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A SHORT HISTORY OF
_By_ ALFRED WESLEY WISHART
Sometime _Fellow_ in _Church History_ in _The University of Chicago_
ALBERT BRANDT, PUBLISHER
TRENTON, NEW JERSEY
The aim of this volume is to sketch the history of the monastic
institution from its origin to its overthrow in the Reformation period,
for although the institution is by no means now extinct, its power was
practically broken in the sixteenth century, and no new orders of
importance or new types have arisen since that time.
A little reflection will enable one to understand the great difficulties
in the execution of so broad a purpose. It was impracticable in the
majority of instances to consult original sources, although intermediate
authorities have been studied as widely as possible and the greatest
caution has been exercised to avoid those errors which naturally arise
from the use of such avenues of information. It was also deemed
unadvisable to burden the work with numerous notes and citations. Such
notes as were necessary to a true unfolding of the subject will be found
in the appendix.
A presentation of the salient features of the whole history was
essential to a proper conception of the orderly development of the
ascetic ideal. To understand the monastic institution one must not only
study the isolated anchorite seeking a victory over a sinful self in the
Egyptian desert or the monk in the secluded cloister, but he must also
trace the fortunes of ascetic organizations, involving multitudes of
men, vast aggregations of wealth, and surviving the rise and fall of
empires. Almost every phase of human life is encountered in such an
undertaking. Attention is divided between hermits, beggars,
diplomatists, statesmen, professors, missionaries and pontiffs. It is
hoped the critical or literary student will appreciate the immense
difficulties of an attempt to paint so vast a scene on so small a
canvas. No other claim is made upon his benevolence.
There is a process of writing history which Trench describes as "a moral
whitewashing of such things as in men's sight were as blackamoors
before." Religious or temperamental prejudice often obscures the vision
and warps the judgment of even the most scholarly minds. Conscious of
this infirmity in the ablest writers of history it would be absurd to
claim complete exemption from the power of personal bias. It is
sincerely hoped, however, that the strongest passion in the preparation
of this work has been that commendable predilection for truth and
justice which should characterize every historical narrative, and that,
whatever other shortcomings may be found herein, there is an absence of
that unreasonable suspicion, not to say hatred, of everything monastic,
which mars many otherwise valuable contributions to monastic history.
The author's grateful acknowledgment is made, for kindly services and
critical suggestions, to Eri Baker Hulbert, D.D., LL.D., Dean of the
Divinity School, and Professor and Head of the Department of Church
History; Franklin Johnson, D.D., LL.D., Professor of Church History and
Homiletics; Benjamin S. Terry, Ph.D., Professor of Medieval and English
History; and Ralph C.H. Catterall, Instructor in Modern History; all of
The University of Chicago. Also to James M. Whiton, Ph.D., of the
Editorial Staff of "The Outlook"; Ephraim Emerton, Ph.D., Winn Professor
of Ecclesiastical History in Harvard University; S. Giffard Nelson,
L.H.D., of Brooklyn, New York; A.H. Newman, D.D., LL.D., Professor of
Church History in McMaster University of Toronto, Ontario; and Paul Van
Dyke, D.D., Professor of History in Princeton University.
Trenton, March, 1900.
PREFACE, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
BIBLIOGRAPHY, . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
MONASTICISM IN THE EAST, . . . . . . . . . . 17
The Hermits of Egypt, . . . . . . . . . . 33
The Pillar Saint, . . . . . . . . . . . 51
The Cenobites of the East, . . . . . . . . 57
MONASTICISM IN THE WEST: ANTE-BENEDICTINE MONKS,
340-480 A.D., . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
Monasticism and Women, . . . . . . . . . . 106
The Spread of Monasticism in Europe, . . . . . 115
Disorders and Oppositions, . . . . . . . . 124
THE BENEDICTINES, . . . . . . . . . . . . 131
The Rules of Benedict, . . . . . . . . . . 138
The Struggle Against Barbarism, . . . . . . . 148
The Spread of the Benedictine Rule, . . . . . 158
REFORMED AND MILITARY ORDERS, . . . . . . . . 173
The Military Religious Orders, . . . . . . . 197
THE MENDICANT FRIARS, . . . . . . . . . . . 205
Francis Bernardone, 1182-1226 A.D., . . . . . 208
The Franciscan Orders, . . . . . . . . . . 226
Dominic de Guzman, 1170--1221 A.D., . . . . . 230
The Dominican Orders, . . . . . . . . . . 241
The Success of the Mendicant Orders, . . . . . 242
The Decline of the Mendicants, . . . . . . . 253
THE SOCIETY OF JESUS, . . . . . . . . . . . 258
Ignatius de Loyola, 1491-1556 A.D., . . . . . 261
Constitution and Polity of the Order, . . . . . 265
The Vow of Obedience, . . . . . . . . . . 266
The Casuistry of the Jesuits, . . . . . . . 272
The Mission of the Jesuits, . . . . . . . . 276
Retrospect, . . . . . . . . . . . . . 284
THE FALL OF THE MONASTERIES, . . . . . . . . 286
The Character of Henry VIII., . . . . . . . 290
Events Preceding the Suppression, . . . . . . 293
The Monks and the Oath of Supremacy, . . . . . 301
The Royal Commissioners and their Methods of
Investigation, . . . . . . . . . . . . 308
The Report of the Commissioners, . . . . . . 316
The Action of Parliament, . . . . . . . . . 319
The Effect of the Suppression Upon the People, . . 322
Henry's Disposal of Monastic Revenues, . . . . 328
Was the Suppression Justifiable? . . . . . . 331
Results of the Dissolution, . . . . . . . . 347
CAUSES AND IDEALS OF MONASTICISM, . . . . . . . 354
Causative Motives of Monasticism, . . . . . . 355
Beliefs Affecting the Causative Motives, . . . . 365
Causes of Variations in Monasticism, . . . . . 371
The Fundamental Monastic Vows, . . . . . . . 375
THE EFFECTS OF MONASTICISM, . . . . . . . . . 386
The Effects of Self-Sacrifice Upon the Individual, 390
The Effects of Solitude Upon the Individual, . . 393
The Monks as Missionaries, . . . . . . . . 398
Monasticism and Civic Duties, . . . . . . . 399
The Agricultural Services of the Monks, . . . . 403
The Monks and Secular Learning, . . . . . . . 405
The Charity of the Monks, . . . . . . . . . 410
Monasticism and Religion, . . . . . . . . . 412
APPENDIX, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 425
INDEX, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 433
* * * * *
LIST OF PORTRAITS
SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI, DYING, is CONVEYED TO THE
CHURCH OF SAINTE MARIE DE PORTIUNCULE, . . . . _facing title_.
After the painting by J.J. Weerts. Originally published by
Goupil & Co. of Paris, and here reproduced by their permission.
[Jean Joseph Weerts was born at Roubaix (Nord), on May 1,
1847. He was a pupil of Cabanel, Mils and Pils. He was
awarded the second-class medal in 1875, was made Chevalier of
the Legion of Honor in 1884, received the silver medal at the
Universal Exposition of 1889, and was created an Officer of
the Legion of Honor in 1897. He is a member of the "Societe
des Artistes Francais," and is _hors concours_.]
SAINT BERNARD, . . . . . . . . . . . . . 192
After an engraving by Ambroise Tardieu, from a painting on glass
in the Convent of the R.P. Minimes, at Rheims.
[Ambroise Tardieu was born in Paris, in 1790, and died in
1837. He was an engraver of portraits, landscapes and
architecture, and a clever manipulator of the burin. For a
time he held the position of "Geographical Engraver" to the
Departments of Marine, Fortifications and Forests. He was a
member of the French Geographical and Mathematical
SAINT DOMINIC, . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230
From a photograph of Bozzani's painting, preserved in his cell at
Santa Sabina, Rome. Here reproduced from Augusta T. Drane's
"History of St. Dominic," by courtesy of the author and the publishers,
Longmans, Green & Co., of London and New York.
["Although several so-called portraits (of St. Dominic) are
preserved, yet none of them can be regarded as the _vera
effigies_ of the saint, though that preserved at Santa Sabina
probably presents us with a kind of traditionary
likeness."]--_History of St. Dominic_.
[In the "History of St. Dominic," on page 226, the author
credits the portrait shown to "Bozzani." We are unable to
find any record of a painter by that name. Nagler, however,
tells of a painter of portraits and historical subjects,
Carlo Bozzoni by name, who was born in 1607 and died in 1657.
He was a son of Luciano Bozzoni, a Genoese painter and
engraver. He is said to have done good work, but no other
mention is made of him.]
IGNATIUS DE LOYOLA, . . . . . . . . . . . 261
After the engraving by Greatbach, "from a scarce print by H.
Wierz." Originally published by Richard Bentley, London, in 1842.
[W. Greatbach was a London engraver in the first half of the
nineteenth century. He worked chiefly for the "calendars" and
"annuals" of his time, and did notable work for the general
book trade of the better class.]
[A search of the authorities does not reveal an engraver
named "H. Wierz." This is probably intended for Hieronymus
Wierex (or Wierix, according to Bryant), a famous engraver,
born in 1552, and who is credited by Nagler, in his
"Kuenstler-Lexikon," with having produced "a beautiful and
rare plate" of "St. Ignaz von Loyola." The error, if such it
be, is easily explained by the fact that portrait engravers
seldom cut the lettering of a plate themselves, but have it
engraved by others, who have a special aptitude for making
ADAMS, G.B.: Civilization during the Middle Ages.
ARCHER, T.A., and KINGSFORD, CHARLES L.: The Crusaders.
BARROWS, JOHN H., (Editor): The World's Parliment of Religions.
BLUNT, I.J.: Sketches of the Reformation in England.
BLUNT, JOHN HENRY: The Reformation of the Church of England,
its History, Principles and Results.
BREWER, JOHN SHERREN: The Reign of Henry VIII.
BRYCE, JAMES: The Holy Roman Empire.
BURNET, GILBERT: History of the Reformation of the Church of
BUTLER, ALBAN: Lives of the Saints.
CARLYLE, THOMAS: Past and Present: The Ancient Monk. Miscellaneous
CAZENOVE, JOHN G.: St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Martin of Tours.
CHALIPPE, CANDIDE: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi.
CHILD, GILBERT W.: Church and State Under the Tudors.
CHURCH, R.W.: The Beginning of the Middle Ages.
CLARK, WILLIAM: The Anglican Reformation.
CLARKE, STEPHEN REYNOLDS: Vestigia Anglicana.
CLARKE, JAMES FREEMAN: Events and Epochs in Religious History.
COOK, KENINGALE: The Fathers of Jesus.
COX, G.W.: The Crusaders.
CUTTS, EDWARD LEWES: St. Jerome and St. Augustine.
DILL, SAMUEL: Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western
DRAPER, JOHN WILLIAM: History of the Intellectual Development
DRAKE, AUGUSTA T.: The History of St. Dominic.
DUGDALE, Sir WILLIAM: Monasticum Anglicanum.
DURUY, VICTOR: History of Rome.
ECKENSTEIN, LINA: Woman Under Monasticism.
EDERSHEIM, ALFRED: The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.
ELIOT, SAMUEL: History of Liberty.
FARRAR, FREDERICK W.: The Early Days of Christianity.
FOSBROKE, J.D.: British Monachism.
FROUDE, JAMES ANTHONY: History of England.
FROUDE, JAMES ANTHONY: Short Studies.
GAIRDNER, JAMES, and SPEDDING, JAMES: Studies in English History.
GASQUET, FRANCIS A.: Henry VIII. and the English Monasteries.
GASQUET, FRANCIS A.: The Eve of the Reformation.
