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Monasticism

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Monasticism or monachism, literally the act of "dwelling alone" (Greek monos, monazein, monachos), has come to denote the mode of life pertaining to persons living in seclusion from the world, under religious vows and subject to a fixed rule, as monks, friars, nuns, or in general as religious. The basic idea of monasticism in all its varieties is seclusion or withdrawal from the world or society. The object of this is to achieve a life whose ideal is different from and largely at variance with that pursued by the majority of mankind; and the method adopted, no matter what its precise details may be, is always self-abnegation or organized asceticism. Taken in this broad sense monachism may be found in every religious system which has attained to a high degree of ethical development, such as Brahmin, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Moslem religions, and even in the system of those modern communistic societies, often anti-theological in theory, which are a special feature of recent social development especially in America. Hence it is claimed that a form of life which flourishes in environments so diverse must be the expression of a principle inherent in human nature and rooted therein no less deeply than the principle of domesticity, though obviously limited to a far smaller portion of mankind. This article and its two accompanying articles, EASTERN MONASTICISM and WESTERN MONASTICISM, deal with the monastic order strictly so called as distinct from the "religious orders" such as the friars, canons regular, clerks regular, and the more recent congregations. For information as to these see RELIGIOUS ORDERS, and the article on the particular order or congregation required.

Its growth and method

Origin

Any discussion of pre-Christian asceticism is outside the scope of this article. So too, any question of Jewish asceticism as exemplified in the Essenes or Therapeutae of Philo's "De Vita Contemplativa" is excluded.

It has already been pointed out that the monastic ideal is an ascetic one, but it would be wrong to say that the earliest Christian asceticism was monastic. Any such thing was rendered impossible by the circumstances in which the early Christians were placed, for in the first century or so of the Church's existence the idea of living apart from the congregation of the faithful, or of forming within it associations to practise special renunciations in common was out of the question. While admitting this, however, it is equally certain that monasticism, when it came, was little more than a precipitation of ideas previously in solution among Christians. For asceticism is the struggle against worldly principles, even with such as are merely worldly without being sinful. The world desires and honours wealth, so the ascetic loves and honours poverty. If he must have something in the nature of property then he and his fellows shall hold it in common, just because the world respects and safeguards private ownership. In like manner he practises fasting and virginity that thereby he may repudiate the licence of the world.

Hereafter the various items of this renunciation will be dealt with in detail, they are mentioned at this time merely to show how the monastic ideal was foreshadowed in the asceticism of the Gospel and its first followers. Such passages as I John, ii, 15-17: "Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the father but is of the world. And the world passeth away and the concupiscence thereof. But he that doeth the will of God abideth forever" — passages which might be multiplied, and can bear but one meaning if taken literally. And this is precisely what the early ascetics did. We read of some who, driven by the spirit of God, dedicated their energies to the spread of the Gospel and, giving up all their possessions passed from city to city in voluntary poverty as apostles and evangelists. Of others we hear that they renounced property and marriage so as to devote their lives to the poor and needy of their particular church. If these were not strictly speaking monks and nuns, at least the monks and nuns were such as these; and, when the monastic life took definite shape in the fourth century, these forerunners were naturally looked up to as the first exponents of monachism. For the truth is that the Christian ideal is frankly an ascetic one and monachism is simply the endeavour to effect a material realization of that ideal, or organization in accordance with it, when taken literally as regards its "Counsels" as well as its "Precepts" (see ASCETICISM; EVANGELICAL COUNSELS).

