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History of Religious Life

Origins of Christian Monasticism - Part 1

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence of Chicago bring you the third in a series of lectures given by Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. on the theme, History of Religious Life. Father John Hardon is a professor of Theology at St. John’s University in New York. He is a well-known lecturer and consultant to various national religious and educational enterprises and is renowned as a retreat master and spiritual director. Fr. Hardon is the author of many articles and books, including Holiness in the Church and the Catholic Catechism which has been strongly endorsed by Holy Mother Church. In this following lecture Fr. Hardon gives Part 1 on the subject: Origins of Christian Monasticism. Father Hardon.

The Distinction from the Very Beginning

What do we find as we read the major sources of Christian spirituality before the Council of Nicea? First, we should note what we are looking for: we are looking to see what the post-Apostolic Church before the dawn of the Conciliar Age. We will close this course with the Second Council of the Vatican. We begin the course after we have seen the religious life in the New Testament and in the second century with looking at the spirituality before the First General Council. We want to see what the early Christians believed about the spiritual life beyond the minimum essentials of keeping the moral law and saving one’s soul. We tried to make this plain the last time we met, mainly, that from the very beginning, from Christ’s preaching on; He already distinguished, remember, between the masses so to speak and His closer disciples and apostles. We should never then apologize for their being a distinction but we should also be the first ones to admit - that if as we fondly believe those of us in a religious community or others may be aspiring to it or to some consecrated life - we should be the first ones to admit that we don’t deserve the vocation. But the distinction was there from the very beginning.

Identify the Spiritual Patrimony of the Early Church

As we read through these more than two centuries of Christian writing - that’s from the end of the Apostolic Age - the year 100 to about 325; we find certain dominant features. My intention is to take them in some sequence, which is not necessarily a logical sequence, although each feature is closely connected with others. And each also had a definite relation to the times we are describing. Our purpose is very specific: to identify what may be called the spiritual patrimony of the early Church as the foundation on which all future living of the evangelical counsels was built.

True Followers of Christ Love Their Enemy

Feature Number One: Christianity as a separation. The first feature we discover is the ideal of separation. This does not necessarily mean physical separateness, but it does mean a moral distinctiveness that must characterize the true follower of Christ. When Paul talks to the early Christians about being pilgrims in a strange land; when Christ distinguished between those who believe in Him, and the world, we get some initial idea of what this separation means. It is nowhere more brought out more plainly than in the so-called Didache, D-i-d-a-c-h-e, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, whose first six out of sixteen chapters have been called The Book of the Two Ways, because it reduces all the duties of a Christian to two ways: the Way of Life and the Way of Death. The Way of Life, so this very important first century book, written as far as we can tell before the year 100, comprises four classes of duties. So, those who follow the Way of Life, first, have the basic duty to love God and their neighbor. And at quite some length this important book describes that those who are the true followers of Christ love their enemy. They practice liberality.

So the mark of a Christian is not only what Christ said would be the mark but what is so important to note what Christ told His followers they should do - after His Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit - they began to do! It’s one thing to have - pardon me, illustration - a recipe; it’s another thing to have the cake. The Gospels are the recipe. Ah! but that early Church is the cake, which proves for all times, including our times, that the Christ whom we called Master, therefore, our Teacher was no idle dreamer! What He taught, He taught well. And He taught so well because He conferred the grace of His followers to live up to what He told them they should do!

Restraint of Sex Passion - Avoidance of Cruelty

Second: Personal duties for those who are to follow the Way of Life consisting in practice of all kinds of virtue but especially avoiding sensuality, which I would call sexuality. I don’t hesitate saying the most probable, publicly overt, and most witnessed bearing feature of a good Christian is the restraint of the sex passion; everyone, even the unbeliever recognizes. Also the avoidance of cruelty and as I trust we know, you’re not just cruel, when, you say, strike somebody - as I’ve said so often - “give me a knife” any day compared to some people’s speech. The cruelty that some people can practice with their tongue, the sharpest and most devastating instrument that man has to wound his fellowman.

Generosity to the Poor - Education of Children

Third: Social duties, respect especially for the representatives of God. In other words, respect for Church authority. Maintenance of peace among the Faithful, generosity to the poor, and listen to this - the education of children! Isn’t that good to hear? The Church was concerned about educating the children from apostolic times! And not only this implies by, say the parents, mother especially in the home, but of certain people who would then be from the very beginning especially dedicated to Christian education.