GIBBON, EDWARD: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
GIESELER, J.K.L.: Manual of Church History.
GNEIST, RUDOLPH: History of the English Constitution.
GNEIST, RUDOLPH: The English Parliament.
GREEN, JOHN RICHARD: History of the English People.
GUERANGER, PROSPER: Life of St. Cecilia.
GUIZOT, F.P.G.: The History of France.
GUIZOT, F.P.G.: The History of Civilization in Europe.
HALLAM, HENRY: Europe During the Middle Ages.
HALLAM, HENRY: Constitutional History of England.
HALLAM, HENRY: Introduction to the Literature of Europe.
HARDY, R. SPENCER: Eastern Monasticism.
HARDWICK, CHARLES: History of the Christian Church in the Middle
HARNACK, ADOLF: Monasticism: Its Ideals and Its History: _Christian
Literature Magazine_, 1894-95.
HILL, O'DELL T.: English Monasticism: Its Rise and Influence.
HUGHES, T.: Loyola and the Educational System of the Jesuits.
HUME, DAVID: The History of England.
JAMESON, ANNA: Legends of the Monastic Orders.
JESSOPP, AUGUSTUS: The Coming of the Friars.
KINGSLEY, CHARLES: The Hermits.
KINGSLEY, CHARLES: Hypatia.
KINGSLEY, CHARLES: The Roman and the Teuton.
LAPPENBERG, J.M.: A History of England Under the Anglo-Saxon
LARNED, J.N.: History for Ready Reference and Topical Reading.
LEA HENRY C.: History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages.
LEA, HENRY C.: Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church.
LECKY, WILLIAM E.H.: History of Rationalism in Europe.
LECKY, WILLIAM E.H.: History of European Morals.
LEE F.G.: The Life of Cardinal Pole.
LINGARD, JOHN: History of England.
LINGARD, JOHN: History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon
LORD, JOHN: Beacon-Lights of History.
LORD, JOHN: The Old Roman World.
LUDLOW, JAMES M.: The Age of the Crusades.
MACKINTOSH, JAMES: History of England.
MAITLAND, SAMUEL R.: The Dark Ages.
MAITLAND, SAMUEL R.: Essays on the Reformation.
MATHEWS, SHAILER: Social Teachings of Jesus.
MILMAN, HENRY H.: The History of Latin Christianity.
MILMAN, HENRY H.: The History of Christianity.
MONTALEMBERT, C.F.R.: Monks of the West.
MOSHIEM, J.L. VON: Institutes of Ecclesiastical History.
NEANDER, AUGUSTUS: General History of the Christian Religion
OLIPHANT, MARY O.W.: Life of St. Francis of Assisi.
PARKMAN, FRANCIS: The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth
PIKE, LUKE OWEN: A History of Crime in England.
PUTNAM, G.H.: Books and Their Makers in the Middle Ages.
READE, CHARLES: The Cloister and the Hearth.
RUFFNER, H.: The Fathers of the Desert.
SABATIER, PAUL: Life of St. Francis of Assisi.
SCHAFF, PHILIP: History of the Christian Church.
SCHAFF, PHILIP, and WACE, HENRY, (Editors): The Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. (Lives and
writings of Jerome, Athanasius, Cassian, St. Martin of Tours,
and other early supporters of the monastic movement).
SCOTT, WALTER: The Monastery.
SCOTT, WALTER: The Abbot.
SIENKIEWICZ, HENRY K.: The Knights of the Cross.
SMITH, PHILIP: Student's Ecclesiastical History.
SMITH, R.F.: St. Basil.
STANLEY, ARTHUR P.: History of the Eastern Church.
STILLE, CHARLES J.: Studies in Medieval History.
STORRS, RICHARD S.: Bernard of Clairvaux.
STRYPE, J.: Annals of the Reformation.
STUBBS, WILLIAM: Lectures on the Study of Medieval History.
TAUNTON, ETHELRED L.: The English Black Monks of St. Benedict.
THOMPSON, R.W.: The Footprints of the Jesuits.
THURSTON, H.: The Life of St. Hugh of Lincoln.
TRAILL, H.D.: Social England.
TRENCH, RICHARD C.: Lectures on Medieval Church History.
TREVELYAN, GEORGE M.: England in the Age of Wycliffe.
VAUGHAN, ROBERT: Revolutions in English History.
VAUGHAN, ROBERT: Hours with the Mystics.
WADDINGTON, GEORGE: History of the Church.
WATERMAN, LUCIUS: The Post-Apostolic Age.
WHITE, A.D.: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology.
WHITE, JAMES: The Eighteen Christian Centuries.
WOODHOUSE, FREDERICK C.: The Military Religious Orders of
the Middle Ages.
ENCYCLOPAEDIAS: McClintock and Strong, Schaff-Herzog, Brittanica,
English, and Johnson. (Articles on "Monasticism,"
"Benedict," "Francis," "Dominic," "Loyola," etc.)
Many other authorities were consulted by the author, but only
those works that are easily accessible and likely to prove of direct value
to the student are cited above.
_MONASTICISM IN THE EAST_
The monk is a type of religious character by no means peculiar to
Christianity. Every great religion in ancient and modern times has
expressed itself in some form of monastic life.
The origin of the institution is lost in antiquity. Its genesis and
gradual progress through the centuries are like the movement of a mighty
river springing from obscure sources, but gathering volume by the
contributions of a multitude of springs, brooks, and lesser rivers,
entering the main stream at various stages in its progress. While the
mysterious source of the monastic stream may not be found, it is easy to
discover many different influences and causes that tended to keep the
mighty current flowing majestically on. It is not so easy to determine
which of these forces was the greatest.
"Monasticism," says Schaff, "proceeds from religious seriousness,
enthusiasm and ambition; from a sense of the vanity of the world, and an
inclination of noble souls toward solitude, contemplation, and freedom
from the bonds of the flesh and the temptations of the world." A strong
ascetic tendency in human nature, particularly active in the Orient,
undoubtedly explains in a general way the origin and growth of the
institution. Various forms of philosophy and religious belief fostered
this monastic inclination from time to time by imparting fresh impetus
to the desire for soul-purity or by deepening the sense of disgust with
India is thought by some to have been the birthplace of the institution.
In the sacred writings of the venerable Hindus, portions of which have
been dated as far back as 2400 B.C., there are numerous legends about
holy monks and many ascetic rules. Although based on opposite
philosophical principles, the earlier Brahminism and the later system,
Buddhism, each tended toward ascetic practices, and they each boast
to-day of long lines of monks and nuns.
The Hindoo (Brahmin) ascetic, or naked philosopher, as the Greeks called
him, exhausted his imagination in devising schemes of self-torture. He
buried himself with his nose just above the ground, or wore an iron
collar, or suspended weights from his body. He clenched his fists until
the nails grew into his palms, or kept his head turned in one direction
until he was unable to turn it back. He was a miracle-worker, an oracle
of wisdom, and an honored saint. He was bold, spiritually proud, capable
of almost superhuman endurance. We will meet him again in the person of
his Christian descendant on the banks of the Nile.
The Buddhist ascetic was, perhaps, less severe with himself, but the
general spirit and form of the institution was and is the same as among
the Brahmins. In each religion we observe the same selfish
individualism,--a desire to save one's own soul by slavish obedience to
ascetic rules,--the extinction of natural desires by self-punishment.
"A Brahmin who wishes to become an ascetic," says Clarke, "must abandon
his home and family and go live in the forest. His food must be roots
and fruit, his clothing a bark garment or a skin, he must bathe morning
and evening, and suffer his hair to grow."
The fact to be remembered, however, is that in India, centuries before
the Christian Era, there existed both phases of Christian monasticism,
the hermit[A] and the crowded convent.
[Footnote A: Appendix, Note A.]
Dhaquit, a Chaldean ascetic, who is said to have lived about 2000 B.C.,
is reported to have earnestly rebuked those who tried to preserve the
body from decay by artificial resources. "Not by natural means," he
said, "can man preserve his body from corruption and dissolution after
death, but only through good deeds, religious exercises and offering of
sacrifices,--by invoking the gods by their great and beautiful names, by
prayers during the night, and fasts during the day."
When Father Bury, a Portuguese missionary, first saw the Chinese bonzes,
tonsured and using their rosaries, he cried out, "There is not a single
article of dress, or a sacerdotal function, or a single ceremony of the
Romish church, which the Devil has not imitated in this country." I have
not the courage to follow this streamlet back into the devil's heart.
The attempt would be too daring. Who invented shaved heads and monkish
gowns and habits, we cannot tell, but this we know: long before Father
Bury saw and described those things in China, there existed in India the
Grand Lama or head monk, with monasteries under him, filled with monks
who kept the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. They had
their routine of prayers, of fasts and of labors, like the Christian
monks of the middle ages.
Among the Greeks there were many philosophers who taught ascetic
principles. Pythagoras, born about 580 B.C., established a religious
brotherhood in which he sought to realize a high ideal of friendship.
His whole plan singularly suggests monasticism. His rules provided for a
rigid self-examination and unquestioning submission to a master. Many
authorities claim that the influence of the Pythagorean philosophy was
strongly felt in Egypt and Palestine, after the time of Christ. "Certain
it is that more than two thousand years before Ignatius Loyola assembled
the nucleus of his great society in his subterranean chapel in the city
of Paris, there was founded at Crotona, in Greece, an order of monks
whose principles, constitution, aims, method and final end entitle them
to be called 'The Pagan Jesuits[B].'"
[Footnote B: Appendix, Note B.]
The teachings of Plato, no doubt, had a powerful monastic influence,
under certain social conditions, upon later thinkers and upon those who
yearned for victory over the flesh. Plato strongly insisted on an ideal
life in which higher pleasures are preferred to lower. Earthly thoughts
and ambitions are to yield before a holy communion with the Divine. Some
of his views "might seem like broken visions of the future, when we
think of the first disciples who had all things in common, and, in later
days, of the celibate clergy, and the cloisteral life of the religious
orders." The effect of such philosophy in times of general corruption
upon those who wished to acquire exceptional moral and intellectual
power, and who felt unable to cope with the temptations of social life,
may be easily imagined. It meant, in many cases, a retreat from the
world to a life of meditation and soul-conflict. In later times it
exercised a marked influence upon ascetic literature.
Coming closer to Christianity in time and in teaching, we find a Jewish
sect, called Essenes, living in the region of the Dead Sea, which bore
remarkable resemblances to Christian monasticism. The origin and
development of this band, which numbered four thousand about the time of
Christ, are unknown. Even the derivation of the name is in doubt, there
being at least twenty proposed explanations. The sect is described by
Philo, an Alexandrian-Jewish philosopher, who was born about 25 B.C.,
and by Josephus, the Jewish historian, who was born at Jerusalem A.D.
37. These writers evidently took pains to secure the facts, and from
their accounts, upon which modern discussions of the subject are largely
based, the following facts are gleaned.
The Essenes were a sect outside the Jewish ecclesiastical body, bound by
strict vows and professing an extraordinary purity. While there were no
vows of extreme penance, they avoided cities as centers of immorality,
and, with some exceptions, eschewed marriage. They held aloof from
traffic, oaths, slave-holding, and weapons of offence. They were strict
Sabbath observers, wore a uniform robe, possessed all things in common,
engaged in manual labor, abstained from forbidden food, and probably
rejected the bloody sacrifices of the Temple, although continuing to
send their thank-offerings. Novitiates were kept on probation three
years. The strictest discipline was maintained, excommunication
following detection in heinous sins. Evidently the standard of character
was pure and lofty, since their emphasis on self-mastery did not end in
absurd extravagances. Their frugal food, simple habits, and love of
cleanliness; combined with a regard for ethical principles, conduced to
a high type of life. Edersheim remarks, "We can scarcely wonder that
such Jews as Josephus and Philo, and such heathens as Pliny, were
attracted by such an unworldly and lofty sect."
