said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have
and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come,
monasticism was a powerful vehicle for Christianity. Most ascetics
took the above saying of Jesus literally and became the poor,
wandering messengers of Jesus' gospel. Acesticism is not a Christian
invention. It can be found among many religions such as Buddhism and
even amongst the Jews. Christian asceticism derived out of earlier
traditions set forth by the Jewish Essenes and other ascetic groups.
The difference Christian asceticism had over other ascetic peoples
was that it played a vital role in the beginning and formation of
Christianity, particularly in Europe.
Early Christian monasticism, of which the later Medieval monasticism
would be based upon, came out of the desert. Although there were
other desert ascetics before him, one of the most influential of
these desert eremites was St. Anthony. His story, written down by St.
Athanasius in the fourth century A.D. (or C.E.), described a highly
virtuous man who lived in poverty and constantly rebuked the devil
himself. The type of asceticism St. Anthony embodied was the
eremitical, or hermetical kind. That meant he lived in a cell or cave
or wherever he pleased, but away from others, secluded to dwell only
on spiritual matters. There was another type of asceticism which
eventually became the dominant form for medieval monastics. This type
was called cenobitical monasticism.
Cenobitical, or communal, monasticism had its beginnings with
St. Pachomius along the Nile river in the early fourth century. In
these communities, there would be several men living under one
"rule" and would give strict obedience to the Abbot.
Instead of contemplating on spiritual matters in solitude, these
communities provided a setting conducive to spiritual thought in a
supportive way. The great Rule's for these type of communities did
not really come about until St. Benedict in the seventh century.
The Rule of St. Benedict eventually became the most prolific of
all the medieval Rules. Its effectiveness is proved by the fact that
it is still being practiced to this day all over the world. St.
Benedict's rule provided for all the functions of a working
monastery, particularly the aspect of strict obedience to the Abbot.
This was required for the monastery to function as a working
idea of the "warrior" monk found its origin with St. Martin
of Tours, probably the most known monk of early medieval times.
Martin was a monk of the fourth century who came to his faith while
serving in the Roman army. He is often depicted as a warrior, but
after his discharge from the army, he no longer performed any
military services or functions. His life was written down by his
friend Sulpicious Severus. One of the most important events in his
life occurred when he was in the army. It was in the middle of winter
and there was an old beggar asking for pity from all the soldiers
walking by. Most laughed at him, but Martin took his sword and cut
his only garment, his military cloak, in half and gave half to the
beggar. The next night, Martin had a dream and in it, Jesus appeared
wearing half of Martin's cloak. Martin was amazed and because of this
vision, he "hastened to be baptized." Martin's life was
spent in a constant quest for the grace of God through Jesus. His
story persuaded many to follow the monastic vocation.
One of the most enduring legacies of medieval monasticism is the
Classical civilization that monks helped to keep in our world
history. As mentioned in the Celtic
section, St. Patrick converted an enormous amount of the Irish people
to Christianity. His converts tended to congregate in the monastic
way since, unlike the rest of Europe, there were no large urban
centers in Ireland for the Church to base itself in. These
monasteries became the centers for learning and spirituality in
Ireland. From these monasteries, monks went out towards the pagan
British to convert the heathen. The monasteries founded, such as
Iona, Lindisfarne, Jarrow, and others, in the northern areas of the
British Isles became the basis of learning and education in these
areas and of Europe in general. The monks at these monasteries copied
thousands of texts by hand, in effect preserving Classical history
for future generations. Most of Europe at this time, roughly the
sixth and seventh centuries, was in constant chaos as migrations were
coming from eastern Europe towards the west. Most people did not have
time for reading or writing because they had to deal with the
constant warfare and quest for survival. These monastic scribes in
the far reaches of Christendom practically saved Classical history
and civlization through their work.
St. "The Life of St. Anthony." The
Fathers of the Church: Early Christian Biographies.
ed. Roy J. Deferrari. trans. Sister Mary Emily Keenen,S.C.N.,
p.127-224. Washington D.C., The Catholic University Press, 1952.
the Irish Saved Civilization.
New York, Nan A. Talese, 1995.
Henry. "The Ascetic Ideal." Monks,
Hermits, and the Ascetic Tradition. Papers Read at the 1984 Summer
Meeting and the 1985 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society."
ed. W.J. Sheils. p.1-23. Padstow,U.K., T.J. Press, 1985.
p.7-36. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1969.
Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages.
New York, Longman Group, 1984.
Life of St. Martin of Tours.
Willits, California, Eastern Orthodox Books, n.d.
Herbert B. The
Evolution of the Monastic Ideal.
p.3-135. Boston, Beacon Press, 1963.