The Spiritual Transformation of Society I: Monasticism
Fr. John Strickland · August 18, 2013
Fr. John explores what exactly monasticim was in the days of St. Macarius.
Welcome back! In the introduction to this episode, on the spiritual transformation of society, monasticism, and marriage, I described the historical anecdote in which Macarius of Egypt, an early Christian monk, left the desert to come to a city in which he met two married women, women who were married to brothers living in the same household, and how he learned from these women, through a divine revelation, that they, living in a married state, had attained superior virtue over even him, a great monk.
In this episode, I’d like to explore exactly what monasticism was, what exactly was the institution and the way of life Macarius was an early example of, and how monasticism contributed to the rise of Christendom. Of all social institutions, monasticism might seem, at first glance, to be the most severe ever produced in Christendom, and indeed, in many ways, it was. Nevertheless, the life of monasticism was a life that was specifically and self-consciously directed toward communion with God. As such, it offered all of Christendom an example, a way of life, an experience of that communion. Furthermore, monasteries never existed in isolation from the society around them. As a matter of fact, monks would perform an important role in evangelizing the society around them and bringing that society closer and closer to that experience that they as monks had dedicated their entire lives to.
The origins of monasticism, what is sometimes called the “angelic state,” a way of life modeled on the life of heaven itself, lie in the fourth century. And it was in the fourth century that Christendom experienced a crisis. The fourth-century crisis of Christendom was not like earlier crises when pagan persecution had threatened the very life of the Church. The fourth-century crisis of Christendom was the great conversion. The fourth-century crisis of Christendom was the mass Christianization of the vast Roman Empire, with large numbers of converts entering into the life of the Church during the fourth century. By the end of the fourth century it may be that the overall population of the Roman Empire, which can now be called Byzantium, had reached or surpassed the 50% level.
With the great conversion, many people entered the life of the Church without strong convictions about traditional Christianity. Monasticism arose as a kind of evangelical reaction to this rising worldliness within the life of Christendom. That worldliness created a scandal which many Christians reacted to. The Gospel, after all, the heart of traditional Christianity, had rejected the untransformed world, had called upon Christians spiritually to transform the world, according to the teachings of Jesus. But conversion often became a means toward worldly success: at court, at Constantinople itself, in the army, in trade and commerce, or even in social relations like marriage. Many people converted to Christianity simply to get ahead, to make their way in the world and experience and achieve a higher level of happiness in the world, for the world’s sake.
As a matter of fact, many people who converted to Christianity during this time brought with them, even as converts who had been baptized, attachments to the old way of life represented by paganism. In many cases, we see a concern during this time of the continued influence of pagan culture on the lives of people who had now entered the Church. Even in the third century, before Constantine and the great conversion, Tertullian had expressed this concern of a pagan culture within the life of the Church by asking the famous question, “What has Athens (the heart of pagan learning) to do with Jerusalem (the place where the Gospel of Jesus Christ arose)?” What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
In the fourth century, Jerome, a famous Western saint, also expressed this concern. He had lived through it, as a matter of fact. He had been a lover of pagan culture and had been especially attracted by the writings of Cicero, the great pagan Roman writer and philosopher. After converting, Jerome continued to be fascinated with Cicero until one day he had a vision in which Jesus said to him, “You are not a Christian; you are a Ciceronian.” And with that, Jerome turned away from pagan culture and entered a monastic life.
So Christendom, then, by the end of the fourth century even, and certainly within the fifth and sixth centuries, was threatened by a crisis that is that traditional Christianity and its commitment to the Gospel appeared to be weakened by the presence of many people within the Church who had little concern or interest or commitment to that Gospel. Christianity was, in fact, more and more a religion of the establishment. So there arose a reaction against this movement caused by the great conversion and an effort to resolve the crisis that went with it, a reaction that can be called an evangelical reaction, that is to say, one grounded in the teaching of the Gospel, especially the Gospel about following Christ through the Cross.
