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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 8: The Religious Life
Part 1


The religious life also called, in its most ancient and pure form, the "monastic" life is a special form of living highly prized within Catholicism. It is a life dedicated to God while renouncing even good things property, family, personal independence so as to cleave to him the more wholeheartedly and be free for his service. This basic impulse or project of the consecrated life is the same in all periods of Christian history. The various orders which, in canon law, are designated by terminology of a seemingly non-monastic kind (regular canons like the Premonstratensians, founded by Norbert in the eleventh century; friars like the Franciscans, founded by Francis of Assisi in the late twelfth century; clerics regular like the Jesuits founded by Ignatius Loyola in the sixteenth century) are au fond just so many different expressions or applications to special needs of the single monastic impulse in the Church. As Stephen of Muret, founder of the eremitical Order of Grandmont, put it:

In my Father's house there are many mansions, and there are many ways which lead to it. These various ways have been commended in writing by diverse of the Fathers and they are called the Rules of St. Basil, St. Augustine and St. Benedict. These are not the sources of the religious life but only its offshoots. They are not the root but the leaves. The rule from which all others derive, like streams flowing from a single source, is the Holy Gospel.[1]

That statement would have been controverted by the Protestant Reformers. They maintained that there is no clear biblical justification for Christian monasticism. But just as the overall logic of the New Testament writings points toward (for instance) the overt recognition that God is the Trinity, so too there are trajectories in that corpus that point toward Christian monasticism even though the idea of a distinctive consecrated life within the Church may come later.

May come later . . . Yet we know that the idea of a life totally consecrated to God was no stranger to the world of the New Testament. There were Jewish "monks" in the time of Jesus. Historians have always known that there were Jewish ascetics who had hived off from the Temple worship because they disagreed with the priestly party of the Sadducees on theological grounds. Such ultra-pious Jews, practicing renunciation of worldly goods, celibacy, and life in community, were called "Essenes," and were in one sense a radicalized version of the Pharisees. In other words, they were the more radical spiritual descendants of the people who in the time of the Maccabees and afterwards, just before Jesus, had spoken out against the contamination of Old Testament revelation by new-fangled Greek ideas and pagan influence. Until 1947, not much, however, was known of how the Essene communities lived, but in the spring of that year an Arab shepherd boy in the Judaean desert found the cache of documents now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These texts, hidden away by the Essene monks of Qumran in some caves above the Dead Sea at the start of the Roman­Jewish War of. A.D. 68-71, enable us to reconstruct a picture of Jewish monasticism in the time of Jesus. 

The community rule portrays two groups, an inner and an outer, of which only the former were celibates and practiced common ownership off goods. The community was headed by two figures, who divided between them roles of teaching and pastoral care, on the one hand, and of presidency in worship, on the other. The "master" or "guardian" was responsible not only for admitting candidates and looking after their subsequent welfare, in the way of a father and shepherd, but also for teaching them the rule and providing ongoing spiritual instruction. Alongside this "lay (in fact, Levitical) abbot" was a priest, who took charge of the community's cultus. Each night, both the celibate and the married assembled for the studying of the Scriptures and prayer, though only the single could speak. Following the assembly, the priest led a common meal apparently restricted to the monastic household, in which the great communion supper of the messianic banquet was liturgically anticipated. The community's spirituality was focused in the idea that a life lived in concentration on God and in sacrificial renunciation is redemptive and sanctifying. The notion that such qualities as poverty of spirit, humility, and purity of heart are so exalted in the sight of God as to form the true goal of the monastic life is just around the corner.

Are there indications within the New Testament, the sacred writings of the Church of Christ, of such a way of life, at once celibate, poor, communitarian, liturgical, engaged in study of the Word of God, and at the service of his will? The two crucial indications of the development of such an idea are the themes of consecrated virginity and of the common life as peculiarly apostolic life.

