Read CHAPTER II - MONASTICISM IN THE WEST: ANTE-BENEDICTINE MONKS 340-480 A.D. of A Short History of Monks and Monasteries, free online book, by Alfred Wesley Wishart, on ReadCentral.com.

We are now to follow the fortunes of the monastic system from its introduction in Rome to the time of Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the first great monastic order.

Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, who made Christianity the predominant religion in the Roman Empire, died in 337 A.D. Three years later Rome heard, probably for the first time, an authentic account of the Egyptian hermits. The story was carried to the Eternal City by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, one of the most remarkable characters in the early church, a man of surpassing courage and perseverance, an intrepid foe of heresy, “heroic and invincible,” as Milton styled him. Twenty of the forty-six years of his official life were spent in banishment.

Athanasius was an intimate friend of the hermit Anthony and a persistent advocate of the ascetic ideal. When he fled to Rome, in 340, to escape the persecutions of the Arians, he took with him two specimens of monastic virtue Ammonius and Isidore. These hermits, so filthy and savage in appearance, albeit, as I trust, clean in heart, excited general disgust, and their story of the tortures and holiness of their Egyptian brethren was received with derision. But men who had faced and conquered the terrors of the desert were not to be so easily repulsed. Aided by other ascetic travelers from the East they persisted in their propaganda until contempt yielded to admiration. The enthusiasm of the uncouth hermits became contagious. The Christians in Rome now welcomed the story of the recluses as a Divine call to abandon a dissolute society for the peace and joy of a desert life.

But before this transformation of public opinion can be appreciated, it is needful to know something of the social and religious condition of Rome in the days when Athanasius and his hermits walked her streets.

After suffering frightful persecutions for three centuries, the Church had at last nominally conquered the Roman Empire; nominally, because although Christianity was to live, the Empire had to die. “No medicine could have prevented the diseased old body from dying. The time had come. When the wretched inebriate embraces a spiritual religion with one foot in the grave, with a constitution completely undermined, and the seeds of death planted, then no repentance or lofty aspiration can prevent physical death. It was so in Rome.” The death-throes were long and lingering, as befits the end of a mighty giant, but death was certain. There are many facts which explain the inability of a conquering faith to save a tottering empire, but it is impracticable for us to enter upon that wide field. Some help may be gained from that which follows.

Of morals, Rome was destitute. She possessed the material remains and superficial acquirements of a proud civilization, such as great public highways, marble palaces, public baths, temples and libraries. Elegance of manners and acquisitions of wealth indicate specious outward refinement. But these things are not sufficient to guarantee the permanence of institutions or the moral welfare of a nation. In the souls of men there was a fatal degeneracy. There was outward prosperity but inward corruption.

Professor Samuel Dill, in his highly instructive work on “Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire,” points out the fact that Rome’s fall was due to economic and political causes as well as to the deterioration of her morals. A close study of these causes, however, will reveal the presence of moral influences. Professor Dill says: “The general tendency of modern inquiry has to discover in the fall of that august and magnificent organization, not a cataclysm, precipitated by the impact of barbarous forces, but a process slowly prepared and evolved by internal and economic causes.” Two of these causes were the dying out of municipal liberty and self-government, and the separation of the upper class from the masses by sharp distributions of wealth and privilege. It is indeed true that these causes contributed to Rome’s ruin; that the central government was weak; that the civil service was oppressive and corrupt; that the aristocratic class was selfish; and that the small landed proprietors were steadily growing poorer and fewer, while, on the contrary, the upper or senatorial class was increasing in wealth and power. But after due emphasis has been accorded to these destructive factors, it yet remains true that the want of public spirit and the prevailing cultivated selfishness may be traced to a decline of faith in those religious ideals that serve to stimulate the moral life and thus preserve the national integrity.

Society was divided into three classes. It is computed that one-half the population were slaves. A large majority of the remainder were paupers, living on public charity, and constituting a festering sore that threatened the life of the social organism. The rich, who were relatively few, squandered princely incomes in a single night, and exhausted their imaginations devising new and expensive forms of sensuous pleasure. The profligacy of the nobles almost surpasses credibility, so that trustworthy descriptions read like works of fiction. Farrar says: “A whole population might be trembling lest they should be starved by the delay of an Alexandrian corn ship, while the upper classes were squandering a fortune at a single banquet, drinking out of myrrhine and jeweled vases worth hundreds of pounds, and feasting on the brains of peacocks and the tongues of nightingales.” The frivolity of the social and political leaders of Rome, the insane thirst for lust and luxury, the absence of seriousness in the face of frightful, impending ruin, almost justify the epigram of Silvianus, “Rome was laughing when she died.”

“On that hard pagan world disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell.
In his cool hall, with haggard eyes,
The Roman noble lay;
He drove abroad in furious guise
Along the Appian Way;
He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,
And crowned his hair with flowers
No easier nor no guicker past
The impracticable hours.”

Pagan mythology and Pagan philosophy were powerless to resist this downward tendency. Although Christianity had become the state religion, it was itself in great danger of yielding to the decay that prevailed. The Empire was, in fact, but nominally Christian. Thousands of ecclesiastical adherents were half pagan in their spirit and practice. Harnack declares, “They were too deeply affected by Christianity to abandon it, but too little to be Christians. Pure religious enthusiasm waned, ideals received a new form, and the dependence and responsibility of individuals became weaker.” Even ordinary courage had everywhere declined and the pleasures of the senses controlled the heart of Christian society.

Many of the men who should have resisted this gross secularization of the church, who ought to have set their faces against the departure from apostolic ideals by exalting the standards of the earlier Christianity; these men, the clergy of the Christian church, had deserted their post of duty and surrendered to the prevailing worldliness.

Jerome describes, with justifiable sarcasm, these moral weaklings, charged with the solemn responsibility of preaching a pure gospel to a dying empire. “Such men think of nothing but their dress; they use perfumes freely, and see that there are no creases in their leather shoes. Their curling hair shows traces of the tongs; their fingers glisten with rings; they walk on tiptoe across a damp road, not to splash their feet. When you see men acting that way, think of them rather as bridegrooms than as clergymen. If he sees a pillow that takes his fancy, or an elegant table-cover, or, indeed, any article of furniture, he praises it, looks admiringly at it, takes it into his hand, and, complaining that he has nothing of the kind, begs or rather extorts it from its owner.” Such trifling folly was fatal. The times demanded men of vigorous spirit, who dared to face the general decline, and cry out in strong tones against it. The age needed moral warriors, with the old Roman courage and love of sacrifice; martyrs willing to rot in prison or shed their blood in the street, not effeminate men, toying with fancy table-covers and tiptoeing across a sprinkled road. “And as a background,” says Kingsley, “to all this seething heap of corruption, misrule and misery, hung the black cloud of the barbarians, the Teutonic tribes from whom we derive our best blood, ever coming nearer and nearer, waxing stronger and stronger, to be soon the conquerors of the Caesars and the masters of the world.”