The great early example of this is St. Anthony of Egypt. Often called the father monasticism, he lived in the early third century, and by the end of that century had become a hermit in the Egyptian desert and died in the middle of the fourth century. His life is described by one of his disciples and admirers, St. Athanasius. It was a life that was marked by an early conversion experience when Anthony encountered the proclamation of the Gospel in a Eucharistic assembly. One day he entered the church just as the Gospel was being read. It appears to have been the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus confronts a rich young man and tells him to sell all that he possesses and give it to the poor, and then come and follow him. Interestingly, the equivalent passage in Mark’s gospel of this encounter between Jesus and the rich young man emphasizes that one must take up their cross and follow him.
So Anthony, having had this experience, having been confronted by the Gospel in the Eucharistic assembly, decided to act on it, and he withdrew to the desert in seclusion, at a distance from the city. There he pioneered a way of life that came to be known as monasticism. It was a way of life characterized by a struggle with the passions, through prayer and fasting. This, of course, in imitation of the very actions of Jesus himself in the gospels, where, before his temptation by the devil, he departs to the wilderness and prays and fasts.
In undertaking this lifelong struggle, Anthony experienced tremendous grace and spiritual wisdom, and the experience of God himself, so much so that he was reluctant to return to the city, or even to have anything to do with people living in the cities, that is to say, people living in, as it were, the world, the untransformed world. Nevertheless, reluctant as he was, he did interact with people living in the world. For instance, he traveled to the city to encourage those who had been imprisoned as Christians before Constantine and the legalization of Christianity and who were facing imminent martyrdom.
He also interacted with other people in the world who sought his spiritual counsel. In fact, even the emperors themselves, Constantine and subsequent Christian emperors during Anthony’s lifetime, wrote to Anthony, asking him for spiritual counsel, and Anthony reluctantly wrote back, offering them teaching about the importance of ruling according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and remembering always that the emperor, as glorious as he may appear on earth, is no more than a man and will ultimately stand under the judgment of God.
So Anthony reached out to the world around him, as did other monks in Anthony’s generation and thereafter. In fact, a community of monks arose in the Egyptian desert and also in Palestine and Syria in imitation of Anthony. Macarius of Egypt was one such example, but there were many other so-called Desert Fathers, and they all emphasized the importance of departure from a worldly way of life, from the culture and the life of the world, in order to seek the kingdom of heaven.
One such example was a monk named Arsenius, and he’s interesting because he was a Roman senator and also a very important, very wealthy aristocrat, a nobleman, in the fourth century. In one account given in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, Arsenius brought attention to the insignificance—for him, anyway—of worldly culture and the value of spiritual wisdom, even in relating to a peasant, someone of low education, who happened to be a very advanced and very accomplished ascetic living in the desert. This is how the account reads:
One day, Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsensius, how is it that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?”
He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet (that is, the spiritual alphabet) of this peasant.”
Those are the words of Arsenius.
So monasticism began to flourish in the fourth century and beyond, beginning especially with the Desert Fathers in Egypt, as an evangelical reaction, a response grounded in the teaching of the Gospel, to the worldliness of many Christians living within Christendom. But with time, the way of life, the extreme way of life that the Desert Fathers like Anthony and Macarius and Arsenius pioneered gave way to a communal life in which monks gathered together in brotherhoods—and sisterhoods, if they were female monks, or nuns in the English language. These corporate or communal monasteries, what’s called cenobitic monasticism, became the standard within Christendom within a few centuries.
Many of the leading monastic voices emphasized the value of communal monasticism over the very lonely and difficult extreme asceticism of the hermits. Pachomius, Basil the Great, Augustine, and, most famously of all, St. Benedict of Nursia all valued communal monasticism over individual, or hermetic, monasticism. The monasteries that resulted from this began to mark all of Christendom with holy places where monks were engaged even in this life in pursuing the kingdom of heaven. So there was a kind of monastic topography to Christendom as a result. Mt. Sinai, for instance, in Egypt, was marked by St. Catherine Monastery. St. Savas Monastery was another famous one in Palestine. In Gaul, a monastery was established at Arles. St. Benedict himself founded Monte Casino in Italy. In Constantinople, in the very urban center of Constantinople, there was established a monastery called Studion [which] became an important monastery there in the East. And perhaps most famously in the East, by the tenth century was established Mt. Athos.
