The medieval Knights Templar
are routinely referred to as ‘warrior monks’ because they blended the asceticism and piety of medieval monks with the intensity and zealotry of the crusading knight. Their monastic lifestyle was heavily influenced by the Cistercian order, which was, at that time, led by St. Bernard
who wrote the original Latin Rule of the Templar order. As a Knight Templar in the York Rite of Freemasonry and a Frater of the Rose and Cross
, I had done only a minimal amount of research on monasticism, but with getting more involved with the Apostolic Johannite Church
and the Oblates of the Temple and St. John, I've started looking more and more into the practice and I can't say, that amid the chaos of the world, that it hasn't crossed my mind that living in an isolated monastery wouldn't be the worst thing for me.
Monasticism isn’t a cooky-cutter tradition and is found not just in Christianity, but also in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Manichaeism, and Jainism, and as such it is hard to have a definition that truly covers all facets of monasticism in all of these religions. A definition would need to be very broad and leave the particulars to a specific religion. One that I found is:
“Religiously mandated behaviour (orthopraxy), together with its institutions, ritual, and belief systems, whose agents, members, or participants undertake voluntarily (often through a vow) religious works that go beyond those required by the religious teachings of the society at large.”
Some practices are universal practices such as asceticism which is “a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals.” It is important to note that while monasticism incorporated asceticism, it does not mean that all forms of asceticism are monastic. Seclusion is also universal, but may take different forms. Some types of monasticism are completely isolated (as seen in early monasticism) while some may be located near towns/villages, but are secluded within a walled sanctuary. Celibacy is not universal to all monastic orders, but a clear majority of monastic traditions do practice celibacy. Celibacy shouldn’t be practiced to spite the rite of marriage or conception (as some have seen it), but rather a practice is to rid oneself of material distractions and as a show of one’s love to God. One last characteristic that seems universal across monastic traditions is that it doesn’t exist in societies that lack written religious text. Christian monasticism developed early in the history of Christianity, but it is not mentioned in the Scriptures.
The word “monasticism” is derived from the Greek word “monachos” meaning “living alone”. Men who practice monasticism are monks and women are referred to as nuns. While monasticism is found in various world religions, the focus of this article is that found in Christianity and then primarily Western Christianity. To its practitioners, Christian monasticism is a way of life, a vocation from God where one sought a state of freedom from the material world and to reunite with God. Although monks and nuns are or were often viewed as extreme in their practices, they were instrumental in preserving and transmitting knowledge, skills, cultural goods, arts and sciences, and artifacts through the generations.
As Christian monasticism developed and evolved, regulations were created. These regulations would become known as “Rules,” the most famous of which is the Rule of St. Benedict, the Rule of St. Augustine, and the “Masters Rule”. Monastic life, as regulated by the Rules, usually consisted of prayer (lots of praying), reading, studying, and manual labor.
Within Christian monasticism, monks were considered equal in status, and although some were called to serve in various offices of the monastery, authority rested solely in the title, not the man himself. Depending on the time and the rule they followed, in addition to the Abbot, you could also find the following positions:
Almoner: Manages the alms to the poor
Cantor: Supervises the choir
Cellarer: The logistician of the monastery
Chamberlain: In charge of clothing
Circuitor: In charge of discipline
Hegumen: In charge of several monasteries in a given jurisdiction in some forms of monasticism; sometimes called an “Archimandrite.”
Infirmerer: In charge of the sick and elderly
Kitchener: In charge of food preparation
Librarian: Keeper and manager of the books
Mother Superior: in charge of an abbey or convent of nuns.
Prior: A high officer in a monastery, under the abbot; often used with military orders and mendicant orders
Sacrist: In charge of everything holy; second only to the prior and sub-prior
Treasurer: In charge of the monies and manages the properties of the monastery
It should be noted that monks can be both laymen and clergymen. Often monks who were priests were known as “hieromonks.” I would also like to note that Oblates are laypersons who are affiliated with a monastery but are not monks. Oblates helped extend the Rule of their respective monastery to other regions, churches, parishes, and other organizations. If one is seeking admission to be a monk, they are first referred to as a postulant before being a novice for a predetermined period of time.
“Monastic life is the Christian life in its fullness.”
Rome becomes Christian
To understand how Christian monasticism came about and evolved, I will briefly discuss the earliest years of Christianity following the Crucifixion and Ascension of Jesus Christ. With the Apostolic Age (years between the ascension of Christ to the death of the last of the 12 Apostles) came a great amount of missionary work and the spread of Christianity throughout and beyond the Greco-Roman Empire. By the end of the First Century, 40 known churches were established. Originally considered a sect of Judaism, a decade after Jesus, the term "Christianity" was used to describe this movement and Christian converts included not just Jews but gentiles.
