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History of Religious Life
Origins of Christian Monasticism - Part 2

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

The Institute on Religious Life and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence Chicago bring you Part Two and the conclusion of the lecture Origins of Christian Monasticism given by Fr. John A. Hardon S.J. in his classes on the History of Religious Life. Father Hardon.

The Early Development of Structured Religious Life Up to St. Benedict

The date of St. Benedict is 529. Our intention is to see in historical sequence the early development of what may be called structured religious life; but all before St. Benedict, the Founder of Western Monasticism. To get our bearings and keep them, we should first divide the matter to be seen into something like logical parts each preceding, somehow meeting, the future part on which, then, it will build.

Part One: To look at something of the persons whose life and practices set the pattern for Western Monasticism; second, the features of the life of these persons and third, the organization in established Rule.

People Practicing Consecrated Chastity

First, then the persons living primitive religious life: If we were to identify the first signs of religious life in the Catholic Church on any semblance of a structured form, we may safely say that this life was first shown in the lives of the Christian virgins already in the first century of the Christian era. Well to know. That’s how religious life started, with people practicing consecrated chastity. Their practice of continence was, almost from the beginning, associated also with the renunciation of riches. And, by the way, not a few of the earliest virgins came from very wealthy, noble families. Reference to these virgins occurs in the Christian literature of the first century, and the Fathers of the second century praise their mode of living. Shortly after the virgins appeared those whom, the early Fathers called, asketi, the ascetics and whom the Latin Church calls confessors; so that ascetic is the Greek word corresponding to confessor from the Latin. They too, made profession of chastity and sometimes of poverty and surprisingly people we’d never know lived this kind of a consecrated life, actually did so; for example St. Cyprian. In the liturgy, the ascetics took rank before the virgins.

The Historian Eusebius, in his History of the Church, fourth century, mentions among the ascetics the greatest bishops of the early Church, for example: St. Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, St. Polycarp; so that people we don’t usually think of as religious, in any intelligible sense in which the word could be used in those early ages, they were.

Life of Austerity and Retirement

By the fourth century, we find clear traces of the kind of life in which religious profession becomes, by degrees, more developed and brought under rule, namely, the life of the monks. The note that characterizes the monks, the first thing you recognize is their seclusion from the world and their love of retirement. Until then virgins and ascetics had edified the world by keeping themselves pure in the midst of corruption and recollected in the midst of dissipation. The monks, and this includes nuns, as St. Ambrose letters indicate, the monks endeavor to edify the world by avoiding and contemning, as we might say, all that the world esteems. Thus the life of a solitary and the monk – that we will see in a few minutes they’re not quite the same – was really a life of austerity and of retirement. Part of the austerity was retirement because most people, over the centuries till this day, like to talk. And retirement was intended as one means of practicing austerity. The world, which sent travelers to contemplate these monks, was astonished at the heroism of their penance. I trust you got a few ideas from St. Anthony. Would you say that he was a mortified man?

Victory of Grace Over Nature

The religious life took the form of a war against fallen human nature. Its goal was to achieve and then witness to others to a victory of grace over nature. And what wild human natures some of those early monks and nuns had; then came the severe persecutions, one after another, the most serious was under Decius about 250 A.D. This persecution gave birth to the first great hermit of the deserts, St. Paul of Thebes, sometimes called St. Paul the Anchorite, again St. Paul of Egypt, again St Paul the Solitary: it’s all the same Paul. Other Christians, too, sought refuge there in the desert from their tormentors. And some of the great writings of that period defend fleeing from persecution, not out of fear, but to imitate Christ. To imitate Christ who more than once escaped from the hands of His would-be assassins, not because He was afraid of them, but He wanted to live a little bit longer to proclaim the Gospel. The Desert Fathers also wished to continue proclaiming the gospel in words, but especially in deeds.