Good Confession

And fourth: the obligation of confessing one’s sins; of which there were two kinds - the individual confession made in a group of people where the individual would admit what they had done wrong to whatever group that joined together and a more official confession, that from all the evidence we have was sacramental confession. For some years now, whenever I give a retreat, I tell the retreatants, “You’ve made a good retreat if you make a good confession.” That’s the Way of Life.

The Conduct of Christ's Followers is Unique

The Way of Death is the opposite. It consists in giving way to the vices which those who are walking the Way of Life seek to avoid and overcome. Already St. Ignatius of Antioch, whom you’ve read, refers to the Way of Life and the Way of Death. One is called the way of truth and the other, the way of error. What do those early Fathers of the Church mean? They mean that Christian spirituality is different. People who are good Christians following Christ the way they should are distinguishable from others. They’re identifiable. In other words, you can tell, externally, who are following Christ and who are not. And what’s the principal mark of distinction - is the moral life that Christ’s true followers lead. Remember, we’re still talking about separation. No doubt Christ’s followers live in the midst of other people who are just as human as their contemporaries and they may be physically near one another, even live with one another, but they are separated in spirit even if they are neighbors in body. A true follower of Christ is different; and if for no other reason than because those who are not Christ followers don’t behave the way those who are behaved. The conduct of Christ’s followers is unique and sets them off from other people more surely than if they were from another planet. In fact, they do live on another plane of existence. And their separateness is part of their distinctiveness as persons who already on earth are living a life that is not of this earth, but partakes by anticipation of the life of eternity. How many times I’ve had to tell myself this, ‘I’m supposed to be different!’ And as we mentioned in our homily this morning at Mass, this often can be a hard thing in the world, today’s especially, say with our fellow religious. One of the hardest things for me, Sisters is to be in a group of fellow priests and religious when I’m the only one that looks like a priest! Or I’m the only one in chapel not concelebrating Mass because no one has their vestments on and I cannot offer Mass without vestments. In any case, separateness is very real.

To Save This World We Have to be Patient

Second feature of the spirituality of the early post-Apostolic Church: The primacy of patient love. What we see in those writings and we’re beginning to see how much literature there is from the few samples we’re getting from those very early years of the Church. We find there an extraordinary stress on selfless love of one’s neighbor. You notice what I did, I changed the adjective selfless to patient; where patient means a love that causes suffering. Anyone who wants love and is unwilling to suffer, well, doesn’t really want to love. All the writers, without exception, take to heart the Savior’s last will and testament about the new commandment that He came into the world to teach as a condition for sanctifying a world steeped in sin. To save this world, we’ve got to suffer this world. To save this world, we’ve got to be hurt by this world. To save this world, we’ve got to be patient which means we’ve got to take it from the world. And if we’re unwilling to take it, let’s at least be honest: We are not willing to save it.

Loving One's Neighbor Can Mean Many Things

My vocabulary, as I go on with my study and teaching and I trust some wisdom gets simpler with the years, it’s also pathetically and scandalously plain. What bears particular emphasis is that the form of this selfless love was too obvious to be missed. Time and again, the early Christians were told to love their enemies which is all in the Gospels, of course you can read it; but it’s liable to be missed unless seen against the background of the first three centuries of the Church’s corporate history. Those first three centuries are the most eloquent commentary on the Gospels. As by now we know loving one’s neighbor can mean many things, but there is no doubt what it means when the neighbor is one’s enemy in every sense of the word. When he disagrees with what you believe in, he’s your enemy. When he dislikes what you hold dear, may smile, may be nice - but he’s your enemy. When he disdains what you cherish and are willing to make any sacrifice to obtain; that person is your enemy. When he despises you, opposes you, places every possible obstacle in your way, surely, that person is an enemy. When he persecutes you, reviles you, and when all else fails to break down your resistance, imprisons you and puts you to death; if that’s not enmity, then what’s love?

Nothing Converts Like a Love that Suffers

Providentially for all future generations, the Christians of the early Church were called upon to practice heroic Charity in loving people who they were absolutely sure were their enemies. And they loved so successfully that although thousands died as martyrs in the process, they also merited the conversion of the pagan world that put them to death and left them for all time the witness of the power of suffering love. Nothing converts like a love that suffers, especially at the hand of the one that causes you the pain: Of a love that loves those who do not love you in order to win them through patient endurance, what Christ won for mankind by His death on the Cross. How schizophrenic can we be. Read the Passion. Study what Christ endured and then, as it were, forget what Christ taught us: that souls are saved only - this is the divinely revealed adverb - only by the Cross. That’s the second feature of this pre-Nicean spirituality.

