Catholicism, whether Greek or Roman, cannot dispense with the monastic life. It knows only moral extremes, nothing of the healthful mean. In addition to this, Popery needs the monastic orders, as an absolute monarchy needs large standing armies both for conquest and defence. But evangelical Protestantism, rejecting all distinction of a twofold morality, assigning to all men the same great duty under the law of God, placing the essence of religion not in outward exercises, but in the heart, not in separation from the world and from society, but in purifying and sanctifying the world by the free spirit of the gospel, is death to the great monastic institution.
§ 33. Position of Monks in the Church. As to the social position of monasticism in the system of ecclesiastical life: it was at first, in East and West, even so late as the council of Chalcedon, regarded as a lay institution; but the monks were distinguished as religiosi from the seculares, and formed thus a middle grade between the ordinary laity and the clergy. They constituted the spiritual nobility, but not the ruling class; the aristocracy, but not the hierarchy of the church. "A monk," says Jerome, "has not the office of a teacher, but of a penitent, who endures suffering either for himself or for the world." Many monks considered ecclesiastical office incompatible with their effort after perfection. It was a proverb, traced to Pachomius: "A monk should especially shun women and bishops, for neither will let him have peace."1 Ammonius, who accompanied Athanasius to Rome, cut off his own ear, and threatened to cut out his own tongue, when it was proposed to make him a bishop.2 Martin of Tours thought his miraculous power deserted him on his transition from the cloister to the bishopric. Others, on the contrary, were ambitious for the episcopal chair, or were promoted to it against their will, as early as the fourth century. The abbots of monasteries were usually ordained priests, and administered the sacraments among the brethren, but were subject to the bishop of the diocese. Subsequently the cloisters managed, through special papal grants, to make themselves independent of the episcopal jurisdiction. From the tenth century the clerical character was attached to the monks. In a certain sense, they stood, from the beginning, even above the clergy; considered themselves preëminently conversi and religiosi, and their life vita religiosa; looked down with contempt upon the secular clergy; and often encroached on their province in troublesome ways. On the other hand, the cloisters began, as early as the fourth century, to be most fruitful seminaries of clergy, and furnished, especially in the East, by far the greater number of bishops. The sixth novel of Justinian provides that the bishops shall be chosen from the clergy, or from the monastery.
In dress, the monks at first adhered to the costume of the country, but chose the simplest and coarsest material. Subsequently, they adopted the tonsure and a distinctive uniform.
§ 34. Influence and Effect of Monasticism. The influence of monasticism upon the world, from Anthony and Benedict to Luther and Loyola, is deeply marked in all branches of the history of the church. Here, too, we must distinguish light and shade. The operation of the monastic institution has been to some extent of diametrically opposite kinds, and has accordingly elicited the most diverse judgments. "It is impossible," says Dean Milman,3 "to survey monachism in its general influence, from the earliest period of its inworking into Christianity, without being astonished and perplexed with its diametrically opposite effects. Here it is the undoubted parent of the blindest ignorance and the most ferocious bigotry, sometimes of the most debasing licentiousness; there the guardian of learning, the author of civilization, the propagator of humble and peaceful religion." The apparent contradiction is easily solved. It is not monasticism, as such, which has proved a blessing to the church and the world; for the monasticism of India, which for three thousand years has pushed the practice of mortification to all the excesses of delirium, never saved a single soul, nor produced a single benefit to the race. It was Christianity in monasticism which has done all the good, and used this abnormal mode of life as a means for carrying forward its mission of love and peace. In proportion as monasticism was animated and controlled by the spirit of Christianity, it proved a blessing; while separated from it, it degenerated and became at fruitful source of evil.
