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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 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,304304   Hist. of (ancient) Christianity, Am. ed., p. 432. “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.305305   Chateaubriand commends the monastic institution mainly under the first view. “If there are refuges for the health of the body, ah ! permit religion to have such also for the health of the soul, which is still more subject to sickness, and the infirmities of which are so much more sad, so much more tedious and difficult to cure!” Montalembert (l.c. i. 25) objects to this view as poetic and touching but false, and represents monasticism as an arena for the healthiest and strongest souls which the world has ever produced, and quotes the passage of Chrysostom: “Come and see the tents of the soldiers of Christ; come and see their order of battle; they fight every day, and every day they defeat and immolate the passions which assail us.” 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.306306   1 The abbot Isidore of Pelusium wrote to a slaveholder, Ep. l. i. 142 (cited by Neander): “I did not think that the man who loves Christ, and knows the grace which makes us all free, would still hold slaves.” 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.307307   The monkish miracles, with which the Vitae Patrum of the Jesuit Rosweyde and the Acta Sanctorum swarm, often contradict all the laws of nature and of reason, and would be hardly worthy of mention, but that they come from such fathers as Jerome, Rufinus, Severus, Palladius, and Theodoret, and go to characterize the Nicene age. We are far from rejecting all and every one as falsehood and deception, and accepting the judgment of Isaac Taylor (Ancient Christianity, ii. 106): “The Nicene miracles are of a kind which shocks every sentiment of gravity, of decency, and of piety:—in their obvious features they are childish, horrid, blasphemous, and foul.” Much more cautious is the opinion of Robertson (Hist. of the Christian Church, i. 312) and other Protestant historians, who suppose that, together with the innocent illusions of a heated imagination and the fabrications of intentional fraud, there must have been also much that was real, though in the nature of the case an exact sifting is impossible. But many of these stories are too much even for Roman credulity, and are either entirely omitted or at least greatly reduced and modified by critical historians. We read not only of innumerable visions, prophecies, healings of the sick and the possessed, but also of raising of the dead (as in the life of Martin of Tours), of the growth of a dry stick into a fruitful tree, and of a monk’s passing unseared, in absolute obedience to his abbot, through a furnace of fire as through a cooling bath. (Comp. Sulp. Sever. Dial. i. c. 12 and 13.) Even wild beasts play a large part, and are transformed into rational servants of the Egyptian saints of the desert. At the funeral of Paul of Thebes, according to Jerome, two lions voluntarily performed the office of sexton. Pachomius walked unharmed over serpents and scorpions, and crossed the Nile on crocodiles, which, of their own accord, presented their backs. The younger Macarius, or (according to other statements of the Historia Lausiaca; comp. the investigation of Tillemont, tom. viii. p. 811 sqq.) the monk Marcus stood on so good terms with the beasts, that a hyena (according to Rufinus, V. P. ii. 4, it was a lioness) brought her young one to him in his cell, that he might open its eyes; which he did by prayer and application of spittle; and the next day she offered him, for gratitude, a large sheepskin; the saint at first declined the gift, and reproved the beast for the double crime of murder and theft, by which she had obtained the skin; but when the hyena showed repentance, and with a nod promised amendment, Macarius took the skin, and afterward bequeathed it to the great bishop Athanasius. Severus (Dial. i. c. 9) gives a very similar account of an unknown anchoret, but, like Rufinus, substitutes for the hyena of Palladius a lioness with five whelps, and makes the saint receive the present of the skin without scruple or reproof. Shortly before (c. 8), he speaks, however, of a wolf, which once robbed a friendly hermit, whose evening meal she was accustomed to share, showed deep repentance for it, and with bowed head begged forgiveness of the saint. Perhaps Palladius or his Latin translator has combined these two anecdotes. 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.



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