In the fourth and fifth centuries monasticism spread widely and monks multiplied. Monks and monasteries were especially numerous in the East, notably in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Syria, partly because in the latter two countries pre-monastic asceticism had been strong in Christian circles. In Mesopotamia they seem to have had beginnings which were quite independent of influences from Egypt. They may have been indebted to Manich^an monasticism and through that to Buddhist and Hindu asceticism.
Monks and monasteries were also present in the West. All three kinds of monks were found — the solitaries (who were especially numerous in Palestine), those whose cells were grouped into a loose community, a laura, and those dwelling in the highly organized groups of which Pachomius had been a pioneer.
Some of the monks practised extreme austerities. There were the "pillar saints," those who lived on the top of pillars. One of the earliest and quite the most famous of them was Simeon Stylites, who died in 459. He dwelt on his pillar east of Antioch for thirty-six years, is said to have touched his feet with his forehead more than 1244 times in succession, and to have dripped with vermin. His fame spread, and multitudes, including some high state officials, came to see him. Other monks were immured in cells, some of them so small that they could neither lie at full length nor stand at full height. In one group the monks are reported to have subsisted on grass which they cut with sickles. Some monks passed many nights without sleep. Others went for days without food. The extreme ascetics were popularly esteemed "athletes of God." Many were said to work miracles of healing.
More numerous than these individualistic ascetics were the monks who lived in communities according to rule. After Pachomius, the most famous pioneer in the East of this form of monasticism was Basil of Cssarea, whom we have already met as a scion of a wealthy, earnestly Christian family and as one of the three great Cappadocian champions and interpreters of Nicene orthodoxy. In 358, then in his late twenties, Basil visited Egypt and was profoundly impressed by what he saw there or the Pachomian monasteries. During their student days at Athens he and Gregory of Nazianzus agreed to join in living the ascetic life. The ascetic life had appeared among the Christians in his native country some time before Basil's return home, and Eustathius, Bishop of Sebaste, north-east of Cssarea, had already founded monasteries. Although later separated on questions of doctrine, Basil and Eustathius were for a time close friends. Moreover, Basil's mother, one of his sisters, Macrina, and a younger brother began in Pontus the nucleus of a community for simple Christian living which later was to develop into a nunnery. Indeed, Macrina was looked back to as the founder of women's conventual life in the Greek portion of the Catholic Church. Basil distributed part of his property among the poor and embarked on the monastic life in a secluded spot across the river from this establishment. Others joined him. He did not condemn Christians who married, but he believed celibacy and asceticism to be the higher way.
Basil was not long permitted to give himself exclusively to the monastic discipline, for he was drawn into the general life of the Church — into its theological controversies and eventually into its administration as a bishop. In this he was a prototype of many outstanding monks, both in the East and the West. They found that they could not withdraw completely from the world or from the Church as a whole, but must participate in them. Yet in the intervals which he devoted to the monastic life Basil worked out a set of rules which helped to shape monasticism in the Catholic Church, both in the East and the West. These were not in one formal piece of legislation, but were directions for the ascetic life contained in several writings, especially what are known as The Longer Rules and The Shorter Rules.
Here is not the place for a full description or even an adequate summary of these directions. In them Basil was deeply indebted to what he had seen in the Pachomian mon asteries in Egypt. Yet he was no slavish imitator but was, rather, a creator. He knit the monastery into more of a community than had Pachomius. In general Basil advocated that the ascetics dwell together in communities rather than in solitude, declaring that association with others was necessary to the full Christian life, such as the practice of the law of love to one's neighbour. In the community room was to be found for both work and prayer. Extreme austerity was to be avoided, for after testing it in his first years of the ascetic life Basil had found it unfruitful. Food was to be simple and inexpensive and during the common meal a book was to be read. Work was for the supplying of the needs of the monastery and was varied, with preference given to agriculture and chief honour paid to intellectual labour, especially the study of the Scriptures. The monastery had its officers, with a superior over them all, chosen by the heads of neighbouring monasteries and after a period of probation accepted by his brethren. The superior was to seek the counsel of senior brethren. The obedience of the monk was to be absolute and the commitment was for life. Entrance to a monastery did not necessarily entail the renunciation of all the postulant's property, but he was to distribute at least part of it to the poor, taking care to do so with wisdom, remembering that he held it in trust from God. The monks were to make frequent confession of their sins, probably to one or another of the more mature of their brethren and not necessarily to a priest. After entering the monastery, the monks were to have as little contact as possible with their families, for this would embroil them with the world and its affairs. The monastery as a whole, through its official almoner, gave aid to the poor outside its walls, more especially to those who were dedicated to God. Boys were received to be educated in a religious manner, but were largely kept separate from the monks. The monasteries did not form a closely knit order, but constituted a kind of loose federation, and in time of need the richer were supposed to come to the assistance of the poorer. The monks were mostly laymen and the bishops seem to have had no control over them or the monasteries except that the formal admission to the monastic life was in the presence of a bishop. Yet Basil himself, as we have seen, became a bishop, and he made important contributions towards bringing the monastic life into the life of the Catholic Church as a whole. He and his monks became champions of orthodoxy and he set the example of a man of learning and outstanding gifts of organization giving himself both to the ascetic life and to the Church.