Besides a desire of observing the evangelical counsels, and a horror of the vice and disorder that prevailed in a pagan age, two contributory causes in particular are often indicated as leading to a renunciation of the world among the early Christians. The first of these was the expectation of an immediate Second Advent of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; 1 Peter 4:7, etc.) That this belief was widespread is admitted on all hands, and obviously it would afford a strong motive for renunciation since a man who expects this present order of things to end at any moment, will lose keen interest in many matters commonly held to be important. This belief however had ceased to be of any great influence by the fourth century, so that it cannot be regarded as a determining factor in the origin of monasticism which then took visible shape. A second cause more operative in leading men to renounce the world was the vividness of their belief in evil spirits. The first Christians saw the kingdom of Satan actually realized in the political and social life of heathendom around them. In their eyes the gods whose temples shone in every city were simply devils, and to participate in their rites was to join in devil worship. When Christianity first came in touch with the Gentiles the Council of Jerusalem by its decree about meat offered to idols (Acts 15:20) made clear the line to be followed. Consequently certain professions were practically closed to believers since a soldier, schoolmaster, or state official of any kind might be called upon at a moment's notice to participate in some act of state religion. But the difficulty existed for private individuals also. There were gods who presided over every moment of a man's life, gods of house and garden, of food and drink, of health and sickness. To honour these was idolatry, to ignore them would attract inquiry, and possibly persecution. And so when, to men placed in this dilemma, St. John wrote, "Keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21) he said in effect "Keep yourselves from public life, from society, from politics, from intercourse of any kind with the heathen", in short, "renounce the world".

By certain writers the communitarian element seen in the Church of Jerusalem during the years of its existence (Acts 4:32) has sometimes been pointed to as indicating a monastic element in its constitution, but no such conclusion is justified. Probably the community of goods was simply a natural continuation of the practice, begun by Jesus and the Apostles, where one of the band kept the common purse and acted as steward. There is no indication that such a custom was ever instituted elsewhere and even at Jerusalem it seems to have collapsed at an early period. It must be recognized also that influences such as the above were merely contributory and of comparatively small importance. The main cause which begot monachism was simply the desire to fulfill Christ's law literally, to imitate Him in all simplicity, following in His footsteps whose "kingdom is not of this world". So we find monachism at first instinctive, informal, unorganized, sporadic; the expression of the same force working differently in different places, persons, and circumstances; developing with the natural growth of a plant according to the environment in which it finds itself and the character of the individual listener who heard in his soul the call of "Follow Me".

Means to the end

It must be clearly understood that, in the case of the monk, asceticism is not an end in itself. For him, as for all men, the end of life is to love God. Monastic asceticism then means the removal of obstacles to loving God, and what these obstacles are is clear from the nature of love itself. Love is the union of wills. If the creature is to love God, he can do it in one way only; by sinking his own will in God's, by doing the will of God in all things: "if ye love Me keep my commandments". No one understands better than the monk those words of the beloved disciple, "Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life", for in his case life has come to mean renunciation. Broadly speaking this renunciation has three great branches corresponding to the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

(a) Poverty

There are few subjects, if any, upon which more sayings of Jesus have been preserved than upon the superiority of poverty over wealth in His kingdom (cf. Matthew 5:3; 13:22; 19:21 sq.; Mark 10:23 sq.; Luke 6:20; 18:24 sq., etc.), and the fact of their preservation would indicate that such words were frequently quoted and presumably frequently acted upon. The argument based on such passages as Matthew 19:21 sq., may be put briefly thus. If a man wish to attain eternal life it is better for him to renounce his possessions than to retain them. Jesus said, "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God", the reason being no doubt that it is difficult to prevent the affections from becoming attached to riches, and that such attachment makes admission into Christ's kingdom impossible. As St. Augustine points out, the disciples evidently understood Jesus to include all who covet riches in the number of "the rich", otherwise, considering the small number of the wealthy compared with the vast multitude of the poor, they would not have asked, "Who then shall be saved"? "You cannot serve God and Mammon" is an obvious truth to a man who knows by experience the difficulty of a whole-hearted service of God; for the spiritual and material good are in immediate antithesis, and where one is the other cannot be. Man cannot sate his nature with the temporal and yet retain an appetite for the eternal; and so, if he would live the life of the spirit, he must flee the lust of the earth and keep his heart detached from what is of its very nature unspiritual. The extent to which this spiritual poverty is practised has varied greatly in the monachism of different ages and lands. In Egypt the first teachers of monks taught that the renunciation should be made as absolute as possible. Abbot Agathon used to say, "Own nothing which it would grieve you to give to another". St. Macarius once, on returning to his cell, found a robber carrying off his scanty furniture. He thereupon pretended to be a stranger, harnessed the robber's horse for him and helped him to get his spoil away. Another monk had so stripped himself of all things that he possessed nothing save a copy of the Gospels. After a while he sold this also and gave the price away saying, "I have sold the very book that bade me sell all I had".

