Most people do not realize how significant the movement called monasticism has been throughout the history of the Church. Monks have done some very significant things in history, it will take several posts to address all of them.
What is monasticism and why do we care???
Monasticism stems from an ubiquitous idea in which all followers of Jesus ask “how does one define and put into practice allegiance with Jesus of Nazareth?” or more simply put,“what is it that others should see in my life that shows them I am totally dedicated to Jesus?”
A definition of Monasticism
I guess the 1st thing I should do is give a working definition of monasticism. When I write of monasticism I am speaking of a movement where individuals decide to move away from their home and live either alone (such as in a cave) or with like minded others (such as in a monastery). The purpose for this moving away from others ‘in the world’ is to separate oneself from the distractions of the evil world (that war against the soul) to be totally dedicated to communing with God. The mentality is that the world is too much of a distraction and true holiness can only be achieved through isolation or communal living, where life is ‘just me and God’.
Many monks throughout history decided the other element that assisted them in becoming more holy was ascetism. Ascetism is the practice of denying any pleasures of the body (including eating tasty food) in order to put ones body into submission. The thinking was the more a person’s body is put into submission, the more spiritual they are. This denial of one’s body stems from the permeating worldview of Platonism or Neo-Platonism. Simplistically Platonism (among MANY other assertions) said that spiritual things are good, and physical things are evil.
The story of Monasticism
As I have studied these issues I see a pattern developing in the early church. In earliest times (during the time of the Apostles until around 313 AD) the Roman Empire tortured and killed Christians because they would not worship the Roman gods or the Roman emperors. Followers of the Way were accused of all kinds of atrocities such as paganism (rejecting worship of the Roman gods) and incest (calling each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ while holding ‘love feasts’ in the darkness of night), so the Roman leaders passed laws to punish the lawbreakers. In AD 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Milan which banned all punishment of Christians for their ‘paganism’. The question that came up after this event was ‘if in the early years showing dedication to Jesus was being willing to be tortured and die for my faith, what can I do now that the persecutions are over?’ So people decided to walk away from their life and move to a cave to dedicate themselves totally to God.
Monasticism has been a movement in one form or another for thousands of years. But what is their significance, if any.
What is so important about Monks?
I could tell a myriad of stories involving monks. Stories that involve the beginnings of a movement called Scholasticism, stories of widespread famine where the single source of healthy food are the monasteries, stories of the discovery of the oldest existing manuscript of the entire Bible being used as scrap paper and starters for fires. Most of the stories will have to wait for another time, but I will tell one story the Irish Monks.
Nearly everyone has heard of St. Patrick. Most, however, only know him from the holiday in March that is dedicated to him. Few know the full story of his life and ministry and fewer still know the significance he had on the History of Christianity
How St. Patrick saved Christianity
After being born in England (c. 400 AD), Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and taken to the pagan land of the Celts where he worked as a slave for 6 years. During his enslavement he spent hours praying to God about all sorts of topics not just his own rescue, and he learned the culture and language of the Celts. One day he escaped from his enslavement and traveled back to his home in England. There he studied theology in order to be a church leader (bishop). After several years he had a dream or vision or something where he claims God told him to return to the land of the Celts and share the gospel to those pagan people. So he did and spent the rest of his life sharing Jesus with the Celtic people. Due to the Celt religion of Druidism, they had a notion of the sacredness of the number three. So when Patrick shared the concept of the Trinity with the Celts they received and understood easily. Christianity spread very quickly through the Celts and large numbers of the populace turned to monasticism.
Here’s where the story gets REALLY COOL. The Celtic monks, remember they are way up north of the Roman Empire, took it upon themselves to make copy after copy after copy of any writing of antiquity, especially Christian writings. So they copied the Bible (Old and New Testaments), they copied Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, and Polycarp and many others. At the same time, the Barbarian hordes (Huns, Goths, Franks, Vandals, etc.) were attacking the Roman Empire and destroying everything, including the sacred writings of Christianity. Had the Celts not copied the Christian writings, it is possible (humanly speaking) for the entirety of the writings of Christianity to have been totally burned up. In a very real sense the Celtic monks saved Christianity. For we would now not have any writings (or very few) from before the time of St. Patrick. HOW COOL IS THAT????? MONKS SAVED CHRISTIANITY!!!!!