Monasticism — Professor William R. Cook

August 10, 2012

St. Anthony’s Egyptian Coptic Monastery at Coma, Egypt in 2006

William R. Cook is a DistinguishedTeaching Professor at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and a collaborator and originator on numerous intellectual projects about Medieval and Renaissance literature, history, and culture. Cook earned his PhD from Cornell University and joined the Geneseo faculty in 1970. The following is lifted from his Great Course on the Catholic Church.


Several quite distinct forms of monasticism developed in the chaotic years of the collapse of Roman authority.

Monasticism began in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd century, but by the middle of the following century there were monks living in the West. In the 6th century, Benedict composed a rule — a formal prescription for the life of the monastic community at his monastery of Montecassino. His rule spread throughout the West during the two centuries following his death in 547, its success due largely to the brilliance of its balance of strictness and common sense.

The monastic impulse among Christians can be traced to the 3rd century and in some ways to the earliest Christianity. Jesus spoke of the blessedness of the poor and lived as a poor, powerless, celibate man. In the first Christian centuries, some women, especially widows, chose lives of simplicity, prayer, and service.

In the 3rd century, something of a monastic movement began, first in the Egyptian desert among men living literally on the fringes of society. We associate the beginning of monasticism with a man named Antony, who became a monk (a word meaning “alone”) in 269. He lived in the desert for 87 years, dying in 356 at the age of 105. He was sought out and emulated by both men and women. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, wrote a life of Antony, the very first work of hagiography — biography of a saint.

Monastic life began to take on a community form and began to spread throughout the Roman Empire. The first monastic communities developed in Egypt in the first half of the 4″‘ century and are associated with the first monk to write a rule for a community, Pachomius. Monastic practices spread into the Holy Land and took a variety of forms: hermitic, loosely gathered, and communal.

The literature of early monasticism had a profound effect on the church and on monasticism in the West. Athanasius’s life of Antony was translated into Latin. Many of the words of wisdom of these men and women of prayer were written down in Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Evagrius, a well-educated monk of the end of the 4th century, wrote foundational texts about prayer. John Cassian visited monks in Egypt and recorded conversations and lore in Latin texts that remained important to the development of monasticism for many centuries.

Eventually, Catholic monasticism developed using the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Benedict (480-547) was an Italian who lived as a hermit and later served as an abbot. His strictness angered his monks. About 529, he founded a monastery at Montecassino, south of Rome. For Montecassino, Benedict composed a rule, a formal prescription for the life of the monastic community.

The Rule of Saint Benedict gradually spread throughout the Latin-speaking part of Europe. Its success was largely due to its brilliance and its balance of strictness and common sense. Pope Gregory I (the Great) lived for a while under the rule and later wrote a popular life of Benedict, which served to publicize it.

Although Benedict expected his monks to be literate, he did not think of the monastery as a place of scholarship. There were scholarly traditions in other monasteries that came to influence Benedictine houses. Monasticism in Ireland was different because of the lack of Latin known there. As cities declined in the West, their centers of education ceased to be important, and monasteries became the centers of education for several centuries.


Reading Selections from Professor Cook’s lecture:

The Monastic Impulse
In this lecture, I’m going to talk about monks; by the way, “monks” I’m using here as a non-gendered term, so it means male and female religious. This is too easy, but let me start this way: Monks make a lot of sense to the Orthodox, almost no sense to many Protestants, and they sort of make sense to many Catholics. Obviously, there is a long history of Catholic monasticism; and yet I think today especially — where monks are fairly rare after all, and there isn’t a monastery near every town and city — I think a lot of people either more or less ignore them, writing them off as a kind of leftover from a bygone age, or sort of wonder what monasticism is all about.

One of the easy criticisms is, “Gee, these monks say that they’re going to live a life like Jesus lived. But Jesus wasn’t a monk; Jesus didn’t live his life in a cloister, he didn’t spend certain times each day at prayer, and so on and so forth, so how can somebody who is a monk claim to be imitating Jesus?”

