Vol. 3, Chapter IV. The Rise and Progress of Monasticism


1. Greek

Socrates: Hist. Eccles. lib. iv. cap. 23 sqq. Sozomen: H. E. l. i. c. 12-14; iii. 14; vi. 28-34. Palladius (first a monk and disciple of the younger Macarius, then bishop of Helenopolis in Bithynia, ordained by Chrysostom; † 431): Historia Lausiaca (Ἱστορία πρὸς Λαῦσον, a court officer under Theodosius II, to whom the work was dedicated), composed about 421, with enthusiastic admiration, from personal acquaintance, of the most celebrated contemporaneous ascetics of Egypt. Theodoret († 457): Historia religiosa, seu ascetica vivendi ratio (φιλόθεος ἱστορία), biographies of thirty Oriental anchorets and monks, for the most part from personal observation. Nilus the Elder (an anchoret on Mt. Sinai, † about 450): De vita ascetica, De exercitatione monastica, Epistolae 355, and other writings.


2. Latin

Rufinus († 410): Histor. Eremitica, S. Vitae Patrum. Sulpicius Severus (about 400): Dialogi III. (the first dialogue contains a lively and entertaining account of the Egyptian monks, whom he visited; the two others relate to Martin of Tours). Cassianus († 432): Institutiones coenobiales, and Collationes Patrum (spiritual conversations of eastern monks).

Also the ascetic writings of Athanasius (Vita Antonii), Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Nilus, Isidore of Pelusium, among the Greek; Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome (his Lives of anchorets, and his letters), Cassiodorus, and Gregory the Great, among the Latin fathers.


Later Literature

L. Holstenius (born at Hamburg 1596, a Protest., then a Romanist convert, and librarian of the Vatican): Codex regularum monastic., first Rom. 1661; then, enlarged, Par. and Augsb. in 6 vols. fol. The older Greek Menologia (μηνολόγια), and Menaea (μηναῖα), and the Latin Calendaria and Martyrologia, i.e. church calendars or indices of memorial days (days of the earthly death and heavenly birth) of the saints, with short biographical notices for liturgical use. P. Herbert Rosweyde (Jesuit): Vitae Patrum, sive Historiae Eremiticae, libri x. Antw. 1628. Acta Sanctorum, quotquot toto orbe coluntur, Antw. 1643-1786, 53 vols. fol. (begun by the Jesuit Bollandus, continued by several scholars of his order, called Bollandists, down to the 11th Oct. in the calendar of saints’ days, and resumed in 1845, after long interruption, by Theiner and others). D’achery and Mabillon (Benedictines): Acta Sanctorum ordinis S. Benedicti, Par. 1668-1701, 9 vols. fol. (to 1100). Pet. Helyot (Franciscan): Histoire des ordres monastiques religieux et militaires, Par. 1714-’19, 8 vols. 4to. Alban Butler (R.C.): The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other principal Saints (arranged according to the Catholic calendar, and completed to the 31st Dec.), first 1745; often since (best ed. Lond. 1812-’13) in 12 vols.; another, Baltimore, 1844, in 4 vols). Gibbon: Chap. xxxvii. (Origin, Progress, and Effects of Monastic Life; very unfavorable, and written in lofty philosophical contempt). Henrion (R.C.): Histoire des ordres religieux, Par. 1835 (deutsch bearbeitet von S. Fehr, Tüb. 1845, 2 vols.). F. v. Biedenfeld: Ursprung u. s. w. sämmtlicher Mönchsorden im Orient u. Occident, Weimar, 1837, 3 vols. Schmidt (R.C.): Die Mönchs-, Nonnen-, u. geistlichen Ritterorden nebst Ordensregeln u. Abbildungen., Augsb. 1838, sqq. H. H. Milman (Anglican): History of Ancient Christianity, 1844, book iii. ch. 11. H. Ruffner (Presbyterian): The Fathers of the Desert, New York, 1850, 2 vols. (full of curious information, in popular form). Count de Montalembert (R.C.): Les Moines d’Occident depuis St. Bénoit jusqu’à St. Bernard, Par. 1860, sqq. (to embrace 6 vols.); transl. into English: The Monks of the West, etc., Edinb. and Lond. 1861, in 2 vols. (vol. i. gives the history of monasticism before St. Benedict, vol. ii. is mainly devoted to St. Benedict; eloquently eulogistic of, and apologetic for, monasticism). Otto Zöckler: Kritische Geschichte der Askese. Frankf. a. M. 1863. Comp. also the relevant sections of Tillemont, Fleury, Schröckh (vols. v. and viii.), Neander, and Gieseler.


28. Origin of Christian Monasticism. Comparison with Other Forms of Asceticism

Hospinian: De origine et progressu monachatus, l. vi., Tig. 1588, and enlarged, Genev. 1669, fol. J. A. Möhler (R.C.): Geschichte des Mönchthums in der Zeit seiner Entstehung u. ersten Ausbildung, 1836 (in his collected works, Regensb. vol. ii. p. 165 sqq.). Isaac Taylor (Independent): Ancient Christianity, Lond. 1844, vol. i. p. 299 sqq. A. Vogel: Ueber das Mönchthum, Berl. 1858 (in the “Deutsche Zeitschrift für christl. Wissenschaft,” etc.). P. Schaff: Ueber den Ursprung und Charakter des Mönchthums (in Dorner’s, etc. “Jahrbücher für deutsche Theol.,” 1861, p. 555 ff.). J. Cropp: Origenes et causae monachatus. Gott. 1863. H. Weingarten: Der Ursprung des Mönchthums im nachconstantinischen Zeitalter. Gotha, 1877. See also his art. in Herzog2, x. 758 sqq. Ad. Harnack: Das Mönchthum, seine Ideale und seine Geschichte. Giessen, 1882. — Comp. vol. ii. ch. ix.

