought him bread, found him on the ground apparently dead. At another time he broke through the wall of his cave and filled the room with roaring lions, howling wolves, growling bears, fierce hyenas, crawling serpents and scorpions; but Anthony turned manfully toward the monsters, till a supernatural light broke in from the roof and dispersed them. His sermon, which he delivered to the hermits at their request, treats principally of these wars with demons, and gives also the key to the interpretation of them: “Fear not Satan and his angels. Christ has broken their power. The best weapon against them is faith and piety …. The presence of evil spirits reveals itself in perplexity, despondency, hatred of the ascetics, evil desires, fear of death …. They take the form answering to the spiritual state they find in us at the time. They are the reflex of our thoughts and fantasies. If thou art carnally minded, thou art their prey; but if thou rejoicest in the Lord and occupiest thyself with divine things, they are powerless …. The devil is afraid of fasting, of prayer, of humility and good works. His illusions soon vanish, when one arms himself with the sign of the cross.”

Only in exceptional cases did Anthony leave his solitude; and then he made a powerful impression on both Christians and heathens with his hairy dress and his emaciated, ghostlike form. In the year 311, during the persecution under Maximinus, he appeared in Alexandria in the hope of himself gaining the martyr’s crown. He visited the confessors in the mines and prisons, encouraged them before the tribunal, accompanied them to the scaffold; but no one ventured to lay hands on the saint of the wilderness. In the year 351, when a hundred years old, he showed himself for the second and last time in the metropolis of Egypt, to bear witness for the orthodox faith of his friend Athanasius against Arianism, and in a few days converted more heathens and heretics than had otherwise been gained in a whole year. He declared the Arian denial of the divinity of Christ worse than the venom of the serpent, and no better than heathenism which worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. He would have nothing to do with heretics, and warned his disciples against intercourse with them. Athanasius attended him to the gate of the city, where he cast out an evil spirit from a girl. An invitation to stay longer in Alexandria he declined, saying: “As a fish out of water, so a monk out of his solitude dies.” Imitating his example, the monks afterward forsook the wilderness in swarms whenever orthodoxy was in danger, and went in long processions with wax tapers and responsive singing through the streets, or appeared at the councils, to contend for the orthodox faith with all the energy of fanaticism, often even with physical force.

Though Anthony shunned the society of men, yet he was frequently visited in his solitude and resorted to for consolation and aid by Christians and heathens, by ascetics, sick, and needy, as a heaven-descended physician of Egypt for body and soul. He enjoined prayer, labor, and care of the poor, exhorted those at strife to the love of God, and healed the sick and demoniac with his prayer. Athanasius relates several miracles performed by him, the truth of which we leave undecided though they are far less incredible and absurd than many other monkish stories of that age. Anthony, his biographer assures us, never boasted when his prayer was heard, nor murmured when it was not, but in either case thanked God. He cautioned monks against overrating the gift of miracles, since it is not our work, but the grace of the Lord; and he reminds them of the word: “Rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” To Martianus, an officer, who urgently besought him to heal his possessed daughter, he said: “Man, why dost thou call on me? I am a man, as thou art. If thou believest, pray to God, and he will hear thee.” Martianus prayed, and on his return found his daughter whole.

Anthony distinguished himself above most of his countless disciples and successors, by his fresh originality of mind. Though uneducated and limited, he had sound sense and ready mother wit. Many of his striking answers and felicitous sentences have come down to us. When some heathen philosophers once visited him, he asked them: “Why do you give yourselves so much trouble to see a fool?” They explained, perhaps ironically, that they took him rather for a wise man. He replied: “If you take me for a fool, your labor is lost; but if I am a wise man, you should imitate me, and be Christians, as I am.” At another time, when taunted with his ignorance, he asked: “Which is older and better, mind or learning?” The mind, was the answer. “Then,” said the hermit, “the mind can do without learning.” “My book,” he remarked on a similar occasion, “is the whole creation, which lies open before me, and in which I can read the word of God as often as I will.” The blind church-teacher, Didymus, whom he met in Alexandria, he comforted with the words: “Trouble not thyself for the loss of the outward eye, with which even flies see; but rejoice in the possession of the spiritual eye, with which also angels behold the face of God, and receive his light.” Even the emperor Constantine, with his sons, wrote to him as a spiritual father, and begged an answer from him. The hermit at first would not so much as receive the letter, since, in any case, being unable to write, he could not answer it, and cared as little for the great of this world as Diogenes for Alexander. When told that the emperor was a Christian, he dictated the answer: “Happy thou, that thou worshippest Christ. Be not proud of thy earthly power. Think of the future judgment, and know that Christ is the only true and eternal king. Practise justice and love for men, and care for the poor.” To his disciples he said on this occasion: “Wonder not that the emperor writes to me, for he is a man. Wonder much more that God has written the law for man, and has spoken to us by his own Son.”

