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§ 32. Lights and Shades of Monastic Life.


The contrast between pure and normal Bible-Christianity and abnormal Monastic Christianity, will appear more fully if we enter into a close examination of the latter as it actually appeared in the ancient church.

The extraordinary rapidity with which this world-forsaking form of piety spread, bears witness to a high degree of self-denying moral earnestness, which even in its mistakes and vagrancies we must admire. Our age, accustomed and wedded to all possible comforts, but far in advance of the Nicene age in respect to the average morality of the masses, could beget no such ascetic extremes. In our estimate of the diffusion and value of monasticism, the polluting power of the theatre, oppressive taxation, slavery, the multitude of civil wars, and the hopeless condition of the Roman empire, must all come into view. Nor must we, by any means, measure the moral importance of this phenomenon by numbers. Monasticism from the beginning attracted persons of opposite character and from opposite motives. Moral earnestness and religious enthusiasm were accompanied here, as formerly in martyrdom, though even in larger measure than there, with all kinds of sinister motives; indolence, discontent, weariness of life, misanthropy, ambition for spiritual distinction, and every sort of misfortune or accidental circumstance. Palladius, to mention but one illustrious example, tells of Paul the Simple,285285   Ἄπλαστος, lit. not moulded; hence natural, sincere. that, from indignation against his wife, whom he detected in an act of infidelity, he hastened, with the current oath of that day, “in the name of Jesus,”286286   Μὰ τὸν Ἰησοῦν (per Christum, in Salvian), which now took the place of the pagan oath: μὰ τὸν Δία, by Jupiter. into the wilderness; and immediately, though now sixty years old, under the direction of Anthony, he became a very model monk, and attained an astonishing degree of humility, simplicity, and perfect submission of will.

In view of these different motives we need not be surprised that the moral character of the monks varied greatly, and presents opposite extremes. Augustine says he found among the monks and nuns the best and the worst of mankind.

Looking more closely, in the first place, at anchoretism, we meet in its history unquestionably many a heroic character, who attained an incredible mastery over his sensual nature, and, like the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist, by their mere appearance and their occasional preaching, made an overwhelming impression on his contemporaries, even among the heathen. St. Anthony’s visit to Alexandria was to the gazing multitude like the visit of a messenger from the other world, and resulted in many conversions. His emaciated face, the glare of his eye, his spectral yet venerable form, his contempt of the world, and his few aphoristic sentences told more powerfully on that age and people than a most elaborate sermon. St. Symeon, standing on a column from year to year, fasting, praying, and exhorting the visitors to repentance, was to his generation a standing miracle and a sign that pointed them to heaven. Sometimes, in seasons of public calamity, such hermits saved whole cities and provinces from the imperial wrath, by their effectual intercessions. When Theodosius, in 387, was about to destroy Antioch for a sedition, the hermit Macedonius met the two imperial commissaries, who reverently dismounted and kissed his hands and feet; he reminded them and the emperor of their own weakness, set before them the value of men as immortal images of God, in comparison with the perishable statues of the emperor, and thus saved the city from demolition.287287   In Theodoret: Hist. relig. c. (vita) 13. The heroism of the anchoretic life, in the voluntary renunciation of lawful pleasures and the patient endurance of self-inflicted pains, is worthy of admiration in its way, and not rarely almost incredible.

But this moral heroism—and these are the weak points of it—oversteps not only the present standard of Christianity, but all sound measure; it has no support either in the theory or the practice of Christ and the apostolic church; and it has far more resemblance to heathen than to biblical precedents. Many of the most eminent saints of the desert differ only in their Christian confession, and in some Bible phrases learnt by rote, from Buddhist fakirs and Mohammedan dervises. Their highest virtuousness consisted in bodily exercises of their own devising, which, without love, at best profit nothing at all, very often only gratify spiritual vanity, and entirely obscure the gospel way of salvation.