Some writers maintain that they were also worshipers of the sun, and
hence that their origin is to be traced to Persian sources. Even if so,
they seemed to have escaped that confused and mystical philosophy which
has robbed Oriental thought of much power in the realm of practical
life. Philo says, "Of philosophy, the dialectical department, as being
in no wise necessary for the acquisition of virtue, they abandon to the
word-catchers; and the part which treats of the nature of things, as
being beyond human nature, they leave to speculative air-gazers, with
the exception of that part of it which deals with the subsistance of God
and the genesis of all things; but the ethical they right well
Pliny the elder, who lived A.D. 23-79, made the following reference to
the Essenes, which is especially interesting because of the tone of
sadness and weariness with the world suggested in its praise of this
Jewish sect. "On the western shore (of the Dead Sea) but distant from
the sea far enough to escape from its noxious breezes, dwelt the
Essenes. They are an eremite clan, one marvelous beyond all others in
the whole world; without any women, with sexual intercourse entirely
given up, without money, and the associates of palm trees. Daily is the
throng of those that crowd about them renewed, men resorting to them in
numbers, driven through weariness of existence, and the surges of
ill-fortune, to their manner of life. Thus it is that through thousands
of ages--incredible to relate!--their society, in which no one is born,
lives on perennial. So fruitful to them is the irksomeness of life
experienced by other men."
Admission to the order was granted only to adults, yet children were
sometimes adopted for training in the principles of the sect. Some
believed in marriage as a means of perpetuating the order.
Since it would not throw light on our present inquiry, the mooted
question as to the connection of Essenism and the teachings of Jesus may
be passed by. The differences are as great as the resemblances and the
weight of opinion is against any vital relation.
The character of this sect conclusively shows that some of the elements
of Christian monasticism existed in the time of Jesus, not only in
Palestine but in other countries. In an account of the Therapeutae, or
true devotees, an ascetic body similar to the Essenes, Philo says,
"There are many parts of the world in which this class may be found....
They are, however, in greatest abundance in Egypt."
During Apostolic times various teachings and practices were current that
may be characterized as ascetic. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the
Colossians, doubtless had in mind a sect or school which despised the
body and abstained from meats and wine. A false asceticism, gathering
inspiration from pagan philosophy, was rapidly spreading among
Christians even at that early day. The teachings of the Gnostics, a
speculative sect of many schools, became prominent in the closing days
of the Apostolic age or very soon thereafter. Many of these schools
claimed a place in the church, and professed a higher life and knowledge
than ordinary Christians possessed. The Gnostics believed in the
complete subjugation of the body by austere treatment.
The Montanists, so called after Montanus, their famous leader, arose in
Asia Minor during the second century, when Marcus Aurelius was emperor.
Schaff describes the movement as "a morbid exaggeration of Christian
ideas and demands." It was a powerful and frantic protest against the
growing laxity of the church. It despised ornamental dress and
prescribed numerous fasts and severities.
These facts and many others that might be mentioned throw light on our
inquiry in several ways. They show that asceticism was in the air. The
literature, philosophy and religion of the day drifted toward an ascetic
scheme of life and stimulated the tendency to acquire holiness, even at
the cost of innocent joys and natural gratifications. They show that
worldliness was advancing in the church, which called for rebuke and a
return to Apostolic Christianity; that the church was failing to satisfy
the highest cravings of the soul. True, it was well-nigh impossible for
the church, in the midst of such a powerful and corrupt heathen
environment, to keep itself up to its standards.
It is a common tradition that in the first three centuries the practices
and spirit of the church were comparatively pure and elevated. Harnack
says, "This tradition is false. The church was already secularized to a
great extent in the middle of the third century." She was "no longer in
a position to give peace to all sorts and conditions of men." It was
then that the great exodus of Christians from the villages and cities to
mountains and deserts began. Although from the time of Christ on there
were always some who understood Christianity to demand complete
separation from all earthly pleasures, yet it was three hundred years
and more before large numbers began to adopt a hermit's life as the only
method of attaining salvation. "They fled not only from the world, but
from the world within the church. Nevertheless, they did not flee out of
We can now see why no definite cause for the monastic institution can be
given and no date assigned for its origin. It did not commence at any
fixed time and definite place. Various philosophies and religious
customs traveled for centuries from country to country, resulting in
singular resemblances and differences between different ascetic or
monastic sects. Christian monasticism was slowly evolved, and gradually
assumed definite organization as a product of a curious medley of
A few words should be said here concerning the influence of the Bible
upon monasticism. Naturally the Christian hermits and early fathers
appealed to the Bible in support of their teachings and practices. It is
not necessary, at this point, to discuss the correctness of their
interpretations. The simple fact is that many passages of scripture were
considered as commands to attain perfection by extraordinary sacrifices,
and certain Biblical characters were reverenced as shining monastic
models. In the light of the difficulties of Biblical criticism it is
easy to forgive them if they were mistaken, a question to be discussed
farther on. They read of those Jewish prophets described in Hebrews:
"They went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; ... wandering in deserts
and mountains and caves, and the holes of the earth." They pointed to
Elijah and his school of prophets; to John the Baptist, with his raiment
of camel's hair and a leathern girdle about his loins, whose meat was
locusts and wild honey. They recalled the commandment of Jesus to the
rich young man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. They
quoted the words, "Take no thought for the morrow what ye shall eat and
what ye shall drink or wherewithal ye shall be clothed." They construed
following Christ to mean in His own words, "forsaking father, mother,
brethren, wife, children, houses and lands." They pointed triumphantly
to the Master himself, unmarried and poor, who had not "where to lay his
head." They appealed to Paul's doctrine of marriage. They remembered
that the Church at Jerusalem was composed of those who sold their
possessions and had all things in common. Whatever these and numerous
other passages may truly mean, they interpreted them in favor of a
monastic mode of life; they understood them to teach isolation,
fastings, severities, and other forms of rigorous self-denial. Accepting
Scripture in this sense, they trampled upon human affection and gave
away their property, that they might please God and save their souls.
Between the time of Christ and Paul of Thebes, who died in the first
half of the fourth century, and who is usually recognized as the founder
of monasticism, many Christian disciples voluntarily abandoned their
wealth, renounced marriage and adopted an ascetic mode of life, while
still living in or near the villages or cities. As the corruption of
society and the despair of men became more widespread, these anxious
Christians wandered farther and farther away from fixed habitations
until, in an excess of spiritual fervor, they found themselves in the
caves of the mountains, desolate and dreary, where no sound of human
voice broke in upon the silence. The companions of wild beasts, they
lived in rapt contemplation on the eternal mysteries of this most
My task now is to describe some of those recluses who still live in the
biographies of the saints and the traditions of the church. Ducis, while
reading of these hermits, wrote to a friend as follows: "I am now
reading the lives of the Fathers of the Desert. I am dwelling with St.
Pachomius, the founder of the monastery at Tabenna. Truly there is a
charm in transporting one's self to that land of the angels--one could
not wish ever to come out of it." Whether the reader will call these
strange characters angels, and will wish he could have shared their beds
of stone and midnight vigils, I will not venture to say, but at all
events his visit will be made as pleasant as possible.
In writing the life of Mahomet, Carlyle said, "As there is no danger of
our becoming, any of us, Mahometans, I mean to say all the good of
Mahomet I justly can." So, without distorting the picture that has come
down to us, I mean to say all the good of these Egyptian hermits that
the facts will justify.
_The Hermits of Egypt_
Egypt was the mother of Christian monasticism, as she has been of many
Vast solitudes; lonely mountains, honey-combed with dens and caves; arid
valleys and barren hills; dreary deserts that glistened under the
blinding glare of the sun that poured its heat upon them steadily all
the year; strange, grotesque rocks and peaks that assumed all sorts of
fantastic shapes to the overwrought fancy; in many places no water, no
verdure, and scarcely a thing in motion; the crocodile and the bird
lazily seeking their necessary food and stirring only as compelled;
unbounded expanse in the wide star-lit heavens; unbroken quiet on the
lonely mountains--a fit home for the hermit, a paradise to the lover of
solitude and peace.
Of life under such conditions Kingsley has said: "They enjoyed nature,
not so much for her beauty as for her perfect peace. Day by day the
rocks remained the same. Silently out of the Eastern desert, day by day,
the rising sun threw aloft those arrows of light which the old Greeks
had named 'the rosy fingers of the dawn.' Silently he passed in full
blaze above their heads throughout the day, and silently he dipped
behind the Western desert in a glory of crimson and orange, green and
purple.... Day after day, night after night, that gorgeous pageant
passed over the poor hermit's head without a sound, and though sun, moon
and planet might change their places as the years rolled round, the
earth beneath his feet seemed not to change." As for the companionless
men, who gazed for years upon this glorious scene, they too were of
unusual character, Waddington finely says: "The serious enthusiasm of
the natives of Egypt and Asia, that combination of indolence and energy,
of the calmest languor with the fiercest passions, ... disposed them to
embrace with eagerness the tranquil but exciting duties of religious
seclusion." Yes, here are the angels of Ducis in real flesh and blood.
They revel in the wildest eccentricities with none to molest or make
afraid, always excepting the black demons from the spiritual world. One
dwells in a cave in the bowels of the earth; one lies on the sand
beneath a blazing sun; one has shut himself forever from the sight of
man in a miserable hut among the bleak rocks of yonder projecting peak;
one rests with joy in the marshes, breathing with gratitude the
Some of these saints became famous for piety and miraculous power.
Athanasius, fleeing from persecution, visited them, and Jerome sought
them out to learn from their own lips the stories of their lives. To
these men and to others we are indebted for much of our knowledge
concerning this chapter of man's history. Less than fifty years after
Paul of Thebes died, or about 375 A.D., Jerome wrote the story of his
life, which Schaff justly characterizes as "a pious romance." From
Jerome we gather the following account: Paul was the real founder of the
hermit life, although not the first to bear the name. During the Decian
persecution, when churches were laid waste and Christians were slain
with barbarous cruelty, Paul and his sister were bereaved of both their
parents. He was then a lad of sixteen, an inheritor of wealth and
skilled for one of his years in Greek and Egyptian learning. He was of a
gentle and loving disposition. On account of his riches he was denounced
as a Christian by an envious brother-in-law and compelled to flee to the
mountains in order to save his life. He took up his abode in a cave
shaded by a palm that afforded him food and clothing. "And that no one
may deem this impossible," affirms Jerome, "I call to witness Jesus and
his holy angels that I have seen and still see in that part of the
desert which lies between Syria and the Saracens' country, monks of whom
one was shut up for thirty years and lived on barley bread and muddy
water, while another in an old cistern kept himself alive on five dried
figs a day."
It is impossible to determine how much of the story which follows is
historically true. Undoubtedly, it contains little worthy of belief, but
it gives us some faint idea of how these hermits lived. Its chief value
consists in the fact that it preserves a fragment of the monastic
literature of the times--a story which was once accepted as a credible
narrative. Imagine the influence of such a tale, when believed to be
true, upon a mind inclined to embrace the doctrines of asceticism. Its
power at that time is not to be measured by its reliability now. Jerome
himself declares in the prologue that many incredible things were
related of Paul which he will not repeat. After reading the following
story, the reader may well inquire what more fanciful tale could be
produced even by a writer of fiction.