In the beginning of the fourth century monasticism appears in the history of the church, and thenceforth occupies a distinguished place. Beginning in Egypt, it spread in an irresistible tide over the East and the West, continued to be the chief repository of the Christian life down to the times of the Reformation, and still remains in the Greek and Roman churches an indispensable institution and the most productive seminary of saints, priests, and missionaries.

With the ascetic tendency in general, monasticism in particular is found by no means only in the Christian church, but in other religions, both before and after Christ, especially in the East. It proceeds from religious seriousness, enthusiasm, and ambition; from a sense of the vanity of the world, and an inclination of noble souls toward solitude, contemplation, and freedom from the bonds of the flesh and the temptations of the world; but it gives this tendency an undue predominance over the social, practical, and world-reforming spirit of religion. Among the Hindoos the ascetic system may be traced back almost to the time of Moses, certainly beyond Alexander the Great, who found it there in full force, and substantially with the same characteristics which it presents at the present day. Let us consider it a few moments.

The Vedas, portions of which date from the fifteenth century before Christ, the Laws of Menu, which were completed before the rise of Buddhism, that is, six or seven centuries before our era, and the numerous other sacred books of the Indian religion, enjoin by example and precept entire abstraction of thought, seclusion from the world, and a variety of penitential and meritorious acts of self-mortification, by which the devotee assumes a proud superiority over the vulgar herd of mortals, and is absorbed at last into the divine fountain of all being. The ascetic system is essential alike to Brahmanism and Buddhism, the two opposite and yet cognate branches of the Indian religion, which in many respects are similarly related to each other as Judaism is to Christianity, or also as Romanism to Protestantism. Buddhism is a later reformation of Brahmanism; it dates probably from the sixth century before Christ (according to other accounts much earlier), and, although subsequently expelled by the Brahmins from Hindostan, it embraces more followers than any other heathen religion, since it rules in Farther India, nearly all the Indian islands, Japan, Thibet, a great part of China and Central Asia to the borders of Siberia. But the two religions start from opposite principles. Brahmanic asceticism proceeds from a pantheistic view of the world, the Buddhistic from an atheistic and nihilistic, yet very earnest view; the one if; controlled by the idea of the absolute but abstract unity and a feeling of contempt of the world, the other by the idea of the absolute but unreal variety and a feeling of deep grief over the emptiness and nothingness of all existence; the one is predominantly objective, positive, and idealistic, the other more subjective, negative, and realistic; the one aims at an absorption into the universal spirit of Brahm, the other consistently at an absorption into nonentity, if it be true that Buddhism starts from an atheistic rather than a pantheistic or dualistic basis. “Brahmanism” — says a modern writer on the subject — “looks back to the beginning, Buddhism to the end; the former loves cosmogony, the latter eschatology. Both reject the existing world; the Brahman despises it, because he contrasts it with the higher being of Brahma, the Buddhist bewails it because of its unrealness; the former sees God in all, the other emptiness in all.” Yet as all extremes meet, the abstract all-entity of Brahmanism and the equally abstract non-entity or vacuity of Buddhism come to the same thing in the end, and may lead to the same ascetic practices. The asceticism of Brahmanism takes more the direction of anchoretism, while that of Buddhism exists generally in the social form of regular convent life.

The Hindoo monks or gymnosophists (naked philosophers), as the Greeks called them, live in woods, caves, on mountains, or rocks, in poverty, celibacy, abstinence, silence: sleeping on straw or the bare ground, crawling on the belly, standing all day on tiptoe, exposed to the pouring rain or scorching sun with four fires kindled around them, presenting a savage and frightful appearance, yet greatly revered by the multitude, especially the women, and performing miracles, not unfrequently completing their austerities by suicide on the stake or in the waves of the Ganges. Thus they are described by the ancients and by modern travellers. The Buddhist monks are less fanatical and extravagant than the Hindoo Yogis and Fakirs. They depend mainly on fasting, prayer, psalmody, intense contemplation, and the use of the whip, to keep their rebellious flesh in subjection. They have a fully developed system of monasticism in connection with their priesthood, and a large number of convents; also nunneries for female devotees. The Buddhist monasticism, especially in Thibet, with its vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, its common meals, readings, and various pious exercises, bears such a remarkable resemblance to that of the Roman Catholic church that Roman missionaries thought it could be only explained as a diabolical imitation. But the original always precedes the caricature, and the ascetic system was completed in India long before the introduction of Christianity, even if we should trace this back to St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas.

The Hellenic heathenism was less serious and contemplative, indeed, than the Oriental; yet the Pythagoreans were a kind of monastic society, and the Platonic view of matter and of body not only lies at the bottom of the Gnostic and Manichaean asceticism, but had much to do also with the ethics of Origen and the Alexandrian School.

Judaism, apart from the ancient Nazarites, (Comp. Num_6:1-21) had its Essenes in Palestine and its Therapeutae in Egypt; though these betray the intrusion of foreign elements into the Mosaic religion, and so find no mention in the New Testament.