Jesus, in discussing with his disciples the topics of marriage and divorce, mentions in a laudatory way that some go to the length of making themselves "eunuchs" for the sake of (dia) the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12). Most probably, this is a praise of celibacy as more harmonious with the kingdom, since the generosity of the voluntary "eunuch" places him or her at the Lord's service in a thoroughgoing way. Again, in the call to the rich young man to sell all that he has in order to follow Jesus, the kingdom-bearer (Matt 19:16-22), Christ treats the life of the poor as chiming with the life of the kingdom. Although there is a place there for the rich, it needs all God's grace to propel them, weighted down with the goods of this world as they are, through the gate of the poor. Paul applauds the freedom of an undivided loyalty that is possible for the man or woman not committed to marriage (1 Cor 7). In the last times, the world is known to be transitory: in this context, celibate life becomes enacted prophecy. The Book of Revelation (14:4) describes the heavenly honor given to celibates because they were willing to follow the Lamb wherever he went. These sources evidently regarded celibacy as an especially blessed state, probably in the sense that its flowering in the Christian community is a sign of the presence of the messianic age, when God is to be all in all. To be able, to live exclusively for God, offering one's sexual powers as a sacrifice to him, accepting joyfully the lack of ordinary human fulfillment because one wants no other partner than God himself, this is a characteristic grace and blessing of the last age of the world when God and. human beings are entering on a new intimacy, a new closeness of covenant relationship.

By the beginning of the second century, the observance of virginity already constituted a sort of profession, a state, that members of the Christian community could take on in facie Ecclesiae. Linked with the apostolic nucleus of the Church through the daughters of Philip prophetically gifted women who, according to the early Church historian Eusebius, persevered in the single state until death such virgins were greeted by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch on his way through Smyrna to martyrdom, and described by the apologist Athenagoras as the

"many men and women who have grown old without marrying in the hope of being of service to God."

In this perspective, it is not the men who went into the deserts of Egypt who originated monasticism, but the men and women who, soon after the resurrection, entered the desert of celibacy "in honor of the Lord." It was via such ascetics in the Churches of Syria, Cappadocia, Egypt, and Africa Proconsularis (present-day Tunisia) that monasticism evolved.

The second relevant New Testament motif (the common life) appears clearly in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. The life of the apostolic community in Jerusalem is prophetic of later communitarian (cenobitic) monasticism. The Jerusalem Church had at its core a group of believers sharing a community life marked by fervent prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist. Acts 2:46 even suggests that the day was structured by the Temple liturgy, in which Jewish Christians at this time were still sharing. Right up to the close of the Middle Ages it was claimed that the religious life simply continues the apostolic life in the Church. This means primarily not a life of missionary activity (in later times, the more usual sense of apostolic) but a life in which Christians persevere in prayer, in community of goods, and in celebrating the Mass. We can safely regard this "apostolic" way of life as the continuance after the resurrection of the life Jesus' friends had shared with their Master during his ministry, with its atmosphere of prayer (summed up in the giving of the Our Father), its common purse (of which Judas was the bursar), and with Jesus himself the Word incarnate, the Bread of Life as its central focus.

So here we find our twofold trajectory: consecrated virginity and the apostolic life both point towards Christian monasticism, towards a baptizing of the kind of life the monks of Qumran lived in a surrender of self to the Old Testament revelation of God. There is even a case for saying that the monastic response, as a radical yes to the person and message of Christ, was the more natural evangelical response, in both its constitutive dimensions. Ascetics enter into the movement of Christ's death and resurrection. Insofar as they let the new life of the kingdom possess them, they become contemplatives, enjoying the intimate experience of the divine presence, and are drawn to a closer union with the rest of Christ's mystical body in the "community," of brothers or sisters who have entered likewise on this way. Whereas the laity have at once complicated and enriched their discipleship through such commitments as marriage, religious are content to be a basic expression of the Church.