Like-Minded Men Seeking Perfection

Somewhat later than Paul came St. Anthony, the dates, as by now I trust you know is authentic 251 to 356. Let never anyone tell you that austerity will shorten your life. At the age of twenty, he retired to the desert for a different reason; reading and meditating on the event in the Gospels when the rich young man was called and did not follow the Master, Anthony decided to do what the wealthy youth in Matthew’s Gospel, had not done. He wanted to expiate. He went to the desert where he soon had disciples whom he formed into monastic villages. There they lived in clusters of like-minded men who all were seeking perfection as Christ promised and where they found encouragement from one another.

Pachomius – Founder of Cenobitic Religious Life

At the same time that Anthony was loosely associating followers, St. Pachomius – these are the big names – St. Pachomius, he didn’t live quite as long – 292 to 346. He died as a youngster. Also in Egypt, he decided to bring all his Monks under one roof and he is commonly credited with being the Founder of Cenobitic Religious Life, meaning community religious life. He wasn’t really the first but his Rule has since affected all others, including every community he represented. His monasteries had large numbers under one head. When he died he was virtually Superior of seven thousand monks, of whom thirteen hundred were in Tabennesi, that’s one place, and two hundred to three hundred in smaller foundations.

How Was Religious Life Structured At This Stage

First, there was the Abbot over all the monasteries. The word abbot comes from the word we have in the Gospels, Abba, which means Father.

Second, a subordinate superior from the Latin writers called praepositus, that means superintendent or if you wish, superior over individual houses.

And third was called the so-called leader - the Latin word is hebdomadarius, that’s almost untranslatable. Hebdomida in Latin is week. Call him the weekly leader; he was appointed on a weekly basis, I suppose, so he wouldn’t get either proud or couldn’t abuse his privileges. Before they could bribe the hebdomadarius there was another man appointed in his stead. His job was to call the monks to prayer, lead the Office and relate directives to the monks and take complaints from the monks to the abbots. His was the least enviable of all these positions. That may be another reason why he was on for just a week. Maybe that’s about as long as anyone could take it. Moreover, everybody got their chance. What a delightful technique!

Priesthood and Religious Life Later Innovation

The monks of Anthony and Pachomius were not priests. This is a great moment. The priesthood in religious life is a much later innovation. And as one who is both priest and religious, let me tell you, it is not an easy combination to preserve. I believe this is one of the main reasons why of all the men religious orders in the Catholic Church today, the hardest hit have been the Trappists. The last figures I read was 36% of the world membership defected. Many reasons; unscreened candidates but from having known the Trappists - I knew Thomas Merton well, personally. One of the problems was that once they became priests with all the education that implies, and they wanted to engage then in apostolic work; people would come to them. They would want to go out and then what happens to the monastic-Cistercian life? Very Hard. My annual retreat, the one job that I principally have to get myself back on the straight and narrow, is to control my priestly apostolate within the limits of what my religious life demands, which is especially, prayer. That I don’t talk to others and then, like St. Paul feared become myself a castaway because I haven’t been enough with God! So, all the early monks were what we would call religious who were not priests; the latter, there were some that were gradually, you might say, ordained, but they were usually called in on Saturdays and Sundays for confessions, for the liturgy and for such counsel that, say, only a priest presumably could give.

Pachomius’ Organizational Success

For example Origen, the year 240, talks about private confession to a priest among religious when he further notes that Pachomius was eminently successful with his organization in several ways. How?

First, in the large numbers of his dedicated followers, people just wanted to become hermits and in time, though they were eremitical at first, became organized into communities.

Second; Pachomius is famous for making monasticism available to both men and women. Before his time, though, there had been virgins living in small groups but nothing on any large scale: and, least of all, you just did not send women to the desert – just didn’t do that. Pachomius felt, well, they can take it too. When he died there were nine Foundations of men and two of women.

Thirdly, Pachomius should be remembered for inspiring other leaders to follow his example; organize communities like his. Again in formulating a Rule, Pachomius was very practical, detailed and yet remarkably adjustable depending always – listen to this – on its interpretation by the Abbot.