Lastly, Mohammedanism, though in mere imitation of Christian and pagan examples, has, as is well known, its dervises and its cloisters.

Now were these earlier phenomena the source, or only analogies, of the Christian monasticism? That a multitude of foreign usages and rites made their way into the church in the age of Constantine, is undeniable. Hence many have held, that monasticism also came from heathenism, and was an apostasy from apostolic Christianity, which Paul had plainly foretold in the Pastoral Epistles. But such a view can hardly be reconciled with the great place of this phenomenon in history; and would, furthermore, involve the entire ancient church, with its greatest and best representatives both east and west, its Athanasius, its Chrysostom, its Jerome, its Augustine, in the predicted apostasy from the faith. And no one will now hold, that these men, who all admired and commended the monastic life, were antichristian errorists, and that the few and almost exclusively negative opponents of that asceticism, as Jovinian, Helvidius, and Vigilantius, were the sole representatives of pure Christianity in the Nicene and next following age.

In this whole matter we must carefully distinguish two forms of asceticism, antagonistic and irreconcilable in spirit and principle, though similar in form: the Gnostic dualistic, and the Catholic. The former of these did certainly come from heathenism; but the latter sprang independently from the Christian spirit of self-denial and longing for moral perfection, and, in spite of all its excrescences, has fulfilled an important mission in the history of the church.

The pagan monachism, the pseudo-Jewish, the heretical Christian, above all the Gnostic and Manichaean, is based on in irreconcilable metaphysical dualism between mind and matter; the Catholic Christian Monachism arises from the moral conflict between the spirit and the flesh. The former is prompted throughout by spiritual pride and selfishness; the latter, by humility and love to God and man. The false asceticism aims at annihilation of the body and pantheistic absorption of the human being in the divine; the Christian strives after the glorification of the body and personal fellowship with the living God in Christ. And the effects of the two are equally different. Though it is also unquestionable, that, notwithstanding this difference of principle, and despite the condemnation of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, the heathen dualism exerted a powerful influence on the Catholic asceticism and its view of the world, particularly upon anchoretism and monasticism in the East, and has been fully overcome only in evangelical Protestantism. The precise degree of this influence, and the exact proportion of Christian and heathen ingredients in the early monachism of the church, were an interesting subject of special investigation.

The germs of the Christian monasticism may be traced as far back as the middle of the second century, and in fact faintly even in the anxious ascetic practices of some of the Jewish Christians in the apostolic age. This asceticism, particularly fasting and celibacy, was commended more or less distinctly by the most eminent ante-Nicene fathers, and was practised, at least partially, by a particular class of Christians (by Origen even to the unnatural extreme of self-emasculation). So early as the Decian persecution, about the year 250, we meet also the first instances of the flight of ascetics or Christian philosophers into the wilderness; though rather in exceptional cases, and by way of escape from personal danger. So long as the church herself was a child of the desert, and stood in abrupt opposition to the persecuting world, the ascetics of both sexes usually lived near the congregations or in the midst of them, often even in the families, seeking there to realize the ideal of Christian perfection. But when, under Constantine, the mass of the population of the empire became nominally Christian, they felt, that in this world-church, especially in such cities as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, they were not at home, and voluntarily retired into waste and desolate places and mountain clefts, there to work out the salvation of their souls undisturbed.

Thus far monachism is a reaction against the secularizing state-church system and the decay of discipline, and an earnest, well-meant, though mistaken effort to save the virginal purity of the Christian church by transplanting it in the wilderness. The moral corruption of the Roman empire, which had the appearance of Christianity, but was essentially heathen in the whole framework of society, the oppressiveness of taxes the extremes of despotism and slavery, of extravagant luxury and hopeless poverty, the repletion of all classes, the decay of all productive energy in science and art, and the threatening incursions of barbarians on the frontiers — all favored the inclination toward solitude in just the most earnest minds.

At the same time, however, monasticism afforded also a compensation for martyrdom, which ceased with the Christianization of the state, and thus gave place to a voluntary martyrdom, a gradual self-destruction, a sort of religious suicide. In the burning deserts and awful caverns of Egypt and Syria, amidst the pains of self-torture, the mortification of natural desires, and relentless battles with hellish monsters, the ascetics now sought to win the crown of heavenly glory, which their predecessors in the times of persecution had more quickly and easily gained by a bloody death.

The native land of the monastic life was Egypt, the land where Oriental and Grecian literature, philosophy, and religion, Christian orthodoxy and Gnostic heresy, met both in friendship and in hostility. Monasticism was favored and promoted here by climate and geographic features, by the oasis-like seclusion of the country, by the bold contrast of barren deserts with the fertile valley of the Nile, by the superstition, the contemplative turn, and the passive endurance of the national character, by the example of the Therapeutae, and by the moral principles of the Alexandrian fathers; especially by Origen’s theory of a higher and lower morality and of the merit of voluntary poverty and celibacy. Aelian says of the Egyptians, that they bear the most exquisite torture without a murmur, and would rather be tormented to death than compromise truth. Such natures, once seized with religious enthusiasm, were eminently qualified for saints of the desert.


29. Development of Monasticism

In the historical development of the monastic institution we must distinguish four stages. The first three were completed in the fourth century; the remaining one reached maturity in the Latin church of the middle age.