As the monastic institute became more organized legislation appeared in the various codes to regulate this point among others. That the principle remained the same however is clear from the strong way in which St. Benedict speaks of the matter while making special allowance for the needs of the infirm, etc. (Reg. Ben., xxxiii). "Above everything the vice of private ownership is to be cut off by the roots from the monastery. Let no one presume either to give or to receive anything without leave of the abbot, nor to keep anything as his own, neither book, nor writing tablets, nor pen, nor anything whatsoever, since it is unlawful for them to have their bodies or wills in their own power". The principle here laid down, viz., that the monk's renunciation of private property is absolute, remains as much in force today as in the dawn of monasticism. No matter to what extent any individual monk may be allowed the use of clothing, books, or even money, the ultimate proprietorship in such things can never be permitted to him. (See POVERTY; MENDICANT FRIARS; VOW.)

(b) Chastity

If the things to be given up be tested by the criterion of difficulty, the renunciation of material possessions is clearly the first and easiest step for man to take, as these things are external to his nature. Next in difficulty will come the things that are united to man's nature by a kind of necessary affinity. Hence in the ascending order chastity is the second of the evangelical counsels, and as such it is based upon the words of Jesus, "If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters yea and his own soul also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). It is obvious that of all the ties that bind the human heart to this world the possession of wife and children is the strongest. Moreover the renunciation of the monk includes not only these but in accordance with the strictest teaching of Jesus all sexual relations or emotion arising therefrom. The monastic idea of chastity is a life like that of the angels. Hence the phrases, "angelicus ordo", "angelica conversatio", which have been adopted from Origen to describe the life of the monk, no doubt in reference to Mark 12:25. It is primarily as a means to this end that fasting takes so important a place in the monastic life. Among the early Egyptian and Syrian monks in particular fasting was carried to such lengths that some modern writers have been led to regard it almost as an end in itself, instead of being merely a means and a subordinate one at that. This error of course is confined to writers about monasticism, it has never been countenanced by any monastic teacher. (See CELIBACY OF THE CLERGY; CHASTITY; CONTINENCE; FAST; VOW.)

(c) Obedience

"The first step in humility is obedience without delay. This benefits those who count nothing dearer to them than Christ on account of the holy service which they have undertaken...without doubt such as these follow that thought of the Lord when He said, I came not to do my own will but the will of Him that sent me" (Reg. Ben., v). Of all the steps in the process of renunciation, the denial of a man's own will is clearly the most difficult. At the same time it is the most essential of all as Jesus said (Matthew 16:24), "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me". The most difficult because self-interest, self-protection, self-regard of all kinds are absolutely a part of man's nature, so that to master such instincts requires a supernatural strength. The most essential also because by this means the monk achieves that perfect liberty which is only to be found where is the Spirit of the Lord. It was Seneca who wrote, "parere deo libertas est", and the pagan philosopher's dictum is confirmed and testified on every page of the Gospel. In Egypt at the dawn of monasticism the custom was for a young monk to put himself under the guidance of a senior whom he obeyed in all things. Although the bond between them was wholly voluntary the system seems to have worked perfectly and the commands of the senior were obeyed without hesitation. "Obedience is the mother of all virtues": "obedience is that which openeth heaven and raiseth man from the earth": "obedience is the food of all the saints, by her they are nourished, through her they come to perfection": such sayings illustrate sufficiently the view held on this point by the fathers of the desert. As the monastic life came to be organized by rule, the insistence on obedience remained the same, but its practice was legislated for. Thus St. Benedict at the very outset, in the Prologue to his Rule, reminds the monk of the prime purpose of his life, viz., "that thou mayest return by the labour of obedience to Him from whom thou hast departed by the sloth of disobedience". Later he devotes the whole of his fifth chapter to this subject and again, in detailing the vows his monks must take, while poverty and chastity are presumed as implicitly included, obedience is one of the three things explicitly promised.