The blessed Paul was now one hundred and thirteen years old, and
Anthony, who dwelt in another place of solitude, was at the age of
ninety. In the stillness of the night it was revealed to Anthony that
deeper in the desert there was a better man than he, and that he ought
to see him. So, at the break of day, the venerable old man, supporting
and guiding his weak limbs with a staff, started out, whither he knew
not. At scorching noontide he beholds a fellow-creature, half man, half
horse, called by the poets Hippo-centaur. After gnashing outlandish
utterances, this monster, in words broken, rather than spoken, through
his bristling lips, points out the way with his right hand and swiftly
vanishes from the hermit's sight. Anthony, amazed, proceeds thoughtfully
on his way when a mannikin, with hooked snout, horned forehead and
goat's feet, stands before him and offers him food. Anthony asks who he
is. The beast thus replies: "I am a mortal being, and one of those
inhabitants of the desert, whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of
error worship, under the name of Fauns and Satyrs." As he utters these
and other words, tears stream down the aged traveler's face! He rejoices
over the glory of God and the destruction of Satan. Striking the ground
with his staff, he exclaims, "Woe to thee, Alexandria, who, instead of
God, worshipest monsters! Woe to thee, harlot city, into which have
flowed together the demons of the world! What will you say now? Beasts
speak of Christ, and you, instead of God, worship monsters." "Let none
scruple to believe this incident," says the chronicler, "for a man of
this kind was brought alive to Alexandria and the people saw him; when
he died his body was preserved in salt and brought to Antioch that the
Emperor might view him."
Anthony continues to traverse the wild region into which he had entered.
There is no trace of human beings. The darkness of the second night
wears away in prayer. At day-break he beholds far away a she-wolf
gasping with parched thirst and creeping into a cave. He draws near and
peers within. All is dark, but perfect love casteth out fear. With
halting step and bated breath, he enters. After a while a light gleams
in the distant midnight darkness. With eagerness he presses forward, but
his foot strikes against a stone and arouses the echoes; whereupon the
blessed Paul closes the door and makes it fast. For hours Anthony lay at
the door craving admission. "I know I am not worthy," he humbly cries,
"yet unless I see you I will not turn away. You welcome beasts, why not
a man? If I fail, I will die here on your threshold."
"Such was his constant cry; unmoved he stood,
To whom the hero thus brief answer made."
"Prayers like these do not mean threats, there is no trickery in tears."
So, with smiles, Paul gives him entrance and the two aged hermits fall
into each other's embrace. Together they converse of things human and
divine, Paul, close to the dust of the grave, asks, Are new houses
springing up in ancient cities? What government directs the world?
Little did this recluse know of his fellow-beings and how fared it with
the children of men who dwelt in those great cities around the blue
Mediterranean. He was dead to the world and knew it no more.
A raven brought the aged brothers bread to eat and the hours glided
swiftly away. Anthony returned to get a cloak which Athanasius had given
him in which to wrap the body of Paul. So eager was he to behold again
his newly-found friend that he set out without even a morsel of bread,
thirsting to see him. But when yet three days' journey from the cave he
saw Paul on high among the angels. Weeping, he trudged on his way. On
entering the cave he saw the lifeless body kneeling, with head erect and
hands uplifted. He tenderly wrapped the body in the cloak and began to
lament that he had no implements to dig a grave. But Providence sent two
lions from the recesses of the mountain that came rushing with flying
manes. Roaring, as if they too mourned, they pawed the earth and thus
the grave was dug. Anthony, bending his aged shoulders beneath the
burden of the saint's body, laid it lovingly in the grave and departed.
Jerome closes this account by challenging those who do not know the
extent of their possessions,--who adorn their homes with marble and who
string house to house,--to say what this old man in his nakedness ever
lacked. "Your drinking vessels are of precious stones; he satisfied his
thirst with the hollow of his hand. Your tunics are wrought of gold; he
had not the raiment of your meanest slave. But on the other hand, poor
as he was, Paradise is open to him; you, with all your gold, will be
received into Gehenna. He, though naked, yet kept the robe of Christ;
you, clad in your silks, have lost the vesture of Christ. Paul lies
covered with worthless dust, but will rise again to glory; over you are
raised costly tombs, but both you and your wealth are doomed to burning.
I beseech you, reader, whoever you may be, to remember Jerome the
sinner. He, if God would give him his choice, would sooner take Paul's
tunics with his merits, than the purple of kings with their punishment."
Such was the story circulated among rich and poor, appealing with
wondrous force to the hearts of men in those wretched years.
What was the effect upon the mind of the thoughtful? If he believed such
teaching, weary of the wickedness of the age, and moved by his noblest
sentiments, he sold his tunics wrought of gold and fled from his palaces
of marble to the desert solitudes.
But the monastic story that most strongly impressed the age now under
consideration, was the biography of Anthony, "the patriarch of monks"
and virtual founder of Christian monasticism. It was said to have been
written by Athanasius, the famous defender of orthodoxy and Archbishop
of Alexandria; yet some authorities reject his authorship. It exerted a
power over the minds of men beyond all human estimate. It scattered the
seeds of asceticism wherever it was read. Traces of its influence are
found all over the Roman empire, in Egypt, Asia Minor, Palestine, Italy
and Gaul. Knowing the character of Athanasius, we may rest assured that
he sincerely believed all he really recorded (it is much interpolated)
of the strange life of Anthony, and, true or false, thousands of others
believed in him and in his story. Augustine, the great theologian of
immortal fame, acknowledged that this book was one of the influences
that led to his conversion, and Jerome, whose life I will review later,
was mightily swayed by it.
Anthony was born about 251 A.D., in Upper Egypt, of wealthy and noble
parentage. He was a pious child, an obedient son, and a lover of
solitude and books. His parents died when he was about twenty years old,
leaving to his care their home and his little sister. One day, as he
entered the church, meditating on the poverty of Christ, a theme much
reflected upon in those days, he heard these words read from the pulpit,
"If thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast, and give to
the poor, and come, follow me." As if the call came straight from heaven
to his own soul, he left the church at once and made over his farm to
the people of the village. He sold his personal possessions for a large
sum, and distributed the proceeds among the poor, reserving a little for
his sister. Still he was unsatisfied. Entering the church on another
occasion, he heard our Lord saying in the gospel, "Take no thought for
the morrow." The clouds cleared away. His anxious search for truth and
duty was at an end. He went out and gave away the remnant of his
belongings. Placing his sister in a convent, the existence of which is
to be noted, he fled to the desert. Then follows a striking statement,
"For monasteries were not common in Egypt, nor had any monk at all known
the great desert; but every one who wished to devote himself to his own
spiritual welfare performed his exercise alone, not far from
Laboring with his hands, recalling texts of Scripture, praying whole
sleepless nights, fasting for several days at a time, visiting his
fellow saints, fighting demons, so passed the long years away. He slept
on a small rush mat, more often on the bare ground. Forgetting past
austerities, he was ever on the search for some new torture and pressing
forward to new and strange experiences. He changed his habitation from
time to time. Now he lived in a tomb, in company with the silent dead;
then for twenty years in a deserted castle, full of reptiles, never
going out and rarely seeing any one. From each saint he learned some
fresh mode of spiritual training, observing his practice for future
imitation and studying the charms of his Christian character that he
might reproduce them in his own life; thus he would return richly laden
to his cell.
But in all these struggles Anthony had one foe--the arch-enemy of all
good. He suggests impure thoughts, but the saint repels them by prayer;
he incites to passion, but the hero resists the fiend with fastings and
faith. Once the dragon, foiled in his attempt to overcome Anthony,
gnashed his teeth, and coming out of his body, lay at his feet in the
shape of a little black boy. But the hermit was not beguiled into
carelessness by this victory. He resolved to chastise himself more
severely. So he retired to the tombs of the dead. One dark night a crowd
of demons flogged the saint until he fell to the ground speechless with
torture. Some friends found him the next day, and thinking that he was
dead, carried him to the village, where his kinsfolk gathered to mourn
over his remains. But at midnight he came to himself, and, seeing but
one acquaintance awake, he begged that he would carry him back to the
tombs, which was done. Unable to move, he prayed prostrate and sang, "If
an host be laid against me, yet shall not my heart be afraid." The
enraged devils made at him again. There was a terrible crash; through
the walls the fiends came in shapes like beasts and reptiles. In a
moment the place was filled with lions roaring at him, bulls thrusting
at him with their horns, creeping serpents unable to reach him, wolves
held back in the act of springing. There, too, were bears and asps and
scorpions. Mid the frightful clamor of roars, growls and hisses, rose
the clear voice of the saint, as he triumphantly mocked the demons in
their rage. Suddenly the awful tumult ceased; the wretched beings became
invisible and a ray of light pierced the roof to cheer the prostrate
hero. His pains ceased. A voice came to him saying, "Thou hast withstood
and not yielded. I will always be thy helper, and will make thy name
famous everywhere." Hearing this he rose up and prayed, and was stronger
in body than ever before.
This is but one of numerous stories chronicling Anthony's struggles with
the devil. Like conflicts were going on at that hour in many another
cave in those great and silent mountains.
There are also wondrous tales of his miraculous power. He often
predicted the coming of sufferers and healed them when they came. His
fame for curing diseases and casting out devils became so extensive that
Egypt marveled at his gifts, and saints came even from Rome to see his
face and to hear his words. His freedom from pride and arrogance was as
marked as his fame was great. He yielded joyful obedience to presbyters
and bishops. His countenance was so full of divine grace and heavenly
beauty as to render him easily distinguishable in a crowd of monks.
Letters poured in upon him from every part of the empire. Kings wrote
for his advice, but it neither amazed him nor filled his heart with
pride. "Wonder not," said he, "if a king writes to us, for he is but a
man, but wonder rather that God has written His law to man and spoken to
us by His Son." At his command princes laid aside their crowns, judges
their magisterial robes, while criminals forsook their lives of crime
and embraced with joy the life of the desert.
Once, at the earnest entreaty of some magistrates, he came down from the
mountain that they might see him. Urged to prolong his stay he refused,
saying, "Fishes, if they lie long on the dry land, die; so monks who
stay with you lose their strength. As the fishes, then, hasten to the
sea, so must we to the mountains."
At last the shadows lengthened and waning strength proclaimed that his
departure was nigh. Bidding farewell to his monks, he retired to an
inner mountain and laid himself down to die. His countenance brightened
as if he saw his friends coming to see him, and thus his soul was
gathered to his fathers. He is said to have been mourned by fifteen
This is the story which moved a dying empire. "Anthony," says
Athanasius, "became known not by worldly wisdom, nor by any art, but
solely by piety, and that this was the gift of God who can deny?" The
purpose of such a life was, so his biographer thought, to light up the
moral path for men, that they might imbibe a zeal for virtue.
The "Life of St. Anthony" is even more remarkable for its omissions than
for its incredible tales. While I reserve a more detailed criticism of
its Christian ideals until a subsequent chapter, it may be well to quote
here a few words from Isaac Taylor. After pointing out some of its
defects he continues: there is "not a word of justification by faith;
not a word of the gracious influence of the Spirit in renewing and
cleansing the heart; not a word responding to any of those signal
passages of Scripture which make the Gospel 'Glad Tidings' to guilty
men." This I must confess to be true, even though I may and do heartily
esteem the saint's enthusiasm for righteousness.
So far I have described chiefly the spiritual experiences of these men,
but the details of their physical life are hardly less interesting.
