Short Catechism of Church History - J. Oechtering

Monastic Life

54. Q. What remarkable form of religious life originated during the third century?

R. During the third century Monastic Life originated, which is a life led in seclusion from the world, and devoted to the pursuit of higher Christian perfection. (Monastic from the Greek word monos, i. e., alone.)

55. Q. In which of Christ's teachings has Monastic Life its source?

R. Monastic Life has its source in the three evangelical counsels, which were taught by Christ, illustrated by His life, and continually practiced in the Church from the time of the apostles. The three evangelical counsels are: voluntary poverty, chastity, and obedience.

From the beginning consecrated virgins were numerous in the Church. They took their vow before the altar, and the bishop conferred the sacred veil upon them with prayer and laying on of hands. During the persecutions they lived with their families. So did many persons of both sexes who practised voluntary poverty, continency, fasting, and prayer, and were called ascetics. An apostolic institution was that of "widows", who were employed by the Church in ecclesiastical and charitable work. St. Ignatius ( A.D. 107) wrote: "I greet the houses of my brethren, their wives and children, and the virgins, the so-called widows." (Smyrn. 13.)

56. Q. How did Monastic Life begin and develop?

R. 1) Monastic life began with the hermits, who had left the world and retired to the desert, especially during the persecution of Decius, 250. St. Paul, who led the life of a hermit at Thebes, in Egypt, died at the age of 115 years.

An instance of extraordinary mortification was given by St. Symon Stylites ( A.D.450), who stood for 30 years on a pillar near Antioch and converted thousands by his preaching and example. Up to the end of the middle ages many hermits lived in the deserts, forests and mountains of the Christian world and spread faith and piety among the surrounding people.

2) Soon the hermits formed congregations, living separately in cells but under a common spiritual director, called abbot. St. Anthony of Egypt, one of the holiesth fathers of the desert, ,was the chief promoter of this form of monastic life.

3) Finally monasteries were founded, wherein the monks lived under a common rule. St. Pachomius established such in Egypt, St. Hilarion, in Palestine, St. Basil in Asia Minor. Monasteries for nuns were founded by St. Anthony and St. Pachomius whose sisters became the first superiors. ("Nonna" means a person consecrated to God.)

4) In the West monastic life found its chief patrons in St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Martin of Tours, St. Patrick, St. Columba and other great and holy bishops.

St. Martin was called to a higher life by an appearance of Christ who thanked him for having given one half of his cloak to a beggar. He founded a large monastery near Tours where many of the great apostolic men of that age were educated. 12,000 monks and many consecrated virgins attended at his funeral.

At Bangor, Ireland, 3000 monks sang in 7 divisions the canonical hours without intermission.

5) St. Benedict ( 543) became the founder of the great Benedictine order, and compiled his famous rule in which prayer, study, manual labor, silence, and mortification are harmoniously blended. Pope Gregory, the Great, was an ardent protector of this order. It soon spread over Europe and founded 37,000 convents.

St. Benedict was been in the year 480. He led a life of prayer and penance in the solitude of Subiaco. The fame of his holiness attracted many disciples, and he established a monastery at Monte Casino, which became the motherhouse of his order. When his end approached, he asked to be carried to the church, where be received the last sacraments and died standing, supported by his disciples.

57. Q. What was the effect of the awakening of this monastic spirit upon the world?

R. So great became the longing for higher perfection, that within a short time, the East and the West abounded in monasteries, which became the homes of holiness and learning.

The Benedictine Order alone produced 1,500 canonized Saints.

58. Q. In what manner did the Church of these early ages reconcile her fallen children?

R. Besides the Sacrament of Penance there was a well organized system of public penance, which consisted of four degrees and was instituted for certain sins.

The first degree contained the weeping, who had to stand outside the church; second degree the hearing  who assisted at mass until after the gospel and sermon; third degree the kneeling;  fourth degree the standing;  the two latter remained to the end of mass but were separated from the faithful and debarred from holy communion.

With maternal care the Church led her children through these penitential stages to a pure and holy life. So great and general became this ascetic spirit in the history of the Church that even princes like Theodosius the Great, Charlemagne, Otto I. of Germany, St. Louis of France, Philip II. of Spain, and many others used cilice and discipline (i.e.  hairshirt and scourge).

NOTE.—Holiness is the second mark of the Church, and it manifests itself in a special manner through the practice of the evangelical counsels, by which the closest resemblance to the life of our Lord is attained. By far the larger number of Saints canonized by the Church have sprung from Monastic Life, and throughout the history of Christianity the religious orders have produced the richest blossoms of sanctity, and have been prominent centers from which faith, piety, and sacred learning radiated into the world.

The great and apostolic men, who converted the nations of Europe, as we shall see in the next chapter, were either monks or had received their training in monasteries and established such as centres for Christianizing the people. Their ascetic lives not only filled the sensual heathens with awe and reverence, but also drew down God's blessing upon their missionary labors.

In the times of barbarism that followed the migration of nations and the downfall of the Roman Empire, ancient civilization sought and found shelter and loving care in the Benedictine monasteries. Numbers of monks were busy in copying and multiplying the Holy Scriptures and whatever books of sacred and secular learning could be rescued. Others were engaged in architecture, sculpture, carving, painting, and music; others studied medicine and gave free attendance to all. Pilgrims and travellers enjoyed their hospitality, generously bestowed for Christ's sake. At their monasteries the sons and daughters of princes, knights, and citizens received an education. The monks cleared the forests, tilled the fields, planted vineyards and orchards, and provided the country with roads, canals, and bridges. Their lives were a continuous "Ora et labora" (i.e. pray and work).