The first stage is an ascetic life as yet not organized nor separated from the church. It comes down from the ante-Nicene age, and has been already noticed. It now took the form, for the most part, of either hermit or coenobite life, but continued in the church itself, especially among the clergy, who might be called half monks.

The second stage is hermit life or anchoretism. It arose in the beginning of the fourth century, gave asceticism a fixed and permanent shape, and pushed it to even external separation from the world. It took the prophets Elijah and John the Baptist for its models, and went beyond them. Not content with partial and temporary retirement from common life, which may be united with social intercourse and useful labors, 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 of every class, especially of the sick and the needy (which were very frequent in the case of the more celebrated monks), 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. This mode of life was founded by Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony, and came to perfection in the East. It was too eccentric and unpractical for the West, and hence less frequent there, especially in the rougher climates. To the female sex it was entirely unsuited. There was a class of hermits, the Sarabaites in Egypt, and the Rhemoboths in Syria, who lived in bands of at least two or three together; but their quarrelsomeness, occasional intemperance, and opposition to the clergy, brought them into ill repute.

The third step in the progress of the monastic life brings us to coenobitism or cloister life, monasticism in the ordinary sense of the word. It originated likewise in Egypt, from the example of the Essenes and Therapeutae, and was carried by St. Pachomius to the East, and afterward by St. Benedict to the West. Both these ascetics, like the most celebrated order-founders of later days, were originally hermits. Cloister life is a regular organization of the ascetic life on a social basis. It recognizes, at least in a measure, the social element of human nature, and represents it in a narrower sphere secluded from the larger world. As hermit life often led to cloister life, so the cloister life was not only a refuge for the spirit weary of the world, but also in many ways a school for practical life in the church. It formed the transition from isolated to social Christianity. It consists in an association of a number of anchorets of the same sex for mutual advancement in ascetic holiness. The coenobites live, somewhat according to the laws of civilization, under one roof, and under a superintendent or abbot. They divide their time between common devotions and manual labor, and devote their surplus provisions to charity; except the mendicant monks, who themselves live by alms. In this modified form monasticism became available to the female sex, to which the solitary desert life was utterly impracticable; and with the cloisters of monks, there appear at once cloisters also of nuns. Between the anchorets and the coenobites no little jealousy reigned; the former charging the latter with ease and conformity to the world; the latter accusing the former of selfishness and misanthropy. The most eminent church teachers generally prefer the cloister life. But the hermits, though their numbers diminished, never became extinct. Many a monk was a hermit first, and then a coenobite; and many a coenobite turned to a hermit.

The same social impulse, finally, which produced monastic congregations, led afterward to monastic orders, unions of a number of cloisters under one rule and a common government. In this fourth and last stage monasticism has done most for the diffusion of Christianity and the advancement of learning, has fulfilled its practical mission in the Roman Catholic church, and still wields a mighty influence there. At the same time it became in some sense the cradle of the German reformation. Luther belonged to the order of St. Augustine, and the monastic discipline of Erfurt was to him a preparation for evangelical freedom, as the Mosaic law was to Paul a schoolmaster to lead to Christ. And for this very reason Protestantism is the end of the monastic life.


30. Nature and Aim of Monasticism

Monasticism was from the first distinguished as the contemplative life from the practical. It passed with the ancient church for the true, the divine, or Christian philosophy, an unworldly purely apostolic, angelic life. It rests upon an earnest view of life; upon the instinctive struggle after perfect dominion of the spirit over the flesh, reason over sense, the supernatural over the natural, after the highest grade of holiness and an undisturbed communion of the soul with God; but also upon a morbid depreciation of the body, the family, the state, and the divinely established social order of the world. It recognizes the world, indeed, as a creature of God, and the family and property as divine institutions, in opposition to the Gnostic Manichaean asceticism, which ascribes matter as such to an evil principle. But it makes a distinction between two grades of morality: a common and lower grade, democratic, so to speak, which moves in the natural ordinances of God; and a higher, extraordinary, aristocratic grade, which lies beyond them and is attended with special merit. It places the great problem of Christianity not in the transformation, but in the abandonment, of the world. It is an extreme unworldliness, over against the worldliness of the mass of the visible church in union with the state. It demands entire renunciation, not only of sin, but also of property and of marriage, which are lawful in themselves, ordained by God himself, and indispensable to the continuance and welfare of the human race. The poverty of the individual, however, does not exclude the possession of common property; and it is well known, that some monastic orders, especially the Benedictines, have in course of time grown very rich. The coenobite institution requires also absolute obedience to the will of the superior, as the visible representative of Christ. As obedience to orders and sacrifice of self is the first duty of the soldier, and the condition of military success and renown, so also in this spiritual army in its war against the flesh, the world, and the devil, monks are not allowed to have a will of their own. To them may be applied the lines of Tennyson:

“Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs but to do and die.”

Voluntary poverty, voluntary celibacy, and absolute obedience form the three monastic vows, as they are called, and are supposed to constitute a higher virtue and to secure a higher reward in heaven.

But this threefold self-denial is only the negative side of the matter, and a means to an end. It places man beyond the reach of the temptations connected with earthly possessions, married life, and independent will, and facilitates his progress toward heaven. The positive aspect of monasticism is unreserved surrender of the whole man, with all his time and strength, to God; though, as we have said, not within, but without the sphere of society and the order of nature. This devoted life is employed in continual prayer, meditation, fasting, and castigation of the body. Some votaries went so far as to reject all bodily employment, for its interference with devotion. But in general a moderate union of spiritual exercises with scientific studies or with such manual labor as agriculture, basket making, weaving, for their own living and the support of the poor, was held not only lawful but wholesome for monks. It was a proverb, that a laborious monk was beset by only one devil; an idle one, by a legion.