Let me remind you that the people who often make those comments are married, own property, have a 401k, three kids, and belong to a gym; and of course Jesus didn’t do any of those things either. When we think about imitation of Jesus — which is, after all, to some extent in non-literal and perhaps literal terms as well the goal of every Christian — I think we’ll see in this lecture how in many ways monks make sense as people who imitate Jesus; and monks play an important role in the history of Christianity, and particularly in the history of Catholicism. I think it’s fair to say that there has been a kind of monastic impulse — we might call it — from the very beginning of Christianity.

Let’s remember that monks are poor, and Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” Let’s remember that Jesus lived as a celibate man, he lived without property, and he lived a life of prayer and service. If we describe Jesus’ life that way — and we could — we can, I think, then begin to understand why there is this monastic impulse that’s always been a part of Christianity.

In the earliest Christian centuries — which I’ve mentioned before are not terribly well documented — we do know that groups of people, primarily widows, and we know this particularly about the city of Rome, chose to live in continence in simplicity, prayer, and service. They didn’t tend to move in to one house, but they would meet together regularly and the lives that they lived were lives that in some ways resembled at least many of the aspects of what later on we call monasticism.

However, it really was in the 3rd century that we can talk about the beginnings of monasticism. We know by at least the second half of the 3rd century around some towns — this is best documented in Egypt, by the way, which was of course part of the Roman Empire and a center of Christianity — there were men who were literally living on the fringes of the city, the fringes of society. We don’t know much about exactly what they did, but they lived in a certain kind of — although not a complete — solitude, and they lived lives of prayer, simplicity, and contemplation.

The reason we know about them is because in 269, in a small town in Egypt, an 18 year old named Antony whose parents had recently died was going to church one day, and as he got there the Gospel was being read. He heard the Gospel that says, “If you will be perfect, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” and (after another verse in there), “come and follow me.” Antony was so taken by the personal nature of this message to him — as he understood it that he did that; not immediately did he do every detail of it, but essentially what he did was sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and joined in that group of people who were living on the periphery of his town.

However, not .long after that, he went further into the desert to seek greater solitude, and for several years really lived a deeply personal experience of Jesus kind of life, living off by himself with very few contacts with other human beings. In fact, we can call him a monk because the word “monk” comes from the Greek word that means “alone”; you can hear the “mon” in there, the word that means “one,” after all.

If we can say nothing else about the first monk it is that being a monk was good for his health, because Antony lived in some way or other in the desert for 87 years and died at the age of 105; he was born in 251, he died in 356. I,et’s take a further look at Antony, because we’re pretty well informed about him. As we’ll see in a minute, we have a very important life of Antony that was written by somebody who lived more or less contemporarily with him, and also we have some of Antony’s own letters and sayings.

There were times when he lived really fully in solitude, and there were times when he lived a little bit closer to “civilization.” Oddly enough, he began to draw people who would come to him. Some would come for advice, sort of like going on retreat for a weekend — “I’ll go talk to that sort of weird holy guy out in the desert who talks to God all day” — and some people came and said, “I’d sort of like to live the life that you live.” So Antony would have, if you will, “disciples,” even though they didn’t live in anything like we would call a monastic community. But they might live in such proximity that at least from time to time they could consult with Antony, and we know that in many cases in the monks in the desert — since Antony and most of the others were not priests — that they would get together on weekends, because in that way a priest could serve them and do the liturgy for them.

We also know that from time to time Antony actually entered cities. He had to, for one thing, because however self-sufficient he tried to be, obviously he couldn’t do everything for himself, he couldn’t make everything for himself that he needed. Antony would make simple things – baskets, mats and so on — and he would have to take them into town and sell them in order to buy things he needed that he could not produce for himself. But also Antony would get involved in some of the theological issues of the day; in other words, he lived a life of solitude, but he did see himself as part of the church, part of this community of the faithful.