Of course the Church of which religious are the basic expression is not the mediocre Church of sociology, the Church of statistically normative Catholics. It is holy Church, the Church "predestined to glory" of Ephesians, the Church of which that letter speaks as made holy and immaculate by Christ's blood, the bride of Christ of Revelation, the mystical body in Paul. The rationale par excellence of the religious life is the manifestation of the holiness of the Church. In both East and West, the rite for monastic profession is considered as a sacramental. Monasticism has a sacramental significance in that the public consecration of religious, as distinctive members of the body of Christ, reveals something about the nature and destiny of that body as a whole. As Karl Rahner put it, if the Church were present in history only through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, she would be a sign, merely, of the grace that is offered by God. But the Church is not only that: she is also a sign of the actual acceptance and the final victory of God's grace. And that she is for Rahner in, principally, two ways: by the phenomenon of martyrdom and through the religious life. Each of these shows the Church forth as a community believing in the last things, aiming at a goal beyond this world, and held in the grip of God's victorious grace in the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Early Monasticism

How did the two motifs of consecrated virginity and common life develop and interrelate in the monastic movement of the later Church? The answer to this question will also illuminate another: namely, how the monks and nuns of the first Christian centuries came to express the various dimensions of their calling (soteriological, Christological, ecclesiological).

Anthony of Egypt is called the father of monks, but we know that he was not the very first. Quite apart from the references to a proto­monasticism already given, we find Jerome of Bethlehem speaking of a hermit, Paul of Thebes, in the Nile Valley prior to Anthony, while the Life of Anthony, by Athanasius, mentions both women ascetics into whose care the young Anthony placed his sister, and, near his village, an old man who had given himself to a life of asceticism from his boyhood. Anthony spent the first phase of his monastic life observing the practices of such believers, learning to imitate the special virtues of each so as to become a model ascetic in the eyes of God. If he stands therefore in continuity with certain predecessors, he also marks a difference from them in that in him the ascetic movement became aware of its own significance in the life of the Church, and found a leader who could attract many others to itself.

A well-to-do Coptic-speaking peasant, Anthony heard in the liturgy the evangelical counsel of perfection given to the rich young man, as well as Christ's appeal to trust in providence ("Be not solicitous for the morrow": Matt 6:34). In a radical step of "withdrawal," he made his abode in some deserted tombs (relics of the flawed pagan religion) where he fought off the "demons" of his disordered thoughts and passions. In the middle period of his monastic life, spent east of the Nile at the "outer mountain," he became in time the leader of an eremitical colony, as others came to join him. From these years we have his discourse on the monk's vocation. His themes were to remain major preoccupations of the Desert Fathers: first, self-knowledge (i.e., identifying the drives or demons that spoil our efforts at charity); second, how to discern whether particular bright ideas are more likely to be divine or diabolic; and third, how to grow in God, into absorption with his presence. Finally, Anthony's thirst for solitude drove him to the "inner mountain," flanking the Red Sea; even here monks came to him for sympathy and advice. Athanasius's Life stresses what a radiant and harmonious person Anthony was. In phrases chosen with an eye to the pagan reader, Athanasius suggests how others groped for comparisons in which to express his marked degree of human integration and fullness of spiritual presence. Indeed, what Anthony represents is celibate asceticism as the way to spiritual perfection. His psychological alertness is not naturalism, for it is lived in the spirit of Jesus' Beatitudes, of the Sermon on the Mount. But as yet the soteriological basis of such a way of life in the mystery of Christ and his sacraments is not clear. Neither is its ecclesiological significance. For that we must look elsewhere.

Anthony's influence in Egypt took different forms in different areas. Some twenty miles from Alexandria lay the partly cenobitic, partly eremitical settlement of Nitria. Founded in 330 by Amoun, a married man who lived in continence with his wife, Nitria resembled a village of scattered houses. On Saturdays and Sundays the monks assembled at the central structure significantly called and consisting of a church, kyriakon, with attendant conventual buildings for their liturgy and common meals. The donations of guests and the making of rope and linen permitted a genuine monastic economy supporting doctors, pastry cooks, and the sale and use of wine.

A lonelier settlement for those in this loose community seeking greater solitude was provided to the south and west. "The Cells" became a settlement of six hundred anchorites, whose houses were so scattered as to be out of earshot of each other, dependent on Nitria for basic foodstuffs, but with their own priest and church. Here the desert began. In marked contrast with traditions elsewhere in upper Egypt with Pachomius and in Cappadocia with Basil the Cells treated the cenobium not as a lifelong vocation but as a launching-pad for a strictly eremitical existence. The monks of the Cells considered themselves called to a life of perpetual solitude, broken only by the visits of those seeking their counsel or by exceptional calls on their charity. It is from them that the majority of wise sayings, or apophthegms, of the Desert Fathers have come down to us.