With all the austerities and rigors of asceticism, the monastic life had its spiritual joys and irresistible charms for noble, contemplative, and heaven-aspiring souls, who fled from the turmoil and vain show of the city as a prison, and turned the solitude into a paradise of freedom and sweet communion with God and his saints; while to others the same solitude became a fruitful nursery of idleness, despondency, and the most perilous temptations and ultimate ruin.


31. Monasticism and the Bible

Monasticism, therefore, claims to be the highest and purest form of Christian piety and virtue, and the surest way to heaven. Then, we should think, it must be preëminently commended in the Bible, and actually exhibited in the life of Christ and the apostles. But just in this biblical support it falls short.

The advocates of it uniformly refer first to the examples of Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist; but these stand upon the legal level of the Old Testament, and are to be looked upon as extraordinary personages of an extraordinary age; and though they may be regarded as types of a partial anchoretism (not of cloister life), still they are nowhere commended to our imitation in this particular, but rather in their influence upon the world.

The next appeal is to a few isolated passages of the New Testament, which do not, indeed, in their literal sense require the renunciation of property and marriage, yet seem to recommend it as a special, exceptional form of piety for those Christians who strive after higher perfection.

Finally, as respects the spirit of the monastic life, reference is sometimes made even to the poverty of Christ and his apostles, to the silent, contemplative Mary, in contrast with the busy, practical Martha, and to the voluntary community of goods in the first Christian church in Jerusalem.

But this monastic interpretation of primitive Christianity mistakes a few incidental points of outward resemblance for essential identity, measures the spirit of Christianity by some isolated passages, instead of explaining the latter from the former, and is upon the whole a miserable emaciation and caricature. The gospel makes upon all men virtually the same moral demand, and knows no distinction of a religion for the masses and another for the few.

Jesus, the model for all believers, was neither a coenobite, nor an anchoret, nor an ascetic of any kind, but the perfect pattern man for universal imitation. There is not a trace of monkish austerity and ascetic rigor in his life or precepts, but in all his acts and words a wonderful harmony of freedom and purity, of the most comprehensive charity and spotless holiness. He retired to the mountains and into solitude, but only temporarily, and for the purpose of renewing his strength for active work. Amidst the society of his disciples, of both sexes, with kindred and friends, in Cana and Bethany, at the table of publicans and sinners, and in intercourse with all classes of the people, he kept himself unspotted from the world, and transfigured the world into the kingdom of God. His poverty and celibacy have nothing to do with asceticism, but represent, the one the condescension of his redeeming love, the other his ideal uniqueness and his absolutely peculiar relation to the whole church, which alone is fit or worthy to be his bride. No single daughter of Eve could have been an equal partner of the Saviour of mankind, or the representative head of the new creation.

The example of the sister of Lazarus proves only, that the contemplative life may dwell in the same house with the practical, and with the other sex, but justifies no separation from the social ties.

The life of the apostles and primitive Christians in general was anything but a hermit life; else had not the gospel spread so quickly to all the cities of the Roman world. Peter was married, and travelled with his wife as a missionary. Paul assumes one marriage of the clergy as the rule, and notwithstanding his personal and relative preference for celibacy in the then oppressed condition of the church, he is the most zealous advocate of evangelical freedom, in opposition to all legal bondage and anxious asceticism.

Monasticism, therefore, in any case, is not the normal form of Christian piety. It is an abnormal phenomenon, a humanly devised service of God, (Col_2:16-23) and not rarely a sad enervation and repulsive distortion of the Christianity of the Bible. And it is to be estimated, therefore, not by the extent of its self-denial, not by its outward acts of self-discipline (which may all be found in heathenism, Judaism, and Mohammedanism as well), but by the Christian spirit of humility and love which animated it. For humility is the groundwork, and love the all-ruling principle, of the Christian life, and the distinctive characteristic of the Christian religion. Without love to God and charity to man, the severest self-punishment and the utmost abandonment of the world are worthless before God.


32. Lights and Shades of Monastic Life

The contrast between pure and normal Bible-Christianity and abnormal Monastic Christianity, will appear more fully if we enter into a close examination of the latter as it actually appeared in the ancient church.

The extraordinary rapidity with which this world-forsaking form of piety spread, bears witness to a high degree of self-denying moral earnestness, which even in its mistakes and vagrancies we must admire. Our age, accustomed and wedded to all possible comforts, but far in advance of the Nicene age in respect to the average morality of the masses, could beget no such ascetic extremes. In our estimate of the diffusion and value of monasticism, the polluting power of the theatre, oppressive taxation, slavery, the multitude of civil wars, and the hopeless condition of the Roman empire, must all come into view. Nor must we, by any means, measure the moral importance of this phenomenon by numbers. Monasticism from the beginning attracted persons of opposite character and from opposite motives. Moral earnestness and religious enthusiasm were accompanied here, as formerly in martyrdom, though even in larger measure than there, with all kinds of sinister motives; indolence, discontent, weariness of life, misanthropy, ambition for spiritual distinction, and every sort of misfortune or accidental circumstance. Palladius, to mention but one illustrious example, tells of Paul the Simple, that, from indignation against his wife, whom he detected in an act of infidelity, he hastened, with the current oath of that day, “in the name of Jesus,” into the wilderness; and immediately, though now sixty years old, under the direction of Anthony, he became a very model monk, and attained an astonishing degree of humility, simplicity, and perfect submission of will.