What did the monks do in these monasteries? What was their way of life, and how did it have an impact on the rise of Christendom? Well, most importantly, the monks collectively and over the course of time charted an ascetical journey toward paradise, an ascetical journey toward the kingdom of heaven and toward God’s presence even in this life. The journey they charted, of course—and I want to say this right from the start—was a journey from which many Christian monks over the ages departed, and sometimes spectacularly. Nevertheless, the ideal was in place, and monasticism offered this journey, this way of life, for not only her own members but for all of Christendom itself.
The first principle in this journey toward paradise was leaving the world, was the act of leaving the world behind, by which was meant, of course, the untransformed world. In a certain sense, and a very real sense, monasticism was an act of martyrdom. It was an act of martyrdom in an age when martyrs were no longer being put to death because of the legalization and even establishment of traditional Christianity. Monks undertook voluntarily this way of life, this way of witnessing, martyrdom, through the mortification of the passions, that is to say, putting to death, dying to the passions. But by doing this they did not understand themselves to be mortifying the body as such. The body had been created by God. The body was therefore good, and as part of all of God’s cosmos or world, it was to be sanctified. But the passions were the disordered desires that afflicted not only the body but, in a very real sense, more damagingly, the soul, the spirit, as well. And we see this teaching about the mortification of the passions and not the body in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, in passages such as one associated with Poemen, which reads in the following way:
Abba Isaac came to see Abba Poemen, and found him washing his feet.
Washing one’s feet out in the desert would be an act of luxury and extravagance in an area where there’s very little water, and the monastic life is one of extreme austerity.)
As he enjoyed freedom of speech with Poemen, he said, “How is it that others practice austerity and treat their bodies hardly (that is to say, subject their bodies to a lot of ascetical discipline)?”
Abba Poemen said to him, “We have not been taught to kill our bodies, but to kill our passions.”
So it was the passions, then, that the monastic life and its extreme form of asceticism, in leaving the world, sought to address. As a result, there were a range of values that arose in monasticism that can be called counter-cultural values, that is to say, values directed against the values that normally are associated with life in the world, in the untransformed world. These counter-cultural values of asceticism did not look at worldly things as in themselves evil or bad, in fact saw them even as things that were good, but gave up things good for things better, namely, the spiritual experience of transformation.
There was a range of these counter-cultural values which even today, and perhaps especially today in 21st-century America, we might learn from. Maybe four of them can be presented here; there were more, but we can just talk about four such counter-cultural values, ranging from the easiest to the most difficult, all of them giving up things good for things better.
Fasting was the first. Fasting: giving up rich foods, giving up quantities of food. Fasting offered the monks a liberation from the tyranny of the appetite. Take a second value: poverty. Poverty—not owning things, giving up possessions—offered to the monks leaving the world liberation from the tyranny of possessiveness, the passion of possessiveness. Or celibacy, getting perhaps even more difficult. Celibacy offered the monks liberation from the tyranny of lust. Finally and most difficultly, in fact, the one vow, the one commitment that monks never fully acquired in most cases was obedience. Obedience, by which monks were liberated if they pursued it seriously, liberated from the tyranny of self-will, of self-will and pride, acquiring humility, the queen of the virtues. The greatest of all the virtues: humility.
So all of these counter-cultural values can be seen, at least in our modern-day culture, as being ascetical, very… well, counter-cultural. Fasting, poverty, celibacy, obedience have almost no place in our popular culture today in America, and they had very little place in Christendom in the fourth century and afterward. That’s why it was so important to Christendom to have as this evangelical movement, the establishment of monasticism, pursuing the kingdom of heaven through this ascetical struggle.