During his lifetime in Alexandria, things were quite tumultuous, because, in fact, the bishop who later wrote a life of Antony — Athanasius — was kicked out of Alexandria several different times. He was a defender of the decrees of the Council of Nicaea, while remember, the person condemned was Arias who had been a priest in Alexandria, the major see, the major diocese of Egypt so Antony would get involved, and Antony was involved on the side of the bishop. We need to appreciate in several ways as withdrawn as this first monk and some of his followers were, they did not live in utter solitude and they did not see themselves separate from the larger body of Christians that we call the church; the ekklesia in Greek.

As it turns out, as I mentioned, Athanasius wrote a life of Antony and we today call this the first work of Christian hagiography, a very important genre of literature that’s much misunderstood today.

Hagiography is the writing of a saint’s life; the “hagio” part means “holy,” and the “-graphy” part means “writing.” The first hagiographical work in the Christian tradition is the life of Antony by Athanasius. It’s important to remember if you’ve ever read a saint’s life — or if you ever do — that they’re not meant to be biographies in the modem sense, but rather they are works that edify; and therefore historical detail and accuracy is not their primary concern, it’s, to inspire, it’s to guide, it’s what Antony says to us in our place, in our time, rather than exactly what Antony did in his place, in his time.

But because we have this work, although it has to be studied critically, we know quite a bit about Antony, as it turns out. One of the phrases that Athanasius uses in describing Antony is that he is a “daily martyr.” Let’s go back and do some chronology again: Antony entered the desert in 269, which means roughly for the first 30 years he’s living in the desert; Christians are under periodic attack, persecution by the Roman Empire. But Antony lived until 356, long after we have Christian emperors and Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds. Antony’s life in the desert, therefore, really was part of that transitional period from a small, persecuted church to a large and dominant Christianity, and it’s important to remember that.

On Being A Real Christian
Here’s a question that could be asked in that second phase of his life: In the old days, the way you proved you were a real Christian was simply to be a Christian, because any day you could be martyred, and you were putting it all on the line when you identified yourself as a Christian. But now, lots of people were signing up who perhaps were lukewarm, wishy washy, or signing up at least in part because they were joining the emperor’s religion. How could those Christians who would have been — had they lived back in the old days — Christians ready to die, how could they still demonstrate that? What could they do — perhaps to show themselves, perhaps to show God — to show they would have been with those old-time Christians, ready to die?

One of the answers that’s suggested is to live as a monk: to give up a good deal of mobility, to give up sex, to give up delicate food, delicate clothing, power, and family, and to go live in the desert to pray, and to be with God; that’s a way to live with the kind of dedication that those earlier Christians of a past era — the era of martyrdom — had.

So the life of Antony is described a kind of daily martyrdom — that’s the phrase Athanasius uses — and, in fact, what do we discover? That especially after the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine and his successors, an awful lot of people headed to the desert, many more than before, to imitate Antony. In fact, in using again a favorite phrase from the 4thcentury, the  desert became a city; that is to say, it seemed that — not quite literal obviously — everywhere you went, or in every cave out in the desert, there was a monk, mostly men, some women as well (it’s important to say). We want to keep in mind that monasticism as a movement, although it began the era of persecution, it really flourished later on after the era of persecution.

Living out in the desert by yourself is tough: You’re cut off from society; you’re cut off — if’ you’re not a priest — from easy availability of the sacraments; and so on. We find by the middle of the 41h century — while Antony’s still alive, actually — we get the first monastic communities forming. The first person to really create a monastery and set up a set of guidelines — not really a Rule in a formal sense — for those monks was man named Pachomius, and we have fragments of the so-called Rule of Pachomius, and we have a life of Pachomius. We know that by the middle of the 4th century, we have the two major kinds of monastic life flourishing: the individual kind, we call it eremetical monasticism, the monasticism of hermits; but also the communal — we have a very fancy word for that — or cenobitic monasticism, the monasticism lived in communities.

There were other kinds of models as well: There were models where you had a group of monks living in proximity to one another so they had some of the element of the life of a hermit and some of the elements of the life of a community- based monk. So in addition to these two general forms that we talk about, we need to realize there were lots of what we might call experimental forms of living the monastic life in the desert.