The collections of the lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers put into words their ascetic ideals and wisdom and allow us to glimpse the qualities that attracted others to them. Benedict recommends those who desire perfection to consult not only the "rule of our holy father Basil" (now thought to be connected with the monasticism of Syria) but also Collectiones patrum et instituta et vita eorum (the Egyptian sources). The desert tradition, as synthesized for the West by John Cassian on his monastic tours, gave later European monasticism its basic understanding of asceticism and penance. These activities are ordered to the acquiring of humility and purity of heart, the whole being held within the unity of an overarching quest for God. Monasticism can thus be understood as the supreme setting for what will soon be called the "practical" life a life of development of the Christian virtues most relevant to salvation and the "contemplative" life a life where mind and heart are increasingly united with the Holy Trinity. The vocabulary of practical and contemplative comes from one of. Cassian's theological mentors, Evagrius of Pontus.

By the time Cassian visited Egypt, the predominant tendency was the Nitrian one of gathering monks into loose communities. Source criticism of the sayings of the Fathers emanating from strictly eremitical cal milieux shows a trend there toward recognizing a common authoritative ascetic tradition and so a movement away from concentration on the individual monk alone with God. Cassian himself was in two minds whether to commend this development: the cenobium is a communion of charity, but it is also a concession to human weakness (the hermit life can prove just too demanding).

Cassian's attitude to the Liturgy of the Hours reflects the same ambivalence. His day, punctuated by five liturgical Offices, would have been impossible in the Cells or further still into the wilderness, the Marsh of Scetis, home of the most intrepid and "extreme" anchorites. But he adopts these Offices out of mixed motives. They are good in themselves but it would be better still for monks to pray and make psalmody unceasingly. Still, feeble human beings need mutual support and the help that set times provide so as to be able to praise God. Benedict, influenced by the experience of the ascetics who gathered round the Roman basilicas, did not take from Cassian this rather low doctrine of the Divine Office. Neither did Augustinian monasticism, as found above all among the regular canons. That tradition was formulated in explicit association with the church and house of the bishop, the principal liturgist of the local Church.

However, the pure eremitism of the monks of the Cells did give to all later cenobitic monasticism one important idea, the "discipline of the cell." Keeping the cell in a spirit of alertness to God and his self­communication in salvation makes of the monk's dwelling a work­shop of prayer.

"The monk's cell is the Furnace of Babylon in which the three young men found the Son of God. It is the pillar of cloud from which God spoke to Moses."[2]

It is the focus of the Shekinah, the tabernacle of God's glory. And yet the sheer physical separation does not of itself make the hermit, any more than the cowl makes the monk. What is crucial is the eremitical attitude: standing before God, with all spirits to be saved in the heart. The true desert is of the heart but the hermit whether the Church recognizes him or her canonically or simply informally dramatizes this condition in a unique way. The hermit life, of all forms of the religious life, seems the least defensible to a socially conscious world. But the hermits themselves understood their vocation as a service to the wider Christendom. As Macarius of Alexandria put it, "I am guarding the walls." We begin to see a concern for the ecclesial significance of monasticism, here expressed as a ministry of holy warfare, or exorcism (negatively, against enemies without) and of intercession (positively, in favor of citizens within).

Far to the south, around Luxor and Thebes in upper Egypt, there grew up, pari passu with the movement in the north, a fully cenobitic monasticism centered on the figure of Pachomius. Pachomius was the first superior administrator cum spiritual leader (one thinks of the guardian, both pastor and teacher, at Qumran) of a strictly communitarian monasticism. Pachomian religious life took the form of alternative village societies with hundreds, possibly thousands, of peasant monks living in a context where mutual service was the dominant spiritual motif and the aural memorizing of Scripiure (heart of the later lectio divina of the Bible) the chief spiritual exercise. Though both the Greek and Coptic lives of Pachomius were written by people who knew his successors rather than the man himself, it seems that he had lived a solitary life after Anthony's fashion until, around 320, he received (according to the Greek Vita prima) a vision that changed his way of seeking the monastic life. It was a sudden overwhelming recovery of his first conversion.