That ascetical struggle ultimately became kind of normalized and formalized in the way that monks appeared within Christendom. They began to dress in a certain way. They began to wear their hair according to what was called a tonsure. The tonsure was introduced in the sixth century in Western Christendom, and came to set apart monks from not only the laity but the common clergy as well, the parish priests. Monks were identified by their tonsure as being people who have especially made a commitment to living their lives focused on, oriented toward, the kingdom of heaven beyond this world.
As a matter of fact, the cassock, too, which monks came to wear with time, was another symbol or witness of this desire to live life for communion with God, according to a different standard than that lived by the world. The historian Peter Brown, in his study of the rise of Western Christendom, even makes the argument, interestingly, that it was the laity that imposed the standards for looking different—the tonsure and the clerical way of dress—imposed this upon monks in order to have, in society—as we’ll see, laypeople are in regular contact with monks and monasteries—in Christendom, an example to follow, an example of people living their lives for more than what is found in this world.
Beyond the actual ascetical practices of monks represented especially by these counter-cultural values of fasting, poverty, celibacy, and obedience, monks lived out a life at a much more deep and constant level of repentance. For them, repentance became a way of life. Repentance being in Greek a change of heart; metanoia means a change of heart, a change of intention. Traditional Christianity recognized sin as a kind of self-imposed exile from paradise, as a kind of self-imposed exile from communion with God. Repentance was the way back to God, the change of heart that leads one away from sin, away from the passions, the life of the passions, toward the life of communion with God, rather like the prodigal son turning away from the pigpen and returning, re-turning to his father’s house, where he’s greeted with a festival, with celebration, and with joy in the communion and love of his father.
Sin, then, is this kind of self-imposed exile from paradise. That’s kind of suggested, actually, in the book of Genesis, when God’s speaking to Adam [and] warns him that on the day in which he disobeys God, in which he rebels against God, in which he seeks to live his life without the blessing of God, in which he tries to find nourishment and life without God, on that day, as God puts it, he shall surely die. God does not threaten Adam with punishment so much as simply acknowledge that, without God, Adam will not live. Adam cannot live without God, who is the source of life, symbolized by that tree of life at the center of paradise.
I’m reminded in all of this of a homily my bishop once, when visiting one of the parishes where I served, when he visited he gave a homily I remember, to the effect of this statement of God to Adam is rather like a manual used for an automobile in which you might read something like, “Do not put water in the fuel tank, for on that day, your car surely will not drive.” Well, it’s rather like that. God does not say, “Do not eat this fruit or I will destroy you, I will kill you, I will punish you.” God simply says, “It won’t work. You will simply die if you try to live your life without me, without my blessing, without communion with me, seeking something other than me to sustain your life.”
Sin, then, was understood in traditional Christianity according to the Scriptures as an exile, a self-imposed exile, from paradise. Within the monastic literature that was generated by the institution of monasticism for so many centuries within Christendom, the return to paradise was a return through the experience of repentance and forgiveness, repentance and forgiveness as a means through which man returns to God. This, after all, was the statement made by Christ at the very beginning of his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
So monastic asceticism became a manifestation of hope in man’s return to paradise, and we can see this in the way in which monastic asceticism elaborated the experience of mourning, of sorrow for sin. There’s a very good book that’s available on this topic. It’s called Penthos—P-e-n-t-h-o-s—it’s the Greek word for “contrition.” Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East, and it’s written by a Western scholar named Irénée Hausherr. It is a wonderful exposition of the place of contrition, compunction, within the life of Eastern monasticism.
One key element of that life was the role of mourning, of sorrow, but of a specific kind of sorrow. St. Paul, in the New Testament, speaks of a godly sorrow, as well as a sinful kind of sorrow. Sinful sorrow was a hopeless sorrow, a sorrow without hope in God’s forgiveness and the restoration of communion with God, but godly sorrow leads to salvation. So in the monastic literature of traditional Christianity, emphasis is always placed not only on the importance of sorrowing for one’s sins but of sorrowing in such a way as to bring one joy.