But there were many pure and sincere Christians a saving remnant. The joyous alacrity with which men and women responded to the monastic call, and entered upon careers of self-torture for the sake of deliverance from moral corruption, shows that the spirit of true faith was not extinct. These seekers after righteousness may be described as “a dismal and fanatical set of men, overlooking the practical aims of life,” but it is a fair question to ask, “if they had not abandoned the world to its fate would they not have shared that fate?” “The glory of that age,” says Professor Dill, “is the number of those who were capable of such self-surrender; and an age should be judged by its ideals, not by the mediocrity of conventional religion masking worldly self-indulgence. This we have always with us; the other we have not always.”

Yet the sad fact remains that the transforming power of Christianity was practically helpless before the surging floods of vice and superstition. The noble struggles of a few saints were as straws in a hurricane. The church had all she could do to save herself.

“When Christianity itself was in such need of reform,” says Lord, “when Christians could scarcely be distinguished from pagans in love of display, and in egotistical ends, how could it reform the world? When it was a pageant, a ritualism, an arm of the state, a vain philosophy, a superstition, a formula, how could it save, if ever so dominant? The corruptions of the church in the fourth century are as well authenticated as the purity and moral elevation of Christians in the second century.” Even in the early days of Christianity the ruin of Rome was impending, but, at that time, the adherents of the Christian religion were few and poor. They did not possess enough power and influence to save the state. When monasticism came to Rome, the lords of the church were getting ready to sit upon the thrones of princes, but the dazzling victory of the church was not a spiritual conquest of sin, so the last ray of hope for the Empire was extinguished. Her fall was inevitable.

With this outlined picture in mind, fancy Athanasius and his monks at Rome. These men despise luxury and contemn riches. They have come to make Rome ring with the old war cries, although they wrestled not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in high places. Terror and despair are on every side, but they are not afraid. They know what it means to face the demons of the desert, to lie down at night with wild beasts for companions. They have not yielded to the depravity of the human heart and the temptations of a licentious age. They have conquered sinful appetites by self-abnegation and fasting. They come to a distracted society with a message of peace a peace won by courageous self-sacrifice. They call men to save their perishing souls by surrendering their wills to God and enlisting in a campaign against the powers of darkness. They appeal to the ancient spirit of courage and love of hardship. They arouse the dormant moral energies of the profligate nobles, proud of the past and sick of the present. The story of Anthony admonished Rome that a life of sensuous gratification was inglorious, unworthy of the true Roman, and that the flesh could be mastered by heroic endeavor.

Women, who spent their hours in frivolous amusements, welcomed with gratitude the discovery that they could be happy without degradation, and joyfully responded to the call of righteousness. “Despising themselves,” says Kingsley, “despising their husbands to whom they had been wedded in loveless wedlock, they too fled from a world which had sated and sickened them.”

Woman’s natural craving for lofty friendships and pure aspirations found satisfaction in the monastic ideal. She fled from the incessant broils of a corrupt court, from the courtesans that usurped the place of the wife, from the insolence and selfishness of men who scorned even the appearance of virtue and did not hesitate to degrade even their wives and sisters. She would disprove the biting sarcasm of Juvenal,

“Women, in judgment weak, in feeling strong,
By every gust of passion borne along.

A woman stops at nothing, when she wears
Rich emeralds round her neck, and in her ears
Pearls of enormous size; these justify
Her faults, and make all lawful in her eye.”

Therefore did the women hear with tremulous eagerness the story of the saintly inhabitants of the desert, and flinging away their trinkets, they hastened to the solitude of the cell, there to mourn their folly and seek pardon and peace at the feet of the Most High.

Likewise, the men, born to nobler tasks than fawning upon princes and squandering life and fortune in gluttony and debauchery, blushed for shame, and abandoned forever the company of sensualists and parasites. Potitianus, a young officer of rank, read the life of Anthony, and cried to his fellow-soldier: “Tell me, I pray thee, whither all our labors tend? What do we seek? For whom do we carry arms? What can be our greatest hope in the palace but to be friend to the Emperor? And how frail is that fortune! What perils! When shall this be?” Inspired by the monastic story he exchanged the friendship of the Emperor for the friendship of God, and the military life lost all its attractiveness.

A philosopher and teacher hears the same narrative, and his countenance becomes grave; he seizes the arm of Alypius, his friend, and earnestly asks: “What, then, are we doing? How is this? What hast thou been hearing? These ignorant men rise; they take Heaven by force, and we, with our heartless sciences, behold us wallowing in the flesh and in our blood! Is it shameful to follow them, and are we not rather disgraced by not following them?” So, disgusted with his self-seeking career, his round of empty pleasures, he, too, is moved by this higher call to abandon his wickedness and devote his genius to the cause of righteousness.

Ambrose, Paulinus, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory, and many others, holding important official posts or candidates for the highest honors, abandoned all their chances of political preferment in order to preach the gospel of ascetic Christianity.

Yes, for good or evil, Rome is profoundly stirred. The pale monk, in all his filth and poverty, is the master of the best hearts in the capital. Every one in whom aspiration is still alive, who longs for some new light, and all who vaguely grope after a higher life, hear his voice and become pliant to his will.

“Great historic movements,” says Grimke, “are born not in whirlwinds, in earthquakes, and pomps of human splendor and power, but in the agonies and enthusiasms of grand, heroic spirits.” Monastic history, like secular, centers in the biographies of such great men as Anthony, Basil, Jerome, Benedict, Francis, Dominic and Loyola. To understand the character of the powerful forces set in motion by the coming of the monks to Rome, it is necessary to know the leading spirits whose preeminent abilities and lofty personalities made Western monasticism what it was.

The time is about 418 A.D.; the place, a monastery in Bethlehem, near the cave of the Nativity. In a lonely cell, within these monastic walls, we shall find the man we seek. He is so old and feeble that he has to be raised in his bed by means of a cord affixed to the ceiling. He spends his time chiefly in reciting prayers. His voice, once clear and resonant, sinks now to a whisper. His failing vision no longer follows the classic pages of Virgil or dwells fondly on the Hebrew of the Old Testament. This is Saint Jerome, the champion of asceticism, the biographer of hermits, the lion of Christian polemics, the translator of the Bible, and the worthy, brilliant, determined foe of a dissolute society and a worldly church. Although he spent thirty-four years of his life in Palestine, I shall consider Jerome in connection with the monasticism of the West, for it was in Rome that he exercised his greatest influence. His translation of the Scriptures is the Vulgate of the Roman church, and his name is enrolled in the calendar of her saints. “He is,” observes Schaff “the connecting link between the Eastern and Western learning and religion.”