Originally, persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire was sporadic, but the first recorded act of persecution by an Emperor was in 64 AD by Nero who blamed the Great Fire of Rome on Christians. It was during the first year of the reign of Emperor Trajan Decius that the most fierce persecution occurred, but his reign was short-lived. However, with the outbreak of a plague, Christians in several areas of the Roman Empire were blamed and persecuted. Persecutions of Christians also occurred under Emperor Valerian and Emperor Diocletian, the latter had Christians arrested, tortured, burned, starved, and used as a sport in gladiatorial games. With the rise of Constantine to the imperial Tetrarchy in 306 AD and then becoming sole Emperor in 324 AD, policies and edicts much more tolerant to Christians were issued such as the Edict of Milan (313 AD) which occurred after Constantine's vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge. A year after Constantine became sole Roman Emperor, the Council of Nicaea convened to determine the formal beliefs of and to unify Christianity. While Constantine was tolerant of Christians, he did not convert until his deathbed in 327 AD. It wasn't until the Edit of Thessalonica (380 AD) was issued during the reign of Theodosius I that all pagan worship was outlawed, and Christianity took over as the religion of the empire.
The end of persecution and the legalization of Christianity meant that martyrdom was no longer a primary option for one to prove their piety and faith in Christ. Rather than being persecuted and tortured as the Savior and the Apostles were, some Christians took to the ascetic life as a "long-term martyrdom." Once Christianity became mainstream or an accepted religion within the Roman Empire, some saw laxity among the common worshipper and so sought to seclude themselves therefore to dedicate themselves solely to God and maintain a rigid orthodoxy.
Desert Fathers and Christian Eremitism
While there are examples of what could be called "proto-monasticism" and secluded monks, monasticism as we know it today didn't exist until the end of the 3rd Century. Some early Christians chose to imitate the Savior and his 40 Days in the Desert by secluding or isolating themselves from society and living in the desert, but Jewish Prophets and Patriarchs like Enoch, Melchizedek, and Elijah were important role models for Christian monasticism.
At first, these "Desert Fathers" (as they are known now as) lived ascetic lives as hermits which is the first form of monasticism "eremitism". The etymological root of "Hermit" is the Greek word "eremites" which means "person of the desert." Some of the earliest practitioners of eremitic monasticism were Paul the Hermit, Pachomius of the Thebaid, and St. Anthony the Great, the latter of which is called the "Father of Christian Monasticism." These Desert Fathers lived a solitary life, though sometimes they had visitors who adored them and wished to emulate them.
This eremitic monasticism focused more on a rigorous, but contemplative life. It was a tough life to live as you had to protect and provide for yourself. Depending on the location, nearby villages would furnish the hermit with food and provisions, but that wasn't always the case.
St. Anthony the Great (251 AD to 356 AD) was a native of Alexandria (Egypt). At the age of 15, he chose the life of the hermit and remained in the desert for the next 90-years of his life. Purely hermit-like in the beginning, he eventually established a colony that allowed for their protection and to better organize them. These early communities though were loosely organized and had no hierarchies nor administrative links to a mother institution. It is interesting to note that the Monastery of St. Anthony in Egypt (334 km southeast of Cairo) is the oldest Christian monastery in the world.
Development into Communal Life
With this development of communities, cenobitic monasticism was born. Cenobitic is rooted in the Greek words "koinos" meaning "common" and "bios" meaning "life." The development of this form of monasticism is given to Pachomius of the Thebaid (290 AD to 346 AD), a follower of St. Anthony. Aside from the greater protection, it gave the monks, this form was considered superior to eremitic monasticism as there was more obedience practiced and as a group, a hermit was less likely to stray from doctrine and practice anything considered heretical by the church.
Cenobitic monks lived in individual huts or rooms, but worked, ate, and worshipped in a shared place. These communities were often a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall. Some of these monasteries would contain up to 30 houses that could each hold up to 40 monks. These houses were often divided according to the work the monks would perform for the monastery (carpentry, farming, etc.). This form made monasticism very industrious and thereby reduced the reliance monks had on the charity of the public.
Basic guidelines or "Rules" began to emerge that dictated a monk’s daily life and even established communities for women. It was during this time that the term Abba was first used to describe the head of the monastery. Abba comes from the Syriac meaning "Father" and where we get the English "Abbot."