This is put beautifully by St. John Climacus, author of a famous work from the sixth century. St. John was abbot of the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai in the sixth century, and he wrote a book called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. St. John is commemorated during the course of Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition, and St. John in The Ladder of Divine Ascent spoke beautifully about what he called “joy-making mourning”: a mourning or grief that leads to joy. And if it doesn’t create joy, if it doesn’t bring joy into one’s heart, there’s something intrinsically wrong with sorrow.
As a matter of fact, traditional Christianity and the monastic life rejected all forms of repentance that led to a kind of self-hatred. There was no place whatsoever for hatred of one’s self. This can be found in the lives that were generated by monks. The life, for instance, of St. Mary of Egypt, another person commemorated in Great Lent, on one of the Sundays of Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition. Mary of Egypt began her life living a life that was very lustful, a life that was just surrendered to lust, to the passion of lust. In fact, Mary’s life has all the signs of sexual addiction to it. She couldn’t stop until one day she visited the Church of the Holy Resurrection, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to venerate the True Cross, a pilgrimage I described in the previous episode.
There Mary had an experience, a spiritual conversion, that led her out into the desert to experience and undergo a life of repentance. But that repentance was one that was fulfilled in joy, always directed toward the restoration of communion with God. As a matter of fact, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, who wrote the life of Mary, records that at the very end of her life she died in communion with God, having just received the holy Eucharist, having just received Eucharist to communion. She departed this life, and when her body was discovered, her body was facing paradise. It was facing literally eastward, toward paradise, awaiting the resurrection.
So this joy-making mourning that St. John Climacus speaks of is found in the very literature of traditional Christian monasticism, so much so that any sign of self-hatred, any sign of spiritual despondency was always taken as something very dangerous. Monastic literature always warned against this kind of despondency, this spiritual despair. Again, to quote St. John Climacus in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John speaks there of what he calls the hellhound of despair, the hellhound of spiritual despondency, and this is what he writes.
Drive away the hellhound that comes at the time of your deepest warning and suggests that God is not merciful or compassionate.
This is the warning of St. John of the Ladder.
A life of repentance and the experience of a joyful repentance, a repentance that leads to joy, and also a life of repentance that is formalized, that is developed and elaborated within the monastic literature—this is something that monasticism contributed to the history of Christendom. There was, monasticism realized in its wisdom, a danger of a kind of life of repentance that was self-directed, that lived out in isolation from others, especially because of the tendency toward despair, the tendency toward self-hatred. So penance was developed as a practice, as a kind of formal practice that was designed to bring people from a condition of sin, through repentance, back into joyful communion with God.
There was a real suspicion expressed in the monastic literature of a kind of self-directed spiritual life, especially when it came to penance. This is found again in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, one of which, again concerning the person Poemen, reads in the following way about a monk who decides that, because of a great sin, he’s going to undertake a long period of penance. This is what we read.
A brother questioned Abba Poemen, saying, “I have committed a great sin, and I want to do penance for three years.”
The old man said to him, “That is a lot.”
The brother said to him, “For one year?”
The old man said again, “That is a lot.”
Those who were present said, “For forty days?”
And he said again, “That is a lot.” He added, “I myself say that if a man repents with his whole heart and does not intend to commit the sin any more, God will accept him after only three days.”
Here Abba Poemen [is] teaching that great acts of ascetical penance are not what God demands or requires, but a true desire to put away one’s sin and a joyful hope that God will receive one back.
So, in the institution of penance that arose within the monastic life, there was a great emphasis placed on guidance, spiritual fatherhood, spiritual motherhood, the abbots and abbesses of monasteries fulfilling these roles, and of spiritual counsel generally. This was enhanced in the seventh century throughout Western Europe when a genre of spiritual literature known as “penitential books” appeared. They appeared from Ireland where a very vital monastic tradition had arisen after the conversion following the ministry of St. Patrick in Ireland.