Pachomius’ Rule Became the Prototype for Monasticism

I thought for awhile I would give you as your assigned reading, the Rule of St. Pachomius. Well I could have done that but I decided on what I did. Pachomius’ Rule became the prototype of Eastern and Western Monasticism. It’s best known for, just for the record, is the text of St. Jerome, in Latin, published 405 A.D. It influenced St. Basil of the East and Benedict in the West. And all of us are debtors, ultimately, to Pachomius. That’s the West, though we don’t usually think of Egypt or Africa as the West but we’ve got to make a division somewhere.

Along with Pachomius in the West was Basil in the East; his is the greatest name in Monasticism. After Pachomius and among the Easterners of course, there’s nobody greater than Basil. His contribution was manifold but mainly and clearly distinguishing; the solitary and community religious life. He stressed the one great advantage of the latter that is community life, namely the opportunity that living in a community affords for the practice of charity, as no religious who is sober and is in his or her right mind, doubts. You either practice charity or you don’t survive in the community.

Moreover, while criticizing excessive mortification, he exhorted the Superior to moderate the external ascetic life reasonably. One reason that I wanted you to read Anthony because well, Anthony was a law, you might say, to himself; and I suppose when you finish the reading, you’re not too surprised that Anthony did not have the thousands of followers that, say, either Pachomius or later on Basil had; because Anthony was – he was a rugged saint. My Pastor back home in Cleveland, I used to serve Mass and, every once in awhile, he would chew us up for we didn’t know why – we were just no good. So we go to Sister in the other Sacristy, the boys Sacristy for consolation. And she would tell us, “Now Fr. John is a diamond in the rough.” We were sure he was rough; we didn’t know he was a diamond.

Basil – Originator of the Aspirancy

So Basil with several centuries of Anthony’s and Paul’s and Pachomius’, well, he “there is more balance you might say though we should not fault those early great heroes for they were living in rough times. And you may be sure the devil was very active, and Anthony was going to conquer the devil if it killed him. St. Basil also encouraged his monks to undertake the education of children. That is a great moment! And he was pleased when some of these children embraced the monastic life, yet he was careful to make sure they did so of their own accord. In case you haven’t heard St. Basil was the originator of the Aspirancy, which I think is a very good idea. I really do! He was, for example, would not allow the freedom of a son or daughter to be restrained or somehow compelled because their parents wanted them to be religious. He wanted to make sure that his religious were such of their own accord. I believe the hope for future of religious life in countries like our own is to re-assess and re-establish some aspect or form or adaptation of the Aspirancy. I speak as one who knows. I finished college before I entered the order. I think it’s great! But I wouldn’t want to wish what I went through on anyone. Sometimes I just rub my eyes and I can’t believe that I survived! The world is very attractive. In any case St. Basil, so as I tell people for a thousand years until the Reformation, this was the universal practice. Then we went out in search of vocations, well now that’s all right. You know what we’ve been doing, advertising. I’m speaking of some young blood here and you know how many we got and I’m not sure we always got the best who answered our ads. In any case, just an aside we are in Basil.

Augustine: Clericalization of Religious Life

The fifth and last great name we should consider in the progress of religious life before St. Benedict was Augustine. Now I didn’t think Augustine would mind if I gave you more from St. Ambrose than, say from St. Augustine to read because you know that Ambrose instructed and baptized Augustine and every good pupil (and Augustine was a good pupil) always appreciates when his teacher is honored. The best single term to describe Augustine’s contribution is to call it in a good sense clericalization of religious life. Augustine introduced priests into the religious life.

Eusebius Organized His Clerics into the First Recorded Clerical Monastery

Religious life in the East had remained basically non-clerical; in fact almost to this day, most monks in the East are not priests. It was integrated into the social and apostolic life of the Church but not, this is the East, in its priestly state. That’s why the Society of Jesus which is mainly priests or priests to-be that could never have been founded in the Orient. It was, then, to the credit of the West, that it brought religious life to the priesthood. Or shall we say the priesthood to the religious life? The roots of this process are found early in the history of that life in the West. Eusebius of Vercelli just so that we have some names and believe me I’m choosing out of scores of names, Eusebius of Vercelli about 360 A.D. organized the clerics of his Cathedral – he was Bishop – into the first recorded Clerical Monastery in history. You see what they did? They had priests working already as secular priests but the bishop had decided it would be good for his diocese and good for the men if they formed a religious order. A similar arrangement was made by St. Ambrose in Milan and by St. Paulinus in Nola: all three in Italy.