By charming speech and eloquent tongue Jerome won over the men, but principally the women, of Rome to the monastic life. So powerful was his message when addressed to the feminine heart, that mothers are said to have locked their daughters in their rooms lest they should fall under the influence of his magnetic voice. It was largely owing to his own labors that he could write in after years: “Formerly, according to the testimony of the apostles, there were few rich, few noble, few powerful among the Christians. Now, it is no longer so. Not only among the Christians, but among the monks are to be found a multitude of the wise, the noble and the rich.”

Near to the very year that Athanasius came to Rome, or about 340 A.D., Jerome was born at Stridon, in Dalmatia, in what is now called the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. His parents were modestly wealthy and were slaveholders. His student days were spent in Rome, where he divided his time between the study of books and the revels of the streets. One day some young Christians induced him to visit the catacombs with them. Here, before the graves of Christian martyrs, a quiet and holy influence stole into his heart, that finally led to his conversion and baptism. Embracing the monastic ideal, he gathered around him a few congenial friends, who joined him in a covenant of rigid abstinence and ascetic discipline. Then followed a year of travel with these companions, through Asia Minor, ending disastrously at Antioch. One of his friends returned home, two of them died, and he himself became so sick with fever that his life was despaired of. Undismayed by these evils, brought on by excessive austerities, he determined to retire to a life of solitude.

About fifty miles southeast from Antioch was a barren waste of nature but a paradise for monks the Desert of Chalcis. On its western border were several monasteries. All about for miles, the dreary solitudes were peopled with shaggy hermits. They saw visions and dreamed dreams in caves infested by serpents and wild beasts. They lay upon the sands, scorched in summer by the blazing sun, and chilled in winter by the winds that blew from snowcapped mountains. For five years, Jerome dwelt among these demon-fighting recluses. Clad in sackcloth stained by penitential tears, he toiled for his daily bread, and struggled against visions of Roman dancing girls. He was a most industrious reader of books and a great lover of debate. Monks from far and near visited him, and together they discussed questions of theology and philosophy.

But we may not follow this varied and eventful life in all its details. After a year or two spent at Constantinople, and three years at Rome, he returned to the East, visiting the hermits of Egypt on his way, and finally settled at Bethlehem. His fame soon drew around him a great company of monks. These he organized into monasteries. He built a hospital, and established an inn for travelers. Lacking the necessary funds to carry out his projects, he dispatched his brother to the West with instructions to sell what was left of his property, and the proceeds of this sale he devoted to the cause. While in Bethlehem he wrote defences of orthodoxy, eulogies of the dead, lives of saints and commentaries on the Bible. He also completed his translation of the Scriptures, and wrote numerous letters to persons dwelling in various parts of the empire.

Jerome rendered great service to monasticism by his literary labors. He invested the dullest of lives with a halo of glory; under the magic touch of his rhetoric the wilderness became a gladsome place and the desert blossomed as the rose. His glowing language transfigured the pale face and sunken eyes of the starved hermit into features positively beautiful, while the rags that hung loosely upon his emaciated frame became garments of lustrous white. “Oh, that I could behold the desert,” he cries, “lovelier than any city! Oh, that I could see those lonely spots made into a paradise by the saints that throng them!” Without detracting from the bitterness of the prospect, he glorifies the courage that can face the horrors of the desert, and the heart that can rejoice midst the solitude of the seas. Hear him describe the home of Bonosus, a hermit on an isle in the Adriatic:

“Bonosus, your friend, is now climbing the ladder foreshown in Jacob’s dream. He is bearing his cross, neither taking thought for the morrow, nor looking back at what he has left. Here you have a youth, educated with us in the refining accomplishments of the world, with abundance of wealth and in rank inferior to none of his associates; yet he forsakes his mother, his sister, and his dearly loved brother, and settles like a new tiller of Eden on a dangerous island, with the sea roaring round its reefs, while its rough crags, bare rocks and desolate aspect make it more terrible still.... He sees the glory of God which even the apostles saw not, save in the desert. He beholds, it is true, no embattled towns, but he has enrolled his name in the new city. Garments of sackcloth disfigure his limbs, yet so he will the sooner be caught up to meet Christ in the clouds. Round the entire island roars the frenzied sea, while the beetling crags along its winding shores resound as the billows beat against them. Precipitous cliffs surround his dreadful abode as if it were a prison. He is careless, fearless, armed from head to foot in the apostles’ armor.”

Listen to these trumpet tones as Jerome calls to a companion of his youth in Rome: “O desert, enamelled with the flowers of Christ! O retreat, which rejoicest in the friendship of God! What dost thou in the world, my brother, with thy soul greater than the world? How long wilt thou remain in the shadow of roofs, and in the smoky dungeons of cities? Believe me, I see here more light.”

To pass hastily over such appeals, coming from distant lands across the sea to stir the minds of the thoughtful in Rome, is to ignore one of the causes which produced the great exodus that followed. He made men see that they were living in a moral Sodom, and that if they would save their souls they must escape to the desert. The power of personal influence, of inspiring private letters, can hardly be overemphasized in studying the remarkable progress of asceticism. Great awakenings in the moral, as in the political or the social world, may be traced to the profound influence of individuals, whose prophetic insight and moral enthusiasm unfold the germ of the larger movements. There may be widespread unrest, the ground may be prepared for the seed, but the immediate cause of universal uprisings is the clarion call of genius. Thus Luther’s was the voice that cried in the wilderness, inciting a vast host for whom centuries had been preparing.

But Jerome’s fame as a man of learning, possessing a critical taste and a classic style of rare beauty and simplicity, must not blind us to the crowning glory of his brilliant career. He was above all a spiritual force. His chief appeal was to the conscience. He warmed the most torpid hearts by the fervor of his love, and encouraged the most hopeless by his fiery zeal and heroic faith. As a promoter of monasticism, he clashed with the interests of an enfeebled clergy and a corrupt laity. Nothing could swerve him from his course. False monks might draw terrible rebukes from him, but the conviction that the soul could be delivered from captivity to the body only by mortification remained unshaken. He induced men to break the fetters of society that they might, under the more favorable circumstances of solitude, wage war against their unruly passions.