"After this, when he was on an island with brethren cutting rushes for mats, and was himself keeping vigil alone in prayer to be taught the perfect will of God, an angel appeared to him from the Lord saying, 'The will of God is to minister to the race of men, to reconcile them to him.'"[3]

Here we have the kernel of Pachomian monasticism: the creation of a reconciling community where men can be assisted by each other, and above all by the abbot, in the finding of God. Pachomius's disciples remembered him later as ceaselessly thanking God for three personal influences in his lifetime:

"the bishop Athanasius, Christ's champion for the faith even unto death; the holy abba Anthony, perfect pattern of the anchoritic life; and this Community, which is the type of all who desire to gather souls according to God, to take care of them until they be made perfect."[4]

Distinctive of the Pachomian monasteries, and prophetic of the later Benedictine life in the West, were, first, their siting in rich agricultural land; second, their large, even enormous, numbers; third, the role of the abbot as Christ to his monks. Their rule anticipates both Augustine and Benedict in its provisions for weaker brethren, yet maintains a high ideal of observance, with the night Office lasting from midnight to dawn (in Egypt some four hours).

So far our sources have not been very explicit about the Christological dimension of monasticism in the contemplation of the Savior, nor its ecclesiological foundation in the sacramental life of the Church. in these matters Syria is a better guide than Egypt. Some twenty years after the death of Pachomius, a Frankish lady, Egeria, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Among other places, she called at Edessa, in Syria. She noted that there were monks actually living in the city: no self-respecting Egyptian monk would have stayed for more than an afternoon in Alexandria! A variety of Syrian sources report that religious were living cheek by jowl with the laity of towns and villages. The ihidaye, "solitaries" or "single ones," " were central to the Syrian Church, which, at least at times, appears to have regarded a willingness to live in continence as a precondition for baptism. Though it did not repudiate married relations as wrong, the Church there saw monasticism as the sole form of radical discipleship fully compatible with the baptismal consecration. Everyone else should remain catechumens (hence, in the Church but not at its heart). Of particular interest is the vocabulary used. Ihidaye appears to translate not only monachos (one who lives the unmarried, ascetic life), but also (the term used in the Gospels for Jesus' relation with the Father as the "only-begotten" or unique Son). At the baptism, the Father's voice declares, "This is my only Son in whom I am well-pleased," (Matt 3:17) and at the transfiguration, the voice from the cloud of glory says, "This is my Son, the Only One: listen to him" (Matt 17:5). Religious celibacy is, then, for the Syrians, a conformation to Jesus as the Single One: the Unique Son of the Father. The monk can have no other partner, since his entire life and being are invested in a relation with the Father. He is a son in the Son; and just as Jesus, absorbed in the Father's will and work, took no wife, neither will the ascetic. The solitary way thus entails singleness by leaving family and not marrying: single-mindedness, already emphasized by Paul; and a special relation with Christ as the only­begotten Son whom ascetics "put on" in a fuller fashion. Ephrem, reporting an "unwritten" saying of Jesus, "Where there is only a single disciple there I will be equally" comments that Christ said this "to remove from the solitaries all cause for sadness, for he is indeed our joy and he is with us."'

Here then the monastic life receives a clear Christological foundation. But what of its ecclesiological dimension? What was only implicit in Egypt becomes explicit in Syria. The solitaries are bnai qyama, "sons and daughters of the Covenant," members of the Church par excellence. The root of the Syriac noun means "standing," and the implications are twofold. First, the monk as a "stander" stood up for Christ at his baptism, agreeing to fight the holy war with Christ, actively renouncing evil in all its forms. When the bishop summoned the catechumens to take ascetic vows, those who stood up became "standing ones," the exemplary or paradigmatic members of the Church. But second, there was also an angelogical aspect, which we could also think of as doxological, for the task of the angels is supremely the worship of God. The monk stands because the angel does so. As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite has it, "Countless hosts of angels stand before you to do your will." In both Jewish and Syrian-Christian tradition, the angels are heavenly "Watchers" who never sit or sleep since their life is ceaseless praise. In becoming a standing one, the monk shares in their assembly.