Pachomius's model became so successful that he began establishing them all over Egypt and by the time of his death in 346 AD, there were said to be around 3,000 communities in Egypt. From Egypt, cenobitic monasticism spread to the Levant, North Africa, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Roman Empire, and even as far East as India and China. Within a generation of Pachomius's death, the number of communities had grown to 7,000. St. Jerome, known for the Latin translation of the Bible, later translated the rule of Pachomius into Latin.
East vs West
Before going into the spread of monasticism to Western Europe, I want to briefly touch upon monasticism as practiced in Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. Both Eastern and Western monasticism traces their origins back to St. Anthony the Great and Pachomius of the Thebaid, but just as there are differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, so too are their difference between their forms of monasticism.
While most Western Christian monasticism utilized the cenobitic monasticism, a third form was created called skete which combined the best aspects of both eremtic and cenobitic monasticism. Within skete monasticism, the practitioners would pray privately for the week, and then on Sunday (as well as on Feast Days), they would assemble together. St. Theodore of Egypt, a follower of Pachomius, is considered the father of skete monasticism, but St. Basil of Caesarea is considered the founder of monasticism within the Eastern Orthodox churches.
St. Basil traveled throughout the Holy Land and Egypt where he visited several monasteries. He was impressed by the rules laid down by Pachomius. St. Basil wrote his own regulations which emphasized a unified community and strong central leadership. St. Basil’s Rule was strict but not severe (in comparison to the Desert Fathers).
While in the West, monks were not always clergy, in the East monasticism became inextricably linked to the clergy and in most Orthodox churches it became law that all bishops must be monks.
Eastern Christian monasticism still exists today and since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a resurgence has occurred in the former Soviet states allowing many empty or defunct monasteries have been reopened.
Spread to Europe
Monasticism grew out of the Middle East and to the rest of the Roman Empire through its existent infrastructure. The most well-known figures of monasticism in Western Europe were Martin of Tours, John Cassian, and Honoratus of Marseilles. Some date the introduction of monasticism to the West to a visit to Rome by St. Athanasius in 340 AD who was accompanied by two monks who were followers of St. Anthony the Great. Others believe that monasticism came to the West through John Cassian. Martin of Tours was a pagan convert to Christianity and established monasteries in Milan, Liguge, Poitiers, and Marmoutiers near Tours. Honoratus would establish monasteries in Lérins (an island near the city of Cannes). John Cassian started as a monk in the Middle East, but moved to Gaul (now France) and established monasteries in Marseilles. John published his “Institute and Conferences” which had influenced the Rule of St. Benedict.
The first non-Roman country to adopt monasticism was Ireland. Monasticism in Ireland was unique as it developed a form closely related to its rural clan system. Irish monasticism more closely resembled the monasticism found in Egypt rather than in mainland Europe. As Ireland was not conquered by the ancient Roman Empire, it was unaffected by its fall and so did not develop in the same way the rest of Western Europe did.
Irish monasteries became the spiritual focus or center of the clan or tribes. These monasteries were often on lands granted by the local nobility and many of the abbots and abbesses were members of the noble family; this was done due to legal traditions to keep land within the family. In many ways, abbots were considered superior to church bishops and were the supreme authority of the monastery. Bishops were usually located in urban centers and Ireland was primarily rural. Some monasteries were just for men, some just for women, and a few were mixed.
Irish monasticism spread to Scotland and northern England before spreading to places like France and Italy. Monasticism spread rapidly through Ireland and then to the British Isles. When Benedictine monks traveled to the British Isles in 597 AD, they had found Irish monasteries well established.
Rule of St. Benedict
After the rules of Pachomius and St. Basil, the Regula Magistri or Master’s Rule was considered one of the most important rules of monasticism in Western Europe. It was believed to have been written somewhere south of Rome around 500 AD (though the precise date is problematic). It was composed of 95 chapters, 20 of which were dedicated to the Divine Office (also called Canonical Hours or Office of the Hours). This rule added legalistic elements that were not found in earlier rules, defining the activities of the monastery, its officers, and their responsibilities in great detail. Historically, this rule was never used in any specific monastery, but was an influence on the Rule of St. Benedict.
St. Benedict of Nursia is considered one of the most important monks of Western monasticism and is considered the Patron Saint of Europe. Benedict was from a noble family, but after meeting a monk chose to be a hermit for a few years before becoming an abbot of a monastery in Vicovaro. Apparently, his governance was severe as the monks tried to poison him and, according to legend, each attempt was defeated by some miraculous intervention. He established several monasteries throughout Italy, but his most important achievement was the publication of what would be known as the “Rule of St. Benedict” in 516 AD (although some date it to 530 AD).