At the time of its origin, when we can view it from the most favorable point, the monastic life formed a healthful and necessary counterpart to the essentially corrupt and doomed social life of the Graeco-Roman empire, and the preparatory school of a new Christian civilization among the Romanic and Germanic nations of the middle age. Like the hierarchy and the papacy, it belongs with the disciplinary institutions, which the spirit of Christianity uses as means to a higher end, and, after attaining that end, casts aside. For it ever remains the great problem of Christianity to pervade like leaven and sanctify all human society in the family and the state, in science and art, and in all public life. The old Roman world, which was based on heathenism, was, if the moral portraitures of Salvianus and other writers of the fourth and fifth centuries are even half true, past all such transformation; and the Christian morality therefore assumed at the outset an attitude of downright hostility toward it, till she should grow strong enough to venture upon her regenerating mission among the new and, though barbarous, yet plastic and germinal nations of the middle age, and plant in them the seed of a higher civilization.
Monasticism promoted the downfall of heathenism and the victory of Christianity in the Roman empire and among the barbarians. It stood as a warning against the worldliness, frivolity, and immorality of the great cities, and a mighty call to repentance and conversion. It offered a quiet refuge to souls weary of the world, and led its earnest disciples into the sanctuary of undisturbed communion with God. It was to invalids a hospital for the cure of moral diseases, and at the same time, to healthy and vigorous enthusiasts an arena for the exercise of heroic virtue.4 It recalled the original unity and equality of the human race, by placing rich and poor, high and low upon the same level. It conduced to the abolition, or at least the mitigation of slavery.5 It showed hospitality to the wayfaring, and liberality to the poor and needy. It was an excellent school of meditation, self-discipline, and spiritual exercise. It sent forth most of those catholic, missionaries, who, inured to all hardship, planted the standard of the cross among the barbarian tribes of Northern and Western Europe, and afterward in Eastern Asia and South America. It was a prolific seminary of the clergy, and gave the church many of her most eminent bishops and popes, as Gregory I. and Gregory VII. It produced saints like Anthony and Bernard, and trained divines like Chrysostom and Jerome, and the long succession of schoolmen and mystics of the middle ages. Some of the profoundest theological discussions, like the tracts of Anselm, and the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, and not a few of the best books of devotion, like the "Imitation of Christ," by Thomas a Kempis, have proceeded from the solemn quietude of cloister life. Sacred hymns, unsurpassed for sweetness, like the Jesu dulcis memoria, or tender emotion, like the Stabat mater dolorosa, or terrific grandeur, like the Dies irae, dies illa, were conceived and sung by mediaeval monks for all ages to come. In patristic and antiquarian learning the Benedictines, so lately as the seventeenth century, have done extraordinary service. Finally, monasticism, at least in the West, promoted the cultivation of the soil and the education of the people, and by its industrious transcriptions of the Bible, the works of the church fathers, and the ancient classics, earned for itself, before the Reformation, much of the credit of the modern civilization of Europe. The traveller in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, England, and even in the northern regions of Scotland and Sweden, encounters innumerable traces of useful monastic labors in the ruins of abbeys, of chapter houses, of convents, of priories and hermitages, from which once proceeded educational and missionary influences upon the surrounding hills and forests. These offices, however, to the progress of arts and letters were only accessory, often involuntary, and altogether foreign to the intention of the founders of monastic life and institutions, who looked exclusively to the religious and moral education of the soul. In seeking first the kingdom of heaven, these other things were added to them.
