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by Richenda Fairhurst, historyfish.net. September 2007.
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THE MONASTIC LIFE
The regular or
monastic life was
instituted to enable men to attain with greater security to the higher
of the Christian life proposed to them in the Gospel.
In the early ages of the church the fervour
of the first converts, strengthened and purified by the fierce
had to endure for religious, enabled them, or a considerable number of
reach this high standard without withdrawing from the world, its
society. The belief that, by the means
of regulated labour and strict discipline of the senses and appetites,
in the power of man to perfect his moral nature and rise to heights in
spiritual order, not otherwise attainable, seems almost inherent in
nature. Well-regulated practices founded
upon this principle have been existent in all forms of religious
than Christian, and they can be recongised no less in the observances
lives in theory and practice upon this belief. Even among the early Christians there were some, who by striving to master their lower nature desired to attain the true end of human life as the Gospel taught them, the knowledge and love of God and obedience to His will. These were known as Ascetae, and in one of the earliest Christian documents they are mentioned as a class of Christians between the laity and the clergy. They were, however, in the world though not “of the world,” and strove to reach their goal whilst living their ordinary life by means of perseverance in prayer, voluntary chastity and poverty, as well as by the exercise of mortification of all kinds.
the practice of seeking seclusion from the world for the purpose of
carrying out these ideals was apparently not unknown in the third
was not until after the conversion of
For a right understanding of monastic history and monastic practices in the West generally, and even in--2--
The first system came to prevail over a great portion of the country by the end of the first century after its foundation by St. Anthony. The monks were mostly hermits in the strict sense of the world. They lived apart and “out of earshot of one another,”2 coming together at certain times for divine worship. In other districts the religious lived together in threes and fours, who, on all days but the Saturdays and Sundays when all assembled in the great church, were used to sing their songs and hymns together in their common cells. Of this system Palladius, who is the first authority on the matter, says : “They have different practices, each as he is able and as he wishes.” Dom Butler describes it :—
“There was no rule of life. The Elders exercised an authority, but it was mainly personal….The society appears to have been a sort of spiritual democracy, ruled by the personal influence of the leading ascetics, but there was1 Texts and Studies,
no efficient hold upon individuals to keep them from falling into extravagances…. A young man would put himself under the guidance of a senior and obey him in all things ; but the bonds between them were wholly voluntary. The purely eremitical life tended to die out, but what took its place continued to be semi-ermitical.”1
The second system introduced at the beginning of the fourth century may be described as the cenobitical or conventual type of monachism. Pachomius’ monks lived together under a complete system of organization, not, indeed, as a family under a father, but rather as an army under a discipline of a military character. This form of the monastic life spread with great rapidity, and by the time of its founder’s death (c. 345) it counted eight monasteries and several hundred monks.
“The most remarkable feature about it,” says Dom Butler, “is that (like Citeaux in a later age) it almost at once assumed the shape of a fully organised congregation or order, with a superior general and a system of visitation and general chapters—in short, all the machinery of centralized government, such as does not appear again in the monastic world until the Cistercians and the Mendicant Orders arose in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.” 2
The various monasteries under the Rule of St. Pachomius existed as separate houses, each with a head or praepositus and other officials of its own, and organized apparently on the basis of the trades followed by the inmates. The number in each house naturally varied ; between thirty and forty on an average living together. At the more solemn services all the members of the various houses came together to the common church ;
1 Ibid., p. 234. 2 Ibid., p. 235.
but the lesser offices were celebrated by the houses individually. Under this rule, regular organized work was provided for the monk not merely as a discipline and penitential exercise, as was the case under the Antonian system, but as a part of the life itself. The common ideal of asceticism aimed at was not too high.
“The fundamental idea of St. Pachomius’ Rule was,” says Dom Butler, “to establish a moderate level of observance which might be obligatory upon all ; and to leave it open to each—and to, indeed, encourage each—to go beyond the fixed minimum, according as he was prompted by his strength, his courage, and his zeal.” 1
Hence we find the Pachomian monks eating or fasting as they wished. The tables were laid at , and dinner was provided every hour till evening ; they ate when they liked, or fasted if they felt called on so to do. Some took a meal only in the evening, others every second or even only every fifth day. The Rule allowed them their full freedom ; and any idea of what is now understood by “Common Life”—the living together and doing all things together according to rule—was a feature entirely absent from Egyptian monachism.