His rule is composed of 73 chapters which are similar to the Master’s Rule in what they define. It was considered a middle ground between individual zeal and formulaic institutionalism (functional, yet practical) which caused it to be very popular and become one of the most used rules in monastic life. In the final chapter, St. Benedict acknowledges and applauds the Rule of St. Basil, but St. Benedict’s Rule was clearly influenced by the Master’s Rule, St. Augustine, John Cassian, and Pachomius.
Its popular adoption was not just due to its content, but also because it was sponsored by Pope Gregory I (who was a Benedictine monk) and Charlemagne the Great (who was educated by a monk), the latter had it copied and distributed throughout the Holy Roman Empire. His Rule has been utilized for 15 centuries by several monastic orders and knighthoods including the Knights Templar.
Even though it came to Western Europe long before him, but because of his Rule, St. Benedict is considered the “Father of Western Monasticism” and his Feast Day is celebrated on March 21 (the anniversary of his death).
Evolution of Monasticism
Monasticism continued to evolve, adapting to the environment it existed in. The stability and exemplary conduct of the monasteries attracted many bright minds and it was during this time that monasteries became storehouses and producers of knowledge. Lords and nobles started giving land and monasteries became wealthy.
In some instances, monks didn’t have to work the land, but had a non-monastic workforce that left more time for the monks to study and pray. Subjects that were studied included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, arithmetic, chronology, the Holy Places, hymns, sermons, natural science, history, and especially the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Monasteries became centers of education. In many locations, monastic schools led to the establishment of a university in the region during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Monasteries even started taking charge or began social services such as medical, healthcare, and education. Having such farming operations, monasteries led the development of agricultural techniques to include fermentation (wine), brewing (beer), and distillation (alcohol).
Monks even contributed to the arts as a way of praising God and one example of this is the Gregorian chant (a favorite of mine).
Royal and noble families also utilized the monasteries for housing their children. For daughters, it was a place to educate them in an environment where they could remain chaste. For the second sons, it was a bit less pleasant as monasteries were used to keep the second sons from any inheritance. Political prisoners were also kept at monasteries, depending on their crime and social status. Monasteries also provided refuge for those who were tired of the troubles of life (as seen with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor who retired to Yuste monastery in Spain in his late years). Several monasteries are comparable to modern retirement homes for nobility.
As the religious and geopolitical landscape continued to change so too did monasticism. In the 11th century, you see the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern/Greek Orthodox Church. Many monasteries had accumulated a great amount of wealth and relaxed the ideals/principles of monasticism which earned them the criticism of many across Christendom and new orders emerged such as the Cistercians that focused more on the manual labor of the monks and more austere life. The term “Cistercian” comes from the word “Cistercium” which is Latin for Citeaux (near Dijon) where the order was founded.
Around this time, you also saw the rise of mendicant orders such as the Franciscans or Dominicans. Mendicants (practitioners were called friars) were ascetics like monks, but instead of isolating themselves, mendicant orders were dedicated to traveling and living in urban areas as their primary mission was preaching, evangelizing, and ministering to the poor. Where monasticism was about finding a personal, private way to devote themselves to God, mendicants were all about the public service to others.
Some mendicant orders would also provide other services to the church thought they may have called it a public service. The Dominicans were an order established to preach the Gospel and oppose heresy. This order would become known for running the Inquisition (today called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and is still a part of the Roman Curia of the Vatican). The Dominicans were instrumental in the attack on the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusades.
For good or bad, mendicant orders were contributed to the colonization of the new world, eastern Asia, and the South Pacific. In these places where only diplomatic relations existed or even where Western powers had conquered the land, governance was often truly centered on the Friars and not the civil government. If you are interested in this subject area, I’d recommend “Noli Me Tángere” by José Rizal.