This Celtic Christianity, grounded as it was in monasticism, generated a kind of genre of books called “penitential books,” and these books were used by monks in direct relationship to penitents who would come to monasteries as a means for guiding these penitent laypeople back into the life of the Church through repentance of their sins. The Celtic penitential books arose first in Ireland and then, by the seventh century, began appearing in continental Western Europe, and with time came to have a very big impact on the practice of penance and repentance within Western Europe, not just within monasteries, but throughout Western Christendom itself.
One of the most famous, one of the most important of the penitentials is known as the Roman penitential, associated with the city of Rome itself, but influenced by, modeled upon, these earlier Irish or Celtic penitential books. The goal of these books was to reassure the laity—to reassure anyone who follows them, but especially the laity—that there are no sins which God cannot forgive. There are no sins which God will not forgive, if one undertakes sincerely a life of repentance, a life assisted by the wisdom being developed, being cultivated within the monastic life of the monasteries.
Finally, monasticism, as a way of life charting the ascetical journey toward paradise, brought attention not just to repentance but to the fulfillment of repentance, which was salvation itself, known especially in the writings of Eastern monks as deification, the actual experience of union with God: this is the goal of life. This is the goal of human life as it came to be defined in the monastic literature of Christendom. Asceticism had as its goal spiritual transformation. Again, the sayings of the Desert Fathers relate this, once saying, one passage concerning the Father Joseph speaks in the following way about the limited nature of ascetical acts themselves, how they are ultimately only valuable if they lead to the very experience of God’s presence. It’s a very dramatic saying or writing, and this is how it reads.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph, and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office (that is to say, his rule of prayer), I fast a little, I pray and meditate. I live in peace as far as I can. I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”
Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
So in this case, the goal of life for the monk was to be so penetrated with the very life of God, what is known as the energies of God, that one is even transformed into fire itself, at least according to this one particular anecdote from the sayings of the Desert Fathers. As we’ll see later, monasticism generated a tradition of “prayer of the heart” as it was known that led toward, through ascetical actions and repentance, a powerful consuming experience of God’s presence.
This is true in the writings of Macarius of Egypt, whose writings I described last time. He’s associated with the Fifty Spiritual Homilies that emphasize the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives even now. And it will continue all the way to the Great Schism and beyond, in the East especially, in such cases as St. Simeon the New Theologian, who died in 1022, on the very eve of the Great Schism, who also spoke about the mystical experience of God’s presence that comes through a life of asceticism and repentance.
I said earlier that monasticism as it charted a journey toward paradise also shared its wisdom with the surrounding world, with the surrounding society in general. We’d like now to turn to the engagement that monasteries had with the surrounding society, in what can be called a “detached engagement,” a term I’ve used before, with the world. George Florovsky described monasticism as a “permanent resistance movement” within Christendom, maintaining the counter-cultural impact of traditional Christianity even beyond the great conversion when Christianity was no longer strictly speaking, a counter-culture. The monks were always engaged with the world around them. For instance, many monks were engaged in evangelical activity, to convert non-Christians to Christianity. Many pagans came into the Church through the ministries of monks. Macarius of Egypt, for instance, is said to have converted a pagan priest.
The story of this is quite interesting. The pagan priest that Macarius encounters had just encountered another Christian who insulted the priest as a pagan, and the pagan priest was offended by this other monk—beat him up, as a matter of fact—and then he comes across Macarius who, filled with divine light and the love of God for the whole cosmos and creation around him, greets the pagan priest in a friendly and joyful manner. The pagan priest stops in his tracks, and he says, “Wait a second. I just met a Christian, and he insulted me for not being a Christian, and yet you’re also a Christian, and you bless me and you show kindness to me.” So there’s obviously something being said in this account of the conversion of the pagan priest by Macarius, something being said about strategies of evangelism.