There was a holy rivalry among them to excel in self-torture. Their
imaginations were constantly employed in devising unique tests of
holiness and courage. They lived in holes in the ground or in dried up
wells; they slept in thorn bushes or passed days and weeks without
sleep; they courted the company of the wildest beasts and exposed their
naked bodies to the broiling sun. Macarius became angry because an
insect bit him and in penitence flung himself into a marsh where he
lived for weeks. He was so badly stung by gnats and flies that his
friends hardly knew him. Hilarion, at twenty years of age, was more like
a spectre than a living man. His cell was only five feet high, a little
lower than his stature. Some carried weights equal to eighty or one
hundred and fifty pounds suspended from their bodies. Others slept
standing against the rocks. For three years, as it is recorded, one of
them never reclined. In their zeal to obey the Scriptures, they
overlooked the fact that cleanliness is akin to godliness. It was their
boast that they never washed. One saint would not even use water to
drink, but quenched his thirst with the dew that fell on the grass. St.
Abraham never washed his face for fifty years. His biographer, not in
the least disturbed by the disagreeable suggestions of this
circumstance, proudly says, "His face reflected the purity of his soul."
If so, one is moved to think that the inward light must indeed have been
powerfully piercing, if it could brighten a countenance unwashed for
half a century. There is a story about Abbot Theodosius who prayed for
water that his monks might drink. In response to his petition a stream
burst from the rocks, but the foolish monks, overcome by a pitiful
weakness for cleanliness, persuaded the abbot to erect a bath, when lo,
the stream dried. Supplications and repentance availed nothing. After a
year had passed, the monks, promising never again to insult Heaven by
wishing for a bath, were granted a second Mosaic miracle.
Thus, unwashed, clothed in rags, their hair uncut, their faces unshaven,
they lived for years. No wonder that to their disordered fancy the
desert was filled with devils, the animals spake and Heaven sent angels
to minister unto them.
_The Pillar Saint_
But the strangest of all strange narratives yet remains. We turn from
Egypt to Asia Minor to make the acquaintance of that saint whom Tennyson
has immortalized,--the idol of monarchs and the pride of the
East,--Saint Simeon Stylites. Stories grow rank around him like the
luxuriant products of a tropical soil. How shall I briefly tell of this
man, whom Theodoret, in his zeal, declares all who obey the Roman rule
know--the man who may be compared with Moses the Legislator, David the
King and Micah the Prophet? He lived between the years 390 and 459 A.D.
He was a shepherd's son, but at an early age entered a monastery. Here
he soon distinguished himself by his excessive austerities. One day he
went to the well, removed the rope from the bucket and bound it tightly
around his body underneath his clothes. A few weeks later, the abbot,
being angry with him because of his extreme self-torture, bade his
companions strip him. What was his astonishment to find the rope from
the well sunk deeply into his flesh. "Whence," he cried, "has this man
come to us, wanting to destroy the rule of this monastery? I pray thee
With great trouble they unwound the rope and the flesh with it, and
taking care of him until he was well, they sent him forth to commence a
life of austerities that was to render him famous. He adopted various
styles of existence, but his miracles and piety attracted such crowds
that he determined to invent a mode of life which would deliver him from
the pressing multitudes. It is curious that he did not hide himself
altogether if he really wished to escape notoriety; but, no, he would
still be within the gaze of admiring throngs. His holy and fanciful
genius hit upon a scheme that gave him his peculiar name. He took up his
abode on the top of a column which was at first about twelve feet high,
but was gradually elevated until it measured sixty-four feet. Hence, he
is called Simeon Stylites, or Simeon the Pillar Saint.
On this lofty column, betwixt earth and heaven, the hermit braved the
heat and cold of thirty years. At its base, from morning to night,
prayed the admiring worshipers. Kings kneeled in crowds of peasants to
do him homage and ask his blessing. Theodoret says, "The Ishmaelites,
coming by tribes of two hundred and three hundred at a time, and
sometimes even a thousand, deny, with shouts, the error of their
fathers, and breaking in pieces before that great illuminator, the
images which they had worshiped, and renouncing the orgies of Venus,
they received the Divine sacrament." Rude barbarians confessed their
sins in tears. Persians, Greeks, Romans and Saracens, forgetting their
mutual hatred, united in praise and prayer at the feet of this strange
Once a week the hero partook of food. Many times a day he bowed his head
to his feet; one man counted twelve hundred and forty-four times and
then stopped in sheer weariness from gazing at the miracle of endurance
aloft. Again, from the setting of the sun to its appearance in the East,
he would stand unsoothed by sleep with his arms outstretched like
If genius can understand such a life as that and fancy the thoughts of
such a soul, Tennyson seems not only to have comprehended the
consciousness of the Pillar Saint, but also to have succeeded in giving
expression to his insight. He has laid bare the soul of Simeon in its
commingling of spiritual pride with affected humility, and of a
consciousness of meritorious sacrifice with a sense of sin. The Saint
spurns notoriety and the homage of men, yet exults in his control over
The poet thus imagines Simeon to speak as the Saint is praying God to
take away his sin:
Bethink thee, Lord, while thou and all the saints
Enjoy themselves in heaven, and men on earth
House in the shade of comfortable roofs,
Sit with their wives by fires, eat wholesome food,
And wear warm clothes, and even beasts have stalls,
I, 'tween the spring and downfall of the light,
Bow down one thousand and two hundred times,
To Christ, the Virgin Mother, and the Saints;
Or in the night, after a little sleep,
I wake: the chill stars sparkle; I am wet
With drenching dews, or stiff with crackling frost.
I wear an undress'd goatskin on my back;
A grazing iron collar grinds my neck;
And in my weak, lean arms I lift the cross,
And strive and wrestle with thee till I die:
O mercy, mercy! wash away my sin.
O Lord, thou knowest what a man I am;
A sinful man, conceived and born in sin:
'Tis their own doing; this is none of mine;
Lay it not to me. Am I to blame for this,
That here come those that worship me? Ha! ha!
They think that I am somewhat. What am I?
The silly people take me for a saint,
And bring me offerings of fruit and flowers:
And I, in truth (thou wilt bear witness here)
Have all in all endured as much, and more
Than many just and holy men, whose names
Are register'd and calendared for saints.
Good people, you do ill to kneel to me.
What is it I can have done to merit this?
* * * * *
Yet do not rise; for you may look on me,
And in your looking you may kneel to God.
Speak! is there any of you halt or maim'd?
I think you know I have some power with Heaven
From my long penance: let him speak his wish.
Yes, I can heal him. Power goes forth from me.
They say that they are heal'd. Ah, hark! they shout
'St. Simeon Stylites.' Why, if so,
God reaps a harvest in me. O my soul,
God reaps a harvest in thee. If this be,
Can I work miracles and not be saved?"
Once, the devil, in shape like an angel, riding in a chariot of fire,
came to carry Simeon to the skies. He whispered to the weary Saint,
"Simeon, hear my words, which the Lord hath commanded thee. He has sent
me, his angel, that I may carry thee away as I carried Elijah." Simeon
was deceived, and lifted his foot to step out into the chariot, when the
angel vanished, and in punishment for his presumption an ulcer appeared
upon his thigh.
But time plays havoc with saints as well as sinners, and death slays the
strongest. Bowed in prayer, his weary heart ceased to beat and the eyes
that gazed aloft were closed forever. Anthony, his beloved disciple,
ascending the column, found that his master was no more. Yet, it seemed
as if Simeon was loath to leave the spot, for his spirit appeared to his
weeping follower and said, "I will not leave this column, and this
blessed mountain. For I have gone to rest, as the Lord willed, but do
thou not cease to minister in this place and the Lord will repay thee
His body was carried down the mountain to Antioch. Heading the solemn
procession were the patriarch, six bishops, twenty-one counts and six
thousand soldiers, "and Antioch," says Gibbon, "revered his bones as
her glorious ornament and impregnable defence."
_The Cenobites of the East_
We cannot linger with these hermits. I pass now to the cenobitic[C]
life. We go back in years and return to Egypt. Man is a social animal,
and the social instinct is so strong that even hermits are swayed by its
power and get tired of living apart from one another. When Anthony died
the deserts were studded with hermitages, and those of exceptional fame
were surrounded by little clusters of huts and dens. Into these cells
crowded the hermits who wished to be near their master.
[Footnote C: Appendix, Note C.]
Thus, step by step, organized or cenobitic monasticism easily and
naturally came into existence. The anchorites crawled from their dens
every day to hear the words of their chief saint,--a practice giving
rise to stated meetings, with rules for worship. Regulations as to
meals, occupations, dress, penances, and prayers naturally follow.
The author of the first monastic rules is said to have been Pachomius,
who was born in Egypt about the year 292 A.D. He was brought up in
paganism but was converted in early life while in the army. On his
discharge he retired with a hermit to Tabenna, an island in the Nile. It
is said he never ate a full meal after his conversion, and for fifteen
years slept sitting on a stone. Natural gifts fitted him to become a
leader, and it was not long before he was surrounded by a congregation
of monks for whom he made his rules.
The monks of Pachomius were divided into bands of tens and hundreds,
each tenth man being an under officer in turn subject to the hundredth,
and all subject to the superior or abbot of the mother house. They lived
three in a cell, and a congregation of cells constituted a laura or
monastery. There was a common room for meals and worship. Each monk wore
a close fitting tunic and a white goatskin upper garment which was never
laid aside at meals or in bed, but only at the Eucharist. Their food
usually consisted of bread and water, but occasionally they enjoyed such
luxuries as oil, salt, fruits and vegetables. They ate in silence, which
was sometimes broken by the solemn voice of a reader.
"No man," says Jerome, "dares look at his neighbor or clear his throat.
Silent tears roll down their cheeks, but not a sob escapes their lips."
Their labors consisted of some light handiwork or tilling the fields.
They grafted trees, made beehives, twisted fish-lines, wove baskets and
copied manuscripts. It was early apparent that as man could not live
alone so he could not live without labor. We shall see this principle
emphasized more clearly by Benedict, but it is well to notice that at
this remote day provision was made for secular employments. Jerome
enjoins Rusticus, a young monk, always to have some work on hand that
the devil may find him busy. "Hoe your ground," says he, "set out
cabbages; convey water to them in conduits, that you may see with your
own eyes the lovely vision of the poet,--
"Art draws fresh water from the hilltop near,
Till the stream, flashing down among the rocks,
Cools the parched meadows and allays their thirst."
There were individual cases of excessive self-torture even among these
congregations of monks but we may say that ordinarily, organized
monasticism was altogether less severe upon the individual than
anchoretic life. The fact that the monk was seeking human fellowship is
evidence that he was becoming more humane, and this softening of his
spirit betrayed itself in his treatment of himself. The aspect of life
became a little brighter and happier.
Four objects were comprehended in these monastic roles,--solitude,
manual labor, fasting and prayer. We need not pity these dwellers far
from walled cities and the marts of trade. Indeed, they claim no
sympathy. Religious ideals can make strange transformations in man's
disposition and tastes. They loved their hard lives.
The hermit Abraham said to John Cassian, "We know that in these, our
regions, there are some secret and pleasant places, where fruits are
abundant and the beauty and fertility of the gardens would supply our
necessities with the slightest toil. We prefer the wilderness of this
desolation before all that is fair and attractive, admitting no
comparison between the luxuriance of the most exuberant soil and the
bitterness of these sands." Jerome himself exclaimed, "Others may think
what they like and follow each his own bent. But to me a town is a
prison and solitude paradise."
The three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience were adopted and
became the foundation stones of the monastic institution, to be found in
every monastic order. There is a typical illustration in Kingsley's
Hypatia of what they meant by obedience. Philammon, a young monk, was
consigned to the care of Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, and a
factious, cruel man, with an imperious will. The bishop received and
read his letter of introduction and thus addressed its bearer,
"Philammon, a Greek. You are said to have learned to obey. If so, you
have also learned to rule. Your father-abbot has transferred you to my
tutelage. You are now to obey me." "And I will," was the quick response.