There were some extremes of the hermit kind of monasticism. Perhaps the most famous of all these was a 4th and 5th century monk from Syria named Simeon the Stylite who stood on top of a column for more than 30 years; that’s pretty extreme, I think we’d say, by any standards. But also by the end of the 4th century, we have the works of Saint Basil of Caesarea. Caesarea’s in modem Turkey — and he was the first writer really to defend the superiority of communal monasticism and emphasize that those monasteries can do a great deal of work: They can help the poor, they can run hospitals and orphanages, and take care of pilgrims and travelers; and Therefore it’s Basil who, to a great extent, introduces the notion of monks as servants of the community, especially servants of the less fortunate members of the community. Although Basil’s writings were much more influential in the Greek-speaking world than the Latin-speaking world, nevertheless he’s important as the first writer to stress the importance and value of communal monasticism, not just these individual heroic hermits.

I want to say a little bit about the literature that comes out of the experience of monks in the desert in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and so forth because it’s literature that’s extraordinarily important for the whole church and for Catholics in particular. First of all, I’ve mentioned the life of Antony; it was written by Athanasius in Greek, but it was very early on translated into Latin, and therefore Antony becomes a very popular saint in the Latin West. In fact, if you want to demonstrate that, just go to any museum with lots of Italian paintings and see how often Antony of the desert (as we sometimes call him) is one of the saints in a painting of the Madonna and child with a group of saints.

My favorite work of the desert is a collection of sayings; probably originally various hermits would say, “I once heard old Father So-and-So or old Brother So-and-So say the following,” and at some point these sayings were collected into what’s now called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. They are these wonderful short stories, half a page or even one-liners, which really provide the wisdom of the desert for us. If you are by yourself, if you are away from noise and power and all kinds of activity and distraction, it might seem like an odd life to us but it also provides for a certain focus and clarity.

Sometimes some of the one-liners that were spoken by these monks and sisters — women, too — and written down are very important. For example, Antony says, “You should sell the New Testament to give to the poor, because after all the New Testament says, `Sell everything you have and give to the poor’; so if I kept the New Testament and didn’t sell it to give to the poor I’d be disobeying the book, and if I’m disobeying the book, what’s the value of owning it?” He says it much more succinctly than that; but that’s the point that Antony makes. There are a lot of these interesting one-liners, short stories, or reflections that come out of the wisdom of the desert, and they, too, were translated into Latin and were very important.

There was an important writer named Evagrius who was a monk at the end of the 4th century, and he was a very well educated man; most of the monks were not. Evagrius collected a lot of monastic lore and wisdom –in Greek — put it into a kind of intellectual framework. Monks, let’s remember are especially good at thinking about, talking about, and practicing prayer and I think it’s fair to say that Evagrius was one of the first writers about prayer, and that his writings — also translated into Latin – became an important element of Christian and Catholic thought and in general I think it’s fair to say monks have often been the prayer experts who taught the rest of the church about prayer; deep forms of prayer, variety of forms of prayer.

The other writer I would emphasize is a guy named John Cassian, and I mentioned him earlier when I talked about the various Latin fathers. John Cassian went to Egypt, interviewed monks, and wrote down dialogues of  conversations he had in Latin; and therefore a lot of that lore of the early monks was passed on to the West through the Latin writings of John Cassian, who lived toward the beginning of the 5th century. We need to note that none of these names probably — Evagrius, or the anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers — are on the Catholic best seller list today, and a lot of well-informed Catholics probably don’t know this body of literature, most of which originated in the East but was either translated or written down in Latin, that it is part of our tradition. But to recover that part of the Catholic tradition passed on through those desert fathers and mothers is an important thing that I think we ought to investigate, as Catholics, more and more.