During the last years of his life the patriarch of monasticism withdrew as much as possible from the sight of visitors, but allowed two disciples to live with him, and to take care of him in his infirm old age. When he felt his end approaching, he commanded them not to embalm his body, according to the Egyptian custom, but to bury it in the earth, and to keep the spot of his interment secret. One of his two sheepskins he bequeathed to the bishop Serapion, the other, with his underclothing, to Athanasius, who had once given it to him new, and now received it back worn out. What became of the robe woven from palm leaves, which, according to Jerome, he had inherited from Paul of Thebes, and wore at Easter and Pentecost, Athanasius does not tell us. After this disposition of his property, Anthony said to his disciples: “Children, farewell; for Anthony goes away, and will be no more with you.” With these words he stretched out his feet and expired with a smiling face, in the year 356, a hundred and five years old. His grave remained for centuries unknown. His last will was thus a protest against the worship of saints and relics, which, however, it nevertheless greatly helped to promote. Under Justinian, in 561, his bones, as the Bollandists and Butler minutely relate, were miraculously discovered, brought to Alexandria, then to Constantinople, and at last to Vienne in South France, and in the eleventh century, during the raging of an epidemic disease, the so-called “holy fire,” or “St. Anthony’s fire,” they are said to have performed great wonders.

Athanasius, the greatest man of the Nicene age, concludes his biography of his friend with this sketch of his character: “From this short narrative you may judge how great a man Anthony was, who persevered in the ascetic life from youth to the highest age. In his advanced age he never allowed himself better food, nor change of raiment, nor did he even wash his feet. Yet he continued healthy in all his parts. His eyesight was clear to the end, and his teeth sound, though by long use worn to mere stumps. He retained also the perfect use of his hands and feet, and was more robust and vigorous than those who are accustomed to change of food and clothing and to washing. His fame spread from his remote dwelling on the lone mountain over the whole Roman empire. What gave him his renown, was not learning nor worldly wisdom, nor human art, but alone his piety toward God …. And let all the brethren know, that the Lord will not only take holy monks to heaven, but give them celebrity in all the earth, however deep they may bury themselves in the wilderness.”

The whole Nicene age venerated in Anthony a model saint. This fact brings out most characteristically the vast difference between the ancient and the modern, the old Catholic and the evangelical Protestant conception of the nature of the Christian religion. The specifically Christian element in the life of Anthony, especially as measured by the Pauline standard, is very small. Nevertheless we can but admire the needy magnificence, the simple, rude grandeur of this hermit sanctity even in its aberration. Anthony concealed under his sheepskin a childlike humility, an amiable simplicity, a rare energy of will, and a glowing love to God, which maintained itself for almost ninety years in the absence of all the comforts and pleasures of natural life, and triumphed over all the temptations of the flesh. By piety alone, without the help of education or learning, he became one of the most remarkable and influential men in the history of the ancient church. Even heathen contemporaries could not withhold from him their reverence, and the celebrated philosopher Synesius, afterward a bishop, before his conversion reckoned Anthony among those rare men, in whom flashes of thought take the place of reasonings, and natural power of mind makes schooling needless.


36. Spread of Anchoretism. Hilarion

The example of Anthony acted like magic upon his generation, and his biography by Athanasius, which was soon translated also into Latin, was a tract for the times. Chrysostom recommended it to all as instructive and edifying reading. Even Augustine, the most evangelical of the fathers, was powerfully affected by the reading of it in his decisive religious struggle, and was decided by it in his entire renunciation of the world.