But on the other hand, monasticism withdrew from society many useful forces; diffused an indifference for the family life, the civil and military service of the state, and all public practical operations; turned the channels of religion from the world into the desert, and so hastened the decline of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the whole Roman empire. It nourished religious fanaticism, often raised storms of popular agitation, and rushed passionately into the controversies of theological parties; generally, it is true, on the side of orthodoxy, but often, as at the Ephesian "council of robbers," in favor of heresy, and especially in behalf of the crudest superstition. For the simple, divine way of salvation in the gospel, it substituted an arbitrary, eccentric, ostentatious, and pretentious sanctity. It darkened the all-sufficient merits of Christ by the glitter of the over-meritorious works of man. It measured virtue by the quantity of outward exercises instead of the quality of the inward disposition, and disseminated self-righteousness and an anxious, legal, and mechanical religion. It favored the idolatrous veneration of Mary and of saints, the worship of images and relics, and all sorts of superstitious and pious fraud. It circulated a mass of visions and miracles, which, if true, far surpassed the miracles of Christ and the apostles and set all the laws of nature and reason at defiance. The Nicene age is full of the most absurd monks’ fables, and is in this respect not a whit behind the darkest of the middle ages.6 Monasticism lowered the standard of general morality in proportion as it set itself above it and claimed a corresponding higher merit; and it exerted in general a demoralizing influence on the people, who came to consider themselves the profanum vulgus mundi, and to live accordingly. Hence the frequent lamentations, not only of Salvian, but of Chrysostom and of Augustine, over the indifference and laxness of the Christianity of the day; hence to this day the mournful state of things in the southern countries of Europe and America, where monasticism is most prevalent, and sets the extreme of ascetic sanctity in contrast with the profane laity, but where there exists no healthful middle class of morality, no blooming family life, no moral vigor in the masses. In the sixteenth century the monks were the bitterest enemies of the Reformation and of all true progress. And yet the greatest of the reformers was a pupil of the convent, and a child of the monastic system, as the boldest and most free of the apostles had been the strictest of the Pharisees.
§ 35. Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony. I. Athanasius: Vita S. Antonii (in Greek, Opera, ed. Ben. ii. 793–866). The same in Latin, by Evagrius, in the fourth century. Jerome: Catal. c. 88 (a very brief notice of Anthony); Vita S. Pauli Theb. (Opera, ed. Vallars, ii. p. 1–12). Sozom: H. E. l. i. cap. 13 and 14. Socrat.: H. E. iv. 23, 25.
II. Acta Sanctorum, sub Jan. 17 (tom. ii. p. 107 sqq.). Tillemont: Mem. tom. vii. p. 101–144 (St. Antoine, premier père des solitaires d’Egypte). Butler (R.C.): Lives of the Saints, sub Jan. 17. Möhler (R.C.): Athanasius der Grosse, p. 382–402. Neander: K. G. iii. 446 sqq. (Torrey’s Engl. ed. ii. 229–234). Böhringer: Die Kirche Christi in Biographien, i. 2, p. 122–151. H. Ruffner: l.c. vol. i. p. 247–302 (a condensed translation from Athanasius, with additions). K. Hase: K. Gesch. § 64 (a masterly miniature portrait).
The first known Christian hermit, as distinct from the earlier ascetics, is the fabulous Paul of Thebes, in Upper Egypt. In the twenty-second year of his age, during the Decian persecution, a.d. 250, he retired to a distant cave, grew fond of the solitude, and lived there, according to the legend, ninety years, in a grotto near a spring and a palm tree, which furnished him food, shade, and clothing,7 until his death in 340. In his later years a raven is said to have brought him daily half a loaf, as the ravens ministered to Elijah. But no one knew of this wonderful saint, till Anthony, who under a higher impulse visited and buried him, made him known to the world. After knocking in vain for more than an hour at the door of the hermit, who would receive the visits of beasts and reject those of men, he was admitted at last with a smiling face, and greeted with a holy kiss. Paul had sufficient curiosity left to ask the question, whether there were any more idolaters in the world, whether new houses were built in ancient cities and by whom the world was governed? During this interesting conversation, a large raven came gently flying and deposited a double portion of bread for the saint and his guest. "The Lord," said Paul, "ever kind and merciful, has sent us a dinner. It is now sixty years since I have daily received half a loaf, but since thou hast come, Christ has doubled the supply for his soldiers." After thanking the Giver, they sat down by the fountain; but now the question arose who should break the bread; the one urging the custom of hospitality, the other pleading the right of his friend as the elder. This question of monkish etiquette, which may have a moral significance, consumed nearly the whole day, and was settled at last by the compromise that both should seize the loaf at opposite ends, pull till it broke, and keep what remained in their hands. A drink from the fountain, and thanksgiving to God closed the meal. The day afterward Anthony returned to his cell, and told his two disciples: "Woe to me, a sinner, who have falsely pretended to be a monk. I have seen Elijah and John in the desert; I have seen St. Paul in paradise." Soon afterward he paid St. Paul a second visit, but found him dead in his cave, with head erect and hands lifted up to heaven. He wrapped up the corpse, singing psalms and hymns, and buried him without a spade; for two lions came of their own accord, or rather from supernatural impulse, from the interior parts of the desert, laid down at his feet, wagging their tails, and moaning distressingly, and scratched a grave in the sand large enough for the body of the departed saint of the desert! Anthony returned with the coat of Paul, made of palm leaves, and wore it on the solemn days of Easter and Pentecost.
