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                                                   The Christian Foundation-Popularity of Ascetism
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The organization of the church was by no means confined to an ecclesiastical hierarchy. In any study of Christian institutions a prominent place must be given to monasticism. Since monasticism was originally an outgrowth of asceticism, it becomes necessary, first of all, to examine the relationship between that ideal and the Christian religion. Original Christianity was only mildly ascetic. Neither Jesus nor his immediate followers practiced any extremes of self-torture. To be sure, Jesus did not marry; he declared that he had no place to lay his head; and he was supposed to have fasted for forty days in the wilderness; but these examples could scarcely have encouraged the pathological excesses of mortification of the flesh indulged in by the hermits of the third and fourth centuries. We must therefore look for additional causes of the growth of this later asceticism. Perhaps the following may be considered fundamental:

(1) The desire of many pious Christians to protest against the increasing worldliness of the church. The farther they might go to the opposite extreme of the luxurious lives of some of the clergy, for example, the more effective that protest would become.

(2)  The choice of morbid self-torture as a substitute for martyrdom. With the abandonment of persecution by the Romans all chances of winning a crown of glory in heaven by undergoing death for the faith were eliminated. But the desire to give evidence of one's religious ardor by self-abasement and suffering was still present and demanded an outlet.

(3)   The desire of some Christians who were sincerely devoted to the faith to set an example of exalted piety and unselfishness as an inspiration to their weaker brethren. Even though most men should fail to attain the ideal, the general level of morality and piety would be raised.

(4)   The influence of other Oriental religions, especially Gnosticism and Manicheism, with their exaggerated spiritualism, contempt for this world, and degradation of the body.

The earliest Christian ascetics were hermits, who withdrew from the world to live in seclusion in some wilderness or desert. This form of asceticism seems to have originated in Egypt in the third century. From there it spread into other provinces of the eastern section of the Empire and continued to be popular for more than one hundred years. It developed into a kind of religious mania characterized by morbid excesses. We read of hermits or anchorites grazing in the fields after the manner of animals, rolling naked in thorn bushes, or living in swamps infested with snakes. The famous St. Simeon Stylites passed a whole summer "as a rooted vegetable in a garden" and then began the construction of his celebrated pillar. He built it to a height of sixty feet and spent the remaining thirty years of his life on the top. Such absurdities as these, while certainly not typical of the attitude of the majority of Christians at this time, were probably the natural fruit of too strong an emphasis upon the spiritual way of life.

In time the force of the anchorite hysteria subsided. Certain of the more practical Christian ascetics came to the conclusion that the solitary life of the hermit was not good for the soul, since it sometimes drove men insane. The result of this conclusion was the origin of monasticism. Credit for founding the earliest monastery is commonly assigned to Pachomius, who lived in Egypt in the middle fourth century. The movement he initiated was continued by St. Basil, a bishop of Cappadocia, who was the first to issue a set of rules for the government of a monastic order. Disapproving of extreme self-torture, St. Basil required his monks to discipline themselves by useful labor. They were not to engage in prolonged fasting or in degrading laceration of the flesh, but they were compelled to submit to obligations of poverty and humility and to spend many hours of the day in silent religious meditation. The Basilian type of monasticism came to be adopted universally in the eastern division of Christendom. Many of its units are still to be seen perched on lofty crags to which access can be gained only by climbing long rope ladders or being hauled up in a basket. The history of monasticism in western Europe also began in the fourth century, when ascetic communities on the Egyptian model were established in Rome. There was really no important monasticism in the West, however, until the sixth century, when St. Benedict drafted his famous rule which ultimately became the standard for nearly all the monks of Latin Christendom. The Benedictine rule imposed obligations similar to those of the rule of St. Basil—poverty, obedience, labor, and religious devotion. If there was any essential difference, it probably lay in the stronger emphasis of the Benedictine system upon organized control. The abbot of each monastery had practically unlimited authority to discipline the monks under him. The Basilian rule was predicated more upon the assumption that each monk would discipline himself.

The influence of monasticism upon the society of the early Middle Ages would be difficult to exaggerate. The monks were generally the best farmers in Europe; they reclaimed waste lands, drained swamps, and made numerous discoveries relating to the improvement of the soil. They preserved some of the building skill of the Romans and achieved noteworthy progress in many of the industrial arts, especially in wood carving, metal-working, weaving, glass-making, and brewing. Indeed, some modern writers maintain that the foundations of the Industrial Revolution were actually laid in the medieval monasteries. It was monks, furthermore, who wrote most of the books, copied the ancient manuscripts, and maintained the majority of the schools and libraries and nearly all of the hospitals that existed during the early Middle Ages. The growth of monasticism also profoundly affected the history of the church. It led to a division in the ranks of the clergy. Living according to a definite rule or regula, the monks came to be called the regular clergy; while the priests, bishops, and archbishops, who carried on their activities in the midst of the affairs of the world (saeculum), were henceforth known as the secular clergy. Between the two groups intense rivalry developed, with the monks sometimes organizing reform movements against the worldliness of the priests. The Benedictine monks enjoyed the special favor of the Popes, and it was partly on account of an alliance between the papacy and monasticism that the former was able to extend its power over the church.






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