An article written by Trevor Miller for the New Dictionary of Theology.
A. Asceticism and Monasticism
Asceticism and monasticism are almost synonymous terms as the origins of the ascetical life are the origins of monasticism. Asceticism (from Greek: askesis – practice, training or exercise) describes a system of spiritual practices designed to encourage interior vigilance so as to combat vices and develop virtues by means of self discipline and self knowledge in the context of seeking God. Its chief preoccupation is the desire to master the lower nature and gain freedom from the disordered passions through renunciation of the world and the flesh as part of the great struggle against the devil. The religious practice of renouncing worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one’s life to spiritual work, also describes monasticism (from Greek: monachos — solitary, alone) and is found in many religions.
Asceticism was practised in biblical times, and events like the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and the lifestyle of John the Baptist in the desert were later regarded as helpful models when monasticism became the leading representation of asceticism.
As an example of early asceticism, Eusebius of Caesarea (d.339) refers to the first successors to the Apostles as following the Lord’s counsel to distribute their possessions to the poor and become travelling preachers of the Gospel. These preachers were often celibates who by the mid second century constituted a clearly distinguishable group in the Church, alongside those who were to marry. By the third century ecclesiastical writers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen were providing spiritual guidance for celibates and virgins with voluntary poverty, self denial and obedience to the local Bishop seen as the normal Christian life.
The practice of seeking seclusion from the world in order to better practice ascetic ideals was not unknown in the third century but it was not until the conversation of Constantine that it became general. By the beginning of the fourth century a new expression of the ascetical life was introduced to the Church in two forms – eremitical and cenobitic monasticism.
Christian monasticism first emerged as a distinct movement in the early fourth century, but it was not so much an innovation as a fresh expression of the ascetic spirit present in Christianity from the start. Kallistos Ware, The Oxford History of Christianity, Oxford 1990, p139
The rise of monasticism at this time is attributed to the huge changes in the church brought about by the Emperor Constantine’s conversion. These included the acceptance of Christianity as the main Roman religion and the subsequent laxity following the realignment of the church along more material and political lines. The end of persecution also meant that martyrdom by blood was no longer an option to prove one’s piety and instead the long-term ‘martyrdom’ of the ascetic became common.
B. Monastic development
The history of monasticism begins with Antony of Egypt (251-356) as he was the first monk about whom anything was written. He was the pioneer of anchorite monasticism, the solitary life of the hermit. After years of solitary existence in lower Egypt, he formed a colony of hermits and undertook to organise the monks who had sought him out for spiritual guidance and had become his disciples.
Monasticism soon adopted a more communal form and the two great founders of this form of monastic life are Pachomius of Egypt (286-346) and Basil the Great of Caesarea (330-379). The ‘common life’ form of monasticism became widespread primarily in Egypt and Asia Minor. Pachomius’s communities were found around Tabbennisi in Thebaid, near the Nile and in areas of Egypt less remote than that of Antony. A gifted organizer, his idea was an ascetic koinonia based on the primitive Jerusalem Community where monasteries were self-sufficient colonies developed along military lines. Chastity and poverty were presupposed, and to these Pachomius added obedience as a necessary condition for life in Community. Organisation required obedience and so a Rule of life was introduced.
In Asia Minor, Basil also strongly encouraged the cenobitic form of monasticism as being more suitable for most people than the eremitic style. His model of a monastic community as a brotherhood of love and service counteracted his fear that the eremitic life could lead to a neglect of the gospel call to charity, philanthropy and issues of social justice. He also insisted on monastic obedience as a check on those given to excessive display of extreme ascetical practices that were bringing the monastic movement into disrepute. His more informal counsels became the ascetic rule, or Ascetica, the rule still used today by the Eastern Orthodox Church of which he is the patriarch.
While Pachomius and Basil set the pattern for monasticism, the most important figure in its development was Benedict of Nursia (480-547), who created his famous Rule at his monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy (529). Largely influenced by the contemporary but anonymous Rule of the Master as well as the writings of Basil and Pachomius, Benedict softened the severity of the primitive ascetic practices of earlier monasticism and made it a more practical life-choice. Benedictine asceticism of silence, obedience, solitude, humility, manual labour and liturgical prayer were designed to unite people with Christ and with one another. His desire to make monasteries ‘a family, a home for those seeking God’ proved more suitable to the peoples and conditions of the West.
Less that half a century after Benedict’s death, Augustine and his fellow monks in 597 brought the Benedictine Rule to England. However they found a system of monasticism already established; bearing the characteristics of the main features of the Egyptian model; namely, Irish Celtic monasticism.