Spirituality of Early Church: Pattern to Imitate

Third: the practice of ascetics. There was a strange logic in the spirituality of early Church which being so close to Christ and extraordinarily gifted with His grace remains the, for all time, the pattern for us to imitate. What’s strange about that early spirituality is that it was not satisfied with the practice of patient even heroic charity towards who opposed the followers of Christ. If the early Church was a persecuted Church, it was also an ascetical Church. To place this into context we must remember that we are talking about a people living over sixteen hundred years ago where nothing of the comfort and convenience and ease that we now have access to was even dreamed of. No electric lights. We may be sure no sidewalk safe to walk on, no comfortable chairs. None of the tens of thousands of what shall we call them amenities of the modern world. Yet, there was luxury in the Graeco-Roman world and there was indulgence of the passions, such as we know from the letters of St. Paul, could be very extreme. The asceticism, therefore, of the post-Apostolic Church was especially centered on the virtues that were the direct opposite of the vices of those days. Remember this. What virtues should we moderns concentrate on? Those which are opposed to the vices of our day. In case you want to refresh your memory, well, go carefully through Chicago Tribune.

In this regard, the writings of Tertullian are especially instructive. This great man, as we know, went through three stages in His life: from being a staunch Catholic, to being a semi-Montanist, then a total heretical Montanist who finally broke with the Church he had formerly defended so well. I want to use him as an example to illustrate the asceticism of that early Church. One reason Tertullian finally broke with the Church was precisely over this question of asceticism. In his, at first, laudable zeal to preserve the purity of Christian morals he urged the faithful to avoid contamination with the lecherous paganism that surrounded them on every side. No one has improved on Tertullian’s caustic criticism of those Christians who in their dress and behavior forgot their Christian nobility and behaved like the pagans. I quote, with apologies, a short passage in which he takes to task those who resort to all sorts of devices to hide their growing years.

“God says, Who of you can make a white hair black? Or a black, white? And so woman proved the Lord wrong. Behold, they say instead of white or black, they make it yellow and more pleasing with a more graceful color. The age that we fervently pray to attain blushes for itself. A theft is committed, youth the period of sin is sighed after; the opportunity for grave seriousness is wasted. The more old age tries to conceal itself, the more it will be detected. This then, is your idea of true eternity; hair that is ever young. This is your idea of incorruptibility - that we have to put on for the new house of the Lord one guaranteed by cosmetics? When do you hasten to greet the Lord? When do you speed to depart from this iniquitous age? You to whom the near approach of your own end seems unsightly.” Unquote the great Tertullian.

By the way, I quoted one of his mildest passages. Tertullian, in common with the great masters of asceticism, correctly insisted on self-denial of the body, restraint of the senses and control of the appetites if a person wishes to be and remain a true disciple of a suffering Master. But, and this is the lesson, Tertullian went too far. Eventually he so stressed external mortification as to neglect what is, after all, the essence of asceticism as Christianity understands the term. Other writers from the same period did not make the same mistake. They, no less than Tertullian, were oppressed by the lewdness and looseness of the non-christian society in which they were immersed. It was bad. But, others took a more balanced view of mortification. They taught the faithful to practice asceticism, of course, but mainly - listen! asceticism of the mind by internal humility, asceticism of the will by childlike obedience, asceticism of the imagination by emotional self-control, and above all, asceticism of the heart by constant prayer. You don’t pray as constantly as Christ said we should without practicing a lot of mortification of every sense and of every faculty.

Chastity: A Form of Loving Sacrifice

Fourth feature of the spirituality of the early Church: Christ-like Chastity. It is not remarkable, after all, that Christ had said in praise of chastity that the Church’s earliest tradition should teach what can best be described as absolute chastity. By this the early Church understood Christ’s message to mankind there could be no more or less in the practice of this virtue. The married were to practice conjugal chastity by perfect fidelity to their spouse until their death. The unmarried were to practice pre-marital chastity by keeping their bodies and passions under control. And consecrated virgins, both men and women, were to practice total chastity by sacrificing even the prospect of marriage in order to singularize themselves as the spouses of Christ. There is too much in the letters of St. Paul on the beauty and necessity of chastity to be surprised that the first Christians strove so mightily to be chaste. What we might particularly note, however, is that their chastity was more than mere temperance or sexual self-denial. It was from the very beginning seemed to be a form of loving sacrifice. This was something new on the horizon of world religious history that God is actually pleased with the voluntary surrender naturally and strongly associated with the use of the procreative faculties. That is why, as we have seen there arose very early, first century, not just individuals but groups of persons who gave up the prospects of marriage and rearing a natural family in order to espouse themselves to Christ.