In a short time, still in the lifetime of Anthony, the deserts of Egypt, from Nitria, south of Alexandria, and the wilderness of Scetis, to Libya and the Thebaid, were peopled with anchorets and studded with cells. A mania for monasticism possessed Christendom, and seized the people of all classes like an epidemic. As martyrdom had formerly been, so now monasticism was, the quickest and surest way to renown upon earth and to eternal reward in heaven. This prospect, with which Athanasius concludes his life of Anthony, abundantly recompensed all self-denial and mightily stimulated pious ambition. The consistent recluse must continually increase his seclusion. No desert was too scorching, no rock too forbidding, no cliff too steep, no cave too dismal for the feet of these world-hating and man-shunning enthusiasts. Nothing was more common than to see from two to five hundred monks under the same abbot. It has been supposed, that in Egypt the number of anchorets and cenobites equalled the population of the cities. The natural contrast between the desert and the fertile valley of the Nile, was reflected in the moral contrast between the monastic life and the world.

The elder Macarius introduced the hermit life in the frightful desert of Scetis; Amun or Ammon, on the Nitrian mountain. The latter was married, but persuaded his bride, immediately after the nuptials, to live with him in the strictest abstinence. Before the end of the fourth century there were in Nitria alone, according to Sozomen, five thousand monks, who lived mostly in separate cells or laurae, and never spoke with one another except on Saturday and Sunday, when they assembled for common worship.

From Egypt the solitary life spread to the neighboring countries.

Hilarion, whose life Jerome has written graphically and at large, established it in the wilderness of Gaza, in Palestine and Syria. This saint attained among the anchorets of the fourth century an eminence second only to Anthony. He was the son of pagan parents, and grew up “as a rose among thorns.” He went to school in Alexandria, diligently attended church, and avoided the circus, the gladiatorial shows, and the theatre. He afterward lived two months with St. Anthony, and became his most celebrated disciple. After the death of his parents, he distributed his inheritance among his brothers and the poor, and reserved nothing, fearing the example of Ananias and Sapphira, and remembering the word of Christ: “Whosoever he be of you, that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luk_14:33) He then retired into the wilderness of Gaza, which was inhabited only by robbers and assassins; battled, like Anthony, with obscene dreams and other temptations of the devil; and so reduced his body — the “ass,” which ought to have not barley, but chaff — with fastings and night watchings, that, while yet a youth of twenty years, he looked almost like a skeleton. He never ate before sunset. Prayers, psalm singing, Bible recitations, and basket weaving were his employment. His cell was only five feet high, lower than his own stature, and more like a sepulchre than a dwelling. He slept on the ground. He cut his hair only once a year, at Easter. The fame of his sanctity gradually attracted hosts of admirers (once, ten thousand), so that he had to change his residence several times, and retired to Sicily, then to Dalmatia, and at last to the island of Cyprus, where he died in 371, in his eightieth year. His legacy, a book of the Gospels and a rude mantle, he made to his friend Hesychius, who took his corpse home to Palestine, and deposited it in the cloister of Majumas. The Cyprians consoled themselves over their loss, with the thought that they possessed the spirit of the saint. Jerome ascribes to him all manner of visions and miraculous cures.


37. St. Symeon and the Pillar Saints

Respecting St. Symeon, or Simeon Stylites, we have accounts from three contemporaries and eye witnesses, Anthony, Cosmas, and especially Theodoret (Hist. Relig. c. 26). The latter composed his narrative sixteen years before the death the saint.

Evagrius: H. E. i. c. 13. The Acta Sanctorum and Butler, sub Jan. 5. Uhlemann: Symeon, der erste Säulenheilige in Syrien. Leipz. 1846. (Comp. also the fine poem of A. Tennyson: St. Symeon Stylites, a monologue in which S. relates his own experience.)

It is unnecessary to recount the lives of other such anchorets; since the same features, even to unimportant details, repeat themselves in all. But in the fifth century a new and quite original path was broken by Symeon, the father of the Stylites or pillar saints, who spent long years, day and night, summer and winter, rain and sunshine, frost and heat, standing on high, unsheltered pillars, in prayer and penances, and made the way to heaven for themselves so passing hard, that one knows not whether to wonder at their unexampled self-denial, or to pity their ignorance of the gospel salvation. On this giddy height the anchoretic asceticism reached its completion.