When parents objected to his monastic views, Jerome quoted the saying of Jesus respecting the renunciation of father and mother, and then said: “Though thy mother with flowing hair and rent garments, should show thee the breasts which have nourished thee; though thy father should lie upon the threshold; yet depart thou, treading over thy father, and fly with dry eyes to the standard of the cross. The love of God and the fear of hell easily rend the bonds of the household asunder. The Holy Scripture indeed enjoins obedience, but he who loves them more than Christ loses his soul.”

Jerome vividly portrays his own spiritual conflicts. The deserts were crowded with saintly soldiers battling against similar temptations, the nature of which is suggested by the following excerpt from Jerome’s writings: “How often,” he says, “when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by a burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sack-cloth disfigured my unshapely limbs and my skin from long neglect had become black as an Ethiopian’s. Tears and groans were every day my portion; and if drowsiness chanced to overcome my struggles against it, my bare bones, which hardly held together, clashed against the ground. Now although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, I watered them with my tears, and I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence. I remember how I often cried aloud all night till the break of day. I used to dread my cell as if it knew my thoughts, and stern and angry with myself, I used to make my way alone into the desert. Wherever I saw hollow valleys, craggy mountains, steep cliffs, there I made my oratory; there the house of correction for my unhappy flesh. There, also, when I had shed copious tears and had strained my eyes to heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts and sang for joy and gladness.”

No doubt these men were warring against nature. Their yielding to the temptation to obtain spiritual dominance by self-flagellation and fasting may be criticized in the light of modern Christianity. “Fanaticism defies nature,” says F.W. Robertson, “Christianity refines it and respects it. Christianity does not denaturalize, but only sanctifies and refines according to the laws of nature. Christianity does not destroy our natural instincts, but gives them a higher and nobler direction.” To all this I must assent, but, at the same time, I cannot but reverence that pure passion for holiness which led men, despairing of acquiring virtue in a degenerate age, to flee from the world and undergo such torments to attain their soul’s ideal. The form, the method of their conflict was transient, the spirit and purpose eternal. All honor to them for their magnificent and terrible struggle, which has forever exalted the spiritual ideal, and commanded men everywhere to seek first “the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.”

Jerome was always fond of the classics, although pagan writers were not in favor with the early Christians. One night he dreamed he was called to the skies where he was soundly flogged for reading certain pagan authors. This vision interrupted his classical studies for a time. In later years he resumed his beloved Virgil; and he vigorously defended himself against those who charged him with being a Pagan and an apostate on account of his love for Greek and Roman literature. If his admiration for Virgil was the Devil’s work, I but give the Devil his due when I declare that much of the charm of Jerome’s literary productions is owing to the inspiration of classic models.

Our attention must now be transferred from Jerome to the high-born Roman matrons, who laid off their silks that they might clothe themselves in the humble garb of the nun. As the narrative proceeds I shall let Jerome speak as often as possible, that the reader may become acquainted with the style of those biographies and eulogies which were the talk of Rome, and which have been admired so highly by succeeding generations.

Those who embraced monasticism in Rome did so in one of two ways. Some sold their possessions, adopted coarse garments, and subsisted on the plainest food, but they did not leave the city and were still to be seen upon the streets. Jerome writes to Pammachius: “Who would have believed that a last descendant of the consuls, an ornament of the race of Camillus, could make up his mind to traverse the city in the black robe of a monk, and should not blush to appear thus clad in the midst of senators.” Some of those who remained at Rome established a sort of retreat for their ascetic friends.

But another class left Rome altogether. Some took up their abode on the rugged isles of the Adriatic or the Mediterranean. Large numbers of them went to the East, principally to Palestine. Jerome was practically the abbot of a Roman colony of monks and nuns. Two motives, beside the general ruling desire to achieve holiness, produced this exodus to the Holy Land, which culminated centuries later in the crusades. One was a desire to see the deserts and caves, the abode of hermits famous for piety and miracles. Jerome, as I have shown, invested these lonely retreats and strange characters with a sort of holy romance, and hence, faith, mingled with curiosity, led men to the East. Another motive was the desire to visit the land of the Saviour, to tread the soil consecrated by his labors of love, to live a life of poverty in the land where He had no home He could call his own.

St. Paula was one of the women who left Rome and went to Palestine. The story of her life is told in a letter designed to comfort her daughter Eustochium at the time of Paula’s death. The epistle begins: “If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula. Of the stock of the Gracchi, descended from the Scipios, she yet preferred Bethlehem to Rome, and left her palace glittering with gold to dwell in a mud cabin.” Her husband was of royal blood and had died leaving her five children. At his death, she gave herself to works of charity. The poor and sick she wrapped in her own blankets. She began to tire of the receptions and other social duties which her position entailed upon her. While in this frame of mind, two Eastern bishops were entertained at her home during a gathering of ecclesiastics. They seem to have imparted the monastic impulse, perhaps by the rehearsal of monastic tales, for we are informed that at this time she determined to leave servants, property and children, in order to embrace the monastic life.

Let us stand with her children and kinsfolk on the shore of the sea as they take their final farewell of Paula. “The sails were set and the strokes of the rowers carried the vessel into the deep. On the shore little Toxotius stretched forth his hands in entreaty, while Rufina, now grown up, with silent sobs besought her mother to wait until she should be married. But still Paula’s eyes were dry as she turned them heavenwards, and she overcame her love for her children by her love for God. She knew herself no more as a mother that she might approve herself a handmaid of Christ. Yet her heart was rent within her, and she wrestled with her grief as though she were being forcibly separated from parts of herself. The greatness of the affection she had to overcome made all admire her victory the more. Though it is against the laws of nature, she endured this trial with unabated faith.”

So the vessel ploughed onward, carrying the mother who thought she was honoring God and attaining the true end of being through ruthless strangling of maternal love. She visited Syria and Egypt and the islands of Ponta and Cyprus. At the feet of the hermit fathers she begged their blessing and tried to emulate the virtues she believed they possessed. At Jerusalem she fell upon her face and kissed the stone before the sepulcher. “What tears, she shed, what groans she uttered, what grief she poured out all Jerusalem knows!”