Cooperate with Jesus in Saving and Sanctifying Souls

Read what Ambrose says the theme running through his theology on chastity-espousal to Christ and to cooperate with this Jesus in saving and sanctifying souls. As we read, for example, the two letters to virgins certainly authentic-dating from as early as the third and most likely already the second century. Even the problems which the celibate life created only served to emphasize the fact that such a life was prized and practiced on a wide scale long before the Church’s liberation under Constantine. In order to bring out this truth more clearly let me state, without comment, certain aspects of the Church’s life and policy in the second and third centuries. First, the esteem for continence was so great that very soon it affected the Church’s expectation of celibacy for the clergy. Don’t forget this! The mandatory celibacy for the Church for Her clergy arose from the spontaneous virginity already in the first century. So it is totally false to say that the Church imposed celibacy on an unwilling people. What She did was to legislate what by then had become a more and more widespread practice without legislation. For example, we already know the practice was already established by the third century that ordination was denied to those who either were married and refused to sacrifice living with their wives or who did not, if they were being ordained, promise to remain celibate. The Church in her conflict with the pagan state argued that so far from being guilty of any crime which they were being charged with, the Christians (not a few men and women) lived all their lives in perfect chastity. One expression dating to the year 200 speaks of aged men who were as pure as children. Let me put the two words on the board. Sanes puri, old men, sanis is an old man, sanes is old men; puer is a boy, pueri is boys. Old men in age but children in chastity.

Chastity: Unmistakable Sign of God's Presence

Already in the third century the Christian laity distinguished themselves by their practice of chastity. So widespread was this practice that we have on record a famous apology of the layman by the name of Minucius Felix; writes Minucius, third century, I quote “We maintain modesty not on the surface but in the mind. We cling freely to the bond of one marriage. In the desire to procreate we know one wife or none. The banquets we attend are not only modest but sober for we do not indulge in revelry or prolong a feast with strong wine; rather we temper our pleasures with gravity, with chaste discourse and even more chaste in body. Many of us enjoy, rather than boast, of the perpetual virginity of a body undefiled.” They wouldn’t have dared say this to the pagans unless the pagans who watched them could testify they kept chaste. I believe, honestly, one of the hardest things for the Church in today’s society to maintain Her credibility is if Her members are not living chaste lives. Chastity in every state of life is unmistakably a sign of God’s presence, because no one, no one can remain chaste without the grace of God.

Fifth feature - we will finish this and then take our break - Community Life. We know that the early Christians, from Pentecost Sunday on, lived what we now call community life. There’s a real problem, a real problem that our industrialized, commercialized and, consequently, fragmented society creates. The problem is of how those who follow Christ can live in community. Until now it’s become, well almost identified when you hear the word, what’s the first thought that comes to your mind? Religious, and sadly even among religious, not a few, no longer want to live community life. Yet from the very first day of Pentecost, as St. Luke explained in the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians lived in a koinonea. Cardinal Danielou who died a few years ago, great Jesuit scholar, shortly before his death published a book in which he said, “The real test of Christianity in the modern world will be the survival of Christians in solitude. Because, he said, barring extraordinary grace, Christianity cannot survive without Christians living in a community. We need one another: Support, example, encouragement. The inspiration for such a community life came, of course, from the apostolic community of which Jesus was the Head. St. Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles goes to great length through several chapters to describe the qualities of this community, but notice, that’s what Christianity is supposed to be! Koinonea. His description has become normative for religious life and we religious are to be normative for the rest of the Church. Isn’t this good to hear? One of our most important functions as religious is to witness to community living! Because that’s what all Christians - if want to even survive, let alone thrive in the Faith - need. It is no wonder then that the Christians of the first century should take up where St. Luke leaves off. And that they practiced a communitarian life as one of the principal features of the following of Christ; of a social Christ, of an apostolic Christ, of a Christ who had a group of, well, of apostles. Indeed, followers of Christ soon came to mean believers in Christ whose common Faith in the Master bound them together in a communion of love.

