Externals of the Catholic Church: The Monastic Life

Why are certain societies, whose members live in communities and under a define code of rules, designated as “religious orders”? Not because they have any monopoly of the religious spirit, for the virtues proper to true religion may be found flourishing abundantly throughout the length and breadth of the Catholic world – not only in monastic cloisters but in the busy life of the secular priesthood and in the lowly career of the millions of pious laity whose fervor and sanctity are known to God alone. But it has become a custom to apply the title of “religious” to those who have given themselves entirely to God in the monastic state and have taken the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Therefore, the word is used to designate those who have devoted themselves to the service of God and have forsworn the things of the world, even though there are many others who are equally, though perhaps not so evidently, imbued with the spirit of religion.

The Catholic Church, through nearly all of her history, has encouraged the institution and spread of religious orders. Their value has been appreciated by Pontiffs and Councils, and their labors for the glory of God and the extension of His kingdom have deserved and received commendation in every age since they came into being.

The Desire of Perfection

The religious life, in the sense of monasticism, owes its origin to the desire that arises in the heart of a man who is striving for perfection, to withdraw himself from the excitement and allurements of worldly things, to seek companionship and surroundings that will tend to inspire him with holy thoughts and will give him an opportunity to sanctify himself by recollection, prayer and good works. In the beginning, as we shall see, companionship was desired; the seeker after perfection became a recluse, a hermit, dwelling in solitude. But gradually it became evidence that “in union there is strength,” in spiritual things as in worldly; the era of the solitary hermits passed away, and as the centuries rolled on, those grand brigades of the Church’s army, the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits and many others, were the result of uniting into strong and well-governed bodies the zealous and the devout who separately might have sanctified themselves but could have been of little benefit to others.

Older than Christianity

The belief in the efficacy of bodily mortification and discipline of the sense prevailed in many religions before the advent of Christianity. Among the Jews there were the Essenes, who withdrew themselves from the luxury and corruption of the cities and formed small communities with strict rules of abstinence and mortification. In pagan lands a similar practice existed, as exemplified by the Stoics, who held that all material things were evil, and that, consequently, he was highest in the scale of perfection who held aloof as far as possible from sensual gratification.

Among the early Christians there was also a strong desire to master the lower parts of man’s nature. Unlike the Stoics, they did not consider worldly things to be sinful in themselves, if rightly used, but they strove to bring themselves into more perfect communion with God by strict discipline and self-abnegation. Chastity, fasting, earnest and long-continued prayer, castigation of the body – these were the principal means which were employed, even in the first centuries, by those who sought to “mortify the flesh that the spirit might be strengthened.”

The Hermits of the Desert

The ascetics of the early Church did not, at first, separate themselves from the world. They practiced their austerities in the midst of their fellow-men. But after a time, about the year 250, the stern persecutions to which the Christians were subjected caused many to seek refuge in the deserts, where they would be comparatively safe from the power of imperial Rome and could serve God without molestation.

The first of these hermits, or anchorites, as they were called, did not live in communities. Even when several of them dwelt in the same neighborhood, each lived in his own cell, supporting himself by his own labor and practicing his devotions alone. The life of these solitaries of the desert is not proposed for the imitation of ordinary Christians, even though their sanctity and fervor have been commended by the Church. She praises them as men who were filled with the spirit of sacrifice and the desire of perfection, who devoted themselves to lifelong prayer and penance, who vanquished the weaknesses and yearnings of nature and gave up all things for God.

Tradition states that the first who entered upon this solitary life was Saint Paul of the Desert, who was succeeded by the famous Saint Anthony the Hermit, concerning whose long and severe conflicts with the Spirit of Evil many legends have been handed down. The fame of his sanctity caused others to gather around him, to listen to his wisdom and profit by his example; but even then, each lived in a separate hermitage and generally practiced his devotions in solitude.

The First Monasteries

About the year 315 another saintly recluse, Saint Pachomius, began what is considered the first monastic house, in which the religious dwelt together in a community. It was seen that there were great advantages in living in the company of others who were striving for the same end, because by mutual example and contact they could each advance more rapidly in virtue.

It was not long before the knowledge of monastic life and the appreciation of its excellence spread throughout the Christian world. Saint Hilarion, a disciple of Saint Anthony, introduced it into Palestine, and Saint Basil established communities of monks in Greece. Others were founded in various parts of Asia Minor; and Saint Athanasius, the great bishop of Alexandria, on the occasion of a journey to Rome, is said to have inspired the center of Christian unity with a wonderful spirit of monastic fervor by preaching there on the life and austerities of Saint Anthony.

As missionaries carried the light of the Gospel into the remoter parts of Europe, religious houses sprang up everywhere. Saint Martin of Tours founded several monasteries in France, and others were established in England, Ireland, Germany, Austria and elsewhere.

The Monastic Rule

In the earliest period of their history the communities were usually independent. Each had its own system of government, but some uniformity was soon seen to be desirable, and gradually certain codes of rulers were formulated for the guidance of these religious bodies. That known as the Augustinian Rule is attributed by some to Saint Augustine, although it is very probable that he had nothing to do with its formation. However, it is undoubtedly of very ancient date.