Augustine Organized the Whole Life of His Clergy

However, it was St. Augustine whose efforts had most influence on later generations. His own autobiography is not without importance here. As a priest in Tagaste in Africa, he organized a semi-monastic form of life. But that group was directed to intellectual studies and, if you please, to help with the completion of the education of his son. You know Augustine had lived a checkered life before he became a saint. Well, he won’t mind my putting this on the board. He called his boy at least the one that is most famous, Adeodatus – given by God – of course he gave him the name after Augustine’s own conversion. Later on as Augustine was instructed in the Faith and ordained in Hippo in Africa; he again formed a group but this time directed to the formation of clerics as a Seminary. Finally as Bishop and the date is 396, he organized the whole life of his clergy. I don’t know if everybody in the Diocese of Hippo remained in the diocese or some begged to go elsewhere but he told them; Now my dear friends, he must have called a conclave and said, I’ve made a decision in the Lord; after a certain date you will all be religious. That’s right. Do you want to stay in the diocese? They probably said to each other, “Well where can we go?”

Augustine’s Three Qualities for the Life of His Clergy

He organized the whole life of his clergy around him with three qualities.

Common life - they were to live together - no apartment house living.

Second. Renunciation of property. There are plenty of poor people in Hippo for you priests to share your possessions with.

And thirdly, obedience. Needless to say, he left no doubt who was their Superior.

The purpose was mainly to direct the pastoral service of the priests rather than, as before, to theological activity. Before we leave Augustine we should note that there are two letters of St. Augustine one of which has become the standard for women’s communities that follow in the Augustinian spirit. But Augustine never thought for a moment that these women would be ordained. Augustine, therefore, really drafted two principal rules; one for men and the other for women.

Cassian –His Rule Gave the Idea of Stability to Monastic Life

Side by side with this clerical monasticism, the West also had its proponents of monasticism as it was lived in the East, which is the older type, and was exemplified by the Rule of life fostered by such men as St. Martin of Tours. What is St. Martin famous for? He divided his cloak. John Cassian of Marseilles, also in France; St. Caesarius of Aries, also in France; Of these John Cassian was the most important because he bequeathed in his writings his own distillation of the eastern form of monasticism; but Caesarius besides Cassian is equally important because it was his rule that gave the idea of stability to monastic life and later on Benedict would adopt and make one of the principal features of monasticism; so much for a bit of history.

Now the Principal Characteristics: Necessarily I have touched only on the highlights of that very early structured religious life. I thought better than go into more historical detail to try to synthesize a lot of material and classified under certain main headings, all typifying religious life before Benedict.

Prayer and Penance Lead to Perfection

First feature - Purpose of Religious Life. The life of the monks and nuns was much more systemized than that of the earlier versions; and ascetics – its immediate goal was sanctification of the religious, contemplation through prayer, and victory over the flesh through mortification where so it was held bound to lead to holiness.

There are three p’s that typify this purpose, which is also a p: prayer and penance leads to perfection. The monks and the nuns did not aspire to the priesthood. In fact, they desired not to be ordained even when as under Augustine some clerics were formed into monastic communities. It was – listen to this – priests who became religious and not religious who became priests. This, I call it dialectic, between the priesthood and the religious state would remain throughout the centuries as a source of tension and difficulty, but also of development even to the present day. So much for purpose: the primary purpose was perfection. The principal means were prayer and penance.

Community Life Calls for Obedience

Second - Obedience. As good Christians these early religious owed obedience, of course, to their bishop in religious matters. And their profession, if rightly lived, made prompt and complete submission easy. But religious obedience, as the Church conceives it, was associated only with community or cenobitic life. Do you hear that? That is a great moment!