Indeed the saint even legislates for the circumstance of a monk being ordered to do something impossible. "Let him seasonably and with patience lay before his superior the reasons of his incapacity to obey, without showing pride, resistance or contradiction. If, however, after this the superior still persist in his command, let the younger know that it is expedient for him, and let him obey the law of God trusting in His assistance" (Reg. Ben., lxviii). Moreover "what is commanded is to be done not fearfully, tardily, nor coldly, nor with murmuring, nor with an answer showing unwillingness, for the obedience which is given to superiors is given to God, since He Himself hath said, He that heareth you heareth Me" (Reg. Ben., v). It is not hard to see why so much emphasis is laid on this point. The object of monasticism is to love God in the highest degree possible in this life. In true obedience the will of the servant is one with that of his master and the union of wills is love. Wherefore, that the obedience of the monk's will to that of God may be as simple and direct as possible, St. Benedict writes (ch. ii) "the abbot is considered to hold in the monastery the place of Christ Himself, since he is called by His name" (see OBEDIENCE; VOW). St. Thomas, in chapter xi of his Opusculum "On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life", points out that the three means of perfection, poverty, chastity, and obedience, belong peculiarly to the religious state. For religion means the worship of God alone, which consists in offering sacrifice, and of sacrifices the holocaust is the most perfect. Consequently when a man dedicates to God all that he has, all that he takes pleasure in, and all that he is, he offers a holocaust; and this he does pre-eminently by the three religious vows.

The different kinds of monks

It must be clearly understood that the monastic order properly so-called differs from the friars, clerks regular, and other later developments of the religious life in one fundamental point. The latter have essentially some special work or aim, such as preaching, teaching, liberating captives, etc., which occupies a large place in their activities and to which many of the observances of the monastic life have to give way. This is not so in the case of the monk. He lives a special kind of life for the sake of the life and its consequences to himself. In a later section we shall see that monks have actually undertaken external labours of the most varied character, but in every case this work is extrinsic to the essence of the monastic state. Christian monasticism has varied greatly in its external forms, but, broadly speaking, it has two main species (a) the eremitical or solitary, (b) the cenobitical or family types. St. Anthony may be called the founder of the first and St. Pachomius of the second.

(a) The Eremitical Type of Monasticism

This way of life took its rise among the monks who settled around St. Anthony's mountain at Pispir and whom he organized and guided. In consequence it prevailed chiefly in northern Egypt from Lycopolis (Asyut) to the Mediterranean, but most of our information about it deals with Nitria and Scete. Cassian and Palladius give us full details of its working and from them we learn that the strictest hermits lived out of earshot of each other and only met together for Divine worship on Saturdays and Sundays, while others would meet daily and recite their psalms and hymns together in little companies of three or four. There was no Rule of Life among them but, as Palladius says, "they have different practices, each as he is able and as he wishes". The elders exercised an authority, but chiefly of a personal kind, their position and influence being in proportion to their reputation for greater wisdom. The monks would visit each other often and discourse, several together, on Holy Scripture and on the spiritual life. General conferences in which a large number took part were not uncommon. Gradually the purely eremitical life tended to die out (Cassian, "Conf.", xix) but a semi-eremitical form continued to be common for a long period, and has never ceased entirely either in East or West where the Carthusians and Camaldolese still practise it. It is needless here to trace its developments in detail as all its varieties are dealt with in special articles (see ANCHORITES; ST. ANTHONY; ORDERS OF ST. ANTHONY; CAMALDOLESE; CARTHUSIANS; HERMITS; LAURA; EASTERN MONASTICISM; STYLITES OR PILLAR SAINTS; ST. PAUL THE HERMIT).

(b) The Cenobitical Type of Monasticism. This type began in Egypt at a somewhat later date than the eremitical form. It was about the year 318 that St. Pachomius, still a young man, founded his first monastery at Tabennisi near Denderah. The institute spread with surprising rapidity, and by the date of St. Pachomius' death (c. 345) it counted eight monasteries and several hundred monks. Most remarkable of all is the fact that it immediately took shape as a fully organized congregation or order, with a superior general, a system of visitations and general chapters, and all the machinery of a centralized government such as does not again appear in the monastic world until the rise of the Cistercians and Mendicant Orders some eight or nine centuries later. As regards internal organization the Pachomian monasteries had nothing of the family ideal. The numbers were too great for this and everything was done on a military or barrack system. In each monastery there were numerous separate houses, each with its own praepositus, cellarer, and other officials, the monks being grouped in these according to the particular trade they followed. Thus the fullers were gathered in one house, the carpenters in another, and so on; an arrangement the more desirable because in the Pachomian monasteries regular organized work was an integral part of the system, a feature in which it differed from the Antonian way of life. In point of austerity however the Antonian monks far surpassed the Pachomian, and so we find Bgoul and Schenute endeavouring in their great monastery at Athribis, to combine the cenobitical life of Tabennisi with the austerities of Nitria.