She established two monasteries at Bethlehem, one of which was for women. Here, with her daughter, she lived a life of rigid abstinence. Her nuns had nothing they could call their own. If they paid too much attention to dress Paula said, “A clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean soul.” To her credit, she was more lenient with others than with herself. Jerome admits she went to excess, and prudently observes: “Difficult as it is to avoid extremes, the philosophers are quite right in their opinion that virtue is a mean and vice an excess, or, as we may express it in one short sentence, in nothing too much.” Paula swept floors and toiled in the kitchen. She slept on the ground, covered by a mat of goat’s hair. Her weeping was incessant. As she meditated over the Scriptures, her tears fell so profusely that her sight was endangered. Jerome warned her to spare her eyes, but she said: “I must disfigure that face which, contrary to God’s commandment, I have painted with rouge, white lead and antimony.” If this be a sin against the Almighty, bear witness, O ye daughters of Eve! Her love for the poor continued to be the motive of her great liberality. In fact, her giving knew no bounds. Fuller wisely remarks that “liberality must have banks as well as a stream;” but Paula said: “My prayer is that I may die a beggar, leaving not a penny to my daughter and indebted to strangers for my winding sheet.” Her petition was literally granted, for she died leaving her daughter not only without a penny but overwhelmed in a mass of debts.

As Jerome approaches the description of Paula’s death, he says: “Hitherto the wind has all been in my favor and my keel has smoothly ploughed through the heaving sea. But now my bark is running upon the rocks, the billows are mountain high, and imminent shipwreck awaits me.” Yet Paula, like David, must go the way of all the earth. Surrounded by her followers chanting psalms, she breathed her last. An immense concourse of people attended her funeral. Not a single monk lingered in his cell. Thus, the twenty hard years of self-torture for this Roman lady of culture ended in the rest of the grave.

Upon her tombstone was placed this significant inscription:

“Within this tomb a child of Scipio lies,
A daughter of the far-famed Pauline house,
A scion of the Gracchi, of the stock
Of Agamemnon’s self, illustrious:
Here rests the lady Paula, well beloved
Of both her parents, with Eustochium
For daughter; she the first of Roman dames
Who hardship chose and Bethlehem for Christ.”

Another interesting character of that period was Marcella, a beautiful woman of illustrious lineage, a descendant of consuls and prefects. After a married life of seven years her husband died. She determined not to embark on the matrimonial seas a second time, but to devote herself to works of charity. Cerealis, an old man, but of consular rank, offered her his fortune that he might consider her less his wife than his daughter. “Had I a wish to marry,” was her noble reply, “I should look for a husband and not for an inheritance.” Disdaining all enticements to remain in society, she began her monastic career with joy and turned her home into a retreat for women who, like herself, wished to retire from the world. It is not known just what rules governed their relations, but they employed the time in moderate fasting, prayers and alms-giving.

Marcella lavished her wealth upon the poor. Jerome praises her philanthropic labors thus: “Our widow’s clothing was meant to keep out the cold and not to show her figure. She stored her money in the stomachs of the poor rather than to keep it at her own disposal.” Seldom seen upon the streets, she remained at home, surrounded by virgins and widows, obedient and loving to her mother. Among the high-born women it was regarded as degrading to assume the costume of the nun, but she bore the scorn of her social equals with humility and grace.

This quiet and useful life was rudely and abruptly ended by a dreadful catastrophe. Alaric the Goth had seized and sacked Rome. The world stood aghast. The sad news reached Jerome in his cell at Bethlehem, who expressed his sorrow in forceful language: “My voice sticks in my throat; and as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The city which has taken the whole world is itself taken.” Rude barbarians invaded the sanctity of Marcella’s retreat. They demanded her gold, but she pointed to the coarse dress she wore to show them she had no buried treasures. They did not believe her, and cruelly beat her with cudgels. A few days after the saintly heroine of righteousness went to her long home to enjoy richly-merited rest and peace.

“Who can describe the carnage of that night?
What tears are equal to its agony?
Of ancient date a sovran city falls;
And lifeless in its streets and houses lie
Unnumbered bodies of its citizens.
In many a ghastly shape doth death appear.”

Marcella and her monastic home fell in the general ruin, but in the words of Horace, she left “a monument more enduring than brass.” Her noble life, so full of kind words and loving deeds, still stirs the hearts of her sisters who, while they may reject her ascetic ideal, will, nevertheless, try to emulate her noble spirit. As Jerome said of Paula: “By shunning glory she earned glory; for glory follows virtue as its shadow; and deserting those who seek it, it seeks those who despise it.”

Still another woman claims our attention, Fabiola, the founder of the first hospital. Lecky declares that “the first public hospital and the charity planted by that woman’s hand overspread the world, and will alleviate to the end of time the darkest anguish of humanity.” She, too, was a widow who refused to marry again, but broke up her home, sold her possessions, and with the proceeds founded a hospital into which were gathered the sick from the streets. She nursed the sufferers and washed their ulcers and wounds. No task was beneath her, no sacrifice of personal comfort too great for her love. Many helped her with their gold, but she gave herself. She also aided in establishing a home for strangers at Portus, which became one of the most famous inns of the time. Travelers from all parts of the world found a welcome and a shelter on landing at this port. When she died the roofs of Rome were crowded with those who watched the funeral procession. Psalms were chanted, and the gilded ceilings of the churches resounded to the music in commendation of her loving life and labors.

These and other characters of like zeal and fortitude exemplify the spirit of the men and women who interested the West in monasticism. Much as their errors and extravagances may be deplored, there is no question that some of them were types of the loftiest Christian virtues, inspired by the most laudable motives.

Noble and true are Kingsley’s words: “We may blame those ladies, if we will, for neglecting their duties. We may sneer, if we will, at their weaknesses, the aristocratic pride, the spiritual vanity, we fancy we discover. We must confess that in these women the spirit of the old Roman matrons, which seemed to have been dead so long, flashed up for one splendid moment ere it sank into the darkness of the middle ages.”

Monasticism and Women

The origin of nunneries was coeval with that of monasteries, and the history of female recluses runs parallel to that of the men. Almost every male order had its counterpart in some sort of a sisterhood. The general moral character of these female associations was higher than that of the male organizations. I have confined my treatment in this work to the monks, but a few words may be said at this point concerning female ascetics.

Hermit life was unsuited to women, but we know that at a very early date many of them retired to the seclusion of convent life. It will be recalled that in the biography of St. Anthony, before going into the desert he placed his sister in the care of some virgins who were living a life of abstinence, apart from society. It is very doubtful if any uniform rule governed these first religious houses, or if definitely organized societies appear much before the time of Benedict. The variations in the monastic order among the men were accompanied by similar changes in the associations of women.