To illustrate this by a few examples, we may choose any of the most celebrated eastern anchorets of the fourth and fifth centuries, as reported by the most credible contemporaries.

The holy Scriptures instruct us to pray and to labor; and to pray not only mechanically with the lips, as the heathen do, but with all the heart. But Paul the Simple said daily three hundred prayers, counting them with pebbles, which he carried in his bosom (a sort of rosary); when he heard of a virgin who prayed seven hundred times a day, he was troubled, and told his distress to Macarius, who well answered him: “Either thou prayest not with thy heart, if thy conscience reproves thee, or thou couldst pray oftener. I have for six years prayed only a hundred times a day, without being obliged to condemn myself for neglect.” Christ ate and drank like other men, expressly distinguishing himself thereby from John, the representative of the old covenant; and Paul recommends to us to use the gifts of God temperately, with cheerful and childlike gratitude.288288   Comp. Matt. xi. 18, 19; 1 Tim. iv. 3-5. But the renowned anchoret and presbyter Isidore of Alexandria (whom Athanasius ordained) touched no meat, never ate enough, and, as Palladius relates, often burst into tears at table for shame, that he, who was destined to eat angels’ food in paradise, should have to eat material stuff like the irrational brutes. Macarius the elder, or the Great, for a long time ate only once a week, and slept standing and leaning on a staff. The equally celebrated younger Macarius lived three years on four or five ounces of bread a day, and seven years on raw herbs and pulse. Ptolemy spent three years alone in an unwatered desert, and quenched his thirst with the dew, which he collected in December and January, and preserved in earthen vessels; but he fell at last into skepticism, madness, and debauchery.289289   Comp. Hist. Laus. c. 33 and 95. Sozomen tells of a certain Batthaeus, that by reason of his extreme abstinence, worms crawled out of his teeth; of Alas, that to his eightieth year he never ate bread; of Heliodorus, that he spent many nights without sleep, and fasted without interruption seven days.290290   Hist. Eccles. lib. vi. cap. 34. Symeon, a Christian Diogenes, spent six and thirty years praying, fasting, and preaching, on the top of a pillar thirty or forty feet high, ate only once a week, and in fast times not at all. Such heroism of abstinence was possible, however, only in the torrid climate of the East, and is not to be met with in the West.