In view of these different motives we need not be surprised that the moral character of the monks varied greatly, and presents opposite extremes. Augustine says he found among the monks and nuns the best and the worst of mankind.

Looking more closely, in the first place, at anchoretism, we meet in its history unquestionably many a heroic character, who attained an incredible mastery over his sensual nature, and, like the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist, by their mere appearance and their occasional preaching, made an overwhelming impression on his contemporaries, even among the heathen. St. Anthony’s visit to Alexandria was to the gazing multitude like the visit of a messenger from the other world, and resulted in many conversions. His emaciated face, the glare of his eye, his spectral yet venerable form, his contempt of the world, and his few aphoristic sentences told more powerfully on that age and people than a most elaborate sermon. St. Symeon, standing on a column from year to year, fasting, praying, and exhorting the visitors to repentance, was to his generation a standing miracle and a sign that pointed them to heaven. Sometimes, in seasons of public calamity, such hermits saved whole cities and provinces from the imperial wrath, by their effectual intercessions. When Theodosius, in 387, was about to destroy Antioch for a sedition, the hermit Macedonius met the two imperial commissaries, who reverently dismounted and kissed his hands and feet; he reminded them and the emperor of their own weakness, set before them the value of men as immortal images of God, in comparison with the perishable statues of the emperor, and thus saved the city from demolition. The heroism of the anchoretic life, in the voluntary renunciation of lawful pleasures and the patient endurance of self-inflicted pains, is worthy of admiration in its way, and not rarely almost incredible.

But this moral heroism — and these are the weak points of it — oversteps not only the present standard of Christianity, but all sound measure; it has no support either in the theory or the practice of Christ and the apostolic church; and it has far more resemblance to heathen than to biblical precedents. Many of the most eminent saints of the desert differ only in their Christian confession, and in some Bible phrases learnt by rote, from Buddhist fakirs and Mohammedan dervises. Their highest virtuousness consisted in bodily exercises of their own devising, which, without love, at best profit nothing at all, very often only gratify spiritual vanity, and entirely obscure the gospel way of salvation.

To illustrate this by a few examples, we may choose any of the most celebrated eastern anchorets of the fourth and fifth centuries, as reported by the most credible contemporaries.

The holy Scriptures instruct us to pray and to labor; and to pray not only mechanically with the lips, as the heathen do, but with all the heart. But Paul the Simple said daily three hundred prayers, counting them with pebbles, which he carried in his bosom (a sort of rosary); when he heard of a virgin who prayed seven hundred times a day, he was troubled, and told his distress to Macarius, who well answered him: “Either thou prayest not with thy heart, if thy conscience reproves thee, or thou couldst pray oftener. I have for six years prayed only a hundred times a day, without being obliged to condemn myself for neglect.” Christ ate and drank like other men, expressly distinguishing himself thereby from John, the representative of the old covenant; and Paul recommends to us to use the gifts of God temperately, with cheerful and childlike gratitude. (Mat_11:18, Mat_11:19; 1Ti_4:3-5) But the renowned anchoret and presbyter Isidore of Alexandria (whom Athanasius ordained) touched no meat, never ate enough, and, as Palladius relates, often burst into tears at table for shame, that he, who was destined to eat angels’ food in paradise, should have to eat material stuff like the irrational brutes. Macarius the elder, or the Great, for a long time ate only once a week, and slept standing and leaning on a staff. The equally celebrated younger Macarius lived three years on four or five ounces of bread a day, and seven years on raw herbs and pulse. Ptolemy spent three years alone in an unwatered desert, and quenched his thirst with the dew, which he collected in December and January, and preserved in earthen vessels; but he fell at last into skepticism, madness, and debauchery. Sozomen tells of a certain Batthaeus, that by reason of his extreme abstinence, worms crawled out of his teeth; of Alas, that to his eightieth year he never ate bread; of Heliodorus, that he spent many nights without sleep, and fasted without interruption seven days. Symeon, a Christian Diogenes, spent six and thirty years praying, fasting, and preaching, on the top of a pillar thirty or forty feet high, ate only once a week, and in fast times not at all. Such heroism of abstinence was possible, however, only in the torrid climate of the East, and is not to be met with in the West.

