Redeeming Monasticism for Modern Protestants

One of the most remarkable institutions to develop in the Middle Ages was Monasticism. After the Edict of Milan issued by Constantine in 314 A.D., Christianity was recognized as a legal religion in the Roman Empire. By 380 A.D., Christianity became the official religion of the empire due to the Edict of Thessalonica issued by Emperor Theodosius. While these historical developments proved to be a blessing for the West, they ushered in new challenges to the Christian faith as well. With this new protected status, the prospect of a rise in nominal Christianity posed a real danger. The removal of the threat of persecution lowered the cost of discipleship in the church and would, over time, contribute to a downgrade in the quality of the faith broadly observed. What Christianity had achieved in terms of social and legal status by the fourth century simply had not yet necessarily been inculcated and applied within the culture. Even people who had converted to the Christian faith still often retained the vestiges of paganism in their thought and habits. This reality, combined with the new-found power and influence the church had the opportunity to wield, led some to search for purity and spiritual growth by withdrawing from society to dwell in seclusion and solitude. Saint Anthony is credited with being the father of Christian monasticism, withdrawing to the Egyptian wilderness around the turn of the fourth century to live as a hermit. However, this early Anchoritic monasticism was often unbalanced and not easily duplicated. Following the Anchorites were the Sarabait monks who, lacking the personal self-discipline of the desert hermits and having no spiritual accountability, would use their status as monks to pursue their own interests in the name of serving Christ.

Saint Benedict’s Rule

It was Saint Benedict of Nursia who did more than anyone to bring monasticism from the East to Western Europe and organize it under his famous Rule. According to Benedict, monasticism was not about experiencing extreme deprivations of human contact, a proper diet, or of shelter. The way of Christ was a life of humility and faithful obedience. Avoiding the extremes of the hermits and the lack of discipline characteristic of the Sarabaites, Benedict called people to a monastic life that was neither burdensome nor disorderly. Sacrifice and strict discipline were required, but the natural rhythms of the Benedictine rule provided a consistent lifestyle of worship and productive labor that promoted piety in the community rather than pursuing extreme behaviors.

Monastic discipline was necessary for discipleship in a largely pre-Christian society where the faith was no longer costly. Benedictine monasticism provided not only an ideal, but a rule for training new Christians in the faith. That training had to go beyond the sharing of mere ideas. It needed to be enculturated through routine and habit. Benedict understood that dying to self and taking up one’s cross was not a spontaneous act performed once for all time but was a matter of daily discipline. In his prologue to the Rule, he contrasted the labor of obedience to the sloth of disobedience.[1] It was holiness that required work, not rebellion. Through persistent prayer, study, contemplation, and worship, the Christian’s loves were transformed so as to desire those things which are true, good, and beautiful. Rather than merely living in fear of torment in hell, mastery of the Rule allows the Christian to experience the freedom that service to Christ truly offers. It is this insight by Benedict that is worthy of being recovered and taught in the modern church, which tends to recoil at the thought of a disciplined Christianity or the adherence to a strict rule. Modern evangelicals increasingly shy away from using the word religion, preferring to speak of their faith as a relationship. A disciplined faith is seen as somehow insincere or artificial while passionate spontaneity is evidence of a living faith. The order provided by Benedict’s rule spurred the growth of monasticism throughout the Western world, spawning several new orders over the following centuries.

Prayer Warriors

Motivations for pursuing a monastic life were not always so pure as seeking growth in holiness, but as historian R.W. Southern argues, had a political, social, and religious basis as well.[2] Monks were valued by kings as spiritual warriors, whose dedication to prayer and service brought protection and provision to the kingdom. They were not regarded as an effeminate class of men who were too weak to participate in the masculine art of war, but were the highly disciplined, spiritually trained special forces who did battle with the principalities and powers in the unseen realm, and without whose aid the physical battle would be unsuccessful. As historian William Canon writes:

Beneath the steel breastplate of the galloping knight on his charger, there was the heartbeat of piety and faith which sent him on his mission. Behind the march of an aggressive papacy against the citadels of secular power and privilege, there was the simple devotion of Christian people registered in their habits of worship and standards of conduct and life.[3]