St. Symeon the Stylite, originally a shepherd on the borders of Syria and Cilicia, when a boy of thirteen years, was powerfully affected by the beatitudes, which he heard read in the church, and betook himself to a cloister. He lay several days, without eating or drinking, before the threshold, and begged to be admitted as the meanest servant of the house. He accustomed himself to eat only once a week, on Sunday. During Lent he even went through the whole forty days without any food; a fact almost incredible even for a tropical climate. The first attempt of this kind brought him to the verge of death; but his constitution conformed itself, and when Theodoret visited him, he had solemnized six and twenty Lent seasons by total abstinence, and thus surpassed Moses, Elias, and even Christ, who never fasted so but once. Another of his extraordinary inflections was to lace his body so tightly that the cord pressed through to the bones, and could be cut off only with the most terrible pains. This occasioned his dismissal from the cloister. He afterward spent some time as a hermit upon a mountain, with an iron chain upon his feet, and was visited there by admiring and curious throngs. When this failed to satisfy him, he invented, in 423, a new sort of holiness, and lived, some two days’ journey (forty miles) east of Antioch, for six and thirty years, until his death, upon a pillar, which at the last was nearly forty cubits high; for the pillar was raised in proportion as he approached heaven and perfection. Here he could never lie nor sit, but only stand, or lean upon a post (probably a banister), or devoutly bow; in which last posture he almost touched his feet with his head — so flexible had his back been made by fasting. A spectator once counted in one day no less than twelve hundred and forty-four such genuflexions of the saint before the Almighty, and then gave up counting. He wore a covering of the skins of beasts, and a chain about his neck. Even the holy sacrament he took upon his pillar. There St. Symeon stood many long and weary days, and weeks, and months, and years, exposed to the scorching sun, the drenching rain, the crackling frost, the howling storm, living a life of daily death and martyrdom, groaning under the load of sin, never attaining to the true comfort and peace of soul which is derived from a child-like trust in Christ’s infinite merits, earnestly striving after a superhuman holiness, and looking to a glorious reward in heaven, and immortal fame on earth. Alfred Tennyson makes him graphically describe his experience in a monologue to God:

‘Although I be the basest of mankind,

From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin,

Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet

For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,

I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold

Of saintdom, and to clamor, moan, and sob

Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer:

Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin.

*   *   *   *   *   *

Oh take the meaning, Lord: I do not breathe,

Not whisper, any murmur of complaint.

Pain heaped ten hundredfold to this, were still

Less burthen, by ten hundredfold, to bear,

Than were those lead-like tons of sin, that crushed

My spirit flat before Thee.

O Lord, Lord,

Thou knowest I bore this better at the first,

For I was strong and hale of body then;

And though my teeth, which now are dropt away,

Would chatter with the cold, and all my beard

Was tagged with icy fringes in the moon,

I drowned the whoopings of the owl with sound

Of pious hymns and psalms, and sometimes saw

An angel stand and watch me, as I sang.

Now am I feeble grown: my end draws nigh — 

I hope my end draws nigh: half deaf I am,

So that I scarce can hear the people hum

About the column’s base; and almost blind,

And scarce can recognize the fields I know.

And both my thighs are rotted with the dew,

Yet cease I not to clamor and to cry,

While my stiff spine can hold my weary head,

Till all my limbs drop piecemeal from the stone:

Have mercy, mercy; take away my sin.”

Yet Symeon was not only concerned about his own salvation. People streamed from afar to witness this standing wonder of the age. He spoke to all classes with the same friendliness, mildness, and love; only women he never suffered to come within the wall which surrounded his pillar. From this original pulpit, as a mediator between heaven and earth, he preached repentance twice a day to the astonished spectators, settled controversies, vindicated the orthodox faith, extorted laws even from an emperor, healed the sick, wrought miracles, and converted thousands of heathen Ishmaelites, Iberians, Armenians, and Persians to Christianity, or at least to the Christian name. All this the celebrated Theodoret relates as an eyewitness during the lifetime of the saint. He terms him the great wonder of the world, and compares him to a candle on a candlestick, and to the sun itself, which sheds its rays on every side. He asks the objector to this mode of life to consider that God often uses very striking means to arouse the negligent, as the history of the prophets shows; (Isa_20:2; Jer_1:17; Jer_28:12; Hos_1:2; Hos_3:1; Eze_4:4; Eze_7:5) and concludes his narrative with the remark: “Should the saint live longer, he may do yet greater wonders, for he is a universal ornament and honor of religion.”