Two definitions that come out of the Church those first two centuries are community of faith and communion of love, that those who were Christians shared the same Faith and they loved one another as members of the same body of Christ. Let me, just for the present, note certain particular features on how the desire for this communal living just burst, as it were, in all directions once Constantine liberated the Church. First, the desire for community life in that early Church was not, mainly and in fact minimally, for the sake of what might be called protective custody. The enemies of the Church say, well, the Christians huddled together like, well, like sheep or whatever, huddled together, say, in a storm. Not so. It was deeper.

Second; its inspiration was first of all the teaching and example of the Savior. What He and the Apostles did, they wanted to do. They saw that Christ’s most emphatic teaching was by His actions, in this case His social living in the company – ah, how I like this - my notes say, pointed out. I wonder who knows; I hope somebody does, if not I’ll tell you - what the word company means? We use it, don’t we, company this and company that. That’s the Latin word for com. What’s bread, sharing one’s bread with another. Isn’t that beautiful? One reason I try never to eat a meal without eating some bread. Symbolizes what community life is supposed to be. That’s Christ and you recall the most important teachings of the Savior were when He was together with the disciples and at table eating. Right? The long discourse chapters of the Last Supper, Cana in Galilee, Lazarus and Martha, after His Resurrection and make absolutely sure that food would be in on the picture remember when He called Peter who jumped in and swam to shore and I like that little passage of John - “but it wasn’t far from shore”. He didn’t want Peter to get proud about his swimming ability. Remember, didn’t Christ cook a meal for them? That’s what company means. How happy I am to say that the official name of the Society of Jesus is the Componia de Gesu.

Third, moreover, the Christians wanted to worship God and not simply do so singly or as individuals. They wanted to do so in body.

So there are three statements we are making about this so far. First, that the community life of the early Christians was not mainly a protective measure like scared sheep huddled together. Second; that the principal inspiration was practice of the Master even down to making sure they, He ate with them and they ate with Him. And third, they knew that God wants to be worshipped by individuals, indeed, but not only: God wants to be worshipped by a body. This, let us repeat, was a new experience in the history of religion. Even the revealed religion of the Jews, remember - one man, totally separated - went behind the veils, separated from the people not only certain occasions, put a long step into the Holy of Holies. Christ changed all that. Remember, He emphasizes the importance periodically going off by oneself and praying alone. We are individuals. But Christ, also and with emphasis, wants us like He did, remember, the dramatic occasions that the temple features in Christ’s life, that somehow it is where people gather together. The early Christians, therefore, felt that they were to honor God as social beings and not only as individuals. And to make sure we should never forget, in the single prayer the Savior taught us, it couldn’t be more communitarian! From the first word at least in the English version to the very end: Our Father, give us this day; lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

Poverty of Sharing: Poverty of Dispossession

Fourth feature: The early Christians were, as we’ve seen, and we know from different strata of society on different economic levels - they sensed the impropriety of such differences and therefore stressed the importance, in fact, the indispensability of sharing, the indispensability of sharing as a condition for the following of Christ. In fact, it was here that the early Church developed a distinction between precept and counsel in this matter of poverty. In general, two approaches to poverty were conceived both already in the New Testament times. First, the poverty of sharing as liberality giving to others what I’ve got, or poverty of sharing in a community, and second, the poverty of dispossession. Not all Christians we know were capable physically or psychologically of practicing the poverty of dispossession. Not all received the grace. And not all now receive the grace. But every follower of Christ can and should practice the poverty of sharing which means that a Christian believes nothing, and the word is nothing that we have has ever been given to us just for ourselves: Nothing. Nothing! As I’ve told my Jesuit scholastics for over twenty years when they complain over long years of study, “Sit down. Let me tell you a fact of life. The Lord gave you a brain (although I sometimes wonder). If you’ve got any intelligence, why in God’s name do you think God gave us this intellect? For yourself so you might bloat and become big-headed? To share! That you learn in order to teach. You acquire in order to give. You receive in order to share. And that is the heart of our Faith.” And this is where religious, as religious life became more structured, makes so much of the practice of community sharing. This concludes the first part of Fr. Hardon’s lecture on Origins of Christian Monasticism.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
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