In the Pachomian monasteries it was left very much to the individual taste of each monk to fix the order of life for himself. Thus the hours for meals and the extent of his fasting were settled by him alone, he might eat with the others in common or have bread and salt provided in his own cell every day or every second day. The conception of the cenobitical life was modified considerably by St. Basil. In his monasteries a true community life was followed. It was no longer possible for each one to choose his own dinner hour. On the contrary, meals were in common, work was in common, prayer was in common seven times a day. In the matter of asceticism too all the monks were under the control of the superior whose sanction was required for all the austerities they might undertake. It was from these sources that western monachism took its rise; further information on them will be found in the articles BASIL THE GREAT; RULE OF SAINT BASIL; SAINT BENEDICT OF NURSIA; SAINT PACHOMIUS; SAINT PALLADIUS.

Monastic occupations

It has already been pointed out that the monk can adopt any kind of work so long as it is compatible with a life of prayer and renunciation. In the way of occupations therefore prayer must always take the first place.

(a) Monastic PrayerFrom the very outset it has been regarded as the monk's first duty to keep up the official prayer of the Church. To what extent the Divine office was stereotyped in St. Anthony's day need not be discussed here, but Palladius and Cassian both make it clear that the monks were in no way behind the rest of the world as regards their liturgical customs. The practice of celebrating the office apart, or in twos and threes, has been referred to above as common in the Antonian system, while the Pachomian monks performed many of the services in their separate houses, the whole community only assembled in the church for the more solemn offices, while the Antonian monks only met together on Saturdays and Sundays. Among the monks of Syria the night office was much longer than in Egypt (Cassian, "Instit.", II, ii; III, i, iv, viii) and new offices at different hours of the day were instituted. In prayer as in other matters St. Basil's legislation became the norm among Eastern monks, while in the West no changes of importance have taken place since St. Benedict's rule gradually eliminated all local customs. For the development of the Divine office into its present form see the articles, BREVIARY; CANONICAL HOURS; and also the various "hours", e.g., MATINS, LAUDS, etc.; LITURGY, etc. In the east this solemn liturgical prayer remains today almost the sole active work of the monks, and, though in the west many other forms of activity have flourished, the Opus Dei or Divine Office has always been and still is regarded as the preeminent duty and occupation of the monk to which all other works, no matter how excellent in themselves, must give way, according to St. Benedict's principle (Reg.Ben., xliii) "Nihil operi Dei praeponatur" (Let nothing take precedence of the work of God). Alongside the official liturgy, private prayer, especially mental prayer, has always held an important place; see PRAYER; CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE.

(b) Monastic labours

The first monks did comparatively little in the way of external labour. We hear of them weaving mats, making baskets and doing other work of a simple character which, while serving for their support, would not distract them from the continual contemplation of God. Under St. Pachomius manual labour was organized as an essential part of the monastic life; and since it is a principle of the monks as distinguished from the mendicants, that the body shall be self-supporting, external work of one sort or another has been an inevitable part of the life ever since.

It must be clearly understood however, that monasticism has never become stereotyped in practice, and that it would be quite false to hold up any single example as a supreme and perfect model. Monasticism is a living thing and consequently it must be informed with a principle of self-motion and adaptability to its environment. Only one thing must always remain the same and that is the motive power which brought it into existence and has maintained it throughout the centuries, viz., the love of God and the desire to serve Him as perfectly as this life permits, leaving all things to follow after Christ.


About this page

APA citation. Huddleston, G. (1911). Monasticism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10459a.htm

MLA citation. Huddleston, Gilbert. "Monasticism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10459a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Marie Jutras.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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