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§ 40. Monasticism in the West. Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Martin of Tours.


I. Ambrosius: De Virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem suam libri tres, written about 377 (in the Benedictine edition of Ambr. Opera, tom. ii. p. 145–183). Augustinus (a.d. 400): De Opere Monachorum liber unus (in the Bened. ed., tom. vi. p. 476–504). Sulpitius Severus (about a.d. 403): Dialogi tres (de virtutibus monachorum orientalium et de virtutibus B. Martini); and De Vita Beati Martini (both in the Bibliotheca Maxima vet. Patrum, tom. vi. p. 349 sqq., and better in Gallandi’s Bibliotheca vet. Patrum, tom. viii. p. 392 sqq.).

II. J. Mabillon: Observat. de monachis in occidente ante Benedictum (Praef. in Acta Sanct. Ord. Bened.). R. H. Milman: Hist. of Latin Christianity, Lond. 1854, vol. i. ch. vi. p. 409–426: “Western Monasticism.” Count de Montalembert: The Monks of the West, Engl. translation, vol. i. p. 379 sqq.


In the Latin church, in virtue partly of the climate, partly of the national character,339339   Sulpitius Severus, in the first of his three dialogues, gives several amusing instances of the difference between the Gallic and Egyptian stomach, and was greatly astonished when the first Egyptian anchoret whom he visited placed before him and his four companions a half loaf of barley bread and a handful of herbs for a dinner, though they tasted very good after the wearisome journey. “Edacitas,” says he, “in Graecis gula est, in Gallia natura.” (Dial. i. c. 8, in Gallandi, t. viii. p. 405.) the monastic life took a much milder form, but assumed greater variety, and found a larger field of usefulness than in the Greek. It produced no pillar saints, nor other such excesses of ascetic heroism, but was more practical instead, and an important instrument for the cultivation of the soil and the diffusion of Christianity and civilization among the barbarians.340340   “The monastic stream,” says Montalembert, l.c., “which had been born in the deserts of Egypt, divided itself into two great arms. The one spread in the East, at first inundated everything, then concentrated and lost itself there. The other escaped into the West, and spread itself by a thousand channels over an entire world, which had to be covered and fertilized.” Exclusive contemplation was exchanged for alternate contemplation and labor. “A working monk,” says Cassian, “is plagued by one devil, an inactive monk by a host.” Yet it must not be forgotten that the most eminent representatives of the Eastern monasticism recommended manual labor and studies; and that the Eastern monks took a very lively, often rude and stormy part in theological controversies. And on the other hand, there were Western monks who, like Martin of Tours, regarded labor as disturbing contemplation.

Athanasius, the guest, the disciple, and subsequently the biographer and eulogist of St. Anthony, brought the first intelligence of monasticism to the West, and astounded the civilized and effeminate Romans with two live representatives of the semi-barbarous desert-sanctity of Egypt, who accompanied him in his exile in 340. The one, Ammonius, was so abstracted from the world that he disdained to visit any of the wonders of the great city, except the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul; while the other, Isidore, attracted attention by his amiable simplicity. The phenomenon excited at first disgust and contempt, but soon admiration and imitation, especially among women, and among the decimated ranks of the ancient Roman nobility. The impression of the first visit was afterward strengthened by two other visits of Athanasius to Rome, and especially by his biography of Anthony, which immediately acquired the popularity and authority of a monastic gospel. Many went to Egypt and Palestine, to devote themselves there to the new mode of life; and for the sake of such, Jerome afterward translated the rule of Pachomius into Latin. Others founded cloisters in the neighborhood of Rome, or on the ruins of the ancient temples and the forum, and the frugal number of the heathen vestals was soon cast into the shade by whole hosts of Christian virgins. From Rome, monasticism gradually spread over all Italy and the isles of the Mediterranean, even to the rugged rocks of the Gorgon and the Capraja, where the hermits, in voluntary exile from the world, took the place of the criminals and political victims whom the justice or tyranny and jealousy of the emperors had been accustomed to banish thither.

Ambrose, whose sister, Marcellina, was among the first Roman nuns, established a monastery in Milan,341341   Augustine, Conf. vii. 6: “Erat monasterium Mediolani plenum bonis fratribus extra urbis moenia, sub Ambrosio nutritore.” one of the first in Italy, and with the warmest zeal encouraged celibacy even against the will of parents; insomuch that the mothers of Milan kept their daughters out of the way of his preaching; whilst from other quarters, even from Mauritania, virgins flocked to him to be consecrated to the solitary life.342342   Ambr.: De virginibus, lib. iii., addressed to his sister Marcellina, about 377. Comp. Tillem. x. 102-105, and Schröckh, viii. 355 sqq. The coasts and small islands of Italy were gradually studded with cloisters.343343   Ambr.: Hexaëmeron, l. iii. c. 5. Hieron.: Ep. ad Oceanum de morte Fabiolae, Ep. 77 ed. Vall. (84 ed. Ben., al. 30).