The Crusades and Warrior Monks
Like most of Europe, monasteries faced attacks by Vikings in the 9th through the 11th centuries, and you saw the emergence of professional fighting forces and the mounted knight during this time. After the abatement of the Viking invasions, many soldiers were unwilling to put down the sword. The Viking invasions had militarized Europe and there were many Lords who were willing to buy their swords to form their own army to force their will upon the peasants and to attack other nobility. This resultant savagery led the Church to establish rules that these knights must live by or face ex-communication. Pax Dei (Peace of God) was established in the 10th century and proclaimed that certain individuals, particularly the defenseless (peasants and clergy), should not be attacked by knights. Treuga Dei (Truce of God) was established in the 11th century and proclaimed that certain times should be void of fighting by knights (such as the Sabbath Day). The Truce of God seemed particular to focus on preventing Christian knights from fighting each other. These helped the Church redirect the knight’s fighting energy and stem the violence of private wars in a Feudal society. This redirection would soon be pointed towards the Middle East when a call for help came from the Byzantine Emperor and that led to the Crusades. The Crusades would see the emergence of a new monk: the warrior-monk.
Once the call from the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, the Pope convened the Council of Clermont in southern France in November 1095 where he urged the masses commoner and nobility alike to defend and retake the Holy Land. This call was taken up by many, the most well-known cheerleader of the First Crusade was Peter the Hermit, an Augustinian monk.
After the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, many knighthoods were established such as the Teutonic Knights, Knights Hospitaller, and the Knights Templar who were called warrior-monks. Like traditional monasteries, Templars took oaths of poverty and lived ascetic lives. Their commanderies/preceptories were also their monastery. The Templars, in their early formative years, were championed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk, who was the nephew of Andre de Montbard. St. Bernard would go on to write the Rule of the Knights Templar which was heavily influenced by the Rule of St. Benedict. This military monasticism became very popular and the membership of these orders swelled in the 12th and 13th centuries.
These military monks have changed from protection through isolation to protection through warfare.
The Decline of Monasticism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation
Up to the 14th century, Europe was starting to climb out of the darkness left in the wake of the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire, but then economic downturn, political instability, and disease started occurring. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the population had grown around 250%, and finding good land to farm is hard and only the elite, the nobility and church, own the land. The climate started to cool off as well and it got wetter which shortened the harvesting season and decreased food production. Starvation became an issue, particularly for the peasants who became malnourished, and which stunted their growth. People begin moving to cities and urban centers looking for work and food. The cities become overcrowded with malnourished and weakened people, and Europe is about to be ravaged by the Black Death.
Officially known as Yersinia pestis, the Black Death was a bubonic and pneumonic plague. It was carried by fleas who infected rats who, in turn, infected humans. It spread so rapidly due to the established trade infrastructure of Europe as well as by refugees. Ships carried the plague into a port where the sailors and merchants would disembark to go see their families or go to bars (or brothels) where they spread the infection.
It hit Italy around 1347 before it hit France the following year and England after that. Once infected, life expectancy was 1.8-days. The Italian writer Boccaccio said that its victims "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.” Hygiene was poor and with poor health, it is not surprising that it killed so quickly. The response was also poorly handled as the church dictated that bodies couldn’t be burned, and the mass casualties just exasperated the spread of the plague. The church also said that the Black Death was God’s Wrath on mankind. One-third to half of the population died and this had a massive impact on religion, society, education, technology, and the economy.
Economically, the Black Death destroyed serfdom. Before the plague, serfs were tied to the land of a lord and were in a contract (which could last generations). After the plague, there were fewer people to work, and workers now had more choices. Aristocrats had to start paying and treating the workers better than before. Former peasants could now find better jobs and could even amass wealth. With fewer people, this also prompted people to find or invent mechanisms to do work with fewer people (necessity is the mother of invention).
Within society, the survivors now had more choices as so many had died, more jobs were now available. You also see that a fear of an early death leads to early marriages and consummation. Some even adopt the Carpe Diem (Seize the Day) mentality where debauchery and partying become commonplace; what we would call YOLO today. A negative impact on society is that they looked for a scapegoat for the disease and it usually fell upon a minority or outcast group such as the Jews or Romani.
Many have a crisis of faith and begin to criticize the religious institutions: if they were doing the right thing then this should not have happened. Zealotry in religion and society occur and this is seen with the emergence of the flagellant movement. These zealots would travel city-to-city whipping themselves to atone for everyone’s sins. The irony was that they were likely to further spread the plague than stop it.
If the plague wasn’t bad enough, you saw a great amount of political violence occurring during the same time. You see the arrest and dissolution of the Knights Templar and its properties. The Hundred Years War surrounded the elites fighting over the crown of France. With this war, you see the decline of the mounted knight and the rise of the use of archers and canons on the battlefield. The common people were getting sick of war as they often suffered no matter who won, and uprisings started happening in England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Italian city-states.