As we have suggested, Basil had a profound influence upon later monasticism, in both the East and the West. The great leader and organizer in the revival of Byzantine monasticism, Theodore the Studite, whom we are to meet in the eighth century, and whose reformed monastery, an outgrowth of a church and centre of monasticism founded in Constantinople in the late fifth century by Studius, became a model throughout the Eastern or Greek wing of the Catholic Church, drew his inspiration largely from the writings of Basil. In the West, Cassian, a fifth century pioneer in developing monasticism in Gaul, was aware of the work of Basil. Basil's precedent was formative in the rules devised by Benedict of Nursia, whom we are to meet in the sixth century. Benedict took over the Basilian pattern, although not slavishly or to the neglect of other earlier forms of the monastic life, and modified it to suit the needs of himself and of the community which he founded. For centuries his rule was dominant in the monasticism of the West.
An older contemporary of Basil and apparently quite unaffected by him, but a pioneer of the monastic movement in the West, and especially in Gaul, was Martin of
Tours. We have already met him as a bishop who was active in spreading the faith in his diocese. Martin was born in the first half of the fourth century, the son of pagan parents. Since his father had been a military officer, Martin, complying with the requirement which made that occupation hereditary, entered the army in his teens. He was then already a catechumen. It was while serving in northern Gaul that the most famous incident of his life is said to have occurred. He is reported to have divided his coat with a beggar on a cold winter day and that night, in a dream, to have seen Christ clothed with the half which he had given away and saying that it was he with whom the young soldier had shared his garment. Baptized and resigning from the army two years later, Martin joined himself to Hilary of Poitiers, a famous champion of Nicene orthodoxy, journeyed to his parents to try to win them to the Christian faith and, returning to Gaul, established himself as a hermit. Others were attracted to him and a community arose which became the beginning of a monastery. The Christians of Tours wished him for their bishop and, luring him into the city, constrained him to accept the post. While performing with distinction the duties of his office, he remained humble, refusing to sit on the bishop's throne but using instead a rude stool, and continued to live as a hermit in a cell outside the city and there was joined by admirers who became the nucleus of another monastery. Many miracles were attributed to him. He was active in winning non-Christians and travelled extensively outside his diocese on various errands in the interests of the faith. He believed that no one was so depraved that he was beyond the scope of God's pardon. Himself impeccably orthodox, he protested against the persecution of heretics. He died in 397 or 400, probably in his seventies or eighties, exhausted by a journey which he had undertaken to restore harmony among the clergy in a town in his diocese. A younger contemporary admirer who wrote his biography declared that "he judged none and condemned none and never returned evil for evil. No one ever saw him angry, or annoyed, or mournful, or laughing. He was always the same and presented to everyone a joy of countenance and manner which seemed to those who saw it beyond the nature of man. Nothing was in his mouth except Christ, nothing in his heart but piety, peace, and pity." This biography early had a wide circulation and helped to shape the general religious life as well as monasticism in the West. The large number of churches in Western Europe which were dedicated to Martin were evidence of the impress which he made upon the Christianity of that region.