Anchoretism almost always carries a certain cynic roughness and coarseness, which, indeed, in the light of that age, may be leniently judged, but certainly have no affinity with the morality of the Bible, and offend not only good taste, but all sound moral feeling. The ascetic holiness, at least according to the Egyptian idea, is incompatible with cleanliness and decency, and delights in filth. It reverses the maxim of sound evangelical morality and modern Christian civilization, that cleanliness is next to godliness. Saints Anthony and Hilarion, as their admirers, Athanasius the Great and Jerome the Learned, tell us, scorned to comb or cut their hair (save once a year, at Easter), or to wash their hands or feet. Other hermits went almost naked in the wilderness, like the Indian gymnosophists.291291   These latter themselves were not absolutely naked, but wore a covering over the middle, as Augustine, in the passage above cited, De Civit. Dei, l. xiv. c. 17, and later tourists tell us. On the contrary, there were monks who were very scrupulous on this point. It is said of Ammon, that he never saw himself naked. The monks in Tabennae, according to the rule of Pachomius, had to sleep always in their clothes. The younger Macarius, according to the account of his disciple Palladius, once lay six months naked in the morass of the Scetic desert, and thus exposed himself to the incessant attacks of the gnats of Africa, “whose sting can pierce even the hide of a wild boar.” He wished to punish himself for his arbitrary revenge on a gnat, and was there so badly stung by gnats and wasps, that he was thought to be smitten with leprosy, and was recognized only by his voice.292292   Comp. Hist Lausiaca, c. 20, and Tillemont, tom. viii. p. 633. St. Symeon the Stylite, according to Theodoret, suffered himself to be incessantly tormented for a long time by twenty enormous bugs, and concealed an abscess full of worms, to exercise himself in patience and meekness. In Mesopotamia there was a peculiar class of anchorets, who lived on grass, spending the greater part of the day in prayer and singing, and then turning out like beasts upon the mountain.293293   Theβοσκοί or pabulatores. Comp. Sozom. H. E. l. vi. 33. Ephraim Syrus delivered a special eulogy on them, cited in Tillemont, Mem. tom. viii. p. 292 sq. Theodoret relates of the much lauded Akepsismas, in Cyprus, that he spent sixty years in the same cell, without seeing or speaking to any one, and looked so wild and shaggy, that he was once actually taken for a wolf by a shepherd, who assailed him with stones, till he discovered his error, and then worshipped the hermit as a saint.294294   Hist. Rel. cap. (vita) xv. (Opera omnia, ed Par. iii. 843 sqq.). It was but a step from this kind of moral sublimity to beastly degradation. Many of these saints were no more than low sluggards or gloomy misanthropes, who would rather company with wild beasts, with lions, wolves, and hyenas, than with immortal men, and above all shunned the face of a woman more carefully than they did the devil. Sulpitius Severus saw an anchoret in the Thebaid, who daily shared his evening meal with a female wolf; and upon her discontinuing her visits for some days by way of penance for a theft she had committed, he besought her to come again, and comforted her with a double portion of bread.295295   Dial. i. c. 8. Severus sees in this a wonderful example of the power of Christ over wild beasts. The same writer tells of a hermit who lived fifty years secluded from all human society, in the clefts of Mount Sinai, entirely destitute of clothing, and all overgrown with thick hair, avoiding every visitor, because, as he said, intercourse with men interrupted the visits of the angels; whence arose the report that he held intercourse with angels.296296   L. c. i. c 11.

It is no recommendation to these ascetic eccentricities that while they are without Scripture authority, they are fully equalled and even surpassed by the strange modes of self-torture practised by ancient and modern Hindoo devotees, for the supposed benefit of their souls and the gratification of their vanity in the presence of admiring spectators. Some bury themselves—we are told by ancient and modern travellers—in pits with only small breathing holes at the top, while others disdaining to touch the vile earth, live in iron cages suspended from trees. Some wear heavy iron collars or fetters, or drag a heavy chain fastened by one end round their privy parts, to give ostentatious proof of their chastity. Others keep their fists hard shut, until their finger nails grow through the palms of their hands. Some stand perpetually on one leg; others keep their faces turned over one shoulder, until they cannot turn them back again. Some lie on wooden beds, bristling all over with iron spikes; others are fastened for life to the trunk of a tree by a chain. Some suspend themselves for half an hour at a time, feet uppermost, or with a hook thrust through their naked back, over a hot fire. Alexander von Humboldt, at Astracan, where some Hindoos had settled, found a Yogi in the vestibule of the temple naked, shrivelled up, and overgrown with hair like a wild beast, who in this position had withstood for twenty years the severe winters of that climate. A Jesuit missionary describes one of the class called Tapasonias, that he had his body enclosed in an iron cage, with his head and feet outside, so that he could walk, but neither sit nor lie down; at night his pious attendants attached a hundred lighted lamps to the outside of the cage, so that their master could exhibit himself walking as the mock light of the world.297297   See Ruffner, l.c. i. 49 sqq., and Wuttke, l.c. p. 369 sqq.