Anchoretism almost always carries a certain cynic roughness and coarseness, which, indeed, in the light of that age, may be leniently judged, but certainly have no affinity with the morality of the Bible, and offend not only good taste, but all sound moral feeling. The ascetic holiness, at least according to the Egyptian idea, is incompatible with cleanliness and decency, and delights in filth. It reverses the maxim of sound evangelical morality and modern Christian civilization, that cleanliness is next to godliness. Saints Anthony and Hilarion, as their admirers, Athanasius the Great and Jerome the Learned, tell us, scorned to comb or cut their hair (save once a year, at Easter), or to wash their hands or feet. Other hermits went almost naked in the wilderness, like the Indian gymnosophists. The younger Macarius, according to the account of his disciple Palladius, once lay six months naked in the morass of the Scetic desert, and thus exposed himself to the incessant attacks of the gnats of Africa, “whose sting can pierce even the hide of a wild boar.” He wished to punish himself for his arbitrary revenge on a gnat, and was there so badly stung by gnats and wasps, that he was thought to be smitten with leprosy, and was recognized only by his voice. St. Symeon the Stylite, according to Theodoret, suffered himself to be incessantly tormented for a long time by twenty enormous bugs, and concealed an abscess full of worms, to exercise himself in patience and meekness. In Mesopotamia there was a peculiar class of anchorets, who lived on grass, spending the greater part of the day in prayer and singing, and then turning out like beasts upon the mountain. Theodoret relates of the much lauded Akepsismas, in Cyprus, that he spent sixty years in the same cell, without seeing or speaking to any one, and looked so wild and shaggy, that he was once actually taken for a wolf by a shepherd, who assailed him with stones, till he discovered his error, and then worshipped the hermit as a saint. It was but a step from this kind of moral sublimity to beastly degradation. Many of these saints were no more than low sluggards or gloomy misanthropes, who would rather company with wild beasts, with lions, wolves, and hyenas, than with immortal men, and above all shunned the face of a woman more carefully than they did the devil. Sulpitius Severus saw an anchoret in the Thebaid, who daily shared his evening meal with a female wolf; and upon her discontinuing her visits for some days by way of penance for a theft she had committed, he besought her to come again, and comforted her with a double portion of bread. The same writer tells of a hermit who lived fifty years secluded from all human society, in the clefts of Mount Sinai, entirely destitute of clothing, and all overgrown with thick hair, avoiding every visitor, because, as he said, intercourse with men interrupted the visits of the angels; whence arose the report that he held intercourse with angels.

It is no recommendation to these ascetic eccentricities that while they are without Scripture authority, they are fully equalled and even surpassed by the strange modes of self-torture practised by ancient and modern Hindoo devotees, for the supposed benefit of their souls and the gratification of their vanity in the presence of admiring spectators. Some bury themselves — we are told by ancient and modern travellers — in pits with only small breathing holes at the top, while others disdaining to touch the vile earth, live in iron cages suspended from trees. Some wear heavy iron collars or fetters, or drag a heavy chain fastened by one end round their privy parts, to give ostentatious proof of their chastity. Others keep their fists hard shut, until their finger nails grow through the palms of their hands. Some stand perpetually on one leg; others keep their faces turned over one shoulder, until they cannot turn them back again. Some lie on wooden beds, bristling all over with iron spikes; others are fastened for life to the trunk of a tree by a chain. Some suspend themselves for half an hour at a time, feet uppermost, or with a hook thrust through their naked back, over a hot fire. Alexander von Humboldt, at Astracan, where some Hindoos had settled, found a Yogi in the vestibule of the temple naked, shrivelled up, and overgrown with hair like a wild beast, who in this position had withstood for twenty years the severe winters of that climate. A Jesuit missionary describes one of the class called Tapasonias, that he had his body enclosed in an iron cage, with his head and feet outside, so that he could walk, but neither sit nor lie down; at night his pious attendants attached a hundred lighted lamps to the outside of the cage, so that their master could exhibit himself walking as the mock light of the world.

In general, the hermit life confounds the fleeing from the outward world with the mortification of the inward world of the corrupt heart. It mistakes the duty of love; not rarely, under its mask of humility and the utmost self-denial, cherishes spiritual pride and jealousy; and exposes itself to all the dangers of solitude, even to savage barbarism, beastly grossness, or despair and suicide. Anthony, the father of anchorets, well understood this, and warned his followers against overvaluing solitude, reminding them of the proverb of the Preacher, Ecc_4:10: “Woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”

The cloister life was less exposed to these errors. It approached the life of society and civilization. Yet, on the other hand, it produced no such heroic phenomena, and had dangers peculiar to itself. Chrysostom gives us the bright side of it from his own experience. “Before the rising of the sun,” says he of the monks of Antioch, “they rise, hale and sober, sing as with one mouth hymns to the praise of God, then bow the knee in prayer, under the direction of the abbot, read the holy Scriptures, and go to their labors; pray again at nine, twelve, and three o’clock; after a good day’s work, enjoy a simple meal of bread and salt, perhaps with oil, and sometimes with pulse; sing a thanksgiving hymn, and lay themselves on their pallets of straw without care, grief, or murmur. When one dies, they say: ‘He is perfected;’ and all pray God for a like end, that they also may come to the eternal sabbath-rest and to the vision of Christ.” Men like Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory, Jerome, Nilus, and Isidore, united theological studies with the ascetic exercises of solitude, and thus gained a copious knowledge of Scripture and a large spiritual experience.

But most of the monks either could not even read, or had too little intellectual culture to devote themselves with advantage to contemplation and study, and only brooded over gloomy feelings, or sank, in spite of the unsensual tendency of the ascetic principle, into the coarsest anthropomorphism and image worship. When the religious enthusiasm faltered or ceased, the cloister life, like the hermit life, became the most spiritless and tedious routine, or hypocritically practised secret vices. For the monks carried with them into their solitude their most dangerous enemy in their hearts, and there often endured much fiercer conflicts with flesh and blood, than amidst the society of men.

