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Yuri Koszarycz


Within Rome and its sphere of influence the Church was finding a new force and strength; through the growth of western monasticism its influence was beginning to be felt at the fringes of the Christian Graeco-Roman empire. The inspiration behind the development of western monasticism was Benedict, born in 480, and a student in Rome prior to his calling to the hermit's way of life. Having become the leader of a group of hermits near Subiaco, he later founded the mother monastery of the Benedictine order in 529 on the hill of Monte Cassino about half way between Rome and Naples. There he formulated a cohesive and practical Rule which governed the way of life for his followers, who ultimately spread the Rule throughout western Europe. The Rule was not seen as being excessively ascetic as were some of the conditions governing monastic life in the East; rather it seemed to incorporate a spirit of service and ministry to the wider community and ultimately, after its acceptance by Pope Gregory, the Benedictine rule was to be viewed as the norm for monasticism in the West. Johnson (1976: 146 - 147) describes its particular virtues and appeal:

    The great merit of Benedict's system is common sense. It steered a skilful middle way between severity and decency. Monks were to have separate beds... They were to be properly and warmly clad, with two tunics and cowls each; and they were issued with a mattress, a woollen blanket, under-blanket and pillow, shoes, stockings, girdle, knife, pen and writing tablets, needle and handkerchiefs. Otherwise no property was to be held individually, "neither a book, nor tablets, nor a pen...nothing at all"; and beds were to be searched frequently for private possessions. Monks were to be adequately but simply fed: two cooked dishes a day, a pound of bread, a pint of wine, and fruit and vegetables in season, but no meat, at any rate of four-footed beasts. On the other hand monks who were ill were to have a special diet; they must be kept healthy. "Before all things, and above all things, care must be taken of the sick." "All guests are to be received as Christ himself," for which a special separate kitchen (also used by the abbot) was to be provided. The monks were to spend their time in manual labour and sacred reading, when not attending divine services. They were to "practise silence at all times, especially during the night." Grumbling was the "greatest sin", and "idleness is the enemy of the soul." Infractions of the rule were to be met by withdrawal of communion; the abbot and the older and wiser brothers were to try to reconcile the excommunicated; but "the punishment of the lash" was to be used if necessary, and "the surgeon's knife" (expulsion) in the last resort...

    (The Rule) does not envisage the monastery as a great centre of learning, or indeed of anything else except piety and hard work. But one can see exactly why it appealed to the practical-minded Gregory. It is wholly lacking in eccentricity. It does not expect heroic virtue. It is full of provisions for exceptions, changes and relaxations in its rules; yet at the same time it insists that rules must be kept, once made... (The) rule exuded the universality which had always been the object of Catholic Christianity, of Rome, and above all of Gregory himself as a missionary pope who wanted to convert the world and society. The rule is classless and timeless; it is not grounded in any particular culture or geographical region, and it will fit into any society which allows it to operate.

The monks of the West also took up the missionary work of bringing the faith to the people of the North and the further islands to the West, as well as to Britain and Ireland. Thus we see the kerygmatic model of the Church evident at this time - the Church as Herald and Servant strongly manifested in the work of these pioneer monks.

The Pontiff realised the potential of monastic life in the evangelisation of Europe. Over subsequent centuries, the monks built centres of religious, cultural, social, agricultural, commercial and educational life for the people. In Europe under Benedict of Nursia we can see the establishment of monastic houses inhabited by men and women dedicated to hard work and the Gospel message. Abbeys were to offer practical ways of helping people live in a world threatened by violence and sudden change. Most importantly, monks also began the process of copying classic works and manuscripts and they became a channel by which the arts of the ancient world were preserved as a heritage for humanity. Much of the ancient world has survived only through the efforts of these monastic copyists. The Church became a centre for learning, with the monks becoming cultural carriers transmitting the written treasures of the past by preserving and copying ancient texts. Through the establishment and maintenance of monastic and cathedral schools Christianity was able to preserve and transmit an awareness of classical heritage in an age of barbarism and superstition.

The evangelising monks spread the theology of Rome and its law, and popularised the Church liturgy; some monks were to become Popes and made up much of the clergy of Rome and the Papal court responsible for the administration of the universal church. Gregory the Great, a Benedictine monk elected Pontiff in 590 AD, brought a monk's discipline, missionary instinct and sense of order to the rule of the Church. He was the first to use the title "Servant of the servants of God."

Christian monks were ascetics whose aim was to convert and educate. The missionary vision of Gregory also served to restore the Church in England. You may wish to investigate the proselytising work of the Irish monks, particularly the work of St. Columba, whose mission established monasteries in Iona and Northumbria. Celtic Christianity from the islands, which had been mingled with the French form of worship, later collided with the mission of Augustine of Canterbury and the Gregorian reform of the Benedictines. These missions did, however, bring back into Europe Celtic liturgy and monastic life. The Celtic and the Roman traditions soon intertwined and complemented one another. This highlights the early Church's ability to absorb cultures into herself, to make them work together, and resolve evident differences. Unfortunately, later in the history of the Church we will see this ability lost, and by the sixteenth century the inflexibility of the Church became so pronounced that it lost the opportunity effectively to evangelise people of the Far East and India.

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Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.