Posted 13 March 2009 - 09:30 AM
1. Why did people choose to become monastics in the twilight of the Roman Empire?
The monastic vocation attracted many at this time as it seemed to offer the right atmosphere within which to contemplate the eternal mysteries and to dedicate oneself to a life of prayer and meditation. It was believed that a total retreat from the sinful world coupled with a regimen of self-denial was helpful to one's immortal soul. Many also felt that the monasteries offered the purest form of Christian worship which was gradually disappearing from the expanding, hierarchical and organised church and being adulterated by the introduction of dubious quasi-pagan practices. The monastic lifestyle began to develop during C4 AD and was well established in both the Eastern and Western churches by the end of C6 AD.
It is also arguable that a form of crisis psychology led many to embrace the monastic life as a form of escapism from the brutal realities of the world at a time when the Roman Empire was disintegrating under pressure from the barbarian hordes.
2. What was the difference between monasticism in the East and monasticism in the West?
In the East, monasticism tended to spring from the 'hermit mentality' manifest by Anthony (251-356) in Egypt when he retired from wordly life at the age of twenty in order to live a solitary and spiritual life. Anthough he never organised any monastic community, his example attracted many followers who venerated him and formed communities in the vicinity. Later, Basil of Caesarea (330-379) popularised the notion of organised monastic communities and enjoined specific obligations upon the monks such a work, prayer, bible study and good works. Whereas extreme self-denial had been a feature of many Eastern communities and individual hermits, Basil opposed this and his ideas were more in line with those of Western monastic pioneers.
Western monasticism embraced the idea of organised, sheltered communities much earlier if only for climatic reasons! An especially influential and paradigmatic figure was Benedict (480-543) whose house at Monte Casino became the template for other founders. A strict regime of work and devotion was undertaken by the monks and this was codified in his 'Rule' enjoining inter al poverty, chastity and obedience. Over the next five centuries many Benedictine monasteries were established throughout Western Europe. Discipline and community worship were, therefore, much more marked from the outset in the West.
3. What was the positive contribution of monasticism? What were its negative consequences?
The positive effects of monasticism were many and varied and include the provision of alms and education, scholarly works such as the Book of Kells and Bede's Ecclesiastical History, misssionary activity such as that undertaken by Columba and Aidan , hospitality for travellers and good farming practices that assisted neighbouring villages. They provided centres of relative stability and civilised virtues in an uncertain and volatile period.
Negative features include the effect of mass conversions which introduced dubious practices and token converts into the church, the removal of many talented and virtuous people from secular society and a form of spiritual arrogance which interpreted extreme self-denial as akin to martyrdom. Over time, the increasing institutionalisation of religious houses and orders and a close association with the state, led to many corrupt practices and the amassing of wealth and power which was no longer used to help the community. This led to the tidal wave of condemnation spearheaded by Erasmus and Luther (and much earlier expressed by Mathew Paris) which precipitated the onset of the Reformation and the Counter (or Catholic) Reformation.