The experience underlying religious life, like all Catholic experience, is both one and differentiated. Continuity with Egypt is found among the Syrians in two respects. Living from the sacrament of baptism, the monk fights the holy warfare: as the Desert Fathers had already seen, this warfare consists first and foremost in the struggle with our demons, the destructive powers at work in our own hearts. Till we have identified our own demons we are unlikely to be of much use in dealing with anyone else's. Second, in living the angelic life the religious is called to continual prayer, what the Liber graduum, the earliest Syrian treatise on the Church, speaks of as a perpetual liturgy in the temple of the heart. The monk as a person in whom prayer bubbles up all the time to God: this is also the goal of the asceticism of Egypt.

In the practice of a largely interior monasticism, without external framework of life, the Syrian monks could go missionary, practicing homelessness in the service of the gospel in sharp contrast to the sedentary Egyptians or Benedict and his concern with stability of place. The insistence that a monk can remain a monk even on his travels, and may very especially serve the Lord there, prepares the way for the medieval friars, who, though they have a cloister, are also to be found outside of it, for God's sake and that of the Church. Syrian monasticism had a flexibility that enabled it to serve the wider Church, like the virgins of Revelation, following the Lamb wherever he goes. One reason for connecting the monasticism of Basil to the Syrians (quite apart from the geographic propinquity of Cappadocia to Syria) is that in him we see the monastic impulse being put at the Church's service, in a highly practical way. Though Basilian monasticism is primarily contemplative, it also gives itself to the needs of orphans, the sick, and the poor. While remaining urban, like the majority of the Syrian monks, it moves towards the idea that monks are normally better off spiritually when living with each other, since the hermit "has no one's feet to wash." What we do not find in Basil, however, is the notion that the cenobitic life is a re-creation of the vita apostolica, the ideal community of the Jerusalem Church. A clear perception of that awaits the Latin Catholicism of Augustine.

The interiority of the monastic life in, for instance, Ephrem also points toward the friars who emphasize likewise the experience of God in the heart an openness to God touching us, giving us mystical touches of himself, "consolations." The desire for the sweetness of such mystical graces can be overdone, and lead one to forget the Crucified (as sometimes happens with the modern charismatic renewal) but it can also be underplayed and lead one to forget the risen One (as in some interpretations of the Carmelite mystics of the sixteenth century, which lead to a programmatic rejection of all experiences of spiritual delight).

If the "sons of the Covenant" in Syria frequently assisted the bishop by their teaching and philanthropic work (and not infrequently became bishops themselves), in Augustine we find a North African monasticism that is ordered from the start to the bishop's service. This is not, in the West, an isolated development. Both Cassian and Sulpicius Severus in his Life of the central Gaulish ascetic Martin of Tours suggest the development of ascetic anchoritism into a more structured movement capable of influencing the Church and (especially) the episcopate. Latin monasticism, like Egyptian, builds on the foundations laid by a proto-monastic asceticism (frequently found in the vicinity of famous sanctuaries of bishops). In Augustine's case, the preparation begins with what is virtually a pre-Christian asceticism of high-minded intellectual friends.

After his first, so-called moral, conversion, when he began to lead a chaste life, Augustine, along with a group of like-minded friends, adopted a common life based in a villa, with its surrounding estates. All were philosophically minded, being more than a little tinged with Neoplatonism. They were indeed typically Plotinian Catholics of the Milanese Church, except that a number, like Augustine himself, were simply catechumens, preparing for baptism. The basic feature of this pre-Christian model of celibate corporate life was the search for wisdom through study and discussion. Augustine would refer to it as sacrum otium, "holy idleness." It did involve a serious attempt to become better people: a moral and ascetic context. Still, it was basically a matter of Christian laymen working with a pagan picture of the monastic life.

Augustine's second model of the religious life and one that transformed his theory and practice of it was furnished by the Life of Anthony, and other reports of the goings-on in Egypt. Before his baptism, he met soldier-converts from the imperial city of Trier, where Athanasius had been exiled. In the Confessions he records the impact they made on him.