The temptations of sensuality, pride, and ambition externalized and personified themselves to the anchorets and monks in hellish shapes, which appeared in visions and dreams, now in pleasing and seductive, now in threatening and terrible forms and colors, according to the state of mind at the time. The monastic imagination peopled the deserts and solitudes with the very worst society, with swarms of winged demons and all kinds of hellish monsters. It substituted thus a new kind of polytheism for the heathen gods, which were generally supposed to be evil spirits. The monastic demonology and demonomachy is a strange mixture of gross superstitions and deep spiritual experiences. It forms the romantic shady side of the otherwise so tedious monotony of the secluded life, and contains much material for the history of ethics, psychology, and pathology.

Especially besetting were the temptations of sensuality, and irresistible without the utmost exertion and constant watchfulness. The same saints, who could not conceive of true chastity without celibacy, were disturbed, according to their own confession, by unchaste dreams, which at least defiled the imagination. Excessive asceticism sometimes turned into unnatural vice; sometimes ended in madness, despair, and suicide. Pachomius tells us, so early as his day, that many monks cast themselves down precipices, others ripped themselves up, and others put themselves to death in other ways.

A characteristic trait of monasticism in all its forms is a morbid aversion to female society and a rude contempt of married life. No wonder, then, that in Egypt and the whole East, the land of monasticism, women and domestic life never attained their proper dignity, and to this day remain at a very low stage of culture. Among the rules of Basil is a prohibition of speaking with a woman, touching one, or even looking on one, except in unavoidable cases. Monasticism not seldom sundered the sacred bond between husband and wife, commonly with mutual consent, as in the cases of Ammon and Nilus, but often even without it. Indeed, a law of Justinian seems to give either party an unconditional right of desertion, while yet the word of God declares the marriage bond indissoluble. The Council of Gangra found it necessary to oppose the notion that marriage is inconsistent with salvation, and to exhort wives to remain with their husbands. In the same way monasticism came into conflict with love of kindred, and with the relation of parents to children; misinterpreting the Lord’s command to leave all for His sake. Nilus demanded of the monks the entire suppression of the sense of blood relationship. St. Anthony forsook his younger sister, and saw her only once after the separation. His disciple, Prior, when he became a monk, vowed never to see his kindred again, and would not even speak with his sister without closing his eyes. Something of the same sort is recorded of Pachomius. Ambrose and Jerome, in full earnest, enjoined upon virgins the cloister life, even against the will of their parents. When Hilary of Poictiers heard that his daughter wished to marry, he is said to have prayed God to take her to himself by death. One Mucius, without any provocation, caused his own son to be cruelly abused, and at last, at the command of the abbot himself, cast him into the water, whence he was rescued by a brother of the cloister.

Even in the most favorable case monasticism falls short of harmonious moral development, and of that symmetry of virtue which meets us in perfection in Christ, and next to him in the apostles. It lacks the finer and gentler traits of character, which are ordinarily brought out only in the school of daily family life and under the social ordinances of God. Its morality is rather negative than positive. There is more virtue in the temperate and thankful enjoyment of the gifts of God, than in total abstinence; in charitable and well-seasoned speech, than in total silence; in connubial chastity, than in celibacy; in self-denying practical labor for the church. than in solitary asceticism, which only pleases self and profits no one else.

Catholicism, whether Greek or Roman, cannot dispense with the monastic life. It knows only moral extremes, nothing of the healthful mean. In addition to this, Popery needs the monastic orders, as an absolute monarchy needs large standing armies both for conquest and defence. But evangelical Protestantism, rejecting all distinction of a twofold morality, assigning to all men the same great duty under the law of God, placing the essence of religion not in outward exercises, but in the heart, not in separation from the world and from society, but in purifying and sanctifying the world by the free spirit of the gospel, is death to the great monastic institution.


33. Position of Monks in the Church

As to the social position of monasticism in the system of ecclesiastical life: it was at first, in East and West, even so late as the council of Chalcedon, regarded as a lay institution; but the monks were distinguished as religiosi from the seculares, and formed thus a middle grade between the ordinary laity and the clergy. They constituted the spiritual nobility, but not the ruling class; the aristocracy, but not the hierarchy of the church. “A monk,” says Jerome, “has not the office of a teacher, but of a penitent, who endures suffering either for himself or for the world.” Many monks considered ecclesiastical office incompatible with their effort after perfection. It was a proverb, traced to Pachomius: “A monk should especially shun women and bishops, for neither will let him have peace.” Ammonius, who accompanied Athanasius to Rome, cut off his own ear, and threatened to cut out his own tongue, when it was proposed to make him a bishop. Martin of Tours thought his miraculous power deserted him on his transition from the cloister to the bishopric. Others, on the contrary, were ambitious for the episcopal chair, or were promoted to it against their will, as early as the fourth century. The abbots of monasteries were usually ordained priests, and administered the sacraments among the brethren, but were subject to the bishop of the diocese. Subsequently the cloisters managed, through special papal grants, to make themselves independent of the episcopal jurisdiction. From the tenth century the clerical character was attached to the monks. In a certain sense, they stood, from the beginning, even above the clergy; considered themselves preëminently conversi and religiosi, and their life vita religiosa; looked down with contempt upon the secular clergy; and often encroached on their province in troublesome ways. On the other hand, the cloisters began, as early as the fourth century, to be most fruitful seminaries of clergy, and furnished, especially in the East, by far the greater number of bishops. The sixth novel of Justinian provides that the bishops shall be chosen from the clergy, or from the monastery.

In dress, the monks at first adhered to the costume of the country, but chose the simplest and coarsest material. Subsequently, they adopted the tonsure and a distinctive uniform.