The learned Jerome wrote the life of Paul, some thirty years afterward, as it appears, on the authority of Anathas and Macarius, two disciples of Anthony. But he remarks, in the prologue, that many incredible things are said of him, which are not worthy of repetition. If he believed his story of the grave-digging lions, it is hard to imagine what was more credible and less worthy of repetition.
In this Paul we have an example, of a canonized saint, who lived ninety years unseen and unknown in the wilderness, beyond all fellowship with the visible church, without Bible, public worship, or sacraments, and so died, yet is supposed to have attained the highest grade of piety. How does this consist with the common doctrine of the Catholic church respecting the necessity and the operation of the means of grace? Augustine, blinded by the ascetic spirit of his age, says even, that anchorets, on their level of perfection, may dispense with the Bible. Certain it is, that this kind of perfection stands not in the Bible, but outside of it.
The proper founder of the hermit life, the one chiefly instrumental in giving it its prevalence, was St. Anthony of Egypt. He is the most celebrated, the most original, and the most venerable representative of this abnormal and eccentric sanctity, the "patriarch of the monks," and the "childless father of an innumerable seed."8
Anthony sprang from a Christian and honorable Coptic family, and was born about 251, at Coma, on the borders of the Thebaid. Naturally quiet, contemplative, and reflective, he avoided the society of playmates, and despised all higher learning. He understood only his Coptic vernacular, and remained all his life ignorant of Grecian literature and secular science.9 But he diligently attended divine worship with his parents, and so carefully heard the Scripture lessons, that he retained them in memory.0 Memory was his library. He afterward made faithful, but only too literal use of single passages of Scripture, and began his discourse to the hermits with the very uncatholic-sounding declaration: "The holy Scriptures give us instruction enough." In his eighteenth year, about 270, the death of his parents devolved on him the care of a younger sister and a considerable estate. Six months afterward he heard in the church, just as he was meditating on the apostles’ implicit following of Jesus, the word of the Lord to the rich young ruler: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me."1This word was a voice of God, which determined his life. He divided his real estate, consisting of three hundred acres of fertile land, among the inhabitants of the village, and sold his personal property for the benefit of the poor, excepting a moderate reserve for the support of his sister. But when, soon afterward, he heard in the church the exhortation, "Take no thought for the morrow,"2 he distributed the remnant to the poor, and intrusted his sister to a society of pious virgins.3 He visited her only once after—a fact characteristic of the ascetic depreciation of natural ties.
He then forsook the hamlet, and led an ascetic life in the neighborhood, praying constantly, according to the exhortation: "Pray without ceasing;" and also laboring, according to the maxim: "If any will not work, neither should he eat." What he did not need for his slender support, he gave to the poor. He visited the neighboring ascetics, who were then already very plentiful in Egypt, to learn humbly and thankfully their several eminent virtues; from one, earnestness in prayer; from another, watchfulness; from a third, excellence in fasting; from a fourth, meekness; from all, love to Christ and to fellow men. Thus he made himself universally beloved, and came to be reverenced as a friend of God.
But to reach a still higher level of ascetic holiness, he retreated, after the year 285, further and further from the bosom and vicinity of the church, into solitude, and thus became the founder of an anchoretism strictly so called. At first he lived in a sepulchre; then for twenty years in the ruins of a castle; and last on Mount Colzim, some seven hours from the Red Sea, a three days’ journey east of the Nile, where an old cloister still preserves his name and memory.