With this pagan priest, many convert under Macarius’s ministry, but much more famously are the monks from Ireland, the Celtic monks, who spread out, as it were, throughout Western Europe over the centuries and establish monasteries which Peter Brown describes as “mission stations”—that’s his term for them: “mission stations”—through which a large number of pagans in Europe enter the Church. Columba, one famous Irish monk, establishes his monastery in northern England and converts a large number of Picts to Christianity.
Also, Columbanus, another Celtic saint, travels across into continental Europe and settles at the base of the Alps where he, with his monastery in place, brings in a large number of Gauls into the Church. Monks evangelized pagans, but they also evangelized Christians, because in addition to an external mission, the Church, traditional Christianity, is always undertaking an inner mission, an inner evangelization, to existing Christians, who are always in need of this saving, transformative power of the Gospel, of the teaching of the Gospel. Christian society was evangelized by the monks as well.
The monks, as I said earlier, became spiritual fathers and mothers to the world around them, to the Christian society around them, and even prophets. Many of them were sought out for their spiritual wisdom, ability to see into the lives of people who came to the monasteries for their wisdom. As a matter of fact, one of the common phrases in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, when someone comes to a monk and asks for wisdom, for help in working out one’s salvation, the phrase used is, “Abba, give me a word, that I might be saved.” And we saw this with Anthony, his correspondence with people, his interaction with people, even the emperors themselves.
So monasteries became spiritual centers for Christian society, and many laypeople within that society began to patronize the monasteries. Many people who were wealthy or who were politically powerful came to patronize monasteries and give them support and strengthen them, because they became so valuable to the civilization we call Christendom. What’s interesting here is that, according to Peter Brown, a kind of symbiosis arose between lay society, the cities, and the monasteries, the monks out in the monasteries: a symbiosis in which both were kind of dependent on the other in Western Christendom, at least according to his book in which both were dependent on each other, and this is how he describes that symbiosis.
Monasteries and convents should not be seen as totally enclosed communities. Rather, they followed with unusual sensitivity the shifts of Christian piety in the world around them. It was laypersons who wished to join monasteries and convents or to offer their children to them in fulfillment of vows. It was laypersons who wished to stay close to them, so as to benefit from the example, the prayers, and the spiritual advice of their inmates. It was, above all, laypersons who came increasingly to wish to endow and protect them, even if they did not themselves become monks or nuns. What was demanded of monasteries and convents throughout this period did not change only as a result of work of the bishops or organizers; the demands changed as a result of the constant, mute pressure of lay expectations.
So the laity played a very vital role in the development of monasticism, according to Peter Brown. And there arose a practice, an institution within Christendom, of pilgrimage to monasteries as a result, in addition to the holy places like shrines and churches, which I described in the previous episode, the sanctification of the topography of the world, there now were present in that holy topography monasteries to which people would go on pilgrimages. This is something that continues even to the present day. For instance, traditional Christians in our own day, in our own post-Christian Christendom, often go on pilgrimages to monasteries, where they find a blessing from God, often an experience of paradise that they bring back with them to their lives living in the world with jobs and marriages and relationships and responsibilities. So monasticism had an important role in evangelizing the Christian laity.
Monks also became the cultural leaders of Christendom. Monks who undertook rigorous ascetical lives became celebrities within Christendom, kind of heroes of it. One thinks, for instance, of the case of St. Symeon the Stylite, who set up a pillar in Syria where he undertook extreme ascetical struggles, and how he became famous. People came swarming around the world, as it were, throughout Christendom, to see him, so much so that he kept on building his pillar higher and higher into the air to get away from them all, but he was always offering advice to them. So he was a kind of celebrity, and that was one of the kinds of celebrity in Christendom: the ascetic.