He died in 459, in the sixty-ninth year of his age, of a long-concealed and loathsome ulcer on his leg; and his body was brought in solemn procession to the metropolitan church of Antioch.

Even before his death, Symeon enjoyed the unbounded admiration of Christians and heathens, of the common people, of the kings of Persia, and of the emperors Theodosius II., Leo, and Marcian, who begged his blessing and his counsel. No wonder, that, with all his renowned humility, he had to struggle with the temptations of spiritual pride. Once an angel appeared to him in a vision, with a chariot of fire, to convey him, like Elijah, to heaven, because the blessed spirits longed for him. He was already stepping into the chariot with his right foot, which on this occasion he sprained (as Jacob his thigh), when the phantom of Satan was chased away by the sign of the cross. Perhaps this incident, which the Acta Sanctorum gives, was afterward invented, to account for his sore, and to illustrate the danger of self-conceit. Hence also the pious monk Nilus, with good reason, reminded the ostentatious pillar saints of the proverb: “He that exalteth himself shall be abased.”

Of the later stylites the most distinguished were Daniel († 490), in the vicinity of Constantinople, and Symeon the younger († 592), in Syria. The latter is said to have spent sixty-eight years on a pillar. In the East this form of sanctity perpetuated itself, though only in exceptional cases, down to the twelfth century. The West, so far as we know, affords but one example of a stylite, who, according to Gregory of Tours, lived a long time on a pillar near Treves, but came down at the command of the bishop, and entered a neighboring cloister.


38. Pachomius and the Cloister life

On St. Pachomius we have a biography composed soon after his death by a monk of Tabennae, and scattered accounts in Palladius, Jerome (Regula Pachomii, Latine reddita, Opp. Hieron. ed. Vallarsi, tom. ii. p. 50 sqq.), Rufinus, Sozomen, etc. Comp. Tillemont, tom. vii. p. 167-235, and the Vit. Sanct. sub Maj. 14.

Though the strictly solitary life long continued in use, and to this day appears here and there in the Greek and Roman churches, yet from the middle of the fourth century monasticism began to assume in general the form of the cloister life, as incurring less risk, being available for both sexes, and being profitable to the church. Anthony himself gave warning, as we have already observed, against the danger of entire isolation, by referring to the proverb: “Woe to him that is alone.” To many of the most eminent ascetics anchoretism was a stepping stone to the coenobite life; to others it was the goal of coenobitism, and the last and highest round on the ladder of perfection.

The founder of this social monachism was Pachomius, a contemporary of Anthony, like him an Egyptian, and little below him in renown among the ancients. He was born about 292, of heathen parents, in the Upper Thebaid, served as a soldier in the army of the tyrant Maximin on the expedition against Constantine and Licinius, and was, with his comrades, so kindly treated by the Christians at Thebes, that he was won to the Christian faith, and, after his discharge from the military service, received baptism. Then, in 313, he visited the aged hermit Palemon, to learn from him the way to perfection. The saint showed him the difficulties of the anchorite life: “Many,” said he, “have come hither from disgust with the world, and had no perseverance. Remember, my son, my food consists only of bread and salt; I drink no wine, take no oil, spend half the night awake, singing psalms and meditating on the Scriptures, and sometimes pass the whole night without sleep.” Pachomius was astounded, but not discouraged, and spent several years with this man as a pupil.

In the year 325 he was directed by an angel, in a vision, to establish on the island of Tabennae, in the Nile, in Upper Egypt, a society of monks, which in a short time became so strong that even before his death (348) it numbered eight or nine cloisters in the Thebaid, and three thousand (according to some, seven thousand), and, a century later, fifty thousand members. The mode of life was fixed by a strict rule of Pachomius, which, according to a later legend, an angel communicated to him, and which Jerome translated into Latin. The formal reception into the society was preceded by a three-years’ probation. Rigid vows were not yet enjoined. With spiritual exercises manual labor was united, agriculture, boat building, basketmaking, mat and coverlet weaving, by which the monks not only earned their own living, but also supported the poor and the sick. They were divided, according to the grade of their ascetic piety, into four and twenty classes, named by the letters of the Greek alphabet. They lived three in a cell. They ate in common, but in strict silence, and with the face covered. They made known their wants by signs. The sick were treated with special care. On Saturday and Sunday they partook of the communion. Pachomius, as abbot, or archimandrite, took the oversight of the whole; each cloister having a separate superior and a steward.