This is now my eighth year in working, such as I am doing, as a consultant to the Holy See and many questions and problems that I sometimes look at and make some comments on; I keep saying to myself and, well, telling others like yourselves – you can practically forget about obedience if you don’t have a strong community life. If you allow religious to do whatever, well, they individually want to do, no matter how good or holy it may be – the moment they separate themselves from the community; from living together, praying together, working together for a common end, what happens to Major Superiors as I’ve told one Mother General who later became the head of the Major Superiors of Women Religious of America; “Mother, you know what you are?” “What?” “You are the very gentle, spiritual counselor of your community. You’ve got no authority left.” She said, “You’re right.” It’s community life that calls for religious obedience; ramifications and interpenetrations of these two – community and obedience – are manifold, just to state the fact. Depending therefore on how communal the monastic life was, religious obedience took its form and made its commands accordingly.

Why Become Religious Unless You Give Up Something

Third Characteristic - Poverty. At the time which we are speaking poverty consisted in the renunciation of worldly goods and in the most sparing years of food, clothing and all necessaries - the model of religious life before Benedict was expressed in this phrase; no luxuries and mortification in necessities which, by the way, is not a bad thing to remember.

Some religious actually think they’re supposed to mortify themselves in their luxuries. Like another Mother General – I’m sure I must have quoted this to you on one occasion. A priest friend of mine, a Canonist, heard this from the man who saw this Mother General off, whom I know well, the Mother General – she just finished a lecture she gave in Ottawa to a Canon Law Society of Canada and as he bade her Godspeed; he looked in the back and the whole back of the car was her wardrobe. Well so she might maybe, do with one or two dresses less – that’s not mortification! A religious, I’m quoting the early Church, “no luxuries, mortification in necessities.” My fourth year in dealing with Mother Teresa’s group, all I can tell you is those who have the vocation like it rough and don’t like it when they find it too easy. They say there’s something wrong and their instincts are right. We don’t make religious life hard for the sake of making it hard but why become a religious unless you give something up?

Absolute Dispossession Was the Common Law

Moreover, the cenobites as they were called, the monks and nuns living in communities were forbidden to enjoy any separate property. Absolute dispossession was the common law in the Church up to the Reformation. There were no simple vows of poverty. You either gave everything up or you were not a religious. They had to receive from their Superior or Procurator, as he was also or she was called, everything they needed for their use. Now there were abuses and we’re talking about the religious life that survived and whose rules have endured to the modern times.

Celibacy – An Assumed Pre-requisite

Fourth Characteristic - Chastity. Celibacy was an assumed prerequisite for the monastic life. Yet, as in the case of Augustine this did not mean that persons who had not lived chaste lives before could not be religious. A consoling thought! Moreover, provision was made for widows and widowers, also for married persons who having provided for their spouse and children might give themselves to the religious life living, thenceforth, in celibacy. Marriage for a monk or a nun, once they had left the world, was simply unthinkable.

Early Canonical Decree Brands As Infamy Carnal Intercourse

Fifth Feature - Vows. Having once entered the life of a virgin, or ascetic or monk or nun, the person felt a clear obligation to persevere. Always before then – in the earliest stages of religious life and this passage keeps recurring in the literature of those days - was the warning of Christ; “No man putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) There are passages in Tertullian and St. Cyprian writing about virgins that may interpreted as their having taken, and that’s very far back, authentic vows. Moreover, it was certain that a woman who had bound herself to Jesus Christ by a profession of virginity was liable to severe canonical penalties. You either didn’t make the promise or if you did, you are punished if you broke it. St. Cyprian regarded such a person as an adulterous bride but after having absolved her, he allowed such a one to enter marriage if, as he said, she could not keep continency. Just for the historical record; the earliest canonical decree, which we know on the subject of vows was that of Pope St. Siricius, S-i-r-i-c-i-u-s writing to a certain bishop in 385A.D., it brands as infamy the carnal intercourse of any monk or virgin. The oldest complete vow formula that we have of a religious, the kind of vow they took, is placed in Egypt from a monastery about the year 400, in one of the monasteries founded by Pachomius. As I read it you’ll say to yourself – what kind of vow is that? Well. We didn’t formulate it; we’re just quoting the kind of vow they took.

