Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Monasticism

Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Monasticism

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Monasticism has always been present in Christianity. The Ancient Apostolic Church had an inner group of virgins and ascetics, and by the second half of the 3rd century men had adopted a form of anchorite life in the desert. Among them was Anthony who is considered the founder of anchorite monasticism in Christianity.

Many of these early monks were protesting against the increasing drift of the Church away from the teachings of Jesus Christ. High taxes, persecutions, and piety without pagan temptation were also factors.

The deserts were the first centers of monasticism. The Nitrian desert groups were inaugurated by Amoun about 325 C.E. There was no discipline or organized community life at first. They did assemble for Eucharist but the rest of the time was spent on individual study and meditation.

Egyptian monasticism developed into the cenobitic form. In Greek this means “common life.” The pioneer was a monk by the name of Pachomius who gathered about him a hundred monks who followed a common rule of work and abstinence, but without vows. Another leader in Egyptian monasticism was Shenoute (born c. 333 C.E.) who formed communities of both cenobite and eremitical (Hermit) monks.

In the West, Athanasius played a leading role. When he was exiled from his See, he formed many communities in the desert. Martin of Poitiers is said to have formed the first community in the West about 360 C.E. in southern Gaul.

Western monasticism developed much differently than Eastern monasticism. The East became very mystical and those often failed to function as a part of the larger Christian community. But thanks to such men as St. Basil, St. Jerome and St. Augustine, progress in the West was phenomenal.

The Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E. had to suppress the Messalians. These were monks, or “praying folk” who did not believe in work and believed that each soul is attached to an individual demon who could only be expelled by constant prayer. The need was arising for the monastic life to be defined.

The leader in developing the science of the spiritual life was Evagrius of Pontus. He defined the whole of monastic life as a ladder ascending with rungs clearly labeled. Egyptian spirituality was carried to the West by John Cassian, who founded a monastery at Marseilles in 415 C.E. He wrote two works which dominated the Western idea of monasticism for centuries and were required reading for all Benedictine monks. They were Institutes and Conferences.

In Benedict, Western monasticism found its greatest organizer and legislator. His Rule was written not only for his community, but as a general model. In it, Council was replaced by command, generalization by detailed direction, and exhortation by administrative procedure. All this was done to preserve and inculcate the idea of the growth of Christ Jesus within each of the Brothers. The vows taken were poverty, obedience, chastity, humility and service.

St. Augustine had worked in North Africa as Bishop of Hippo to build communities. His ideas later were incorporated in the Rule of St. Augustine.

One monk showed the extremes to which monasticism could go. Simeon Stylites climbed on top of a pillar and stayed there for some thirty years. These were few. So, at the fall of Rome, the Western Church had a vehicle in which to preserve and transmit its heritage in the coming ages often mistakenly called, the “Dark Ages.”

By the time of Charlemagne, monasticism was the bearer of education and culture. He used the monks as his advisors and counselors and he tried to learn how to write all his life.

From the fall of Rome until the 18th century, reforms within the Church came from the monastic movement. In the 10th and 11th centuries, reform spread throughout the Orders and corrected many of the abuses within and without. The unrest of this period turned men’s minds inward. One of the most important results of this was William of Aquitaine’s granting Bertho of Baume a plot of land at Cluny in 910 B.C. He allowed the monks to freely elect their own abbot without interference from him or his heirs. This was radical, for many of the causes of the Investiture Controversy and Great Schism were the result of kings and rulers attempting to tell the Church who should be Bishop, or abbot, or Cardinal.

At this time, it must also be noted that the lower clergy and monks were living in horrible conditions. They were often un-educated, un-paid and were moved about as political pawns. Often a bishop was never in his See which meant by priests had no guidance. Bishops married, quite often held secular jobs and were only “prince of the Church” so that they could receive the money from their See.

The second abbot of Cluny, Odo, extended the reforms to other houses and Cluny became the Motherhouse for many monasteries. The next abbot, Odilo made Cluny the center of learning, liturgy and ecclesiastical art for all Europe. He also gave the age “The Truce of God” which limited the days in which knights could fight or wars could be waged. Under Odilo, Simony (reception of a clerical position by bribing) and Nicolaitanism (breaching clerical celibacy) were stopped.

The great Pope Hildebrand (Gregory VII) championed the ideas of Cluny and had the Bishops in their Sees; made sure the clergy were trained; secured free elections of priors and abbots; started many reform synods to hash out local and regional problems, and, tried to limit the horrible warfare of the age.

