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Ever since the New Testament epistles were written, Christians have received advice on how to live the Christian life. How much should we pray? What progress can we expect to make in achieving biblical holiness in this life? Is perfection an attainable goal? Is Christianity best lived out in normal circumstances of family, marriage, and vocation, or in hermit-like isolation from others or in communities specially formed for the purpose of cultivating prayer, worship, and work?
As persecution of the early church died out and Christians gained freedom of worship in the Roman Empire, the monastic life originated as a lay movement offering specific answers to these questions. With martyrdom no longer a means by which people could demonstrate the Gospel’s demands of self-sacrifice, many believers found the sinful condition of Roman culture so oppressive that they “dropped out” of society altogether. They sought to express the spirit of ascetic devotion through monastic living.
Two types of monastic life emerged. Antony (died around 356), a close friend of Athanasius the famous opponent of Arianism, founded monasticism in Egypt by withdrawing to the desert and renouncing material comforts in order to lead a life of austere self-discipline. He modeled the Christian life as a hermit-like existence — a solitary quest for holiness through fasting, praying and battling against demonic forces. Athanasius helped disseminate this eremitic model through his hugely popular Life of St. Antony. Inspired by Antony’s example, myriads of individuals fled from cities, lived in caves, atop pillars, and in other isolated settings.
On the other hand, Pachomius, an ex-soldier, originated the first communal monasticism in the early fourth century. He founded ten monasteries and adopted a rule or code of discipline in which monks lived not in isolation but in communities. Following the example of the early church, the monks worked, prayed, and ate together sharing their possessions all under the strict supervision of the abbot, the head of the monastery. The motivation of both forms of monasticism was the desire for personal sanctification as manifest in the three austere vows of poverty (ridding oneself of worldly goods), chastity (abstaining from marriage and family life), and obedience (living according to the strict rules of the order).
In the Eastern part of the Empire, monasticism became institutionalized under the Rule of Basil of Cappadocia (316–397) and assumed a mystical cast. Taking 2 Peter 1:4 as their model, monks in Eastern monasticism engaged in prayer, meditation, fasting, and other ascetic disciplines with the specific goal of becoming “partakers of the divine nature.” Theosis or deification, attaining union with God, assumed primary importance. Athanasius summarized the principle in his famous statement, “The Son of God became man in order that we might become God.” He did not mean that we become God ontologically (that is, in our being), but that through communion with Christ, believers may be “in Christ” and become conformed to His image.
Monasticism in the West, however, assumed a more practical pattern. Jerome, for example, by translating the Bible into Latin and writing many commentaries united scholarship with communal living. He influenced many aristocratic Romans to distribute their fortunes to the poor and turn their magnificent homes into monasteries. John Calvin praised these early forms of monasticism in his Institutes (4.8–10) for the rigorous devotion they fostered and for the fact they served as “monastic colleges,” preparing men for the pastorate. In supplying clergy for the churches they produced “great and outstanding men of their time.” He contrasted Augustine’s defense of simplistic living in the fourth century with the proliferation of regulations and corruptions that pervaded the monastic orders in the sixteenth century.
Against this background we are prepared to consider perhaps the most prominent proponent of Western monasticism, Benedict (480–543) of Nursia, a village in north-central Italy. Under his influence monasticism assumed a more practical form and became the universal pattern in Europe. Benedict is of such stature that sixteen popes, including the present pontiff, have taken his name and attempted to replicate his work in their tenure. Benedict began as a student in Rome but fled from what he considered the degenerate life of the city to live as a hermit in a desolate grotto in Subiaco. Like Antony he struggled mightily against temptations from demonic forces and fought to gain control over his passions.
But he left his solitary life after three years convinced that while some might seek perfection alone, the ordinary believer needed a disciplined community. The severity of his devotion and his reputation of preaching, feeding the poor, and healing people from disease resulted in the elimination of local paganism, the conversion of many to Christianity, and the formation of twelve cloisters inhabited by those drawn by his example. Finally, in 529 he founded the famous monastery of Monte Cassino, the mother house of the Benedictine order located southeast of Rome.
His crowning achievement was his reducing to writing the Rule bearing his name, which drew upon earlier rules of Basil of Caesarea and Augustine. Benedict attempted to capture in his Rule the fundamental principles and practices taught in the Bible as a way of life. It united like-minded individuals in a communal setting.
In seventy-three brief chapters the Rule creates a community in which worship and labor function as twin foci of Christian living under the supervision of the abbot. Because the monks bind themselves to the rules of the order, all property is held in common, and everyone is treated equally without regard to earthly rank. The Rule unites all of its members as a family and regulates virtually every aspect of their life together. To ensure that strict discipline and harmonious cooperation pervades the common life, Benedict joins humility with obedience: “a monk shall, not only with his heart but also with his body, always show humility to all who see him; that is, when at work, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the fields.” He divided the monk’s day into various segments: common worship, singing psalms, meditation, and prayer (seven hours from a literal interpretation of Ps. 119:164: “Seven times a day I praise you…”), manual work (six or seven hours) with one (meatless) meal eaten at mid-day.
Worship stood at the center of life. Eleven of the seventy-three chapters regulate their public prayer. While not wanting to reduce prayer to a rigid system, Benedict established some clear parameters. The entire Psalter, for example, was recited weekly so that prayer permeated their daily living. To protect against over-zealousness, the Rule states, “Prayer made in common must always be short.” In order to integrate prayer into the entire life of his monks, Benedict devised a schedule, the seven daily “offices” — distinct hours of prayer interspersed throughout the entire day so that no great interval should exist without common prayer. The monk’s daily devotion began with Nocturns in the very early morning followed by Lauds before dawn, Prime at six in the morning, Terce in mid-morning, Sext before noon, Vespers in the evening, and Compline before retiring for the day.
The mode of living in the monastery was simple and devoid of extreme measures. The week contained two fast days. The labors of the monks in mornings and afternoons assumed a variety of forms. They ranged from household chores, manual labor in the fields, training of children (the origin of cloister schools), literary pursuits, and preaching to country folk. By not demanding specific tasks, Benedict’s rule allowed considerable freedom to monks provided that the work was consistent with their communal life and the performance of the daily Offices. By enjoining work, the Rule sought to follow Paul’s injunction to labor in order to avoid idleness. Two elders made rounds to ensure that the brothers engaged in their respective labors. It gave rise to the saying laborare est orare, “to labor is to pray.”
Thus monasticism began as a means by which individuals and groups fulfilled the biblical demands for holy living. By the sixth century, through the Benedictine Rule, monastic living spread throughout Europe. While the ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience became institutionalized and incorrectly prized as higher in value and effectiveness than ordinary vocations, the integration of worship and work as equally important means by which believers serve and glorify the Lord remains a vivid reminder of the social demands of New Testament living. The monastic orders fell prey to various corruptions as the Middle Ages unfolded and were reformed by the emergence of new orders and stricter interpretations of Benedict’s original rule. But at its best, monasticism continued to provide models for Christian living by which later figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux kept the light of the Gospel aflame.