"Well said. Go to that window and leap forth into the court." Philammon
walked to it and opened it. The pavement was fully twenty feet below,
but his business was to obey and not to take measurements. There was a
flower in a vase upon the sill. He quietly removed it, and in an instant
would have leaped for life or death, when Cyril's voice
The Pachomian monks despised possessions of every kind. The following
pathetic incident shows the frightful extent to which they carried this
principle, and also illustrates the character of that submission to
which the novitiate voluntarily assented: Cassian described how Mutius
sold his possessions and with his little child of eight asked admission
to a monastery. The monks received but disciplined him. "He had already
forgotten that he was rich, he must forget that he was a father." His
child was taken, clothed in rags, beaten and spurned. Obedience
compelled the father to look upon his child wasting with pain and grief,
but such was his love for Christ, says the narrator, that his heart was
rigid and immovable. He was then told to throw the boy into the river,
but was stopped in the act of obeying.
Yet men, women, and even children, coveted this life of unnatural
deprivations. "Posterity," says Gibbon, "might repeat the saying which
had formerly been applied to the sacred animals of the same country,
that in Egypt it was less difficult to find a god than a man." Though
the hermit did not claim to be a god, yet there were more monks in many
monasteries than inhabitants in the neighboring villages. Pachomius had
fourteen hundred monks in his own monastery and seven thousand under his
rule. Jerome says fifty thousand monks were sometimes assembled at
Easter in the deserts of Nitria. It was not uncommon for an abbot to
command five thousand monks. St. Serapion boasted of ten thousand.
Altogether, so we are told, there were in the fifth century more than
one hundred thousand persons in the monasteries, three-fourths of
whom were men.
The rule of Pachomius spread over Egypt into Syria and Palestine. It was
carried by Athanasius into Italy and Gaul. It existed in various
modified forms until it was supplanted by the Benedictine rule.
Leaving Egypt, again we cross the Mediterranean into Asia Minor. Near
the Black Sea, in a wild forest abounding in savage rocks and gloomy
ravines, there dwelt a young man of twenty-six. He had traveled in
Egypt, Syria and Palestine. He had visited the hermits of the desert and
studied philosophy and eloquence in cultured Athens. In virtue eminent,
in learning profound, this poetic soul sought to realize its ideal in a
lonely and cherished retreat--in a solitude of Pontus.
The young monk is the illustrious saint and genius,--Basil the
Great,--the Bishop of Caesarea, and the virtual founder of the monastic
institution in the Greek church. The forest and glens around his hut
belonged to him, and on the other bank of the river Iris his mother and
sister were leading similar lives, having abandoned earthly honors in
pursuit of heaven. Hard crusts of bread appeased his hunger. No fires,
except those which burned within his soul, protected him from the wintry
blast. His years were few but well spent. After a while his powerful
intellect asserted itself and he was led into a clearer view of the true
spiritual life. His practical mind revolted against the gross ignorance
and meaningless asceticism of Egypt. He determined to form an order that
would conform to the inner meaning of the Bible and to a more sensible
conception of the religious life. For his time he was a wise legislator,
a cunning workman and a daring thinker. The modification of his ascetic
ideal was attended by painful struggles. Many an hour he spent with his
bosom friend, Gregory of Nazianza, discussing the subject. The middle
course which they finally adopted is thus neatly described by Gregory:
"Long was the inward strife, till ended thus:
I saw, when men lived in the fretful world,
They vantaged other men, but missed the while
The calmness, and the pureness of their hearts.
They who retired held an uprighter post,
And raised their eyes with quiet strength toward heaven;
Yet served self only, unfraternally.
And so, 'twixt these and those, I struck my path,
To meditate with the free solitary,
Yet to live secular, and serve mankind."
Monks in large numbers flocked to this mountain retreat of Basil's.
These he banded together in an organization, the remains of which still
live in the Greek church. So great is the influence of his life and
teachings, "that it is common though erroneous to call all Oriental
monks Basilians." His rules are drawn up in the form of answers to two
hundred and three questions. He added to the three monastic vows a
fourth, which many authorities claim now appeared for the first
time,--namely, that of irrevocable vows--once a monk, always a monk.
Basil did not condemn marriage, but he believed that it was incompatible
with the highest spiritual attainments. For the Kingdom of God's sake it
was necessary to forsake all. "Love not the world, neither the things of
the world," embraced to his mind the married state. By avoiding the
cares of marriage a man was sure to escape, so he thought, the gross
sensuality of the age. He struck at the dangers which attend the
possession of riches, by enforcing poverty. An abbot was appointed over
his cloisters to whom absolute obedience was demanded. Everywhere men
needed this lesson of obedience. The discipline of the armies was
relaxed. The authority of religion was set at naught; laxity and
disorder prevailed even among the monks. They went roaming over the
country controlled only by their whims. Insubordination had to be
checked or the monastic institution was doomed. Hence, Basil was
particular to enforce a respect for law and order.
Altogether this was an honest and serious attempt to introduce fresh
power into a corrupt age and to faithfully observe the Biblical commands
as Basil understood them. The floods of iniquity were engulfing even the
church. A new standard had to be raised and an inner circle of pious and
zealous believers gathered from the multitude of half-pagan Christians,
or all was lost.
The subsequent history of Greek monachism has little interest. In
Russia, at a late date, the Greek monks served some purpose in keeping
alive the national spirit under the Tartar yoke, but the practical
benefits to the East were few, in comparison with the vigorous life of
the Western monasticism.
Montalembert, the brilliant champion of Christian monasticism, becomes
an adverse critic of the system in the East, although it is noteworthy
he now speaks of monasticism as it appears in the Greek church, which he
holds to be heretical; yet his indictment is quite true: "They yielded
to all the deleterious impulses of that declining society. They have
saved nothing, regenerated nothing, elevated nothing."
We have visited the hermit in the desert and in the monastery governed
by its abbot and its rules. We must view the monk in one other aspect,
that of theological champion. Here the hermit and the monk of the
monastery meet on common ground. They were fighters, not debaters;
fighters, not disciplined soldiers; fighters, not persuading Christians.
They swarmed down from the mountains like hungry wolves. They fought
heretics, they fought bishops, they fought Roman authorities, they
fought soldiers, and fought one another. Ignorant, fanatical and cruel,
they incited riots, disturbed the public peace and shed the blood
Theological discord was made a thousand times more bitter by their
participation in the controversies of the time. Furious monks became the
armed champions of Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. They insulted the
prefect, drove out the Jews and, to the everlasting disgrace of the
monks, Cyril and the church, they dragged the lovely Hypatia from her
lecture hall and slew her with all the cruelty satanic ingenuity could
devise. Against a background of black and angry sky she stands forth, as
a soul through whose reason God made himself manifest. Her unblemished
character, her learning and her grace forever cry aloud against an
orthodoxy bereft alike of reason and of the spirit of the Nazarene.
The fighting monks crowded councils and forced decisions. They deposed
hostile bishops or kept their favorites in power by murder and violence.
Two black-cowled armies met in Constantinople, and amid curses fought
with sticks and stones a battle of creeds. Cries of "Holy! Holy! Holy!"
mingled with, "It's the day of martyrdom! Down with the tyrant!" The
whole East was kept in a feverish state. The Imperial soldiers confessed
their justifiable fears when they said, "We would rather fight with
barbarians than with these monks."
No wonder our perplexity increases and it seems impossible to determine
what these men really did for the cause of truth. We have been unable to
distinguish the hermit from the beasts of the fields. We hear his
groans, see his tears, and watch him struggle with demons. We are
disgusted with his filth, amused at his fancies, grieved at his
superstition. We pity his agony and admire his courage. We watch the
progress of order and rule out of chaos. We see monasteries grow up
around damp caves and dismal huts. We behold Simeon praying among the
birds of heaven, and look into the face of the young and handsome Basil,
in whom the monastic institution of the East reaches the zenith of
I am free to confess a profound reverence for many of these men
determined at all hazards to keep their souls unspotted from the world.
I bow before a passion for righteousness ready to part with life itself
if necessary. Yet the gross extravagances, the almost incredible
absurdities of their unnatural lives compel us to withhold our judgment.
One thing is certain, the strange life of those far-off years is an
eloquent testimony to the indestructible craving of the human soul for
self-mastery and soul-purity.
_MONASTICISM IN THE WEST: ANTE-BENEDICTINE MONKS 340-480 A.D._
We are now to follow the fortunes of the monastic system from its
introduction in Rome to the time of Benedict of Nursia, the founder of
the first great monastic order.
Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, who made
Christianity the predominant religion in the Roman Empire, died in 337
A.D. Three years later Rome heard, probably for the first time, an
authentic account of the Egyptian hermits. The story was carried to the
Eternal City by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, one of the most
remarkable characters in the early church, a man of surpassing courage
and perseverance, an intrepid foe of heresy, "heroic and invincible," as
Milton styled him. Twenty of the forty-six years of his official life
were spent in banishment.
Athanasius was an intimate friend of the hermit Anthony and a persistent
advocate of the ascetic ideal. When he fled to Rome, in 340, to escape
the persecutions of the Arians, he took with him two specimens of
monastic virtue--Ammonius and Isidore. These hermits, so filthy and
savage in appearance, albeit, as I trust, clean in heart, excited
general disgust, and their story of the tortures and holiness of their
Egyptian brethren was received with derision. But men who had faced and
conquered the terrors of the desert were not to be so easily repulsed.
Aided by other ascetic travelers from the East they persisted in their
propaganda until contempt yielded to admiration. The enthusiasm of the
uncouth hermits became contagious. The Christians in Rome now welcomed
the story of the recluses as a Divine call to abandon a dissolute
society for the peace and joy of a desert life.
But before this transformation of public opinion can be appreciated, it
is needful to know something of the social and religious condition of
Rome in the days when Athanasius and his hermits walked her streets.
After suffering frightful persecutions for three centuries, the Church
had at last nominally conquered the Roman Empire; nominally, because
although Christianity was to live, the Empire had to die. "No medicine
could have prevented the diseased old body from dying. The time had
come. When the wretched inebriate embraces a spiritual religion with one
foot in the grave, with a constitution completely undermined, and the
seeds of death planted, then no repentance or lofty aspiration can
prevent physical death. It was so in Rome." The death-throes were long
and lingering, as befits the end of a mighty giant, but death was
certain. There are many facts which explain the inability of a
conquering faith to save a tottering empire, but it is impracticable for
us to enter upon that wide field. Some help may be gained from that
Of morals, Rome was destitute. She possessed the material remains and
superficial acquirements of a proud civilization, such as great public
highways, marble palaces, public baths, temples and libraries. Elegance
of manners and acquisitions of wealth indicate specious outward
refinement. But these things are not sufficient to guarantee the
permanence of institutions or the moral welfare of a nation. In the
souls of men there was a fatal degeneracy. There was outward prosperity
but inward corruption.
Professor Samuel Dill, in his highly instructive work on "Roman Society
in the Last Century of the Western Empire," points out the fact that
Rome's fall was due to economic and political causes as well as to the
deterioration of her morals. A close study of these causes, however,
will reveal the presence of moral influences. Professor Dill says: "The
general tendency of modern inquiry has to discover in the fall of that
august and magnificent organization, not a cataclysm, precipitated by
the impact of barbarous forces, but a process slowly prepared and
evolved by internal and economic causes." Two of these causes were the
dying out of municipal liberty and self-government, and the separation
of the upper class from the masses by sharp distributions of wealth and
privilege. It is indeed true that these causes contributed to Rome's
ruin; that the central government was weak; that the civil service was
oppressive and corrupt; that the aristocratic class was selfish; and
that the small landed proprietors were steadily growing poorer and
fewer, while, on the contrary, the upper or senatorial class was
increasing in wealth and power. But after due emphasis has been accorded
to these destructive factors, it yet remains true that the want of
public spirit and the prevailing cultivated selfishness may be traced to
a decline of faith in those religious ideals that serve to stimulate the
moral life and thus preserve the national integrity.