Characteristic of their rigorous asceticism was an emphasis on missionary work – a voluntary exile of wandering for the love of God (peregrinati). For example, Columbanus (540-615) was a native of Ireland but his voluntary exile took him to Gaul, Burgundy, and finally to northern Italy. He founded the monasteries of Luxeuil in Gaul, St Gall in present-day Switzerland, then Bobbio in northern Italy. They took with them their rule and their culture establishing monasteries under the sole direction of the abbot. Columbanus wrote a more austere Rule which existed side by side with Benedict’s at Luxeuil and Bobbio, but by mid seventh century it had ceased to exist as a separate Rule.
C. Spread to the West
Those who shaped the monastic movement and its eventual spread to the West are many but include Athanasius, (d.373) whose Life of Antony was a classic in his lifetime. Evagrius Ponticus (d.399) who taught ascetic life in Nitria, numbering among his pupils Palladius and Rufinus. Also such luminaries as Ambrose in Milan (d.397) who as bishop planted monasteries, the scholar Jerome in Rome (d.419) who championed the ascetical life and translated the rule of Pachomius into Latin. Augustine of Hippo in North Africa (d.430) who founded a monastery at Hippo and became bishop in 396 turning the Episcopal house into a monastic community thus propagating the monastic life. Martin of Tours, a pioneer in Gaul, founded a monastery at Liguge (c.361) and later Marmoutier, near Tours in 371 where he became bishop. Also John Cassian (d.435) who founded a monastery at Marseilles. He was an expert on Egyptian asceticism and (drawing from Evagrius) wrote his Institutes and Conferences (c.415-30) which influenced the Benedictine Rule. Along with the recorded counsel known as the ‘sayings of the desert fathers’ on the ascetical life, the works of Cassian were regarded as classics for centuries.
Over the next three centuries the Benedictine monasteries became centers of learning and culture in Europe and their missionary work was the principle reason why Christianity spread throughout Europe. Until the eleventh century nearly all monks in the West were Benedictines, but the institutionalization of the monastic tradition had by that time led to a serious relaxation of the primitive ideals of poverty, chastity and obedience. The growing pressure of the nation states and monarchies also threatened the wealth and power of the orders. The system broke down in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as religion became far less a preserve of the religious elite. The eleventh to the thirteenth centuries saw a number of reforms being initiated, with the result that about this time new monastic orders sprang up, most of which originated in France or Italy.
These included the Cistercians who began in Citeaux in France in 1098 (Latin = Cistercium) and set about ‘interpreting the rule in the spirit of the desert fathers’. They expanded under Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) who organised sixty-five monastic houses in France alone. The Franciscans began in 1209 setting an example in simplicity and poverty at a time of great clerical wealth. The Dominicans began in 1216 as a teaching and preaching order following the Augustinian Rule.
After the Black Death (1346-49) the depopulation of Western Europe was too great to support monasticism on a large scale, and the orders began to decrease. By the time of the Reformation many monasteries were in decline and their lands and assets were seized with little resistance. At the same time, many of the leading Reformers, especially Martin Luther, were monks who had left the cloister. They abandoned the traditional forms of monastic piety but sought to recover the underlying spiritual ideals in a way which was not overtly ascetic.
D. New expressions of the monastic heart
In the next centuries, religious orders for both men and women (combining aspects of the contemplative orders and the active orders) had spread across the world. By the mid twentieth century in a deviation from the traditional orders many different expressions of the monastic ‘common life’ appeared. In 1938 George McLeod in Scotland founded the Iona Community. In 1946 Roger Schutz, known as Brother Roger, founded the Taizé Community in France as an independent Religious Order. In 1947 Mother Basilea Schlink founded the Lutheran Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, in Darmstadt, Germany. The popularity of the writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-68) brought monasticism to the wider Church and the wider world. Monastic spirituality lived outside the cloister as a community of the heart. This was continued in the United States by the Cistercian monks Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington and Benedictine monk John Main (d.1982). Along with others they initiated a monastic renewal touching the contemporary secular world. As a result of this new interest in monasticism, the late twentieth century spawned a movement often referred to as ‘a new monasticism’. Citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (1938), a written account of his experimental Christian community in Finkenwalde at that time and his earlier statement that ‘the renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism’ they saw asceticism in terms of the daily spiritual disciplines needed to fulfil the ‘one thing necessary’ of seeking God in the midst of life.
It seems no co-incidence that these monastic expressions started during a time of enormous social upheaval as the church is experiencing exile within society and there is a growing dissatisfaction with the pervading popular culture. This is the context in which new monasticism is flourishing as Christians sought an alternative way of being together in the world much like the first founders of monasticism.
The Northumbria Community is one contemporary expression of this ‘new monastic spirituality’ as they follow ‘a way for living’ rooted in ‘availability and vulnerability’. Their ‘reason to be’ is for each Companion in Community, alone and together, to seek God for himself as the ‘one thing necessary’; to know self so as to learn how better to live with others; in order to serve the world of their influence whether that is great or small. This is outworked in a daily commitment to living the questions at the heart of their ethos; ‘Who is it that you seek? How then shall we live? How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’