A Short History of Monks and Monasteries


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The monastic community and the living tradition of Benedict seemed to have disappeared. However, copies of his Rule survived in Roman libraries. Around Pope St Gregory the Great praised this Rule and its author, increasing the popularity of both. Next, the Rule is found in some monasteries in Southern Gaul modern France and elsewhere, normally used by the abbot together with rules written by other monastic fathers to help him to guide the community.

Throughout the Carolingian empire which covers modern France, Belgium, Holland Switzerland, Germany, parts of Italy and Austria, hundreds of monasteries of monks and nuns come now under the Rule of Benedict. Simultaneously, the observance of these monasteries is unified, even in areas where the Rule left details to the discretion of the abbot. In the Latin West, religious life is now mostly Benedictine. The monasteries become important centers of religious life, but also of political administration, of economic development and of learning, both theological and secular.

Books are written and copied in the scriptoria writing rooms of the monasteries, and abbey schools train the clergy and the ruling elite. The monks dedicate themselves mainly to liturgical prayer, whose amount gradually increases. The monasteries own farms and sometimes whole villages, whose peasants sustain the monks with part of their produce.

In the ninth century the papacy starts to protect some monasteries from the interference of noblemen and local bishops. Cluny in Burgundy, founded in , eventually establishes a huge family of monasteries under one abbot. In the 12 th century several hundred houses belonged to it. The Cistercians have the greatest impact. Meanwhile, life in Europe has shifted from the countryside to cities. Newer orders like the Franciscans and the Dominicans respond to the spiritual and intellectual desires of city dwellers.

While Benedictines continue to be found all over Europe, they are no longer the main protagonists of religious life. From the 15 th century onwards, monasteries try to protect themselves from the interference of secular or ecclesiastical lords by forming congregations. It remains for many centuries a model which other Congregations copy. New forms of personal prayer and meditation are now introduced to the life of the monks, to complement the divine office and lectio. A new emphasis on the personal needs of the individual monk also leads to the introduction of cells, replacing the dormitories in use until then.

The so-called reformation in the 16 th century turns against religious and monastic life of any kind. Protestant sovereigns use theological justifications to suppress the monasteries and confiscate their property. Some abbots and monks are killed, others simply retire from monastic life, return to their families or accept parishes.

In Catholic countries, however, Benedictine monasticism begins to flourish again.

Benedictine abbeys are being rebuilt in the splendid baroque style, and many monasteries become centres of scholarship, culture and education. At day-break he beholds far away a she-wolf gasping with parched thirst and creeping into a cave. He draws near and peers within.

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All is dark, but perfect love casteth out fear. With halting step and bated breath, he enters. After a while a light gleams in the distant midnight darkness. With eagerness he presses forward, but his foot strikes against a stone and arouses the echoes; whereupon the blessed Paul closes the door and makes it fast. For hours Anthony lay at the door craving admission. You welcome beasts, why not a man? If I fail, I will die here on your threshold. Together they converse of things human and divine, Paul, close to the dust of the grave, asks, Are new houses springing up in ancient cities?

What government directs the world? Little did this recluse know of his fellow-beings and how fared it with the children of men who dwelt in those great cities around the blue Mediterranean. He was dead to the world and knew it no more. A raven brought the aged brothers bread to eat and the hours glided swiftly away. Anthony returned to get a cloak which Athanasius had given him in which to wrap the body of Paul.

So eager was he to behold again his newly-found friend that he set out without even a morsel of bread, thirsting to see him. But when yet three days' journey from the cave he saw Paul on high among the angels. Weeping, he trudged on his way.


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On entering the cave he saw the lifeless body kneeling, with head erect and hands uplifted. He tenderly wrapped the body in the cloak and began to lament that he had no implements to dig a grave. But Providence sent two lions from the recesses of the mountain that came rushing with flying manes. Roaring, as if they too mourned, they pawed the earth and thus [pg 41] the grave was dug.

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Anthony, bending his aged shoulders beneath the burden of the saint's body, laid it lovingly in the grave and departed. Jerome closes this account by challenging those who do not know the extent of their possessions,--who adorn their homes with marble and who string house to house,--to say what this old man in his nakedness ever lacked. Your tunics are wrought of gold; he had not the raiment of your meanest slave. But on the other hand, poor as he was, Paradise is open to him; you, with all your gold, will be received into Gehenna.

He, though naked, yet kept the robe of Christ; you, clad in your silks, have lost the vesture of Christ. Paul lies covered with worthless dust, but will rise again to glory; over you are raised costly tombs, but both you and your wealth are doomed to burning.

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I beseech you, reader, whoever you may be, to remember Jerome the sinner. He, if God would give him his choice, would sooner take Paul's tunics with his merits, than the purple of kings with their punishment. Such was the story circulated among rich and [pg 42] poor, appealing with wondrous force to the hearts of men in those wretched years.

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What was the effect upon the mind of the thoughtful? If he believed such teaching, weary of the wickedness of the age, and moved by his noblest sentiments, he sold his tunics wrought of gold and fled from his palaces of marble to the desert solitudes. But the monastic story that most strongly impressed the age now under consideration, was the biography of Anthony, "the patriarch of monks" and virtual founder of Christian monasticism. It was said to have been written by Athanasius, the famous defender of orthodoxy and Archbishop of Alexandria; yet some authorities reject his authorship.

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It exerted a power over the minds of men beyond all human estimate. It scattered the seeds of asceticism wherever it was read. Knowing the character of Athanasius, we may rest assured that he sincerely believed all he really recorded it is much interpolated of the strange life of Anthony, and, true or false, thousands of [pg 43] others believed in him and in his story.

Augustine, the great theologian of immortal fame, acknowledged that this book was one of the influences that led to his conversion, and Jerome, whose life I will review later, was mightily swayed by it. Anthony was born about A. He was a pious child, an obedient son, and a lover of solitude and books. His parents died when he was about twenty years old, leaving to his care their home and his little sister.

One day, as he entered the church, meditating on the poverty of Christ, a theme much reflected upon in those days, he heard these words read from the pulpit, "If thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come, follow me. He sold his personal possessions for a large sum, and distributed the proceeds among the poor, reserving a little for his sister.

Still he was unsatisfied. Entering the church on another occasion, he heard our Lord saying in the gospel, "Take no thought for the morrow. His anxious search for truth and duty was at an end.

A Short History of Monks and Monasteries A Short History of Monks and Monasteries
A Short History of Monks and Monasteries A Short History of Monks and Monasteries
A Short History of Monks and Monasteries A Short History of Monks and Monasteries
A Short History of Monks and Monasteries A Short History of Monks and Monasteries
A Short History of Monks and Monasteries A Short History of Monks and Monasteries
A Short History of Monks and Monasteries A Short History of Monks and Monasteries
A Short History of Monks and Monasteries A Short History of Monks and Monasteries

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