Society was divided into three classes. It is computed that one-half the
population were slaves. A large majority of the remainder were paupers,
living on public charity, and constituting a festering sore that
threatened the life of the social organism. The rich, who were
relatively few, squandered princely incomes in a single night, and
exhausted their imaginations devising new and expensive forms of
sensuous pleasure. The profligacy of the nobles almost surpasses
credibility, so that trustworthy descriptions read like works of
fiction. Farrar says: "A whole population might be trembling lest they
should be starved by the delay of an Alexandrian corn ship, while the
upper classes were squandering a fortune at a single banquet, drinking
out of myrrhine and jeweled vases worth hundreds of pounds, and feasting
on the brains of peacocks and the tongues of nightingales." The
frivolity of the social and political leaders of Rome, the insane thirst
for lust and luxury, the absence of seriousness in the face of
frightful, impending ruin, almost justify the epigram of Silvianus,
"Rome was laughing when she died."
"On that hard pagan world disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell.
In his cool hall, with haggard eyes,
The Roman noble lay;
He drove abroad in furious guise
Along the Appian Way;
He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,
And crowned his hair with flowers
No easier nor no guicker past
The impracticable hours."
Pagan mythology and Pagan philosophy were powerless to resist this
downward tendency. Although Christianity had become the state religion,
it was itself in great danger of yielding to the decay that prevailed.
The Empire was, in fact, but nominally Christian. Thousands of
ecclesiastical adherents were half pagan in their spirit and practice.
Harnack declares, "They were too deeply affected by Christianity to
abandon it, but too little to be Christians. Pure religious enthusiasm
waned, ideals received a new form, and the dependence and responsibility
of individuals became weaker." Even ordinary courage had everywhere
declined and the pleasures of the senses controlled the heart of
Many of the men who should have resisted this gross secularization of
the church, who ought to have set their faces against the departure from
apostolic ideals by exalting the standards of the earlier Christianity;
these men, the clergy of the Christian church, had deserted their post
of duty and surrendered to the prevailing worldliness.
Jerome describes, with justifiable sarcasm, these moral weaklings,
charged with the solemn responsibility of preaching a pure gospel to a
dying empire. "Such men think of nothing but their dress; they use
perfumes freely, and see that there are no creases in their leather
shoes. Their curling hair shows traces of the tongs; their fingers
glisten with rings; they walk on tiptoe across a damp road, not to
splash their feet. When you see men acting that way, think of them
rather as bridegrooms than as clergymen. If he sees a pillow that takes
his fancy, or an elegant table-cover, or, indeed, any article of
furniture, he praises it, looks admiringly at it, takes it into his
hand, and, complaining that he has nothing of the kind, begs or rather
extorts it from its owner." Such trifling folly was fatal. The times
demanded men of vigorous spirit, who dared to face the general decline,
and cry out in strong tones against it. The age needed moral warriors,
with the old Roman courage and love of sacrifice; martyrs willing to rot
in prison or shed their blood in the street, not effeminate men, toying
with fancy table-covers and tiptoeing across a sprinkled road. "And as a
background," says Kingsley, "to all this seething heap of corruption,
misrule and misery, hung the black cloud of the barbarians, the Teutonic
tribes from whom we derive our best blood, ever coming nearer and
nearer, waxing stronger and stronger, to be soon the conquerors of the
Caesars and the masters of the world."
But there were many pure and sincere Christians--a saving remnant. The
joyous alacrity with which men and women responded to the monastic call,
and entered upon careers of self-torture for the sake of deliverance
from moral corruption, shows that the spirit of true faith was not
extinct. These seekers after righteousness may be described as "a dismal
and fanatical set of men, overlooking the practical aims of life," but
it is a fair question to ask, "if they had not abandoned the world to
its fate would they not have shared that fate?" "The glory of that age,"
says Professor Dill, "is the number of those who were capable of such
self-surrender; and an age should be judged by its ideals, not by the
mediocrity of conventional religion masking worldly self-indulgence.
This we have always with us; the other we have not always."
Yet the sad fact remains that the transforming power of Christianity was
practically helpless before the surging floods of vice and superstition.
The noble struggles of a few saints were as straws in a hurricane. The
church had all she could do to save herself.
"When Christianity itself was in such need of reform," says Lord, "when
Christians could scarcely be distinguished from pagans in love of
display, and in egotistical ends, how could it reform the world? When it
was a pageant, a ritualism, an arm of the state, a vain philosophy, a
superstition, a formula, how could it save, if ever so dominant? The
corruptions of the church in the fourth century are as well
authenticated as the purity and moral elevation of Christians in the
second century." Even in the early days of Christianity the ruin of Rome
was impending, but, at that time, the adherents of the Christian
religion were few and poor. They did not possess enough power and
influence to save the state. When monasticism came to Rome, the lords of
the church were getting ready to sit upon the thrones of princes, but
the dazzling victory of the church was not a spiritual conquest of sin,
so the last ray of hope for the Empire was extinguished. Her fall was
With this outlined picture in mind, fancy Athanasius and his monks at
Rome. These men despise luxury and contemn riches. They have come to
make Rome ring with the old war cries,--although they wrestled not
against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in high
places. Terror and despair are on every side, but they are not afraid.
They know what it means to face the demons of the desert, to lie down at
night with wild beasts for companions. They have not yielded to the
depravity of the human heart and the temptations of a licentious age.
They have conquered sinful appetites by self-abnegation and fasting.
They come to a distracted society with a message of peace--a peace won
by courageous self-sacrifice. They call men to save their perishing
souls by surrendering their wills to God and enlisting in a campaign
against the powers of darkness. They appeal to the ancient spirit of
courage and love of hardship. They arouse the dormant moral energies of
the profligate nobles, proud of the past and sick of the present. The
story of Anthony admonished Rome that a life of sensuous gratification
was inglorious, unworthy of the true Roman, and that the flesh could be
mastered by heroic endeavor.
Women, who spent their hours in frivolous amusements, welcomed with
gratitude the discovery that they could be happy without degradation,
and joyfully responded to the call of righteousness. "Despising
themselves," says Kingsley, "despising their husbands to whom they had
been wedded in loveless wedlock, they too fled from a world which had
sated and sickened them."
Woman's natural craving for lofty friendships and pure aspirations found
satisfaction in the monastic ideal. She fled from the incessant broils
of a corrupt court, from the courtesans that usurped the place of the
wife, from the insolence and selfishness of men who scorned even the
appearance of virtue and did not hesitate to degrade even their wives
and sisters. She would disprove the biting sarcasm of Juvenal,--
"Women, in judgment weak, in feeling strong,
By every gust of passion borne along.
* * * * *
A woman stops at nothing, when she wears
Rich emeralds round her neck, and in her ears
Pearls of enormous size; these justify
Her faults, and make all lawful in her eye."
Therefore did the women hear with tremulous eagerness the story of the
saintly inhabitants of the desert, and flinging away their trinkets,
they hastened to the solitude of the cell, there to mourn their folly
and seek pardon and peace at the feet of the Most High.
Likewise, the men, born to nobler tasks than fawning upon princes and
squandering life and fortune in gluttony and debauchery, blushed for
shame, and abandoned forever the company of sensualists and parasites.
Potitianus, a young officer of rank, read the life of Anthony, and cried
to his fellow-soldier: "Tell me, I pray thee, whither all our labors
tend? What do we seek? For whom do we carry arms? What can be our
greatest hope in the palace but to be friend to the Emperor? And how
frail is that fortune! What perils! When shall this be?" Inspired by the
monastic story he exchanged the friendship of the Emperor for the
friendship of God, and the military life lost all its attractiveness.
A philosopher and teacher hears the same narrative, and his countenance
becomes grave; he seizes the arm of Alypius, his friend, and earnestly
asks: "What, then, are we doing? How is this? What hast thou been
hearing? These ignorant men rise; they take Heaven by force, and we,
with our heartless sciences, behold us wallowing in the flesh and in
our blood! Is it shameful to follow them, and are we not rather
disgraced by not following them?" So, disgusted with his self-seeking
career, his round of empty pleasures, he, too, is moved by this higher
call to abandon his wickedness and devote his genius to the cause of
Ambrose, Paulinus, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory, and many others, holding
important official posts or candidates for the highest honors, abandoned
all their chances of political preferment in order to preach the gospel
of ascetic Christianity.
Yes, for good or evil, Rome is profoundly stirred. The pale monk, in all
his filth and poverty, is the master of the best hearts in the capital.
Every one in whom aspiration is still alive, who longs for some new
light, and all who vaguely grope after a higher life, hear his voice and
become pliant to his will.
"Great historic movements," says Grimke, "are born not in whirlwinds, in
earthquakes, and pomps of human splendor and power, but in the agonies
and enthusiasms of grand, heroic spirits." Monastic history, like
secular, centers in the biographies of such great men as Anthony, Basil,
Jerome, Benedict, Francis, Dominic and Loyola. To understand the
character of the powerful forces set in motion by the coming of the
monks to Rome, it is necessary to know the leading spirits whose
preeminent abilities and lofty personalities made Western monasticism
what it was.
The time is about 418 A.D.; the place, a monastery in Bethlehem, near
the cave of the Nativity. In a lonely cell, within these monastic walls,
we shall find the man we seek. He is so old and feeble that he has to be
raised in his bed by means of a cord affixed to the ceiling. He spends
his time chiefly in reciting prayers. His voice, once clear and
resonant, sinks now to a whisper. His failing vision no longer follows
the classic pages of Virgil or dwells fondly on the Hebrew of the Old
Testament. This is Saint Jerome, the champion of asceticism, the
biographer of hermits, the lion of Christian polemics, the translator of
the Bible, and the worthy, brilliant, determined foe of a dissolute
society and a worldly church. Although he spent thirty-four years of his
life in Palestine, I shall consider Jerome in connection with the
monasticism of the West, for it was in Rome that he exercised his
greatest influence. His translation of the Scriptures is the Vulgate of
the Roman church, and his name is enrolled in the calendar of her
saints. "He is," observes Schaff "the connecting link between the
Eastern and Western learning and religion."
By charming speech and eloquent tongue Jerome won over the men, but
principally the women, of Rome to the monastic life. So powerful was his
message when addressed to the feminine heart, that mothers are said to
have locked their daughters in their rooms lest they should fall under
the influence of his magnetic voice. It was largely owing to his own
labors that he could write in after years: "Formerly, according to the
testimony of the apostles, there were few rich, few noble, few powerful
among the Christians. Now, it is no longer so. Not only among the
Christians, but among the monks are to be found a multitude of the wise,
the noble and the rich."
Near to the very year that Athanasius came to Rome, or about 340 A.D.,
Jerome was born at Stridon, in Dalmatia, in what is now called the
Austro-Hungarian monarchy. His parents were modestly wealthy and were
slaveholders. His student days were spent in Rome, where he divided his
time between the study of books and the revels of the streets. One day
some young Christians induced him to visit the catacombs with them.
Here, before the graves of Christian martyrs, a quiet and holy influence
stole into his heart, that finally led to his conversion and baptism.