In general, the hermit life confounds the fleeing from the outward world with the mortification of the inward world of the corrupt heart. It mistakes the duty of love; not rarely, under its mask of humility and the utmost self-denial, cherishes spiritual pride and jealousy; and exposes itself to all the dangers of solitude, even to savage barbarism, beastly grossness, or despair and suicide. Anthony, the father of anchorets, well understood this, and warned his followers against overvaluing solitude, reminding them of the proverb of the Preacher, iv. 10: “Woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”

The cloister life was less exposed to these errors. It approached the life of society and civilization. Yet, on the other hand, it produced no such heroic phenomena, and had dangers peculiar to itself. Chrysostom gives us the bright side of it from his own experience. “Before the rising of the sun,” says he of the monks of Antioch, “they rise, hale and sober, sing as with one mouth hymns to the praise of God, then bow the knee in prayer, under the direction of the abbot, read the holy Scriptures, and go to their labors; pray again at nine, twelve, and three o’clock; after a good day’s work, enjoy a simple meal of bread and salt, perhaps with oil, and sometimes with pulse; sing a thanksgiving hymn, and lay themselves on their pallets of straw without care, grief, or murmur. When one dies, they say: ’He is perfected;’ and all pray God for a like end, that they also may come to the eternal sabbath-rest and to the vision of Christ.” Men like Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory, Jerome, Nilus, and Isidore, united theological studies with the ascetic exercises of solitude, and thus gained a copious knowledge of Scripture and a large spiritual experience.

But most of the monks either could not even read, or had too little intellectual culture to devote themselves with advantage to contemplation and study, and only brooded over gloomy feelings, or sank, in spite of the unsensual tendency of the ascetic principle, into the coarsest anthropomorphism and image worship. When the religious enthusiasm faltered or ceased, the cloister life, like the hermit life, became the most spiritless and tedious routine, or hypocritically practised secret vices. For the monks carried with them into their solitude their most dangerous enemy in their hearts, and there often endured much fiercer conflicts with flesh and blood, than amidst the society of men.

The temptations of sensuality, pride, and ambition externalized and personified themselves to the anchorets and monks in hellish shapes, which appeared in visions and dreams, now in pleasing and seductive, now in threatening and terrible forms and colors, according to the state of mind at the time. The monastic imagination peopled the deserts and solitudes with the very worst society, with swarms of winged demons and all kinds of hellish monsters.298298   According to a sensuous and local conception of Eph. vi. 12· Τὰ πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις ; “die bösen Geister unter dem Himmel” (evil spirits under heaven), as Luther translates; while the Vulgate gives it literally, but somewhat obscurely: “Spiritualia nequitiae in coelestibus;” and the English Bible quite too freely: “Spiritual wickedness in high places.” In any case πνευματικά is to be taken in a much wider sense than πνεύματα or δαιμόνια; and ἐπουράνια, also, is not fully identical with the cloud heaven or the atmosphere, and besides admits a different construction, so that many put a comma after πονηρίας. The monastic satanology and demonology, we may remark, was universally received in the ancient church and throughout the middle ages. And it is well known that Luther retained from his monastic life a sensuous, materialistic idea of the devil and of his influence on men. It substituted thus a new kind of polytheism for the heathen gods, which were generally supposed to be evil spirits. The monastic demonology and demonomachy is a strange mixture of gross superstitions and deep spiritual experiences. It forms the romantic shady side of the otherwise so tedious monotony of the secluded life, and contains much material for the history of ethics, psychology, and pathology.

