Christian Monasticism And Its Place In History -- By: Ian C. Hannah

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 076:301 (Jan 1919)
Article: Christian Monasticism And Its Place In History
Author: Ian C. Hannah


Christian Monasticism And Its Place In History

Ian C. Hannah

Very many and very varied were the influences that helped to mold the infant church of Christ. The deeply religious trend of ancient Jewry, the noble philosophy of cheerful Greece, the ideals of the sorrow-loving East, the imperial spirit of mighty Rome, — all had their share.

While Greece found God in everything, and deified the lovely earth she knew, Asia had long ago come to the conclusion that matter is essentially evil, that flesh is very vile, and therefore the world is to be fled. Five hundred years earlier than the days of Christ such conceptions had inspired Gautama Buddha to give a rule to monks and nuns, but that was very far from being the first institution of monasticism. Christ eating and drinking amidst the busy haunts of men had been accepted as a far nobler figure than John the Baptist fasting in the wilds. Asceticism was largely foreign to the early spirit of the church, though the ideal may find much support in the New Testament itself, particularly in such passages as the seventh chapter of First Corinthians. But after three centuries, or less, had passed since the birth of Christ, when pagan monks, apparently in Egypt first, had seen the light, the ideal spread through Christendom with great rapidity, from end to end. Very shortly we find Christian monks pursuing their most varied avocations amidst the dense forests of northern Europe, on the hot sands of Sahara, and by the treeless rocks beside the Nile; under the towering mountains of far Armenia and in the lonely rock islands of the Atlantic off the remotest Irish shores.

It is one of the most striking paradoxes of all time that this Eastern system, aiming only at the highest conceivable religion, did far less for personal holiness than for reconstructing the civilization of the earth. Those who fled

the world in despair became its rulers. The spiritual descendants of those who spurned the earth’s noblest culture became the chief agents in laying the foundations of our yet more material civilization. The monk as civilizer is a far more obvious figure in history than the monk as saint. Modern Europe is a monument of the cloister.

In surveying the long story of Christian monasticism, at least four great periods may be descried. The first is connected with such great names as those of Basil and Jerome; interest is centered chiefly in the countries washed by the eastern Mediterranean. Gradually the ascetics got complete control of the church. This was against their earliest ideal. The first monks were laymen, and Cassian1 declares that their desire for holy orders s...

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