The rise of monasticism

What is the perfect Christian life? Can it be lived? If so, how? Does it entail the transformation of all human society? Can individuals be immersed in a prevailingly or partially un-Christian society without compromising their principles and be fully Christian? To be fully Christian, is it necessary to withdraw from society? If so, must one live alone, or must those intent on the complete Christian life seek it in community with others? If life in community is necessary, can there be a community, a human society, which will fully embody the Christian ideal? In one form or another these questions have been raised by Christians from the outset and have been recurrent across the centuries. Beginning in the third century they became insistent and in the following two centuries were increasingly clamant.

As we have seen, the early Christians were a small minority of the population of the Roman Empire and to a large degree held aloof from the society about them, seeking to realize the ideal in the small communities which then made up the Church. By the middle of the third century thousands were pouring into the Church. The great persecutions of the second half of the third century and the first quarter of the fourth century only temporarily checked the flood and by their failure eventually accelerated it. Before the close of the fifth century the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Roman Empire were professing themselves to be Christians, had been baptized, and were members of one or another of the bodies which bore the Christian name. As we saw at the end of the last chapter, with the progress of the mass conversion the discipline of the Church was being relaxed and the gap between the ideal and the performance of the average Christian widened.

It was partially as a reaction against this laxity and partly because of the dissatisfaction which the teachings of Jesus and the apostles aroused with anything short of per fection that monasticism arose. At first it was primarily a lay movement, not within the hierarchical structure of the clergy. To some degree it was a rebellion of the individual against the organization of the Catholic Church, regimented as that was under the bishops and clergy. Indeed, at times its members were quite unsubmissive to the bishops and were insubordinate, even tumultuously so, against a particular bishop. Many bishops looked with unfriendly eyes on the monks. In the initial decades of monasticism numbers of monks, laymen living alone, seldom partook of the Eucharist. Yet by the end of the fifth century monasticism had spread so widely that it had become characteristic of the Catholic Church. It was being regarded as the preferred way towards the perfect Christian life and as such it was attracting many of the most ardent Christian youth. Henceforward it was to be an accepted feature of the Catholic Church and of most of the churches into which that church divided. At present, while rejected by most of Protestantism, it is found in the churches which embrace a majority of those who regard themselves as Christians. It so captured the churches that in the East eventually the bishops were normally, indeed almost if not quite universally, drawn from the monasteries. In the West many of the bishops were monks. Before the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory I, one of the strongest men to sit on the throne of Peter, was drawn, reluctant, from his monastery — although it is not certain that he ever took monastic vows — and since then many monks have been numbered among his successors.

Monasticism has displayed many variations and has been one of the chief ways in which the vitality of the Christian faith has found expression. We are, accordingly, not only to trace its beginnings, but in later chapters we are again and again to recur to it to sketch its successive stages.

To a certain degree monasticism represented the triumph of ideas which the Catholic Church had denounced as heretical. Into it crept something of the legalism, the belief that salvation can be earned and deserved, which is opposed to grace and which had been theoretically rejected when the Ebionites were appraised as untrue to the Gospel. In it was still more of the conviction that flesh and matter are evil which had been so prominent in Gnosticism, the Marcionites, and Manich^ism. In the triumph of monasti-cism, therefore, basic attitudes and beliefs won acceptance which in other forms the Catholic Church had branded as contrary to the genius of the Christian faith.

Moreover, at its inception, and to some degree in its later history, monasticism had much in it which was in contrast with the Gospel. At the outset, for the most part it was not missionary, in the sense that it did not endeavour to win non-Christians. It did not seek to save the world but to flee from it. Yet distinctively Christian elements were in the monastic movement. On renouncing their possessions the aspirants to the monastic life distributed them among the poor. Hundreds of monks, including the most famous of the pioneers, gave spiritual counsel to those who came to them. In later centuries, especially in the West, many monastic organizations became missionary or devoted themselves to the service of others. Indeed, from the sixth century onward most of the missionaries of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches were men or women who had taken monastic vows.

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