One other feature must also be noticed, which would seem to be the direct outcome of the liberty allowed in much of the life, and in particular in the matter or austerities, to the individual monk under the systems both of St. Anthony and St. Pachomius. It is a spirit of strongly marked individualism. Each worked for his personal advance in virtue ; each strove to do his utmost in all kinds of ascetical exercises and austerities—in prolonging his fasts, his prayers, his silence. The favourite
1 Ibid., p. 236.
name used to
describe any of the
prominent monks was “great athlete.” They
loved “to make a record” in austerities, and to
contend with one
another in mortifications ; and they would freely boast of their
achievements. This being so, penances
and austerities tended to multiply and increase in severity, and this
of the individual in regard to his asceticism accounts for the very
often incongruous mortifications undertaken by the monks of
was introduced into
this same century the monastic life made its appearance in
founded by Honoratus, to whom Cassian dedicated the second part of his Conferences, points to the fact that here too the eremitical life was regarded as the monastic ideal. On the whole, therefore, it may be said that the available evidence “amply justifies the statement that Gallic monachism during the fifth and sixth centuries was thoroughly Egyptian in both theory and practice.”1
is now possible to understand the position of St. Benedict in regard to
monasticism. The great Patriarch of
Western monks was born probably about A.D.
480, and it was during that century that the knowledge of Eastern rules
regular life was increased greatly in
1 Ibid., p. 247.
conditions, impossible. This much seems certain even from the mention made of the Gyrovagi and Sarabites by St. Benedict, since he describes them as existing kinds of monks whose example was to be avoided. That he had practical knowledge and experience of the Egyptian and the eastern types of monachism clearly appears in his reference to Cassian and to the Rule of “Our Holy Father Saint Basil,” as he calls him, and in the fact that he made his own first essay in the monastic life as a solitary.
When, some time about the beginning of the sixth century, St. Benedict came to write his Rule, with full knowledge and experience both of the systems then in vogue and of the existing need of some reconstitution, it is noteworthy that he did not attempt to restore the lapsed practices of primitive asceticism, or insist upon any very different scheme of regular discipline. On the contrary, “he deliberately turned his back on the austerities that had hitherto been regarded as the chief means for attaining the spiritual end of the monastic life.” He calls his Rule “a very little rule for beginners”—minima inchoationis regula, and says that though there may be in it some things “a little severe,” still he hopes that he will establish “nothing harsh, nothing heavy.” The most cursory comparison between this new Rule and those which previously existed will make it abundantly clear that St. Benedict’s legislation was conceived in a spirit of moderation in regard to every detail of the monastic life. Common-sense, and the wise consideration of the superior in tempering any possible severity, according to the needs of times, places, and circumstances were, by his desire, to preside over the spiritual growth of those trained in his “school of divine service.”
In addition to this St. Benedict broke with the past in another and not less important way, and in one which, if rightly considered and acted upon, more than compensated for the mitigation of corporal austerities introduced into his rule of life. The strong note of individualism characteristic of Egyptian monachism, which gave rise to what Dom Butler calls the “rivalry in ascetical achievement,” gave place in St. Benedict’s code to the common practices of the community, and to the entire submission of the individual will, even in matters of personal austerity and mortification, to the judgment of the superior.
two-fold break with the past, in the elimination of austerity and in
sinking of the individual in the community, made St. Benedict’s Rule
development than a revolution in monachism. It
may be almost called a new creation ; and it was
destined to prove,
as the subsequent history shows, peculiarly adapted to the new races
are now in a position to turn to
1 Ibid., p. 256.
feature of Celtic monasticism, on the
appears to be unique and to divide it off from every other type. The Celtic monasteries included among their
officials one, and in some cases many bishops. At
the head was the abbot, and the Episcopal office was
held by members
of the house subordinate to him. In
certain monasteries the number of bishops was so numerous as to suggest
they must have really occupied the position of priests at the
churches. Thus St. Columba went in A.D. 590 from
abbot, the bishop still continuing to occupy a subordinate position, although there is evidence in the lives of the early Irish saints to show that the holder of the office was certainly treated with special dignity and honour.
Celtic monastic system was apparently in vogue among the remnant of the
has usually been supposed that the Rule of St. Columbanus represented
normal life of a Celtic monastery, but it has been lately shown that,
so far as
regards the Irish or Welsh houses, this Rule was never taken as a guide. It had its origin apparently in the fact that
the Celtic monks on the Continent were induced, almost in spite of
to adopt a mitigated rule of life by their close contact with Latin
monasticism, which was them organizing itself on the lines of the Rule
Columban Rule was a code of great rigour, and “would, if carried out in
entirety, have made the Celtic monks almost, if not quite, the most
men.” Even if it was not actually in
use, the Rule of
1 The Celtic
impracticable nature of much of the legislation and the hard spirit which characterizes it goes far to explain how it came to pass that whenever it was brought face to face with the wider, milder, and more flexible code of St. Benedict, invariably, sooner or later, it gave place to it. In some monasteries, for a time, the two Rules seem to have been combined, or at lest to have existed side by side, as at Luxeuil and Bobbio, in Italy, in the seventh century ; but when the abbot of the former monastery was called upon to defend the Celtic rule, at the Synod of Macon in A.D. 625, the Columban code may be said to have ceased to exist anywhere as a separate rule of life.
the present purpose it will be sufficient to consider English
the coming of
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