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§ 31. Monasticism and the Bible.


Monasticism, therefore, claims to be the highest and purest form of Christian piety and virtue, and the surest way to heaven. Then, we should think, it must be preëminently commended in the Bible, and actually exhibited in the life of Christ and the apostles. But just in this biblical support it falls short.

The advocates of it uniformly refer first to the examples of Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist;281281   So Jerome, Ep. 49 (ed. Ben.), ad Paulinum, where he adduces, besides Elijah and John, Isaiah also and the sons of the prophets, as the fathers of monasticism; and in his Vita Pauli, where, however, he more correctly designates Paul of Thebes and Anthonyas the first hermits, properly so called, in distinction from the prophets. Comp. also Sozomen: H. E., 1. i. c. 12: Ταύτης δὲ τῆς ἀρίστης φιλοσοφίας ἤρξατο, ωὝς τινες λέγουσιν, Ἡλίας ὁ προφήτης καὶ Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστής. This appeal to the example of Elijah and John the Baptist has become traditional with Catholic writers on the subject. Alban Butler says, under Jan. 15, in the life of Paul of Thebes: “Elias and John the Baptist sanctified the deserts, and Jesus Christ himself was a model of the eremitical state during his forty days’ fast in the wilderness; neither is it to be questioned but the Holy Ghost conducted the saint of this day (Paul of Thebes) into the desert, and was to him an instructor there.” but these stand upon the legal level of the Old Testament, and are to be looked upon as extraordinary personages of an extraordinary age; and though they may be regarded as types of a partial anchoretism (not of cloister life), still they are nowhere commended to our imitation in this particular, but rather in their influence upon the world.

The next appeal is to a few isolated passages of the New Testament, which do not, indeed, in their literal sense require the renunciation of property and marriage, yet seem to recommend it as a special, exceptional form of piety for those Christians who strive after higher perfection.282282   Hence called consilia evangelica, in distinction from mandata divina; after 1 Cor. vii. 25, where Paul does certainly make a similar distinction. The consilium and votum paupertatis is based on Matt. xix. 21; the votum castitatis, on 1 Cor. vii. 8, 25, 38-40. For the votum obedientiae no particular text is quoted. The theory appears substantially as early as in Origen, and was in him not merely a personal opinion, but the reflex of a very widely spread practice. Comp. vol. i. § 94 and 95.

Finally, as respects the spirit of the monastic life, reference is sometimes made even to the poverty of Christ and his apostles, to the silent, contemplative Mary, in contrast with the busy, practical Martha, and to the voluntary community of goods in the first Christian church in Jerusalem.

But this monastic interpretation of primitive Christianity mistakes a few incidental points of outward resemblance for essential identity, measures the spirit of Christianity by some isolated passages, instead of explaining the latter from the former, and is upon the whole a miserable emaciation and caricature. The gospel makes upon all men virtually the same moral demand, and knows no distinction of a religion for the masses and another for the few.

Jesus, the model for all believers, was neither a coenobite, nor an anchoret, nor an ascetic of any kind, but the perfect pattern man for universal imitation. There is not a trace of monkish austerity and ascetic rigor in his life or precepts, but in all his acts and words a wonderful harmony of freedom and purity, of the most comprehensive charity and spotless holiness. He retired to the mountains and into solitude, but only temporarily, and for the purpose of renewing his strength for active work. Amidst the society of his disciples, of both sexes, with kindred and friends, in Cana and Bethany, at the table of publicans and sinners, and in intercourse with all classes of the people, he kept himself unspotted from the world, and transfigured the world into the kingdom of God. His poverty and celibacy have nothing to do with asceticism, but represent, the one the condescension of his redeeming love, the other his ideal uniqueness and his absolutely peculiar relation to the whole church, which alone is fit or worthy to be his bride. No single daughter of Eve could have been an equal partner of the Saviour of mankind, or the representative head of the new creation.

The example of the sister of Lazarus proves only, that the contemplative life may dwell in the same house with the practical, and with the other sex, but justifies no separation from the social ties.

The life of the apostles and primitive Christians in general was anything but a hermit life; else had not the gospel spread so quickly to all the cities of the Roman world. Peter was married, and travelled with his wife as a missionary. Paul assumes one marriage of the clergy as the rule, and notwithstanding his personal and relative preference for celibacy in the then oppressed condition of the church, he is the most zealous advocate of evangelical freedom, in opposition to all legal bondage and anxious asceticism.

Monasticism, therefore, in any case, is not the normal form of Christian piety. It is an abnormal phenomenon, a humanly devised service of God,283283   Comp. Col. ii. 16-23. and not rarely a sad enervation and repulsive distortion of the Christianity of the Bible. And it is to be estimated, therefore, not by the extent of its self-denial, not by its outward acts of self-discipline (which may all be found in heathenism, Judaism, and Mohammedanism as well), but by the Christian spirit of humility and love which animated it. For humility is the groundwork, and love the all-ruling principle, of the Christian life, and the distinctive characteristic of the Christian religion. Without love to God and charity to man, the severest self-punishment and the utmost abandonment of the world are worthless before God.284284   Comp. 1 Cor. xiii. 1-3. Comp. p. 168 sq.



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