Monasticism still thrives after 1,700 years

By  Doug Archer, Catholic Register Special
  • March 6, 2008

Over 1,500 years ago, a young man named Benedict (480-547) abandoned his life of wealth and privilege in a morally decaying Rome and went in search of the kind of pious existence exemplified in the Gospels. For years he took refuge in a cave, living a life of discipline, prayer and contemplation. In time, Benedict, who would later be canonized, established a community of monks based on a set of rules of conduct that focused on devotion to God. What would be known as The Rule of St. Benedict became the foundation for monasticism and monastery life within the Catholic Church and played a crucial role in the expansion of Christianity throughout Europe.

But monasticism did not start with St. Benedict.  It began hundreds of years earlier in the deserts of Egypt. 

Late in the third century, many Christians fled pagan corruption and sought to commune with God in the deserts of Asia Minor and Egypt. Like Old Testament figures such as Moses and Elijah — who encountered the Lord while fasting and praying — these men and women sought a closer relationship with God by living a solitary life of self-denial and prayer.

St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356) is considered by some to be the father of Christian monasticism. He lived the life of an ascetic, sheltered in the tombs outside of Alexandria, Egypt, in the second half of the third and first half of the fourth centuries. Despite retreating from society, Anthony (and other early desert monks) became an object of popular veneration.  He often had his solitary existence invaded by religious followers who saw him as a link between the world of man and the world of God.  

The solitary, or eremitical, type of monasticism espoused by Anthony spread to Palestine and Syria and was often taken to extremes. A Syrian monk named Simon Stylites avoided all human contact by living and praying on top of a column of rock in the desert. When he died in 459 he had spent 37 years on the column. 

St. Pachomius, a disciple of St. Anthony, introduced a community — or what is called cenobitical — form of monasticism by establishing the first monastery in the fourth century on the banks of the Nile. Here monks lived together, sharing their possessions and cultivating their own food, even as they sought a deeper communion with God through solitary reflection. 

The migration of monasticism to the West started in the late fourth century. Eminent Christian thinkers such as St. Jerome and St. Augustine travelled to Egypt and wrote in praise of the religious hermits of the desert. Inspired by their example, St. Martin of Tours set up a monastery in Gaul, an area now comprising France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. 

Following the cenobitical style of monasticism, St. Martin (316/17-397) and his followers lived as a community in caves, praying and preaching against paganism. From Gaul, monasticism spread to Wales, Ireland and Scotland, transforming from a way of life for a marginal few to a dominant Christian practice. 

But it was not until the sixth century that monasticism — which had been allowed to develop without guidance — was formalized by the  church through the combined efforts of St. Benedict and Pope Gregory the Great (540-604). 

Toning down the asceticism practised by Eastern monks and incorporating key Christian virtues advocated by Pachomius, such as humility and community work, Benedict wrote his Regula Monachorum at a monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy. This set of rules provided a formal, structured framework for monastic life that could be adopted by the church.

A balance of prayer and devotion to God, on the one hand, and practical work on the other, the life of a Benedictine monk began at 2 a.m. with first prayers (referred to as Nocturns or Matins). The day alternated between work — the Benedictines became highly successful farmers — prayer and religious study, with a single meal at mid-day (two meals during the summer months). The monks were in bed before 6 p.m. following Vespers or evening prayer.  Possessions were held in common, the monastery abbot had to be strictly obeyed and humility was practised at all times.

But Benedict’s Rule may have had little impact if a Teutonic tribe known as the Lombards had not invaded Italy some 30 years after the saint’s death in 547. Fleeing the invasion, monks from the Monte Cassino monastery escaped to Rome with a copy of their abbot’s rule and turned it over to Gregory the Great. The famous pope endorsed the Rule of St. Benedict and over the next several centuries Benedictine monasticism essentially became the only form of monasticism in Western Europe. 

During this period, known as the Benedictine centuries, monasteries became centres of educational and missionary activities, promoting and spreading Christianity in the Middle Ages. They also grew in wealth and, through centralization, power. By the early 10th century, a Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France, had become the central monastic house in Europe, with hundreds of dependent houses taking their direction from its abbot. At one point, the influence of the abbot of Cluny within the church was second only to that of the pope himself.

The accumulation of assets by monasteries, and their increasing involvement in secular affairs, created a backlash of reform. Many influential monks sought a return to a simpler, more austere life that marked early monasticism. In time, these monks started new orders, one of the most famous being the Cistercians. Although established in 1098 by Robert of Molesmes, it was under the theologian and mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) that the Cistercians flourished. Promoting a return to the spirit of the Rule of Benedict, the order grew rapidly, establishing more than 500 monasteries in the span of a century. During this time, Bernard also established a military order of monks, organizing the famous Knights Templar into a monastic group to fight in the Crusades. 

Despite efforts at reform, the monasteries of medieval times were tainted with abuses. Abbots were accused of living like kings, more concerned with upper-class social activities such as hunting than religious observance. Over the following centuries the monastic orders went into decline. Many faced suppression and had their wealth confiscated during the Protestant Reformation. And during the time of the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon I in the late 1700s and early 1800s, countless monasteries were destroyed throughout Europe.  Monasticism all but disappeared.

Its rebirth came in the mid-1800s. A French priest, upset with the political and religious situation of his day, raised private funds to purchase a priory that had been abandoned and put up for sale. Supported by the church, Prosper-Louis-Pascal Gueranger established a monastic community focused on prayer and study in the tradition of St. Benedict. 

This created a snowball effect and monasticism began to spread throughout Europe again and into North America. The Cistercians also revived, and acquired a level of international recognition in the 20th century through the writings of the Trappist (one of the two main Cistercian groups) monk Thomas Merton. 

Seventeen-hundred years since its origins in the deserts of Egypt, monasticism continues to be an essential part of the Catholic Church, providing a path to God through a life of prayer, study and service. 

(Archer is a freelance writer in Port Elgin, Ont.)

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