Kings and wealthy magnates honored monasteries with donations of land and wealth for they understood that “the battle for the safety of the land was closely associated with the battle for the safety of the souls of their benefactors.”[4] It is precisely for this reason that monasticism experienced its most rapid growth at the height of the Crusades. In addition to their role as prayer warriors, monks often served as penitential substitutes for lay soldiers, performing acts of penance in their stead and paying off temporal punishments accrued by committing acts of violence in war. “By founding monasteries…the landowning warrior classes of Europe could effectively offset their sins by paying for monks to beg forgiveness on their behalf in the form of masses.”[5] While this is certainly a corruption of the true Christian practice of confession and absolution, it is important to consider the moral values of Christian medieval society that underlaid this practice and compare them with those of their pagan predecessors. Hiring monks to perform penitential duties in one’s stead for acts of violence committed on the battlefield is at the very least an acknowledgment of the evil of war. War might be deemed a necessary evil, but it certainly wasn’t a virtue. While their pagan ancestors went to war seeking plunder and glory, believing their martial prowess made them more fit for Valhalla, Christianity considered the use of violence a sin from which one must secure pardon.

Monks served the social conscience of European society in the Middle Ages. The willingness to renounce the private ownership of possessions and to suffer hardship had the counterintuitive result of gaining societal admiration and influence. As historian Thomas Woods has said, “‘Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.’ That, stated simply, is the history of the monks.”[6] While not everyone could be a monk, a life of prayer, worship, and contemplation was seen as the good life. A life of humility was valued as a higher calling than a life driven by acquisition and consumption.

Ora et Labora

Monasteries were not only places for prayer, contemplation, and fasting, but were also incredibly productive. St. Benedict believed that physical labor was necessary for a life committed to following Christ. “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.”[7] To that end, monks applied themselves to agricultural and industrial work. They developed tools and technologies to cultivate marshes and forests and to power machines to produce industrial goods as well as to mine and forge iron. Hard work and productivity were not unique to medieval monks. In many ways, people work harder and live busier lives than ever. Yet much of modern busyness is not organized within the context of a life of structured worship. Considering this reality in light of the fact that many people are alienated from the products of their labor, work increasingly feels meaningless, or at least disconnected from the spiritual life. Monks did not work for a paycheck as they retained no private ownership of anything, yet because it was understood as part of a life dedicated to the service of God, work was incredibly meaningful as well as productive.

Protestant Monasticism?

In conclusion, the monastic lifestyle born out of the Middle Ages is worthy of recovery among Protestants today. In rejecting some of the extremes of monasticism, such as the requirements of celibacy, Protestantism has lost an understanding of what it means to inhabit time as a Christian. Monasticism is thought to be way too strict for most people, yet many Christians today struggle to find time to read their Bibles, pray, and increasingly, even find the time in their busy weekend to attend worship. Believing the church calendar and the hours of prayer to be too rigorous, Christians conform their lives to the secular calendar and its feast days and the time clock at work. The question is not whether we will be governed by a rule, the question is which rule we will be governed by. This is not to suggest that most, or even many, people are cut out for the monastic lifestyle. However, Protestant monasteries could function as places of spiritual retreat and refreshment for those worn down and weary of the rat race they inhabit. Furthermore, Protestant monasteries could provide a place of service for Christian singles committed to celibacy. While the norm is to marry and have children, we should recognize that there are Christians who do have the gift of celibacy and will not get married. Instead of directing such individuals to focus on a career or a life of devotion to their own entertainment, directing them back to the service of the Body of Christ would provide a more fulfilling and eternally rewarding alternative. Finally, Protestant monasteries could provide a place for cultivating Protestant Christian heroes. The heroes in much of evangelicalism are not those who seek a humble lifestyle and ministry, but rather the CEO pastors who grow megachurches that operate on enormous budgets. Many great names that we honor from the Middle Ages are monks and clerics who lived a very simple and humble life devoted to the service of God. Protestantism needs heroes who do not simply write about the importance of the ordinary life, but people that demonstrate it. Monasteries could be a useful tool to that end.

Notes

  1. St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict. Edited by Timothy Fry. (New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1998), 3.
  2. Richard William Southern, The Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 224.
  3. William R. Cannon, History of Christianity in the Middle Ages: From the Fall of Rome to the Fall of Constantinople, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960), 182.
  4. Southern, 225.
  5. Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages, (New York: Viking, 2021), 207.
  6. Thomas E. Woods Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, (Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2005), 25.
  7. Rule of St. Benedict, 47.

 


Jared Lovell

Jared Lovell is a deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church serving Grace RE Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jared is a classical educator, teaching European and American history at Memoria Press Online Academy, and is a teaching fellow at the Wayside School.


'Redeeming Monasticism for Modern Protestants' has 1 comment

  1. May 4, 2023 @ 11:44 pm Rev. Matthew Joyner

    A recovery of monasticism is something that I have been advocating for for a long time. It could be a true blessing for the Church as a whole.

    Reply


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