In this solitude he prosecuted his ascetic practices with ever-increasing rigor. Their monotony was broken only by basket making, occasional visits, and battles with the devil. In fasting he attained a rare abstemiousness. His food consisted of bread and salt, sometimes dates; his drink, of water. Flesh and wine he never touched. He ate only once a day, generally after sunset, and, like the presbyter Isidore, was ashamed that an immortal spirit should need earthly nourishment. Often he fasted from two to five days. Friends, and wandering Saracens, who always had a certain reverence for the saints of the desert, brought him bread from time to time. But in the last years of his life, to render himself entirely independent of others, and to afford hospitality to travellers, he cultivated a small garden on the mountain, near a spring shaded by palms.4 Sometimes the wild beasts of the forest destroyed his modest harvest, till he drove them away forever with the expostulation: "Why do you injure me, who have never done you the slightest harm? Away with you all, in the name of the Lord, and never come into my neighborhood again." He slept on bare ground, or at best on a pallet of straw; but often he watched the whole night through in prayer. The anointing of the body with oil he despised, and in later years never washed his feet; as if filthiness were an essential element of ascetic perfection. His whole wardrobe consisted of a hair shirt, a sheepskin, and a girdle. But notwithstanding all, he had a winning friendliness and cheerfulness in his face.
Conflicts with the devil and his hosts of demons were, as with other solitary saints, a prominent part of Anthony’s experience, and continued through all his life. The devil appeared to him in visions and dreams, or even in daylight, in all possible forms, now as a friend, now as a fascinating woman, now as a dragon, tempting him by reminding him of his former wealth, of his noble family, of the care due to his sister, by promises of wealth, honor, and renown, by exhibitions of the difficulty of virtue and the facility of vice, by unchaste thoughts and images, by terrible threatening of the dangers and punishments of the ascetic life. Once he struck the hermit so violently, Athanasius says, that a friend, who brought him bread, found him on the ground apparently dead. At another time he broke through the wall of his cave and filled the room with roaring lions, howling wolves, growling bears, fierce hyenas, crawling serpents and scorpions; but Anthony turned manfully toward the monsters, till a supernatural light broke in from the roof and dispersed them. His sermon, which he delivered to the hermits at their request, treats principally of these wars with demons, and gives also the key to the interpretation of them: "Fear not Satan and his angels. Christ has broken their power. The best weapon against them is faith and piety .... The presence of evil spirits reveals itself in perplexity, despondency, hatred of the ascetics, evil desires, fear of death .... They take the form answering to the spiritual state they find in us at the time.5 They are the reflex of our thoughts and fantasies. If thou art carnally minded, thou art their prey; but if thou rejoicest in the Lord and occupiest thyself with divine things, they are powerless .... The devil is afraid of fasting, of prayer, of humility and good works. His illusions soon vanish, when one arms himself with the sign of the cross."
Only in exceptional cases did Anthony leave his solitude; and then he made a powerful impression on both Christians and heathens with his hairy dress and his emaciated, ghostlike form. In the year 311, during the persecution under Maximinus, he appeared in Alexandria in the hope of himself gaining the martyr’s crown. He visited the confessors in the mines and prisons, encouraged them before the tribunal, accompanied them to the scaffold; but no one ventured to lay hands on the saint of the wilderness. In the year 351, when a hundred years old, he showed himself for the second and last time in the metropolis of Egypt, to bear witness for the orthodox faith of his friend Athanasius against Arianism, and in a few days converted more heathens and heretics than had otherwise been gained in a whole year. He declared the Arian denial of the divinity of Christ worse than the venom of the serpent, and no better than heathenism which worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. He would have nothing to do with heretics, and warned his disciples against intercourse with them. Athanasius attended him to the gate of the city, where he cast out an evil spirit from a girl. An invitation to stay longer in Alexandria he declined, saying: "As a fish out of water, so a monk out of his solitude dies." Imitating his example, the monks afterward forsook the wilderness in swarms whenever orthodoxy was in danger, and went in long processions with wax tapers and responsive singing through the streets, or appeared at the councils, to contend for the orthodox faith with all the energy of fanaticism, often even with physical force.