Embracing the monastic ideal, he gathered around him a few congenial
friends, who joined him in a covenant of rigid abstinence and ascetic
discipline. Then followed a year of travel with these companions,
through Asia Minor, ending disastrously at Antioch. One of his friends
returned home, two of them died, and he himself became so sick with
fever that his life was despaired of. Undismayed by these evils, brought
on by excessive austerities, he determined to retire to a life
About fifty miles southeast from Antioch was a barren waste of nature
but a paradise for monks--the Desert of Chalcis. On its western border
were several monasteries. All about for miles, the dreary solitudes were
peopled with shaggy hermits. They saw visions and dreamed dreams in
caves infested by serpents and wild beasts. They lay upon the sands,
scorched in summer by the blazing sun, and chilled in winter by the
winds that blew from snowcapped mountains. For five years, Jerome dwelt
among these demon-fighting recluses. Clad in sackcloth stained by
penitential tears, he toiled for his daily bread, and struggled against
visions of Roman dancing girls. He was a most industrious reader of
books and a great lover of debate. Monks from far and near visited him,
and together they discussed questions of theology and philosophy.
But we may not follow this varied and eventful life in all its details.
After a year or two spent at Constantinople, and three years at Rome, he
returned to the East, visiting the hermits of Egypt on his way, and
finally settled at Bethlehem. His fame soon drew around him a great
company of monks. These he organized into monasteries. He built a
hospital, and established an inn for travelers. Lacking the necessary
funds to carry out his projects, he dispatched his brother to the West
with instructions to sell what was left of his property, and the
proceeds of this sale he devoted to the cause. While in Bethlehem he
wrote defences of orthodoxy, eulogies of the dead, lives of saints and
commentaries on the Bible. He also completed his translation of the
Scriptures, and wrote numerous letters to persons dwelling in various
parts of the empire.
Jerome rendered great service to monasticism by his literary labors. He
invested the dullest of lives with a halo of glory; under the magic
touch of his rhetoric the wilderness became a gladsome place and the
desert blossomed as the rose. His glowing language transfigured the pale
face and sunken eyes of the starved hermit into features positively
beautiful, while the rags that hung loosely upon his emaciated frame
became garments of lustrous white. "Oh, that I could behold the desert,"
he cries, "lovelier than any city! Oh, that I could see those lonely
spots made into a paradise by the saints that throng them!" Without
detracting from the bitterness of the prospect, he glorifies the courage
that can face the horrors of the desert, and the heart that can rejoice
midst the solitude of the seas. Hear him describe the home of Bonosus, a
hermit on an isle in the Adriatic:
"Bonosus, your friend, is now climbing the ladder foreshown in Jacob's
dream. He is bearing his cross, neither taking thought for the morrow,
nor looking back at what he has left. Here you have a youth, educated
with us in the refining accomplishments of the world, with abundance of
wealth and in rank inferior to none of his associates; yet he forsakes
his mother, his sister, and his dearly loved brother, and settles like a
new tiller of Eden on a dangerous island, with the sea roaring round its
reefs, while its rough crags, bare rocks and desolate aspect make it
more terrible still.... He sees the glory of God which even the apostles
saw not, save in the desert. He beholds, it is true, no embattled towns,
but he has enrolled his name in the new city. Garments of sackcloth
disfigure his limbs, yet so he will the sooner be caught up to meet
Christ in the clouds. Round the entire island roars the frenzied sea,
while the beetling crags along its winding shores resound as the billows
beat against them. Precipitous cliffs surround his dreadful abode as if
it were a prison. He is careless, fearless, armed from head to foot in
the apostles' armor."
Listen to these trumpet tones as Jerome calls to a companion of his
youth in Rome: "O desert, enamelled with the flowers of Christ! O
retreat, which rejoicest in the friendship of God! What dost thou in the
world, my brother, with thy soul greater than the world? How long wilt
thou remain in the shadow of roofs, and in the smoky dungeons of cities?
Believe me, I see here more light."
To pass hastily over such appeals, coming from distant lands across the
sea to stir the minds of the thoughtful in Rome, is to ignore one of the
causes which produced the great exodus that followed. He made men see
that they were living in a moral Sodom, and that if they would save
their souls they must escape to the desert. The power of personal
influence, of inspiring private letters, can hardly be overemphasized in
studying the remarkable progress of asceticism. Great awakenings in the
moral, as in the political or the social world, may be traced to the
profound influence of individuals, whose prophetic insight and moral
enthusiasm unfold the germ of the larger movements. There may be
widespread unrest, the ground may be prepared for the seed, but the
immediate cause of universal uprisings is the clarion call of genius.
Thus Luther's was the voice that cried in the wilderness, inciting a
vast host for whom centuries had been preparing.
But Jerome's fame as a man of learning, possessing a critical taste and
a classic style of rare beauty and simplicity, must not blind us to the
crowning glory of his brilliant career. He was above all a spiritual
force. His chief appeal was to the conscience. He warmed the most torpid
hearts by the fervor of his love, and encouraged the most hopeless by
his fiery zeal and heroic faith. As a promoter of monasticism, he
clashed with the interests of an enfeebled clergy and a corrupt laity.
Nothing could swerve him from his course. False monks might draw
terrible rebukes from him, but the conviction that the soul could be
delivered from captivity to the body only by mortification remained
unshaken. He induced men to break the fetters of society that they
might, under the more favorable circumstances of solitude, wage war
against their unruly passions.
When parents objected to his monastic views, Jerome quoted the saying of
Jesus respecting the renunciation of father and mother, and then said:
"Though thy mother with flowing hair and rent garments, should show thee
the breasts which have nourished thee; though thy father should lie upon
the threshold; yet depart thou, treading over thy father, and fly with
dry eyes to the standard of the cross. The love of God and the fear of
hell easily rend the bonds of the household asunder. The Holy Scripture
indeed enjoins obedience, but he who loves them more than Christ loses
Jerome vividly portrays his own spiritual conflicts. The deserts were
crowded with saintly soldiers battling against similar temptations, the
nature of which is suggested by the following excerpt from Jerome's
writings: "How often," he says, "when I was living in the desert, in the
vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by
a burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome!
I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sack-cloth
disfigured my unshapely limbs and my skin from long neglect had become
black as an Ethiopian's. Tears and groans were every day my portion; and
if drowsiness chanced to overcome my struggles against it, my bare
bones, which hardly held together, clashed against the ground. Now
although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison where
I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself
amid bevies of girls. Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, I
watered them with my tears, and I subdued my rebellious body with weeks
of abstinence. I remember how I often cried aloud all night till the
break of day. I used to dread my cell as if it knew my thoughts, and
stern and angry with myself, I used to make my way alone into the
desert. Wherever I saw hollow valleys, craggy mountains, steep cliffs,
there I made my oratory; there the house of correction for my unhappy
flesh. There, also, when I had shed copious tears and had strained my
eyes to heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts and sang for
joy and gladness."
No doubt these men were warring against nature. Their yielding to the
temptation to obtain spiritual dominance by self-flagellation and
fasting may be criticized in the light of modern Christianity.
"Fanaticism defies nature," says F.W. Robertson, "Christianity refines
it and respects it. Christianity does not denaturalize, but only
sanctifies and refines according to the laws of nature. Christianity
does not destroy our natural instincts, but gives them a higher and
nobler direction." To all this I must assent, but, at the same time, I
cannot but reverence that pure passion for holiness which led men,
despairing of acquiring virtue in a degenerate age, to flee from the
world and undergo such torments to attain their soul's ideal. The form,
the method of their conflict was transient, the spirit and purpose
eternal. All honor to them for their magnificent and terrible struggle,
which has forever exalted the spiritual ideal, and commanded men
everywhere to seek first "the Kingdom of God and its righteousness."
Jerome was always fond of the classics, although pagan writers were not
in favor with the early Christians. One night he dreamed he was called
to the skies where he was soundly flogged for reading certain pagan
authors. This vision interrupted his classical studies for a time. In
later years he resumed his beloved Virgil; and he vigorously defended
himself against those who charged him with being a Pagan and an
apostate on account of his love for Greek and Roman literature. If his
admiration for Virgil was the Devil's work, I but give the Devil his due
when I declare that much of the charm of Jerome's literary productions
is owing to the inspiration of classic models.
Our attention must now be transferred from Jerome to the high-born Roman
matrons, who laid off their silks that they might clothe themselves in
the humble garb of the nun. As the narrative proceeds I shall let Jerome
speak as often as possible, that the reader may become acquainted with
the style of those biographies and eulogies which were the talk of Rome,
and which have been admired so highly by succeeding generations.
Those who embraced monasticism in Rome did so in one of two ways. Some
sold their possessions, adopted coarse garments, and subsisted on the
plainest food, but they did not leave the city and were still to be seen
upon the streets. Jerome writes to Pammachius: "Who would have believed
that a last descendant of the consuls, an ornament of the race of
Camillus, could make up his mind to traverse the city in the black robe
of a monk, and should not blush to appear thus clad in the midst of
senators." Some of those who remained at Rome established a sort of
retreat for their ascetic friends.
But another class left Rome altogether. Some took up their abode on the
rugged isles of the Adriatic or the Mediterranean. Large numbers of them
went to the East, principally to Palestine. Jerome was practically the
abbot of a Roman colony of monks and nuns. Two motives, beside the
general ruling desire to achieve holiness, produced this exodus to the
Holy Land, which culminated centuries later in the crusades. One was a
desire to see the deserts and caves, the abode of hermits famous for
piety and miracles. Jerome, as I have shown, invested these lonely
retreats and strange characters with a sort of holy romance, and hence,
faith, mingled with curiosity, led men to the East. Another motive was
the desire to visit the land of the Saviour, to tread the soil
consecrated by his labors of love, to live a life of poverty in the land
where He had no home He could call his own.
St. Paula was one of the women who left Rome and went to Palestine. The
story of her life is told in a letter designed to comfort her daughter
Eustochium at the time of Paula's death. The epistle begins: "If all the
members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my
limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice
to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula. Of the stock of the
Gracchi, descended from the Scipios, she yet preferred Bethlehem to
Rome, and left her palace glittering with gold to dwell in a mud cabin."
Her husband was of royal blood and had died leaving her five children.
At his death, she gave herself to works of charity. The poor and sick
she wrapped in her own blankets. She began to tire of the receptions and
other social duties which her position entailed upon her. While in this
frame of mind, two Eastern bishops were entertained at her home during a
gathering of ecclesiastics. They seem to have imparted the monastic
impulse, perhaps by the rehearsal of monastic tales, for we are informed
that at this time she determined to leave servants, property and
children, in order to embrace the monastic life.
Let us stand with her children and kinsfolk on the shore of the sea as
they take their final farewell of Paula. "The sails were set and the
strokes of the rowers carried the vessel into the deep. On the shore
little Toxotius stretched forth his hands in entreaty, while Rufina, now
grown up, with silent sobs besought her mother to wait until she should
be married. But still Paula's eyes were dry as she turned them
heavenwards, and she overcame her love for her children by her love for
God. She knew herself no more as a mother that she might approve herself
a handmaid of Christ. Yet her heart was rent within her, and she
wrestled with her grief as though she were being forcibly separated from
parts of herself. The greatness of the affection she had to overcome
made all admire her victory the more. Though it is against the laws of
nature, she endured this trial with unabated faith."
So the vessel ploughed onward, carrying the mother who thought she was
honoring God and attaining the true end of being through ruthless
strangling of maternal love. She visited Syria and Egypt and the islands
of Ponta and Cyprus. At the feet of the hermit fathers she begged their
blessing and tried to emulate the virtues she believed they possessed.
At Jerusalem she fell upon her face and kissed the stone before the
sepulcher. "What tears, she shed, what groans she uttered, what grief
she poured out all Jerusalem knows!"
She established two monasteries at Bethlehem, one of which was for
women. Here, with her daughter, she lived a life of rigid abstinence.
Her nuns had nothing they could call their own. If they paid too much