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§ 30. Nature and Aim of Monasticism.


Monasticism was from the first distinguished as the contemplative life from the practical.276276   Βίος θεωρητικός , and βίος πρακτικός, according to Gregory Nazianzen and others. Throughout the middle age the distinction between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa was illustrated by the two sisters of Lazarus, Luke x. 38-42. It passed with the ancient church for the true, the divine, or Christian philosophy,277277   Ἡ κατὰ θεὸν or Χριστὸν φιλοσοφία, ἡ ὑψηλή φιλος., i.e. in the sense of the ancients, not so much a speculative system, as a mode of life under a particular rule. So in the Pythagoreans, Stoics, Cynics, and Neo-Platonists. Ascetic and philosopher are the same. an unworldly purely apostolic, angelic life.278278   Ἀποστολικὸς βίος , ὁ τῶν ἀγγέλων βίος, vita angelica; after an unwarranted application of Christ’s word respecting the sexless life of the angels, Matt. xxii. 30, which is not presented here as a model for imitation, but only mentioned as an argument against the Sadducees. It rests upon an earnest view of life; upon the instinctive struggle after perfect dominion of the spirit over the flesh, reason over sense, the supernatural over the natural, after the highest grade of holiness and an undisturbed communion of the soul with God; but also upon a morbid depreciation of the body, the family, the state, and the divinely established social order of the world. It recognizes the world, indeed, as a creature of God, and the family and property as divine institutions, in opposition to the Gnostic Manichaean asceticism, which ascribes matter as such to an evil principle. But it makes a distinction between two grades of morality: a common and lower grade, democratic, so to speak, which moves in the natural ordinances of God; and a higher, extraordinary, aristocratic grade, which lies beyond them and is attended with special merit. It places the great problem of Christianity not in the transformation, but in the abandonment, of the world. It is an extreme unworldliness, over against the worldliness of the mass of the visible church in union with the state. It demands entire renunciation, not only of sin, but also of property and of marriage, which are lawful in themselves, ordained by God himself, and indispensable to the continuance and welfare of the human race. The poverty of the individual, however, does not exclude the possession of common property; and it is well known, that some monastic orders, especially the Benedictines, have in course of time grown very rich. The coenobite institution requires also absolute obedience to the will of the superior, as the visible representative of Christ. As obedience to orders and sacrifice of self is the first duty of the soldier, and the condition of military success and renown, so also in this spiritual army in its war against the flesh, the world, and the devil, monks are not allowed to have a will of their own. To them may be applied the lines of Tennyson:279279   ln his famous battle poem: “The Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava,” first ed. 1854.


“Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs but to do and die.”


Voluntary poverty, voluntary celibacy, and absolute obedience form the three monastic vows, as they are called, and are supposed to constitute a higher virtue and to secure a higher reward in heaven.

But this threefold self-denial is only the negative side of the matter, and a means to an end. It places man beyond the reach of the temptations connected with earthly possessions, married life, and independent will, and facilitates his progress toward heaven. The positive aspect of monasticism is unreserved surrender of the whole man, with all his time and strength, to God; though, as we have said, not within, but without the sphere of society and the order of nature. This devoted life is employed in continual prayer, meditation, fasting, and castigation of the body. Some votaries went so far as to reject all bodily employment, for its interference with devotion. But in general a moderate union of spiritual exercises with scientific studies or with such manual labor as agriculture, basket making, weaving, for their own living and the support of the poor, was held not only lawful but wholesome for monks. It was a proverb, that a laborious monk was beset by only one devil; an idle one, by a legion.

With all the austerities and rigors of asceticism, the monastic life had its spiritual joys and irresistible charms for noble, contemplative, and heaven-aspiring souls, who fled from the turmoil and vain show of the city as a prison, and turned the solitude into a paradise of freedom and sweet communion with God and his saints; while to others the same solitude became a fruitful nursery of idleness, despondency, and the most perilous temptations and ultimate ruin.280280   Comp. the truthful remark of Yves de Chartres, of the twelfth century, Ep. 192 (quoted by Montalembert): “Non beatum faciunt hominem secreta sylvarum, cacumina montium, si secum non habet solitudinem mentis, sabbatum cordis, tranquillitatem conscientiae, ascensiones in corde, sine quibus omnem solitudinem comitantur mentis acedia, curiositas, vana gloria, periculosae tentationum procellae.”



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