Many of those who are called “mystics” were found in religious Orders. It was simply that those who sought growth, of any kind, had to come within the monastic framework for it was here that learning and culture were kept alive.

We will now cover the life of two religious movements which have greatly influenced Christianity. One, the Orders of Friars Minor, or Franciscans, and the other that of the Society of Jesus. There were other monastic groups from the time of Francis to that of St. Ignatius, but these two Orders were the most important. Even Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk before he broke with the Roman Church.

Giovanni Bernadone was born in 1182, the son of a cloth merchant of Assisi. He was nicknamed Francesco – Francis. His father was a serious business man and often was worried over his son’s leading his companions in mischief and revelry. When Francis was a young man, he took part in a revolt. He was captured and held prisoner for a year. This had no effect on his life that was noticeable. After he returned home, he was stricken with a serious illness. It developed aspects of his character. He joined another military expedition, but withdrew soon afterwards.

Francis himself says his conversion was a gradual process. “When I was yet in my sins, it did seem to me too bitter to look upon the lepers, but the Lord Himself did lead me among them, and I had compassion upon them. When I left them, that which had seemed to me bitter had become sweet and easy.” Compassion on others was one of the first aspects of Francis which came forth.

Francis then went on a pilgrimage to Rome. On the way, he heard a voice give him a divine command to restore the fallen house of God. So he went back to Assisi and sold cloth from his Father’s warehouse to rebuild the ruined church of St. Damian near Assisi. His father took him before the bishop to be disinherited. As they were before the bishop with a large gathering from the town, Francis took off his clothes and nakedly before all declared he had no father but the Father in heaven. This was about 1206.

The following two years, Francis wandered around Assisi aiding the poor, restoring run-down churches. His favorite was the Portiuncula which was on a plain outside Assisi.

At Portiuncula on February 24, 1208, the words of Christ to the Apostles came to him:

And as ye go, preach, saying The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils:
freely ye have received, freely give.

Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses,

Nor script for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves:
for the workman is worthy of his meat.

And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter,
inquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence.

And when ye come into a house, salute it.

And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it:
but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.

And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words,
when ye depart out of that house or city,
shake off the dust of your feet.  (Matthew 10: 7 – 14)


He would follow this as his “Rule” and imitate Christ and obey Christ’s commands, in absolute poverty, in Christ-like love, and in humbled deference to the priests as the Master’s representatives. Francis said, “The Most High Himself revealed to me that I ought to live according to the model of the Holy Gospel.”

Soon, like minded men gathered around him. They drafted a simple “Rule” based on Christ’s commands. He and his twelve Brothers went to Pope Innocent III for approval to start a new Order. They were not refused. At first, they called themselves the Penitents of Assisi. Shortly after, Francis changed it to that of Minor, or Humbler, Brethren, by which they were to be henceforth known.

Francis’ association was a union of imitators of Christ Jesus. They were bound together by love and practicing the utmost poverty. Francis believed that only this way could the world be denied and Christ really followed. Two by two they went out preaching the Good News. They sang much, aiding farmers at their work and caring for lepers and outcasts. Francis had said, “Let those who know no trade learn one, but not for the purpose of receiving the price of their toil, but for their good example and to flee idleness. And when we are not given the price of our work, let us resort to the table of the Lord, begging our bread from door to door.”

Soon the small group had grown so that missionary plans were laid out. Francis was unable to reach the Mohammedans through Spain because of illness, but did go to Egypt in 1219 in the wake of a crusading expedition and actually preached before the Sultan.

Francis cared little about organization. The free association was growing to the point where a “Rule” was needed which would cope with this growth – in 10 years to several thousand Brothers! This work was brought about faster by Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, later Pope Gregory IX, whose appointment Francis had secured as “protector” of the society.

The Rule was revised three times between 1219 and 1223. Francis’ real leadership ceased in this period. By 1219, provinces had been established and a “minister” in charge of each. From the Pope came word that obedience to the Order’s officers was required. The directive also set up novitiates, fixed costumes and irrevocable vows.

Francis withdrew increasingly from the Order as these changes came about. He prayed much and sang songs to the birds and flowers. His love for Nature grew in these years as it never had before. Francis’ body became very feeble and this drove him even harder to become one with Christ, his Master. Soon after he received the stigmata, on October 3, 1226, Francis, Saint of the Church Universal and Son of God, passed through transition in his beloved Portiuncula. Pope Gregory IX proclaimed him a saint two years later.