The history of these sisterhoods discloses three interesting and noteworthy facts that merit brief mention:

First, the effect of a corrupt society upon women. As in the case of men, women were moved to forsake their social duties because they were weary of the sensual and aimless life of Rome. Those were the days of elaborate toilettes, painted faces and blackened eyelids, of intrigues and foolish babbling. Venial faults it may be thought innocent displays of tender frailty; but woman’s nature demands loftier employments. A great soul craves occupations and recognizes obligations more in harmony with the true nobility of human nature. Rome had no monitor of the higher life until the monks came with their stories of heroic self-abnegation and unselfish toil. The women felt the force and truth of Jerome’s criticism of their trifling follies when he said: “Do not seek to appear over-eloquent, nor trifle with verse, nor make yourself gay with lyric songs. And do not, out of affectation, follow the sickly taste of married ladies, who now pressing their teeth together, now keeping their lips wide apart, speak with a lisp, and purposely clip their words, because they fancy that to pronounce them naturally is a mark of country breeding.”

Professor Dill is inclined to discount the testimony of Jerome respecting the morals of Roman society. He thinks Jerome exaggerated the perils surrounding women. He says: “The truth is Jerome is not only a monk but an artist in words; and his horror of evil, his vivid imagination, and his passion for literary effect, occasionally carry him beyond the region of sober fact. There was much to amend in the morals of the Roman world. But we must not take the leader of a great moral reformation as a cool and dispassionate observer.” But this observation amounts to nothing more than a cautionary word against mistaking evils common to all times for special symptoms of excessive immorality. Professor Dill practically concedes the truthfulness of contemporary witnesses, including Jerome, when he says: “Yet, after all allowances, the picture is not a pleasant one. We feel that we are far away from the simple, unworldly devotion of the freedmen and obscure toilers whose existence was hardly known to the great world before the age of the Antonines, and who lived in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and in constant expectation of the coming of their Lord. The triumphant Church, which has brought Paganism to its knees, is very different from the Church of the catacombs and the persecutions.” The picture which Jerome draws of the Roman women is indeed repulsive, and Professor Dill would gladly believe it to be exaggerated, but, nevertheless, he thinks that “if the priesthood, with its enormous influence, was so corrupt, it is only probable that it debased the sex which is always most under clerical influence.”

But far graver charges cling to the memories of the Roman women. Crime darkened every household. The Roman lady was cruel and impure. She delighted in the blood of gladiators and in illicit love. Roman law at this time permitted women to hold and to control large estates, and it became a fad for these patrician ladies to marry poor men, so that they might have their husbands within their power. All sorts of alliances could then be formed, and if their husbands remonstrated, they, holding the purse strings, were able to say: “If you don’t like it you can leave.” A profligate himself, the husband usually kept his counsel, and as a reward, dwelt in a palace. “When the Roman matrons became the equal and voluntary companions of their lords,” says Gibbon, “a new jurisprudence was introduced, that marriage, like other partnerships, might be dissolved by the abdication of one of the associates.” I have but touched the fringe of a veil I will not lift; but it is easy to understand why those women who cherished noble sentiments welcomed the monastic life as a pathway of escape from scenes and customs from which their better natures recoiled in horror.

Secondly, the fine quality of mercy that distinguishes woman’s character deserves recognition. Even though she retired to a convent, she could not become so forgetful of her fellow creatures as her male companions. From the very beginning we observe that she was more unselfish in her asceticism than they. It is true the monk forsook all, and to that extent was self-sacrificing, but in his desire for his own salvation, he was prone to neglect every one else. The monk’s ministrations were too often confined to those who came to him, but the nun went forth to heal the diseased and to bind up the broken-hearted. As soon as she embraced the monastic life we read of hospitals. The desire for salvation drove man into the desert; a Christ-like mercy and divine sympathy kept his sister by the couch of pain.

Lastly, a word remains to be said touching the question of marriage. At first, the nun sometimes entered the marriage state, and, of course, left the convent; but, beginning with Basil, this practice was condemned, and irrevocable vows were exacted. In 407, Innocent I. closed even the door of penitence and forgiveness to those who broke their vows and married.

Widows and virgins alike assumed the veil. Marriage itself was not despised, because the monastic life was only for those who sought a higher type of piety than, it was supposed, could be attained amid the ordinary conditions of life. But marriage, as well as other so-called secular relations, was eschewed by those who wished to make their salvation sure. Jerome says: “I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins; I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell.” He therefore tolerated marriage among people contented with ordinary religious attainments, but he thought it incompatible with true holiness. Augustine admitted that the mother and her daughter may be both in heaven, but one a bright and the other a dim star. Some writers, as Helvidius, opposed this view and maintained that there was no special virtue in an unmarried life; that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also the mother of other children, and as such was an example of Christian virtue. Jerome brought out his guns and poured hot shot into the enemies’ camp. In the course of his answer, which contained many intolerant and acrimonious statements, he drew a comparison between the married and the unmarried state. It is interesting because it reflects the opinions of those who disparaged marriage, and reveals the character of the principles which the early Fathers advocated. It is very evident from this letter against Helvidius that Jerome regarded all secular duties as interfering with the pursuit of the highest virtue.

“Do you think,” he says, “there is no difference between one who spends her time in prayer and fasting, and one who must, at her husband’s approach, make up her countenance, walk with a mincing gait, and feign a show of endearment? The virgin aims to appear less comely; she will wrong herself so as to hide her natural attractions. The married woman has the paint laid on before her mirror, and, to the insult of her Maker, strives to acquire something more than her natural beauty. Then come the prattling of infants, the noisy household, children watching for her word and waiting for her kiss, the reckoning up of expenses, the preparation to meet the outlay. On one side you will see a company of cooks, girded for the onslaught and attacking the meat; there you may hear the hum of a multitude of weavers. Meanwhile a message is delivered that her husband and his friends have arrived. The wife, like a swallow, flies all over the house. She has to see to everything. Is the sofa smooth? Is the pavement swept? Are the flowers in the cup? Is dinner ready? Tell me, pray, amid all this, is there room for the thought of God?”

Such was Roman married life as it appeared to Jerome. The very duties and blessings that we consider the glory of the family he despised. I will return to his views later, but it is interesting to note the absence at this period, of the modern and true idea that God may be served in the performance of household and other secular duties. Women fled from such occupations in those days that they might be religious. The disagreeable fact of Peter’s marriage was overcome by the assertion that he must have washed away the stain of his married life by the blood of his martyrdom. Such extreme views arose partly as a reaction from and a protest against the dominant corruption, a state of affairs in which happy and holy marriages were rare.

The Spread of Monasticism in Europe

Much more might be said of monastic life in Rome, were it not now necessary to treat of the spread of monasticism in Europe. There are many noble characters whom we ought to know, such as Ambrose, one of Christendom’s greatest bishops, who led a life of poverty and strict abstinence, like his sister Marcella, whom we have met. He it was, of whom the Emperor Theodosius said: “I have met a man who has told me the truth.” Well might he so declare, for Ambrose refused him admission to the church at Milan, because his hands were red with the blood of the murdered, and succeeded in persuading him to submit to discipline. To Ambrose may be applied the words which Gibbon wrote of Gregory Nazianzen: “The title of Saint has been added to his name, but the tenderness of his heart and the elegance of his genius reflect a more pleasing luster on his memory.”