Pachomius also established a cloister of nuns for his sister, whom he never admitted to his presence when she would visit him, sending her word that she should be content to know that he was still alive. In like manner, the sister of Anthony and the wife of Ammon became centres of female cloister life, which spread with great rapidity.

Pachomius, after his conversion never ate a full meal, and for fifteen years slept sitting on a stone. Tradition ascribes to him all sorts of miracles, even the gift of tongues and perfect dominion over nature, so that he trod without harm on serpents and scorpions, and crossed the Nile on the backs of crocodiles! Soon after Pachomius, fifty monasteries arose on the Nitrian mountain, in no respect inferior to those in the Thebaid. They maintained seven bakeries for the benefit of the anchorets in the neighboring Libyan desert, and gave attention also, at least in later days, to theological studies; as the valuable manuscripts recently discovered there evince.

From Egypt the cloister life spread with the rapidity of the irresistible spirit of the age, over the entire Christian East. The most eminent fathers of the Greek church were either themselves monks for a time, or at all events friends and patrons of monasticism. Ephraim propagated it in Mesopotamia; Eustathius of Sebaste in Armenia and Paphlagonia; Basil the Great in Pontus and Cappadocia. The latter provided his monasteries and nunneries with clergy, and gave them an improved rule, which, before his death (379), was accepted by some eighty thousand monks, and translated by Rufinus into Latin. He sought to unite the virtues of the anchorite and coenobite life, and to make the institution useful to the church by promoting the education of youth, and also (as Athanasius designed before him) by combating Arianism among the people. He and his friend Gregory Nazianzen were the first to unite scientific theological studies with the ascetic exercises of solitude. Chrysostom wrote three books in praise and vindication of the monastic life, and exhibits it in general in its noblest aspect.

In the beginning of the fifth century, Eastern monasticism was most worthily represented by the elder Nilus of Sinai, a pupil and venerator of Chrysostom, and a copious ascetic writer, who retired with his son from a high civil office in Constantinople to Mount Sinai, while his wife, with a daughter, travelled to an Egyptian cloister; and by the abbot Isidore, of Pelusium, on the principal eastern mouth of the Nile, from whom we have two thousand epistles. The writings of these two men show a rich spiritual experience, and an extended and fertile field of labor and usefulness in their age and generation.


39. Fanatical and Heretical Monastic Societies in the East

Acta Concil. Gangrenensis, in Mansi, ii. 1095 sqq. Epiphan.: Haer. 70, 75 and 80. Socr.: H. E. ii. 43. Sozom.: iv. 24. Theodor.: H. E. iv. 9, 10; Fab. haer. iv. 10, 11. Comp. Neander: iii. p. 468 sqq. (ed. Torrey, ii. 238 sqq.).

Monasticism generally adhered closely to the orthodox faith of the church. The friendship between Athanasius, the father of orthodoxy, and Anthony, the father of monachism, is on this point a classical fact. But Nestorianism also, and Eutychianism, Monophysitism, Pelagianism, and other heresies, proceeded from monks, and found in monks their most vigorous advocates. And the monastic enthusiasm ran also into ascetic heresies of its own, which we must notice here.

1. The Eustathians, so named from Eustathius, bishop of Sebaste and friend of Basil, founder of monasticism in Armenia, Pontus, and Paphlagonia. This sect asserted that marriage debarred from salvation and incapacitated for the clerical office. For this and other extravagances it was condemned by a council at Gangra in Paphlagonia (between 360 and 370), and gradually died out.

2. The Audians held similar principles. Their founder, Audius, or Udo, a layman of Syria, charged the clergy of his day with immorality, especially avarice and extravagance. After much persecution, which he bore patiently, he forsook the church, with his friends, among whom were some bishops and priests, and, about 330, founded a rigid monastic sect in Scythia, which subsisted perhaps a hundred years. They were Quartodecimans in the practice of Easter, observing it on the 14th of Nisan, according to Jewish fashion. Epiphanius speaks favorably of their exemplary but severely ascetic life.