Another, but very different Western pioneer of monasticism was Eusebius Hieronimus Sophronius, better known as Jerome. A gifted and diligent scholar, enormously erudite, a master of languages, a lover of books, wielding a facile, vigorous, and often vitriolic pen, Jerome was an eloquent advocate of the monastic life. A contemporary of Martin of Tours, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, and the great Cappadocians, Jerome was born about the year 342 of devout Christian parents, near Aquileia, not far from the head of the Adriatic. As a youth he studied in Rome and there his ardent nature caused him on the one hand to be moved by the churches and the catacombs and on the other to succumb to some of the vices which abounded in that capital. Baptized in Rome in his mid-twenties, he was attracted to the ascetic life. This had already entered Rome, perhaps stimulated by the descriptions given of the monks of Egypt by Athanasius when, exiled from his see, he took refuge with his fellow bishop, the Pope. It had won women from some of the wealthiest circles of Roman society. Returning to Aquileia, Jerome became one of a group of young men who gave themselves to the as cetic life. From Aquileia Jerome journeyed east and for three years lived as a solitary ascetic on the borders of Chalcis, southeast of Antioch, devoting himself to austerities, correspondence with his friends, and study in the library which he had brought with him. Restless by disposition, he lived for a time in Antioch, was there, reluctant, ordained priest, travelled to Palestine to visit the holy places of his faith, and then made his residence in Constantinople, where he formed a friendship with Gregory of Nazianzus. Journeying again to Rome, he was secretary of a council which aspired to be ecumenical, from 382 was secretary to Pope Damasus until the latter's death in December, 384, and, with the encouragement of the latter, began the work on a Latin translation of the Scriptures which was to be one of his chief claims to fame. While in Rome he continued to wear the dress and follow the abstemious discipline of the hermit and became spiritual director and teacher to the circle of wealthy women who were interested in the ascetic life. With one of these, Paula, he formed an especially close friendship. Against bitter opposition, Jerome eloquently advocated the ascetic life, praised virginity, and excoriated the luxurious and wealth-seeking among the clergy of the city.
After the death of Damasus Jerome left Rome, perhaps because of disappointment at not being elected Pope or because of the opposition and criticism which he had aroused. A few months later he was followed by Paula. Together they visited the places associated with the life of Jesus, among them Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Egypt. Returning to Bethlehem, Jerome built a monastery and established himself in a cave close to the reputed site of the nativity, while Paula erected convents and a hospice for pilgrims. There Jerome gave himself to the routine of the monk, with its prayers, austere meals, and work. His chief labours were literary, and in them he had the encouragement of Paula and the assistance of scribes who wrote at his dictation. He composed commentaries on the Bible, engaged in theological polemics, and carried on a voluminous correspondence. His chief accomplishment was a fresh translation of the Bible into Latin from the original tongues. Because of its merit, both in its scholarship and its felicitous Latin style, this translation won its way among Latin-using peoples and eventually became standard for the Roman Catholic Church. However, the text which circulated under the name of the Vulgate, namely, the Latin vernacular version of the Bible, did not preserve the work of Jerome in its purity. It incorporated an older version of the Psalms, in part revised by Jerome, and some of its other sections were from older translations, partly unrevised or partially revised. It was a late sixteenth century revision of the Vulgate which was eventually made standard by Papal decree. Jerome lived on until 420, surviving the death of Paula and several of his closest friends, and dying where he had spent the last thirty-four years, in Bethlehem. His was a tempestuous career, but by his ardent advocacy of monasticism he had given a great impetus to that movement, especially in the West.
Martin of Tours and Jerome were by no means the only ones responsible for the growth of the monastic movement in the West. Ambrose of Milan furthered it. In the fourth century Bishop Eusebius of Vercells: in Italy had the clergy of his cathedral live together according to a rule. Augustine of Hippo gathered his clerical household into a community. At least two Popes of the fifth century founded monasteries in Rome. Early in the fifth century John Cassian began monasteries in Marseilles and Lerins in the south of Gaul which soon enrolled thousands.
By the end of the fifth century monasticism had become firmly established in the Catholic Church in both East and West and had begun to take on the forms which were to characterize it through the centuries. It was to undergo many modifications, but in its numerous ramifications it was to be the main channel through which bursts of new life were to find expression in the various churches which conserved the traditions of the Catholic Church of the Roman Empire. One of the best gauges of the vitality of these churches, and especially of the Roman Catholic Church, is to be found in the numbers and strength of the reforms of existing monastic houses and of the new monastic or near-monastic movements which emerge in any one era. When vigour has been at a low ebb, the monastic life has languished and become sluggish or corrupt. In times of revival, the monastic life has attracted ardent souls who wish to give themselves unreservedly to the faith and has taken on fresh variety and new forms.
Here was effort after effort to create communities which would completely realize the Christian ideal and also, in the case of increasing numbers of variations of the monastic patterns. Never did the effort fully reach its goal externally, although it was fulfilled in the spiritual perfection of many true monks.
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