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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 Societies.]–_Nagler_.
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 shapely letters.]
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BREWER, JOHN SHERREN: The Reign of Henry VIII. BRYCE, JAMES: The Holy Roman Empire.
BURNET, GILBERT: History of the Reformation of the Church of England.
BUTLER, ALBAN: Lives of the Saints. CARLYLE, THOMAS: Past and Present: The Ancient Monk. Miscellaneous Papers: Jesuitism.
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 Empire.
DRAPER, JOHN WILLIAM: History of the Intellectual Development of Europe.
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.
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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 Kings.
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LINGARD, JOHN: History of England.
LINGARD, JOHN: History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church.
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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 and Church.
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SCOTT, WALTER: The Abbot.
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_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 the world.
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 work out.”
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 the church.”
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 Heathen-Jewish-Christian influences.
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 strange world.
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 other wonders.
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 pestilential vapors.
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 the village.”
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 thousand disciples.
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 depart hence.”
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 character.
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 a cross.
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 multitudes.
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 in heaven.”
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 thundered, “Stop!”
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 of foes.
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 its power.
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 which follows.
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 Christian society.
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 inevitable.
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 righteousness.
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 of solitude.
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 his soul.”
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