We find monasticism coming to Western Europe beginning really in the 4th century; and by tradition, anyway, the first monk who lived in what’s now Western Europe — in fact, in France — was Saint Martin, called Martin of Tours because toward the end of his life he became the bishop of Tours in France. In Western Europe, monasticism took a variety of forms: there were hermits, there were loose gatherings, and there were monastic communities.

But remember, at the time monasticism was coming to the West, the Roman Empire in the West was sort of falling apart, and therefore the monasticism came in a variety of forms; and like the society in general, monastic practices in the West were rather unstable. You had some monasteries that were extremely acetic, some monasteries that were pretty loose; you had monasteries that emphasized scholarship, and monasteries that didn’t seem to give much of a fig about scholarship. So there’s this wide variety but no, I guess we would say, consensus of how the monastic life should be lived In the West, until, in the early part of the 6″‘ century, came Saint Benedict of Nursia (Nursia is the modem Italian city of Norcia, which is a little bit north of Rome).

Benedict had studied in Rome, found it sort of decadent, and went to live as a hermit at a place called Subiaco south of Rome; the cave where he lived now has a big church built over it. After a while living as a hermit, Benedict was called to be an abbot by some monks; again, one of those unstable monasteries. Benedict accepted the job and really tried to enforce some order, structure, and discipline in a fairly undisciplined monastery. According to tradition, the monks didn’t like that and actually tried to poison Benedict. At any rate, in 529, Benedict founded his own monastery on top of a mountain south of Rome at a place called Montecassino. For his monastic community, he wrote a Rule that today is, I guess you would say, sort of the size of a thick pamphlet or a very short book. It contains 73 chapters, and the “Rule of Saint Benedict” became the most important monastic document in the history of the West.

When we try to say why the Benedictine form of monasticism won out — Benedict didn’t set out to found an order or to codify life for monks all over Europe, he wrote it essentially for his own monastery; when, then, was it such a success? — here, at least, are some answers:

  1. Number one, it’s just intrinsically brilliant. Benedict sort of gets what some of the essential issues are. How do you have discipline, order, and structure and yet remember what human beings are like; that human .beings have foibles and peculiarities? How do you balance the need for structure and flexibility? I’m going to give a couple examples later on, but I think we’ll see that Benedict was brilliant in writing his Rule.
  2. Secondly — and I mean this sort of loosely — he had a great publicist. As it turns out, in the latter part of the 6th century, for a while in Rome, the man who became Pope Gregory the Great lived under the Rule of Saint Benedict; and, in fact, he wrote a hagiographical account (a life) of Benedict. Gregory, who was one of the four Latin doctors of the church — such an important figure in the history of the church, among other things —  (perhaps he didn’t mean to do it) publicized Benedictine monasticism because he had lived under it and he wrote the life of Benedict.

Therefore the Benedictine Rule began really to spread in Italy and beyond by a little after 800; one of the new emperors in the West actually asked this question: Are there any monks who live under any Rule other than the Rule of Saint Benedict? That is to say, by about 800 or a little after, it seemed to have become more or less the universally practiced Rule for monks in Western Europe. I might add, with some adaptation, it was also used for religious women, and most women who took monastic vows in the Middle Ages and also lived under a slightly adapted Rule of Saint Benedict; so it became not just for men but also for women.

Now what I want to turn to is some of the principles in the Rule itself to illustrate why this is so important. By the way, there is a whole bevy of modem Catholic literature about the wisdom of the monastic life as by the Benedictines and how it can help all Christians — all Catholics, in particular — in their own spiritual growth. I’m sure many of you know that many Benedictine monasteries and convents — we use the word to refer to women’s houses — have retreats where you spend a weekend at a monastery and get some counsel and wisdom, advice from people in the monastic community, and attend a monastic liturgy; that’s a very part of Catholics recharging their spiritual batteries, if you will.

But let me just run down some principles that Benedict enunciates in the Rule. First of all, there needs to be a strong leader.

