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§ 82. Use of Convents in the Middle Ages.


The monks were the spiritual nobility of the church, and represented a higher type of virtue in entire separation from the world and consecration to the kingdom of God. The patristic, ideal of piety passed over into the middle ages; it is not the scriptural nor the modern ideal, but one formed in striking contrast with preceding and surrounding heathen corruption. The monkish sanctity is a flight from the world rather than a victory over the world, an abstinence from marriage instead of a sanctification of marriage, chastity, outside rather than inside the order of nature, a complete suppression of the sensual passion in the place of its purification and control. But it had a powerful influence over the barbaric races, and was one of the chief converting and civilizing agencies. The Eastern monks lost themselves in idle contemplation and ascetic extravagances, which the Western climate made impossible; the Western monks were, upon the whole, more sober, practical, and useful. The Irish and Scotch convents became famous for their missionary zeal, and furnished founders of churches and patron saints of the people.

Convents were planted by the missionaries among all the barbarous nations of Europe, as fast as Christianity progressed. They received special privileges and endowments from princes, nobles, popes, and bishops. They offered a quiet retreat to men and women who were weary of the turmoil of life, or had suffered shipwreck of fortune or character, and cared for nothing but to save their souls. They exercised hospitality to strangers and travelers, and were a great blessing in times when traveling was difficult and dangerous.377377    As they are still in the East and on the Alps. Travelers will not easily forget the convents of Mt. Sinai in the Desert, Mar Saba near the Dead Sea, and the hospices on the Alpine passes of St. Bernard, St. Gotthard, and the Simplon. Lecky (II. 84) says: “By the monks the nobles were overawed, the poor protected, the sick tended, travelers sheltered, prisoners ransomed, the remotest spheres of suffering explored. During the darkest period of the middle ages, monks founded a refuge for pilgrims amid the horrors of the Alpine snows. A solitary hermit often planted himself, with his little boat, by a bridgeless stream, and the charity of his life was to ferry over the traveler.” They were training schools of ascetic virtue, and the nurseries of saints. They saved the remnants of ancient civilization for future use. Every large convent had a library and a school. Scribes were employed in copying manuscripts of the ancient classics, of the Bible, and the writings of the fathers. To these quiet literary monks we are indebted for the preservation and transmission of nearly all the learning, sacred and secular, of ancient times. If they had done nothing else, they would be entitled to the lasting gratitude of the church and the world.

During the wild commotion and confusion of the ninth and tenth centuries, monastic discipline went into decay. Often the very richs of convents, which were the reward of industry and virtue, became a snare and a root of evil. Avaricious laymen (Abba-comites) seized the control and perpetuated it in their families. Even princesses received the titles and emoluments of abbesses.



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