Augustine, whose evangelical principles of the free grace of God as the only ground of salvation and peace were essentially inconsistent with the more Pelagian theory of the monastic life, nevertheless went with the then reigning spirit of the church in this respect, and led, with his clergy, a monk-like life in voluntary poverty and celibacy,344344   He himself speaks of a monasterium clericorum in his episcopal residence, and his biographer, Possidius, says of him, Vita, c. 5: “Factus ergo presbyter monasterium inter ecclesiam mox instituit, et cum Dei servis vivere coepit secundum modum, et regulam sub sanctis apostlis constitutam, maxime ut nemo quidquam proprium haberet, sed eis essent omnia communia.” after the pattern, as he thought, of the primitive church of Jerusalem; but with all his zealous commendation he could obtain favor for monasticism in North Africa only among the liberated slaves and the lower classes.345345   De opera monach. c. 22. Still later, Salvian (De gubern. Dei, viii. 4) speaks of the hatred of the Africans for monasticism. He viewed it in its noblest aspect, as a life of undivided surrender to God, and undisturbed occupation with spiritual and eternal things. But he acknowledged also its abuses; he distinctly condemned the vagrant, begging monks, like the Circumcelliones and Gyrovagi, and wrote a book (De opere monachorum) against the monastic aversion to labor.

Monasticism was planted in Gaul by Martin of Tours, whose life and miracles were described in fluent, pleasing language by his disciple, Sulpitius Severus,346346   In his Vita Martini, and also in three letters respecting him, and in three very eloquently and elegantly written dialogues, the first of which relates to the oriental monks, the two others to the miracles of Martin (translated, with some omissions, in Ruffner’s Fathers of the Desert, vol. ii. p. 68-178). He tells us (Dial. i. c. 23) that the book traders of Rome sold his Vita Martini more rapidly than any other book, and made great profit on it. The Acts of the Saints were read as romances in those days. a few years after his death. This celebrated saint, the patron of fields, was born in Pannonia (Hungary), of pagan parents. He was educated in Italy, and served three years, against his will, as a soldier under Constantius and Julian the Apostate. Even at that time he showed an uncommon degree of temperance, humility, and love. He often cleaned his servant’s shoes, and once cut his only cloak in two with his sword, to clothe a naked beggar with half; and the next night he saw Christ in a dream with the half cloak, and plainly heard him say to the angels: “Behold, Martin, who is yet only a catechumen, hath clothed me.”347347   The biographer here refers, of course, to Matt. xxv. 40 He was baptized in his eighteenth year; converted his mother; lived as a hermit in Italy; afterward built a monastery in the vicinity of Poictiers (the first in France); destroyed many idol temples, and won great renown as a saint and a worker of miracles. About the year 370 he was unanimously elected by the people, against his wish, bishop of Tours on the Loire, but in his episcopal office maintained his strict monastic mode of life, and established a monastery beyond the Loire, where he was soon surrounded with eighty monks. He had little education, but a natural eloquence, much spiritual experience, and unwearied zeal. Sulpitius Severus places him above all the Eastern monks of whom he knew, and declares his merit to be beyond all expression. “Not an hour passed,” says he,348348   Toward the close of his biography, c. 26, 27 (Gallandi, tom. viii. 399). “in which Martin did not pray .... No one ever saw him angry, or gloomy, or merry. Ever the same, with a countenance full of heavenly serenity, he seemed to be raised above the infirmities of man. There was nothing in his mouth but Christ; nothing in his heart but piety, peace, and sympathy. He used to weep for the sins of his enemies, who reviled him with poisoned tongues when he was absent and did them no harm .... Yet he had very few persecutors, except among the bishops.” The biographer ascribes to him wondrous conflicts with the devil, whom he imagined he saw bodily and tangibly present in all possible shapes. He tells also of visions, miraculous cures, and even, what no oriental anchoret could boast, three instances of restoration of the dead to life, two before and one after his accession to the bishopric;349349   Comp. Dial. ii. 5 (in Gallandi Bibl. tom. viii. p. 412). and he assures us that he has omitted the greater part of the miracles which had come to his ears, lest he should weary the reader; but he several times intimates that these were by no means universally credited, even by monks of the same cloister. His piety was characterized by a union of monastic humility with clerical arrogance. At a supper at the court of the tyrannical emperor Maximus in Trier, he handed the goblet of wine, after he himself had drunk of it, first to his presbyter, thus giving him precedence of the emperor.350350   Vita M. c. 20 (in Gallandi, viii. 397). The empress on this occasion showed him an idolatrous veneration, even preparing the meal, laying the cloth, and standing as a servant before him, like Martha before the Lord.351351   Dial. ii. 7, which probably relates to the same banquet, since Martin declined other invitations to the imperial table. Severus gives us to understand that this was the only time Martin allowed a woman so near him, or received her service. He commended a nun for declining even his official visit as bishop, and Severus remarks thereupon: “O glorious virgin, who would not even suffer herself to be seen by Martin! O blessed Martin, who took not this refusal for an insult, but commended its virtue, and rejoiced to find in that region so rare an example!” (Dial, ii. c. 12, Gall, viii. 414.) More to the bishop’s honor was his protest against the execution of the Priscillianists in Treves. Martin died in 397 or 400: his funeral was attended by two thousand monks, besides many nuns and a great multitude of people; and his grave became one of the most frequented centres of pilgrimage in France.

In Southern Gaul, monasticism spread with equal rapidity. John Cassian, an ascetic writer and a Semipelagian († 432), founded two cloisters in Massilia (Marseilles), where literary studies also were carried on; and Honoratus (after 426, bishop of Arles) established the cloister of St. Honoratus on the island of Lerina.



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