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§ 29. Development of Monasticism.

In the historical development of the monastic institution we must distinguish four stages. The first three were completed in the fourth century; the remaining one reached maturity in the Latin church of the middle age.

The first stage is an ascetic life as yet not organized nor separated from the church. It comes down from the ante-Nicene age, and has been already noticed. It now took the form, for the most part, of either hermit or coenobite life, but continued in the church itself, especially among the clergy, who might be called half monks.

The second stage is hermit life or anchoretism.271271   From ἀναχωρέω, to retire (from human society), ἀναχωρητής, ἐρημίτης(from ἐρημία, a desert). The word μοναχός(from μόνος, alone, and μονάζειν, to live alone), monachus (whence monk), also points originally to solitary, hermit life, but is commonly synonymous with coenobite or friar. It arose in the beginning of the fourth century, gave asceticism a fixed and permanent shape, and pushed it to even external separation from the world. It took the prophets Elijah and John the Baptist for its models, and went beyond them. Not content with partial and temporary retirement from common life, which may be united with social intercourse and useful labors, the consistent anchoret secludes himself from all society, even from kindred ascetics, and comes only exceptionally into contact with human affairs, either to receive the visits of admirers of every class, especially of the sick and the needy (which were very frequent in the case of the more celebrated monks), or to appear in the cities on some extraordinary occasion, as a spirit from another world. His clothing is a hair shirt and a wild beast’s skin; his food, bread and salt; his dwelling, a cave; his employment, prayer, affliction of the body, and conflict with satanic powers and wild images of fancy. This mode of life was founded by Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony, and came to perfection in the East. It was too eccentric and unpractical for the West, and hence less frequent there, especially in the rougher climates. To the female sex it was entirely unsuited. There was a class of hermits, the Sarabaites in Egypt, and the Rhemoboths in Syria, who lived in bands of at least two or three together; but their quarrelsomeness, occasional intemperance, and opposition to the clergy, brought them into ill repute.

The third step in the progress of the monastic life brings us to coenobitism or cloister life, monasticism in the ordinary sense of the word.272272   Κοινόβιον, coenobium; from κοινός βίος, vita communis; then the congregation of monks; sometimes also used for the building. In the same sense μάνδρα, stable, fold, and μοναστήριον, claustrum (whence cloister). Also λαύραι, laurae (literally, streets), that is cells, of which usually a number were built not far apart, so as to form a hamlet. Hence this term is often used in the same sense as monasterium. The singular, λαῦρα, however, answers to the anchoret life. On this nomenclature of monasticism comp. Du Cange, in the Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis, under the respective words. It originated likewise in Egypt, from the example of the Essenes and Therapeutae, and was carried by St. Pachomius to the East, and afterward by St. Benedict to the West. Both these ascetics, like the most celebrated order-founders of later days, were originally hermits. Cloister life is a regular organization of the ascetic life on a social basis. It recognizes, at least in a measure, the social element of human nature, and represents it in a narrower sphere secluded from the larger world. As hermit life often led to cloister life, so the cloister life was not only a refuge for the spirit weary of the world, but also in many ways a school for practical life in the church. It formed the transition from isolated to social Christianity. It consists in an association of a number of anchorets of the same sex for mutual advancement in ascetic holiness. The coenobites live, somewhat according to the laws of civilization, under one roof, and under a superintendent or abbot.273273   Ἡγούμενος, ἀρχεμανδρίτης , ἀββᾶς, i.e. father, hence abbot. A female superintendent was called in Syriac ἀμμᾶς, mother, abbess. They divide their time between common devotions and manual labor, and devote their surplus provisions to charity; except the mendicant monks, who themselves live by alms. In this modified form monasticism became available to the female sex, to which the solitary desert life was utterly impracticable; and with the cloisters of monks, there appear at once cloisters also of nuns.274274   From nonna, i.e. casta, chaste, holy. The word is probably of Coptic origin, and occurs as early as in Jerome. The masculine nonnus, monk, appears frequently in the middle age. Comp. the examples in Du Cange, s. v. Between the anchorets and the coenobites no little jealousy reigned; the former charging the latter with ease and conformity to the world; the latter accusing the former of selfishness and misanthropy. The most eminent church teachers generally prefer the cloister life. But the hermits, though their numbers diminished, never became extinct. Many a monk was a hermit first, and then a coenobite; and many a coenobite turned to a hermit.

The same social impulse, finally, which produced monastic congregations, led afterward to monastic orders, unions of a number of cloisters under one rule and a common government. In this fourth and last stage monasticism has done most for the diffusion of Christianity and the advancement of learning,275275   Hence Middleton says, not without reason: “By all which I have ever read of the old, and have seen of the modern monks, I take the preference to be clearly due to the last, as having a more regular discipline, more good learning, and less superstition among them than the first.” has fulfilled its practical mission in the Roman Catholic church, and still wields a mighty influence there. At the same time it became in some sense the cradle of the German reformation. Luther belonged to the order of St. Augustine, and the monastic discipline of Erfurt was to him a preparation for evangelical freedom, as the Mosaic law was to Paul a schoolmaster to lead to Christ. And for this very reason Protestantism is the end of the monastic life.

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