Monasteries became the source of the episcopate of the Church. The very leadership of the Church, with time, necessarily came from the monasteries. Wanted to be a bishop, had to be a monk, at least formally so. Monasteries also provided centers in which theological reflection took place—some of the greatest theologians, if not most of them, in the history of Christendom came from monasteries—as well as centers of scientific investigation. Agronomy, for instance, as a science of agriculture, was developed within monastic life. Monasteries became schools also of artistic production. For instance, the architects, the iconographers, the hymnographers, the spiritual writers which all contributed to the cultural flowering of Christendom were, for the most part, monks. So monasteries assumed an immense importance within Christendom.
However, because monasteries were so important, and Christendom looked to monks for leadership, there was also a danger of a kind of monastic elitism in Christendom, a kind of counter-cultural elitism, in which the ascetic appeared to be the only legitimate kind of Christian. This was a danger that even monks themselves responded to, that traditional Christian monasticism itself responded to. The danger was expressed very early on by such figures as Paulinus. Paulinus was an early Christian living through the great conversion who reacted against what he saw around him as a kind of nominal Christianity, and he looked to the ascetics as being the only true Christians of his time, something that was very dangerous. Robert Markus described Paulinus’ attitude in his book, The End of Ancient Christianity, and this is what he writes.
Paulinus felt the need to withdraw from the comfortable Christianity which his place in society offered him. Asceticism was coming to be the mark of authentic Christianity in a society in which to be a Christian no longer needed to make any very visual difference in a man’s life. In Paulinus’ mind, conversion to Christianity and to a life of monastic withdrawal were divided by only a hair’s breadth. […]
‘Conversion,’ for Paulinus, could be either to Christianity or to an ascetic state. The two things were so close that he did not always feel a need to distinguish them. The cost of establishing a clearer Christian identity than was readily available in Paulinus’ world was this confusion of Christianity with asceticism.
So that’s Paulinus’ view.
In fact the danger resulted in some cases of Christians separating themselves from the tradition of the Church. One such example was the example of Pelagius. Pelagius was famous, even infamous, because of his disputes with Augustine, something we will talk about in a later episode. He was famous for emphasizing the self-directed and self-determined capacity of human beings to acquire salvation for themselves. He did this in part because he wanted to bring attention to the ascetics of his time, which stood apart from the ordinary Christian. This is what Markus says about Pelagius and his place within the crisis of Christian identity that accompanied the great conversion.
Pelagianism (Markus writes) was an onslaught on the languid, second-rate Christianity which blurred the line between a conventional Christian and the ordinary, pagan Roman. In the crisis of identity which afflicted Western Christians in this time of mass-Christianization of Roman society, Pelagius’ brand of puritanic revivalism offered a means of establishing one’s Christian identity. Pelagius wanted his Christians to be as clearly defined and as distinct a group in society as the ascetics were in the Christian Church. His austere call for perfection offered his generation the most radical answer to the perplexity which haunted it: what is it to be a Christian?
So these examples, then, first of Paulinus and then even Pelagius himself, against whom Augustine will write so much of his theology—and we’ll explore that later on—these and other Christians emphasized a need for an extraordinary level of asceticism for one to be a true Christian. This was a dangerous development within the monastic tradition of Christendom as it developed after the fourth century, and it required the Church to re-emphasize her commitment, not only to the ascetical life that monasticism offered, but to the ascetical life which marriage offered.
Both of these institutions, monasticism and marriage, as we saw in the historical anecdote concerning Macarius of Egypt, both of these social institutions were fundamental to Christendom’s focus on the kingdom of heaven, so much so that monasticism even came to embody within it, with all its emphasis on celibacy, certain examples of affirming and upholding the legitimacy and value of the married life. As we reach the end of this part of the episode, I will quote here a canon that was one of a number of teachings within the monastic tradition against the disregard of marriage by monks themselves. The canon is from the fourth-century Council of Gangra, and this is how it reads.
Canon 9 from the fourth-century Council of Gangra: If anyone shall remain a virgin or observe continence (that is to say, live the monastic life), abstaining from marriage because he abhors it and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema.
Join me next time when I explore Christian marriage within Christendom as an institution which, like monasticism, led its members toward the kingdom of heaven.