One of the oldest and most celebrated of monastic rules is that established by Saint Basil, the great light of the Eastern Church. His laws were adapted to the religious life of the West, and continued in almost universal use until the advent of the great “Father of the Religious Life,” Saint Benedict, who lived in the sixth century. He instituted the code known as the Benedictine Rule, and for several hundred years nearly all the monastic houses of the Christian world obeyed it and flourished under it. In the course of time several great communities branched off from the Benedictine order, still keeping much of the spirit of the rule laid down by its saintly founder.

About the beginning of the thirteenth century, Saint Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans, who have since been subdivided into many branches. He formulated an excellent rule, which has served as a odel for the governing codes of many religious bodies. At almost the same time the zealous Saint Dominic established the great order which bears his name, using the ancient rule of the Augustinians as the basis of its statutes.

When Protestantism was spreading devastation throughout the Christian world, a new corps of defenders was organized to aid the kingdom of God in its struggle against error. Saint Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, and the simple but thorough regulations which he laid down for its government may be looked upon as a new and excellent religious rule, differing much in detail from those of other orders, but eminently adapted to the work for which the Society was organized.

A brief history of the above-mentioned orders and of a few other great religious bodies will form the matter of the next chapter.

The Work of the Monks

It is difficult to see how the work of the Church could have been carried on, how her great mission could have been successful, without the help of these great communities. When volunteers have been needed for a particular work, they have always been found ready to undertake it. The nature of the work has varied from age to age. In the early days of monasticism the religious life afforded to the devout an opportunity to withdraw from the wickedness of the decadent Roman world that they might sanctify themselves in solitude. Later on, there was need of missionary labor for the conversion of pagan tribes. Then it was necessary to teach them the arts of civilization, and so, all over Europe, great monasteries were established whose inmates cleared the wilderness and brought it under cultivation. when all of Christendom was in the turmoil of constant warfare, the only abodes of learning were the religious houses; and to the studious zeal of the monks of the so-called Dark Ages we are indebted for the priceless classics of Greek and Latin literature, which were preserved, copied and handed down to us by the patient scribes of countless monasteries. The writings of the early Fathers of the Church have given to later ages a treasury of doctrinal and ascetical lore, and we owe these also to the medieval houses of religion. The Sacred Scriptures themselves would possibly have been lost to the world, or at least would have reached later generations in an imperfect condition, if they had not been laboriously transcribed and multiplied into thousands of copies by the persevering labor of the monastic orders.

Thus we see that the “ignorant and lazy monks,” who have long furnished to the enemies of the faith a subject for misrepresentation and deliberate falsehood, have been of considerable use in the world. They were neither ignorant nor lazy. We of this twentieth century would indeed be ignorant were it not for their industry and their love of learning. The Europe of today would perhaps be on a level with the Europe of the fourth century, had not these zealous pioneers opened the way to civilization and diffused not only the light of faith but the knowledge of the arts and sciences among the wild tribes of Gaul, of Germany and of Britain.

The great monastic orders have been one of the chief instruments in the spread of God’s truth, in the progress of His Church, and today, while the reasons for their continuance and the work which they are doing are different in some details from those of former times, they are assuredly not less useful than they were in earlier centuries. Their zealous missionaries are carrying the light of the Gospel into the darkness of pagan lands; no danger daunts them, for they have “given up all things to follow Christ.” The work of reviving and strengthening the religious spirit in our Catholic faithful is largely entrusted to them; they preach missions to our people and retreats to our clergy with the success that comes from long training and experience. The education of Catholic youth is the work of some; in colleges and seminaries they train the student for the rank in life he is destined to fill, be it Catholic layman or Catholic priest.

We do not deny, we freely admit, that in some parts of the world certain communities have at times fallen away from their first fervor – that abuses have crept in, that unworthy men have been found in the monastic state. But the watchful eye of Mother Church did not long tolerate such laxity. Reforms were instituted, rules were enforced, and the success of her efforts may be seen from the magnitude of the work which the religious orders have accomplished since their foundation, and from their present strength and efficiency after so many centuries.

The monastic orders are assuredly a work of God. He inspired the saintly founders whose wisdom framed the laws under which these societies have achieved such marvelous and long-continued success. He has sanctified their members, imbuing them with the right spirit and intention, bestowing upon them and their work an abundance of grace, and aiding them to secure wonderful results. Long may these ancient institutions live and flourish! Long may they labor in the service of God’s Holy Church! There is great work still to be done. “The fields are white with harvest, and the reapers are few” – and some of the reaping can be done with full success only by those who have “left all things” – who have vowed poverty, for they see not earthly gain; chastity, for they wish to be free from ties of human affection; and obedience, for they know that unless the will of the commander is the law of the soldier, no army can win its battles.

– from Externals of the Catholic Church, by Father John F Sullivan