Especially besetting were the temptations of sensuality, and irresistible without the utmost exertion and constant watchfulness. The same saints, who could not conceive of true chastity without celibacy, were disturbed, according to their own confession, by unchaste dreams, which at least defiled the imagination.299299   Athanasius says of St. Anthony, that the devil sometimes appeared to him in the form of a woman; Jeromerelates of St. Hilarion, that in bed his imagination was often beset with visions of naked women. Jeromehimself acknowledges, in a letter to a virgin (!), Epist. xxii. (ed. Vallars. t. i. p. 91, 92), de Custodia Virginitatis, ad Eustochium: “O quoties ego ipse in eremo constitutus et in illa vasta solitudine, quae exusta solis ardoribus horridum monachis praebebat habitaculum, putavi me Romanis interesse deliciis .... Ille igitur ego, qui ob gehennae metum tali me carcere ipse damnaveram, scorpionum tantum socius et ferarum, saepe choris intereram puellarum. Pallebant ora jejuniis, et mens desideriis aestuabat in frigido corpore, et ante hominem suum jam in carne praemortuum, sola libidinum incendia bulliebant. Itaque omni auxilio destitutus, ad Jesu jacebam pedes, rigabam lacrymis, crine tergebam et repugnantem carnem hebdomadarum inedia subjugabam.” St. Ephraim warns against listening to the enemy, who whispers to the monk: Οὐ δυνατὸν παύσασθει ἀπό σου, ἐὰν μὴ πληροφορήσῃς ἐπιθυμίαν σου. Excessive asceticism sometimes turned into unnatural vice; sometimes ended in madness, despair, and suicide. Pachomius tells us, so early as his day, that many monks cast themselves down precipices, others ripped themselves up, and others put themselves to death in other ways.300300   Vita Pach. § 61. Comp. Nilus, Epist. l. ii. p. 140: Τινὲς... ἑαυτοὺς ἔσφαξαν μαχαίρᾳ etc. Even among the fanatical Circumcelliones, Donatist medicant monks in Africa, suicide was not uncommon.

A characteristic trait of monasticism in all its forms is a morbid aversion to female society and a rude contempt of married life. No wonder, then, that in Egypt and the whole East, the land of monasticism, women and domestic life never attained their proper dignity, and to this day remain at a very low stage of culture. Among the rules of Basil is a prohibition of speaking with a woman, touching one, or even looking on one, except in unavoidable cases. Monasticism not seldom sundered the sacred bond between husband and wife, commonly with mutual consent, as in the cases of Ammon and Nilus, but often even without it. Indeed, a law of Justinian seems to give either party an unconditional right of desertion, while yet the word of God declares the marriage bond indissoluble. The Council of Gangra found it necessary to oppose the notion that marriage is inconsistent with salvation, and to exhort wives to remain with their husbands. In the same way monasticism came into conflict with love of kindred, and with the relation of parents to children; misinterpreting the Lord’s command to leave all for His sake. Nilus demanded of the monks the entire suppression of the sense of blood relationship. St. Anthony forsook his younger sister, and saw her only once after the separation. His disciple, Prior, when he became a monk, vowed never to see his kindred again, and would not even speak with his sister without closing his eyes. Something of the same sort is recorded of Pachomius. Ambrose and Jerome, in full earnest, enjoined upon virgins the cloister life, even against the will of their parents. When Hilary of Poictiers heard that his daughter wished to marry, he is said to have prayed God to take her to himself by death. One Mucius, without any provocation, caused his own son to be cruelly abused, and at last, at the command of the abbot himself, cast him into the water, whence he was rescued by a brother of the cloister.301301   Tillem. vii. 430. The abbot thereupon, as Tillemont relates, was informed by a revelation, ”que Muce avait egalé par son obeissance celle d’Abraham,” and soon after made him his successor.

Even in the most favorable case monasticism falls short of harmonious moral development, and of that symmetry of virtue which meets us in perfection in Christ, and next to him in the apostles. It lacks the finer and gentler traits of character, which are ordinarily brought out only in the school of daily family life and under the social ordinances of God. Its morality is rather negative than positive. There is more virtue in the temperate and thankful enjoyment of the gifts of God, than in total abstinence; in charitable and well-seasoned speech, than in total silence; in connubial chastity, than in celibacy; in self-denying practical labor for the church. than in solitary asceticism, which only pleases self and profits no one else.

Catholicism, whether Greek or Roman, cannot dispense with the monastic life. It knows only moral extremes, nothing of the healthful mean. In addition to this, Popery needs the monastic orders, as an absolute monarchy needs large standing armies both for conquest and defence. But evangelical Protestantism, rejecting all distinction of a twofold morality, assigning to all men the same great duty under the law of God, placing the essence of religion not in outward exercises, but in the heart, not in separation from the world and from society, but in purifying and sanctifying the world by the free spirit of the gospel, is death to the great monastic institution.



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