The Title of the First Known Vow in the Catholic Church Was Covenant:

“I swear before God in His Holy Temple in which the word I have spoken is my witness, that I will not defile my body in any way. I will not steal. I will not bear false witness. I will not lie. I will not do wrong in secret. If I break my oath I am willing – listen to this – not to enter the Kingdom of Heaven although I were in sight of it, God before whom I’ve made this Covenant will then destroy my body and soul in Hell for I should have broken the oath of allegiance that I have taken.” Then an addition – “as for contradiction, disobedience, murmuring, contention, obstinacy or any such things – these faults are quite manifest to the whole community.”

The rest of the text is missing and it seems that community will and I give them the privilege to take care of me if I’m obstinate or contradictory, or disobedient or contumacious since everybody will see it, they can take care of me. So much for the vow; we don’t have the full text but there’s enough there to indicate that it was meant to be taken for life and the penalties were severe.

Sixth Feature - Canon Law. Almost as soon as the Church was liberated by Constantine in 315 A.D., the Hierarchy began to enact formal legislation for religious. The first known Church Law for religious is in the Council of Gangra, G-a-n-g-r-e- pardon G-a-n-g-r-a, date - 330, place - Asia Minor. It was addressed to three classes of persons, namely virgins, those who were continent but not virgins; or the married or widowed or otherwise and third, those who retire from worldly affairs to practice more faithfully the duties of piety towards their parents, children, husband or wife; and second to avoid all vanity and pride. Now, this is a very interesting and I think an important feature of that early religious life: that people would be formed into a religious community to take care of their parents, or their children, or husband, or wife. In other words, where there is no prospect for a variety of reasons, to enter a community mainly because their of age, or the inability to leave an immediate duty which they had; there were special groups formed, say, of people who wanted to take care of their aged parents.

Two Important Decisions

Two important decisions of Councils of the Church long before Benedict paved the way for other essential features of community life. The Council of Chalcedon, it’s a general Council, date 451, made the erection of a monastery depend on the consent of a bishop. By the way, let’s remember that. No community in the Catholic Church exists without the approval of the Hierarchy, unknown; and the date for that legislation is 451. Thus we Jesuits, who are exempt from direct Episcopal control, nevertheless we simply do not enter a diocese unless we are invited by the Bishop. And we stay there only as long as he wants us.

And the second was a series of Councils mainly in France in the fifth century legislating perseverance in the religious state. In other words, already fifteen centuries ago, the Church felt She should make laws, general laws for religious besides their own specific laws which are approved by the Church for that community.

Two Levels of Legislation

So we have two levels of legislation: legislation for the community, by the community and within the community always to be approved by the Church – the Church’s hierarchy: and, second, general legislation applying to all religious. The proposed revision of Canon Law (and, by the way, let’s keep this in mind) is not to touch, it is not its intent, the internal government of each institute – the proposed revision of Canon Law is for the Church’s general laws affecting all communities, which is why I have been so urgent and urging chapters and religious institutes to make sure that your own domestic laws are clear, specific, and sufficiently detailed; that whatever the new provision for the whole Church will be you will not find yourselves in the impossible position of depending on the universal law for your survival.

Four Basic Rules from Which All Religious Communities Derive

What, by this time, can we call (we got two minutes) the basic rules of religious life? In the transition we’re going to start, beginning with our next classes, we’re going to deal with highly organized religious life, starting with Benedict. I think it would be well to recognize that historically the Church speaks of four basic rules from which all religious communities in the Catholic Church now derive. They are: the Rule of St. Basil, date 329 to 379; the Rule of St. Augustine, his life span 354 to 430; the Rule of St. Benedict, his life span is 480 to 543, and the Rule of St. Francis, and I’ll give you the first date of the first Rule of Francis approved by the Church, 1223. Accordingly, there are two Rules; that of Basil and Augustine which, so far, have deserved our special attention and there will be two large Rules of Benedict and Francis that we shall see. And besides those four so many others including, I trust, something for everyone here in class, including something about the Society of Jesus.

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

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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