The Monastic Reaction: The Origins of Monasticism

The History of Christianity #96

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Lamentations 3:28 which reads: “He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He said: “Monastic life became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Monastic Reaction: The Origins of Monasticism” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Even before Constantine’s time, there had been Christians who, for various reasons, had felt called to an unusual style of life. Reference has already been made to the “widows and virgins” – that is, to those women who chose not to marry or to remarry, and to devote all their time and energies to the work of the church. Some time later, Origen, following the Platonic ideal of the wise life, made arrangements to live at a mere subsistence level, and led a life of extreme asceticism. It is said that he even took literally the Word of Christ about those who have made themselves “eunuchs for the Kingdom.” Also, although Gnosticism had been rejected by the church, its influence could still be felt in the widely held notion that there was a fundamental opposition between the body and the life of the spirit, and that therefore in order to live fully in the spirit it was necessary to subdue and to punish the body.

Thus, monasticism has roots both within the church and outside of it. From within the church, monasticism was inspired by Paul’s words, that those who chose not to marry had greater freedom to serve the Lord. This impulse toward celibacy was often strengthened by the expectation of the return of the Lord. If the end was at hand, it made no sense to marry and to begin the sedentary life of those who are making plans for the future. At other times, there was an additional reason for celibacy: since Christians are to witness to the coming Kingdom, and since Jesus declared that in the Kingdom “they neither marry nor are given in marriage,” those who choose to remain celibate in the present life are a living witness to the coming Kingdom.

A number of outside influences also played a part in the development of Christian monasticism. Several schools of classical philosophy held that the body was the prison or the sepulcher of the soul, and that the latter could not be truly free as long as it did not overcome the limitations of the body. Stoic doctrine, very widespread at the time, held that passions are the great enemy of true wisdom, and that the wise devote themselves to the perfecting of their souls and the subjugation of their passions. Several religious traditions in the Mediterranean basin included sacred virgins, celibate priests, eunuchs, and others whose lifestyle set them apart for the service of the gods. This sense that the body – and particularly sexual activity – was somehow evil or unworthy of those devoted to holiness became so widespread that in an attempt to curb this extreme practice, the Council of Nicea, in 325 AD, ordered that any among the clergy who had castrated themselves be deposed, and no one be admitted into the clergy who had done such a thing. But according to ancient chroniclers even at that council there were already some who wished to order clerical celibacy – a move that was defeated by the impassioned opposition of bishop Paphnutius (pa-ph-nutis), widely respected for his steadfastness during the persecution and his own celibate life. Thus, the ideals of early Christian Monasticism arose both from Scripture and from other sources quite alien to Christianity.

Next time, we will look at The First Monks of the Desert.


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