The story of John, surnamed Chrysostom, who was born at Antioch, in 347, is exceedingly interesting. He was a young lawyer, who entered the priesthood after his baptism. He at once set his heart on the monastic life, but his mother took him to her chamber, and, by the bed where she had given him birth, besought him in fear, not to forsake her. “My son,” she said in substance, “my only comfort in the midst of the miseries of this earthly life is to see thee constantly, and to behold in thy traits the faithful image of my beloved husband, who is no more. When you have buried me and joined my ashes with those of your father, nothing will then prevent you from retiring into the monastic life. But so long as I breathe, support me by your presence, and do not draw down upon you the wrath of God by bringing such evils upon me who have given you no offence.” This singularly tender petition was granted, but Chrysostom turned his home into a monastery, slept on the bare floor, ate little and seldom, and prayed much by day and by night.

After his mother’s death Chrysostom enjoyed the seclusion of a monastic solitude for six years, but impairing his health by excessive self-mortification he returned to Antioch in 380. He rapidly rose to a position of commanding influence in the church. His peerless oratorical and literary gifts were employed in elevating the ascetic ideal and in unsparing denunciations of the worldly religion of the imperial court. He incurred the furious hatred of the young and beautiful Empress Eudoxia, who united her influence with that of the ambitious Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, and Chrysostom was banished from Constantinople, but died on his way to the remote desert of Pityus. His powerful sermons and valuable writings contributed in no small degree to the spread of monasticism among the Christians of his time.

Then there was Augustine, the greatest thinker since Plato. “We shall meet him,” says Schaff, “alike on the broad highways and the narrow foot-paths, on the giddy Alpine heights and in the awful depths of speculation, wherever philosophical thinkers before him or after him have trod.” He, too, like all the other leaders of thought in his time, was ascetic in his habits. Although he lived and labored for thirty-eight years at Hippo, a Numidian city about two hundred miles west of Carthage, in Africa, Augustine was regarded as the intellectual head not only of North Africa but of Western Christianity. He gathered his clergy into a college of priests, with a community of goods, thus approaching as closely to the regular monastic life as was possible to secular clergymen. He established religious houses and wrote a set of rules, consisting of twenty-four articles, for the government of monasteries. These rules were superseded by those of Benedict, but they were resuscitated under Charlemagne and reappeared in the famous Austin Canons of the eleventh century. Little did Augustine think that a thousand years later an Augustinian monk Luther would abandon his order to become the founder of modern Protestantism.

Augustine published a celebrated essay, “On the Labor of Monks,” in which he pointed out the dangers of monachism, condemned its abuses, and ended by sighing for the quiet life of the monk who divided his day between labor, reading and prayer, whilst he himself spent his years amid the noisy throng and the perplexities of his episcopate.

These men, and many others, did much to further monasticism. But we must now leave sunny Africa and journey northward through Gaul into the land of the hardy Britons and Scots.

Athanasius, the same weary exile whom we have encountered in Egypt and in Rome, had been banished by Constantine to Treves, in 336. In 346 and 349 he again visited Gaul. He told the same story of Anthony and the Egyptian hermits with similar results.

The most renowned ecclesiastic of the Gallican church, whose name is most intimately associated with the spread of monasticism in Western Europe, before the days of Benedict, was Saint Martin of Tours. He lived about the years 316-396 A.D. The chronicle of his life is by no means trustworthy, but that is essential neither to popularity nor saintship. Only let a Severus describe his life and miracles in glowing rhetoric and fantastic legend and the people will believe it, pronouncing him greatest among the great, the mightiest miracle-worker of that miracle-working age.

Martin was a soldier three years, against his will, under Constantine. One bleak winter day he cut his white military coat in two with his sword and clothed a beggar with half of it. That night he heard Jesus address the angels: “Martin, as yet only a catechumen has clothed me with his garment.” After leaving the army he became a hermit, and, subsequently, bishop of Tours. He lived for years just outside of Tours in a cell made of interlaced branches. His monks dwelt around him in caves cut out of scarped rocks, overlooking a beautiful stream. They were clad in camel’s hair and lived on a diet of brown bread, sleeping on a straw couch.

But Martin’s monks did not take altogether kindly to their mode of life. Severus records an amusing story of their rebellion against the meager allowance of food. The Egyptian could exist on a few figs a day. But these rude Gauls, just emerging out of barbarism, were accustomed to devour great slices of roasted meat and to drink deep draughts of beer. Such sturdy children of the northern forests naturally disdained dainty morsels of barley bread and small potations of wine. True, Athanasius had said, “Fasting is the food of angels,” but these ascetic novices, in their perplexity, could only say: “We are accused of gluttony; but we are Gauls; it is ridiculous and cruel to make us live like angels; we are not angels; once more, we are only Gauls.” Their complaint comes down to us as a pathetic but humorous protest of common sense against ascetic fanaticism; or, regarded in another light, it may be considered as additional evidence of the depravity of the natural man.

In spite of all complaints, however, Martin did not abate the severity of his discipline. As a bishop he pushed his monastic system into all the surrounding country. His zeal knew no bounds, and his strength seemed inexhaustible. “No one ever saw him either gloomy or merry,” remarks his biographer. Amid many embarrassments and difficulties he was ever the same, with a countenance full of heavenly serenity. He was a great miracle-worker that is, if everything recorded of him is true. He cast out demons, and healed the sick; he had strange visions of angels and demons, and, wonderful to relate, thrice he raised bodies from the dead.

But all conquerors are at last vanquished by the angel of death, and Martin passed into the company of the heavenly host and the category of saints. Two thousand monks attended his funeral. His fame spread all over Europe. Tradition tells us he was the uncle of Saint Patrick of Ireland. Churches were dedicated to him in France, Germany, Scotland and England. The festival of his birth is celebrated on the eleventh of November. In Scotland this day still marks the winter term, which is called Martinmas. Saint Martin’s shrine was one of the most famous of the middle ages, and was noted for its wonderful cures. No saint is held, even now, in higher veneration by the French Catholic.

It is not known when the institution was planted in Spain, but in 380 the council of Saragossa forbade priests to assume monkish habits. Germany received the institution some time in the fifth century. The introduction of Christianity as well as of monasticism into the British Isles is shrouded in darkness. A few jewels of fact may be gathered from the legendary rubbish. It is probable that before the days of Benedict, Saint Patrick, independently of Rome, established monasteries in Ireland and preached the gospel there; and, without doubt, before the birth of Benedict of Nursia, there were monks and monasteries in Great Britain. The monastery of Bangor is said to have been founded about 450 A.D.