He has very powerful statements about the nature of the role of abbot: He is the shepherd, and the shepherd is expected to care for his flock. One of the points he makes is every monk needs to be treated equally, and that does not mean that every monk needs to be treated the same. That is to say, some need, if you will, a pat on the back and a hug, and some need a kick in the tail. Benedict is very clear about that: The goal is for every monk, but the abbot has to discern the proper means to reach that goal. There’s actually a book out of the great wisdom of Benedict and how it can be used by modern CEOs; I don’t know whether Benedict would have approved of that.

Another element is that the monastic day is divided up between periods of manual labor and periods of prayer. The monks pray eight times a day according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, one in the night and seven during the daytime; and therefore work and prayer are so interactive — you do one for a little while and the other for a little while, and so on — that ultimately they come together that work and prayer are the same thing; that when you work you do it prayerfully and when you pray you are doing a kind of labor for God.

In fact, ora et labora (“pray and work”) is a kind of unofficial slogan or motto of the Benedictines. Benedict describes monks in a number of ways: as pilgrims, students, laborers, soldiers, athletes. Let’s just take one of those images: What do you say about an athlete? An athlete is striving for excellence, and an athlete knows that to reach his goal — of winning the Olympics or whatever it might be you have to have a lot of discipline. You can’t be preparing for javelin throw or the thousand meter run and be eating three lemon meringue pies every night and staying out late and partying. So he uses the idea of the monk as athlete to understand the role of discipline. You can imagine solider: There are enemies — meaning the devil and his works — and you have to be sort of armed and prepared. Benedict uses a variety of metaphors to describe the monastic life.

Benedict is firm about the fact that monks cannot own anything — nothing, nothing at all, he says — because you want nothing of the social structure of the world to interfere with the monastery. You don’t bring that with you, you leave that .behind. The only possible aristocracy in a monastery is an aristocracy of virtue, never one of who your parents were, or how much education you have, or even how long you’ve been a monk; Benedict specifically says young monks need to be heard, too. That’s an important principle.

Yet Benedict also allows for flexibility; that is to say, there is a way in which the Rule will say, “Here are the psalms you ought to sing at this time of the day, and here are the psalms you ought to sing at that time of day” and then Benedict says, “Maybe the abbot can come up with a better way of doing it, that’s fine.” Or Benedict says, “Monks shouldn’t drink wine; but [I'm paraphrasing] hey, this is Italy, people drink wine, so let’s limit the amount of wine a monk can drink in a day and say that it would be good if monks drank no wine at all.” That kind of flexibility makes the Rule adaptable and livable.

I have to tell you a quick story: I was at a monastery in Georgia and a monk pointed over on the hill and said there was a commune of hippies up there in the 60s and 70s but they didn’t last. He sort of shook his head and said “They should have come to us for advice, we’ve been in the commune business 1,500 years.” I think that’s an important thing to think about: It is, indeed, the sort of ultimate Christian commune.

Let me suggest that there’s one thing that very often shocks us as being missing in the Rule of Saint Benedict; and that is there is very little provision for copying manuscripts and what we would call scholarship. Benedict expects monks to be literate, but beyond that there’s very little about the library, studying, and all that sort of stuff.

But there were other monasteries that later on influenced Benedictine monasteries in Western Europe, especially monks who came from Ireland where scholarship was an important part of the Irish monastic tradition, and I’ll be talking about that when I talk about the Irish in a future lecture. But certainly our image of the monk primarily as the copyist of a book is not Benedict’s image; Benedict’s image would be either a monk in the church in prayer or a monk out on the farm laboring. I think that’s an important thing to remember.

As the cities of the Roman Empire broke down — they had been educational centers of ancient Rome — here’s a good question: What were the new educational centers? The answer is the monasteries.

They wrote works, and they copied works that were useful to them, both Christian works and Pagan works. Almost all the literature of the ancient world, Greek and Latin, survives in the earliest manuscripts from monasteries; not from the ancient world itself — all those manuscripts are gone — but they survive from monasteries. We are going to see in later lectures how the Benedictine tradition developed and changed, and how from time to time it was reformed. That will be the subject of a lecture coming up in a while.

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