The Roman Papacy is both a religious and global power, but is facing criticism from within and without because of some glaring corruption and big bureaucracy that ran the church throughout all of Christendom. Bribery was commonplace and nobility could impact even papal elections. In 1305, the Avignon Papacies began with Clement V who was, in my opinion, a puppet of King Philip of France. Clement didn’t want to move to Rome and his successor John XXII decided to stay in France as well. This leads to other nations denouncing the French Papacy. This leads to the Great Schism where Cardinals in Rome elect a new Pope and now there are two Popes then a third Pope is elected. They excommunicate each other and cause a great deal of confusion within the church. No one truly knows which Pope is valid and Bishops don’t know who to follow.
Some may not see this as a positive, but wealth became concentrated in fewer hands. This allowed the wealthy to patronize the arts. Trade was also improved and opened to new areas which then exposed the West to new advancements such as in math (the use of Arabic numerals instead of Roman). Both the increase in art and trade helped launch the Renaissance.
As seen with the Templars, nations, and monarchies were being threatened by the changing environment and by the wealth and power of religious orders. The depopulation caused by the Black Death couldn’t support the monasticism that existed before the plague. Less population to pull from, competition with mendicant orders, relaxation of monastic rules, and poor leader, it was inevitable that monasticism declined in both membership and appeal.
In 1517, Martin Luther, a former Augustinian monk, published his 95 Theses on October 31st in Wittenberg, Saxony, which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism emphasized active engagement in the world rather than seclusion. In most Protestant nations, monasteries were closed, their members mistreated, and their lands and assets seized by the state. The closure of so many monasteries disrupted parish activity. In response, the Council of Trent was convened in 1545 which reformed, centralized, and attempted to revitalize monasticism and save Catholicism against the rise of Protestantism. Monasticism continued to play a role in Catholic-controlled nations, but in Protestant and Anglican states, they were only a memory.
Monasticism would face possible extinction again with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars ravaged France and Europe, but monasticism would also see a revival in the 19th century among Protestants and Anglicans. Surprisingly, the first Anglican monastic movement was started by women.
The Legacy of Monasticism
Monasticism has impacted our modern world in a variety of ways and much of Western civilization owes its life to the monks of medieval Europe. The biggest example that I want to highlight is our education system. Many modern universities are built in the gothic style of 12th-century monasteries, but this isn’t the only way. Anyone who has attended a college graduation ceremony should be aware of the cap and gown used by faculty and graduates alike and how they can become more and more elaborate as one advance in degrees. Most may be unaware of the history of such regalia though. Looking back at the establishment of medieval universities, monks played an important part in the continuation of education and knowledge, but medieval universities offered an alternative pathway to knowledge rather than adopting the strict monastic lifestyles, one could simply attend the university and then return to their life once one graduated. However, in the early years of medieval universities before monastic schools were displaced, most professors/teachers were priests and/or monks. As seen with the history of monasticism, monks wore robes (of various colors) that dictated their order and priests wore robes as well that signified their religious status. So today, as we graduate, we wear robes/gowns of differing colors and cuts to differentiate the school we studied under, the degree we are receiving, and the university we attended.
While many see Christianity as oppressive and antithetical to the progress of knowledge, monks were critical to keeping the flame alive during the dark ages. The fact that so many ancient documents were written or preserved through monasteries is another way that our education system today was influenced by monasticism.
Monasticism has also left a legacy of agricultural and culinary development, pharmaceutical and medicinal development, and the precursor to social services.
In the post-Protestant Reformation world, monasticism declined and, in many areas, died out, but interest in monasticism has increased since the second half of the 20th century though that is primarily through the laity and oblates; for the former Soviet States, not only has an interest has grown since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but membership has increased.
Whether in decline or revival, monasteries still rely heavily upon the support of the laity, but this isn’t anything new. Medieval monks still needed a non-monastic workforce to work the lands, to trade with, and in some area areas for sustenance (as seen with the Desert Fathers). As an Oblate of the Temple and St. John, I find it my duty to serve my church and the congregation. The biggest monastic value is hospitality and making everyone feel welcome.
In today's world where governments provide a whole host of social services, I'm not surprised that mendicant orders had to change and completely rely on their respective church for their continued existence. With the revival and rise of Gnostic Christian churches such as the Apostolic Johannite Church, I can see the need for a monastic order that assists in spiritual mentoring and publishing contemplative books.
Monasticism is a living thing and must adapt to its environment. In this modern world of advancing technology and instant gratification, monasticism must still adapt, but the motivation of monasticism remains the same: the love of God and the desire to be a devoted servant of the Logos as best we can in this imperfect life.
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