The organization of the Franciscans was similar to that of the Dominicans. At the head was a “minister general” who was chosen for twelve years. Over each province was a “provincial minister” and over each house was a “custos.”

The feminine branch was founded by Clara Sciffi of Assisi. They are called the “Poor Clairs” and followed the “Rule” which Francis had given the Brothers.

Soon after Francis’ death, the Order was split between those who wanted to follow a simple Christ-like life, and those who valued numbers, power and influence. Brother Leo headed the party who wanted to return to the simplicity of Francis. Brother Elias of Cortona headed the other party.

There is a long history of the conflict between these two parties. Brother Leo’s party was eventually called the “Spirituals.” Finally, Pope Leo X, formally recognized the division of the Franciscans in 1517 into “Observant” and “Conventual” with different chapters and officers.

The Society of Jesus was founded by Ignatius Loyola. Lopez de Recalde was born of a noble family in northern Spain in 1491. He served as a page in the court of Ferdinand, and like St. Francis, became a soldier. A wound from a siege ended his military career. The wound was serious enough that he had a very slow recovery. During this time, he studied the lives of Christ, St. Dominic and St. Francis. He soon decided he would become a knight of the Virgin and hung his sword on the Virgin’s altar at Monserrat. In the Dominican monastery at Manreas, he began the visions which grew into the Spiritual Exercises. These were designed to lead one into full realization. For the sake of Christ, an attitude of “holy disinterestedness” towards others and the world was used. The member became at one with Christ in the body of the Church.

In 1523, he undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to become a missionary for Christ among the Mohammedans. The only trouble was that the Franciscans there thought him dangerous and sent him home!

Ignatius then decided that he must have an education. He thereupon entered a boy’s class in Barcelona. Within a number of years, he had advanced and soon completed work at the Universities of Alcala and Salamanca. His leadership qualities drew many like-minded men around him. With them, he practiced the “Spiritual Exercises.”

The suspicion of the Spanish Inquisition now turned on him and for a while it looked like his life might be in danger. In 1528, he entered the University of Paris just as the Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, was leaving it. He worked and studied there very quietly with his disciples. Among the most famous were Pierre Lefevre, Francis Xavier, and Simon Rodriguez.

On August 15, 1534, these men took a vow to go to Jerusalem and to labor for the church and their fellow men. If was this was not possible, they would put themselves at the disposal of the Pope. The little student association was now bonded by the love of God and to the Church.

In 1536, they moved to Venice, but were stopped from going to Jerusalem by war. They, therefore, moved to ask the Pope’s direction. By this time, Ignatius was beginning to see where the Order might be heading. There were many military companies in Italy at this time and he saw that they too would become a military company, but a military company of Jesus bound by strict obedience and exercise in the battle against infidels and heretics.

There was much ecclesiastical opposition, but Paul III was impressed. He liked Ignatius’ skill at organizing and on September 27, 1540, he gave him permission to start organizing the Society. The only structure they had was that they would give absolute obedience to their “general” who would give his absolute obedience to the Pope. In April 1541, Ignatius was chosen first “general” and held the office until his transition on July 31, 1556.

The structure was gradually worked out and was not finished until a number of years after Ignatius’ transition. The “general” is given absolute obedience, but is watched by assistants who are appointed by the Order, and, if necessary, can dispose of him. There is a “provincial” appointed by the “general” over each district. For those who want to enter, there is a long period before their novitiate even begins. Then they are carefully watched. After extensive and exhaustive training, they take vows of absolute obedience as long as it doesn’t involve sin. After vows, the member is assigned to work which his superiors have selected as being best for him.

There are no fixed hours of worship, or no fixed dress. As a result, members are much freer than monks would be to develop themselves in their work.

Each member of the Society is disciplined by the Spiritual Exercises. During the final period of training, the member is drilled in the spiritual manual of arms by four weeks of intense contemplation of the principal facts of the life and work of Christ. This is done under the guidance of a spiritual drill-master. Out of this comes a member trained and disciplined for his individual work, willing to sacrifice self in complete obedience to the spirit of the whole Society.

The history of the Society which followed is one of growth in missions, education and preaching. This was followed by a period of political involvement and the banishment of the Society by Papal order and re-instatement a number of years later. The Society of Jesus might be considered the “shock troops” of the Roman Catholic Church.


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