3. The Euchites or Messalians, also called Enthusiasts, were roaming mendicant monks in Mesopotamia and Syria (dating from 360), who conceived the Christian life as an unintermitted prayer, despised all physical labor, the moral law, and the sacraments, and boasted themselves perfect. They taught, that every man brings an evil demon with him into the world, which can only be driven away by prayer; then the Holy Ghost comes into the soul, liberates it from all the bonds of sense, and raises it above the need of instruction and the means of grace. The gospel history they declared a mere allegory. But they concealed their pantheistic mysticism and antinomianism under external conformity to the Catholic church. When their principles, toward the end of the fourth century, became known, the persecution of both the ecclesiastical and the civil authority fell upon them. Yet they perpetuated themselves to the seventh century, and reappeared in the Euchites and Bogomiles of the middle age.


40. Monasticism in the West. Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Martin of Tours

I. Ambrosius: De Virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem suam libri tres, written about 377 (in the Benedictine edition of Ambr. Opera, tom. ii. p. 145-183). Augustinus (a.d. 400): De Opere Monachorum liber unus (in the Bened. ed., tom. vi. p. 476-504). Sulpitius Severus (about a.d. 403): Dialogi tres (de virtutibus monachorum orientalium et de virtutibus B. Martini); and De Vita Beati Martini (both in the Bibliotheca Maxima vet. Patrum, tom. vi. p. 349 sqq., and better in Gallandi’s Bibliotheca vet. Patrum, tom. viii. p. 392 sqq.).

II. J. Mabillon: Observat. de monachis in occidente ante Benedictum (Praef. in Acta Sanct. Ord. Bened.). R. H. Milman: Hist. of Latin Christianity, Lond. 1854, vol. i. ch. vi. p. 409-426: “Western Monasticism.” Count de Montalembert: The Monks of the West, Engl. translation, vol. i. p. 379 sqq.

In the Latin church, in virtue partly of the climate, partly of the national character, the monastic life took a much milder form, but assumed greater variety, and found a larger field of usefulness than in the Greek. It produced no pillar saints, nor other such excesses of ascetic heroism, but was more practical instead, and an important instrument for the cultivation of the soil and the diffusion of Christianity and civilization among the barbarians. Exclusive contemplation was exchanged for alternate contemplation and labor. “A working monk,” says Cassian, “is plagued by one devil, an inactive monk by a host.” Yet it must not be forgotten that the most eminent representatives of the Eastern monasticism recommended manual labor and studies; and that the Eastern monks took a very lively, often rude and stormy part in theological controversies. And on the other hand, there were Western monks who, like Martin of Tours, regarded labor as disturbing contemplation.

Athanasius, the guest, the disciple, and subsequently the biographer and eulogist of St. Anthony, brought the first intelligence of monasticism to the West, and astounded the civilized and effeminate Romans with two live representatives of the semi-barbarous desert-sanctity of Egypt, who accompanied him in his exile in 340. The one, Ammonius, was so abstracted from the world that he disdained to visit any of the wonders of the great city, except the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul; while the other, Isidore, attracted attention by his amiable simplicity. The phenomenon excited at first disgust and contempt, but soon admiration and imitation, especially among women, and among the decimated ranks of the ancient Roman nobility. The impression of the first visit was afterward strengthened by two other visits of Athanasius to Rome, and especially by his biography of Anthony, which immediately acquired the popularity and authority of a monastic gospel. Many went to Egypt and Palestine, to devote themselves there to the new mode of life; and for the sake of such, Jerome afterward translated the rule of Pachomius into Latin. Others founded cloisters in the neighborhood of Rome, or on the ruins of the ancient temples and the forum, and the frugal number of the heathen vestals was soon cast into the shade by whole hosts of Christian virgins. From Rome, monasticism gradually spread over all Italy and the isles of the Mediterranean, even to the rugged rocks of the Gorgon and the Capraja, where the hermits, in voluntary exile from the world, took the place of the criminals and political victims whom the justice or tyranny and jealousy of the emperors had been accustomed to banish thither.