It is probable that Christianity was introduced into Britain before the close of the second century, and that monasticism arose some time in the fifth century. Tertullian, about the beginning of the third century, boasts that Christianity had conquered places in Britain where the Roman arms could not penetrate. Origen claimed that the power of the Savior was manifest in Britain as well as in Muritania. The earliest notice we have of a British church occurs in the writings of the Venerable Bede (673-735 A.D.), a monk whose numerous and valuable works on English history entitle him to the praise of being “the greatest literary benefactor this or any other nation has produced.” He informs us that a British king Lucius embraced Christianity during the reign of the Emperor Aurelius, and that missionaries were sent from Rome to Britain about that time. Lingard says the story is suspicious, since “we know not from what source Bede, at the distance of five centuries, derived his information.” It seems quite likely that there must have been some Christians among the Roman soldiers or civil officials who lived in Britain during the Roman occupation of the country. The whole problem has been the theme of so much controversy, however, that a fuller discussion is reserved for the next chapter.

Disorders and Oppositions

But was there no protest against the progress of these ascetic teachings? Did the monastic institution command the unanimous approval of the church from the outset? There were many and strong outcries against the monks, but they were quickly silenced by the counter-shouts of praise. Even when rebellion against the system seemed formidable, it was popular nevertheless. The lifted hand was quickly struck down, and voices of opposition suddenly hushed. Like a mighty flood the movement swept on, kings, when so inclined, being powerless to stop it. As Paula was carried fainting from the funeral procession of Blaesilla, her daughter, whispers such as these were audible in the crowd: “Is not this what we have often said? She weeps for her daughter, killed with fasting. How long must we refrain from driving these detestable monks out of Rome? Why do we not stone them or hurl them into the Tiber? They have misled this unhappy mother; that she is not a nun from choice is clear. No heathen mother ever wept for her children as she does for Blaesilla.” And this is Paula, who, choked with grief, refused to weep when she sailed from her children for the far East!

Unhappily, history is often too dignified to retail the conversations of the dinner-table and the gossip of private life. But this narrative indicates that in many a Roman family the monk was feared, despised and hated. Sometimes everyday murmurs found their way into literature and so passed to posterity. Rutilius, the Pagan poet, as he sails before a hermit isle in the Mediterranean, exclaims: “Behold, Capraria rises before us; that isle is full of wretches, enemies of light. I detest these rocks scene of a recent shipwreck.” He then goes on to declare that a young and rich friend, impelled by the furies, had fled from men and gods to a living tomb, and was now decaying in that foul retreat. This was no uncommon opinion. But contrast it with what Ambrose said of those same isles: “It is there in these isles, thrown down by God like a collar of pearls upon the sea, that those who would escape from the charms of dissipation find refuge. Nothing here disturbs their peace, all access is closed to the wild passions of the world. The mysterious sound of waves mingles with the chant of hymns; and, while the waters break upon the shores of these happy isles with a gentle murmur, the peaceful accents of the choir of the elect ascend toward Heaven from their bosom.” No wonder the Milanese ladies guarded their daughters against this theological poet.

Even among the Christians there were hostile as well as friendly critics of monasticism; Jovinian, whom Neander compares to Luther, is a type of the former. Although a monk himself, he disputed the thesis that any merit lay in celibacy, fasting or poverty. He opposed the worship of saints and relics, and believed that one might retain possession of his property and make good use of it. He assailed the dissolute monks and claimed that many of Rome’s noblest young men and women were withdrawn from a life of usefulness into the desert. He held that there was really but one class of Christians, namely, those who had faith in Christ, and that a monk could be no more. But Jovinian was far in advance of his age, and it was many years before the truth of his view gained any considerable recognition. He was severely attacked by Jerome, who called him a Christian Epicurean, and was condemned as a heretic by a synod at Milan, in 390. Thus the reformers were crushed for centuries. The Pagan Emperor, Julian, and the Christian, Valens, alike tried in vain to resist the emigration into the desert. Thousands fled, in times of peril to the state, from their civil and military duties, but the emperors were powerless to prevent the exodus.

That there were grounds for complaint against the monks we may know from the charges made even by those who favored the system. Jerome Ambrose, Augustine, and in fact almost every one of the Fathers tried to correct the growing disorders. We learn from them that many fled from society, not to become holy, but to escape slavery and famine; and that many were lazy and immoral. Their “shaven heads lied to God.” Avarice, ambition, or cowardice ruled hearts that should have been actuated by a love of poverty, self-sacrifice or courage. “Quite recently,” says Jerome, “we have seen to our sorrow a fortune worthy of Croesus brought to light by a monk’s death, and a city’s alms collected for the poor, left by will to his sons and successors.”

Many monks traveled from place to place selling sham relics. Augustine wrote against “those hypocrites who, in the dress of monks, wander about the provinces carrying pretended relics, amulets, preservatives, and expecting alms to feed their lucrative poverty and recompense their pretended virtue.” It is to the credit of the Fathers of the church that they boldly and earnestly rebuked the vices of the monks and tried to purge the monastic system of its impurities.

But the church sanctioned the monastic movement. She could not have done anything else. “It is one of the most striking occurrences in history,” says Harnack, “that the church, exactly at the time when she was developing more and more into a legal institution and a sacramental establishment, outlined a Christian life-ideal which was incapable of realization within her bounds, but only alongside of her. The more she affiliated herself with the world, the higher and more superhuman did she make her ideal.”

It is also noteworthy that this “life-ideal” seems to have led, inevitably, to fanaticism and other excesses, so that even at this early date there was much occasion for alarm. Gross immorality was disclosed as well as luminous purity; indolence and laziness as well as the love of sacrifice and toil. So we shall find it down through the centuries. “The East had few great men,” says Milman, “many madmen; the West, madmen enough, but still very many, many great men.” We have met some madmen and some great men. We shall meet more of each type.

After 450 A.D., monasticism suffered an eclipse for over half a century. It seemed as if the Western institution was destined to end in that imbecility and failure which overtook the Eastern system. But there came a man who infused new life into the monastic body. He systematized its scattered principles and concentrated the energies of the wandering and unorganized monks.

Our next visit will be to the mountain home of this renowned character, fifty miles to the west of Rome. “A single monk,” says Montalembert, “is about to form there a center of spiritual virtue, and to light it up with a splendor destined to shine over regenerated Europe for ten centuries to come.”