Ambrose, whose sister, Marcellina, was among the first Roman nuns, established a monastery in Milan, one of the first in Italy, and with the warmest zeal encouraged celibacy even against the will of parents; insomuch that the mothers of Milan kept their daughters out of the way of his preaching; whilst from other quarters, even from Mauritania, virgins flocked to him to be consecrated to the solitary life. The coasts and small islands of Italy were gradually studded with cloisters.

Augustine, whose evangelical principles of the free grace of God as the only ground of salvation and peace were essentially inconsistent with the more Pelagian theory of the monastic life, nevertheless went with the then reigning spirit of the church in this respect, and led, with his clergy, a monk-like life in voluntary poverty and celibacy, after the pattern, as he thought, of the primitive church of Jerusalem; but with all his zealous commendation he could obtain favor for monasticism in North Africa only among the liberated slaves and the lower classes. He viewed it in its noblest aspect, as a life of undivided surrender to God, and undisturbed occupation with spiritual and eternal things. But he acknowledged also its abuses; he distinctly condemned the vagrant, begging monks, like the Circumcelliones and Gyrovagi, and wrote a book (De opere monachorum) against the monastic aversion to labor.

Monasticism was planted in Gaul by Martin of Tours, whose life and miracles were described in fluent, pleasing language by his disciple, Sulpitius Severus, a few years after his death. This celebrated saint, the patron of fields, was born in Pannonia (Hungary), of pagan parents. He was educated in Italy, and served three years, against his will, as a soldier under Constantius and Julian the Apostate. Even at that time he showed an uncommon degree of temperance, humility, and love. He often cleaned his servant’s shoes, and once cut his only cloak in two with his sword, to clothe a naked beggar with half; and the next night he saw Christ in a dream with the half cloak, and plainly heard him say to the angels: “Behold, Martin, who is yet only a catechumen, hath clothed me.” He was baptized in his eighteenth year; converted his mother; lived as a hermit in Italy; afterward built a monastery in the vicinity of Poictiers (the first in France); destroyed many idol temples, and won great renown as a saint and a worker of miracles. About the year 370 he was unanimously elected by the people, against his wish, bishop of Tours on the Loire, but in his episcopal office maintained his strict monastic mode of life, and established a monastery beyond the Loire, where he was soon surrounded with eighty monks. He had little education, but a natural eloquence, much spiritual experience, and unwearied zeal. Sulpitius Severus places him above all the Eastern monks of whom he knew, and declares his merit to be beyond all expression. “Not an hour passed,” says he, “in which Martin did not pray …. No one ever saw him angry, or gloomy, or merry. Ever the same, with a countenance full of heavenly serenity, he seemed to be raised above the infirmities of man. There was nothing in his mouth but Christ; nothing in his heart but piety, peace, and sympathy. He used to weep for the sins of his enemies, who reviled him with poisoned tongues when he was absent and did them no harm …. Yet he had very few persecutors, except among the bishops.” The biographer ascribes to him wondrous conflicts with the devil, whom he imagined he saw bodily and tangibly present in all possible shapes. He tells also of visions, miraculous cures, and even, what no oriental anchoret could boast, three instances of restoration of the dead to life, two before and one after his accession to the bishopric; and he assures us that he has omitted the greater part of the miracles which had come to his ears, lest he should weary the reader; but he several times intimates that these were by no means universally credited, even by monks of the same cloister. His piety was characterized by a union of monastic humility with clerical arrogance. At a supper at the court of the tyrannical emperor Maximus in Trier, he handed the goblet of wine, after he himself had drunk of it, first to his presbyter, thus giving him precedence of the emperor. The empress on this occasion showed him an idolatrous veneration, even preparing the meal, laying the cloth, and standing as a servant before him, like Martha before the Lord. More to the bishop’s honor was his protest against the execution of the Priscillianists in Treves. Martin died in 397 or 400: his funeral was attended by two thousand monks, besides many nuns and a great multitude of people; and his grave became one of the most frequented centres of pilgrimage in France.

In Southern Gaul, monasticism spread with equal rapidity. John Cassian, an ascetic writer and a Semipelagian († 432), founded two cloisters in Massilia (Marseilles), where literary studies also were carried on; and Honoratus (after 426, bishop of Arles) established the cloister of St. Honoratus on the island of Lerina.