What most impressed Augustine about the New Testament in this connection was the account of the life of the Jerusalem Church in Acts 4: the community gathered around the apostles, listening to their teaching, celebrating the Eucharist together, having one mind and one soul and all things in common. At the same time, he was aware of the New Testament references to virginity as radical discipleship.

Augustine's theology of the religious life is of a piece with the rest of his teaching in that the leitmotif is unity: unity of Christians; unity of humankind; unity between the person and God. As a pastor, Augustine's main problem had been disunity: the chronic discord, tension, and conflict within African Catholicism which history knows as the Donatist schism. To his eyes, the fact that the three divine Persons share not only a common nature but a common life was highly instructive. Their mutual indwelling brings about an indescribable peace in the inner life of God.[6] This pax unitatis is realized above all in the person of the Holy Spirit, as the bond of unity and peace between the Father and the Son. Not surprisingly, then, he is also said to be caritas, charity itself.[7] The fire of this same Spirit his self-communication to humankind is to be found in the apostolic community, the Church. It is known to be present and active there precisely because the Church is a community, a being together in one: anima una et cor unum in Deum. Such unity of minds and hearts, so Augustine argues, is always the work of grace. It is, after all, not just any old unity, but that unity whereby people move harmoniously toward God. The mediator of this unity is the risen Christ who forms his disciples into a single "soul," modelling them so that they will form the anima una Ecclesiae and, finally, the single soul of the whole Christ, head and members anima unica Christi. Christ sustains our unity in, above all, the Eucharist, which Augustine calls the "mystery of our peace and unity." At the Last Supper, Christ "consecrated the mystery of our peace and unity on his own table."[8] The monastic community represents all this to Augustine: it is an ecclesiola, a micro-Church or the Church in miniature. Because it is not of itself a ministerial expression of the Church, but an embodiment of her as a communion of life, its members may be either lay or ordained indifferently. Hitherto, monasticism had been very largely a lay phenomenon. But henceforth it can be thought of as supremely natural for priests or bishops to be monks also. Augustine's Rule is important evidence for the monasticizing of the Christian priesthood (presbyterate and episcopate) in the West. To read the Rule together with sermons 345 and 346 is to see how Augustine used the example of the Jerusalem Church to encourage the adoption of monasticism among the clergy of North Africa. In this he was not a total innovator. Ambrose had lived a common life with his clergy, as had another Italian bishop, Eusebius of Vercelli, just before him. But now with Augustine this becomes a whole program. In these sermons, Augustine gives an account of his clergy's way of life, and indicates that very few of them had been unwilling to give up all personal property:

"You know . . . that we live in that house which is called the house of the bishop in such a way that we imitate as well as we can those saints of whom the Acts of the Apostles speak: 'none of them said that anything was his own, but all things were common to them.'"[9]

And he finishes by roundly declaring that he will not tolerate in his Church any cleric who does not truly live the "social life," vitam nostram socialem.

"May such a one appeal against me to a thousand councils, may he set sail against me wheresoever he wishes, may he in fact be wheresoever he can, the Lord will help me so that, where I am bishop, he cannot be cleric."[10]

Only those who live the social life reflect the life of the city of God, and so Augustine will have no cleric, sub­deacon, deacon, or priest who prefers the individualism (and by implication egoism) of the earthly city to the corporate (and by implication charitable) life of the city of God.

This did not mean, however, that Augustine eliminated the element of lay monasticism from his communities. All his clergy were monks but not all his monks were clerics. In De opere monachorum Augustine attacks monks who refuse to do manual labor, arguing that the distinctive marks of the monk are absorption in prayer and in the Word of God, together with the labor of one's hands. On the other hand, monks who are also clerics are entitled, as ministers of the Word of God, to live by the gospel. They may eat their bread gratuitously, receiving it from those to whom they preach "gratuitous grace." But it would be better still if they also did some manual work at certain times, and thus like Paul contributed to their upkeep. Augustine admits, though, that given pastoral demands, this may be impossible in practice.

Augustine's Rule falls into two parts. The first chapter states in a nutshell his basic vision of the monastic life: unus in uno ad unum one together in the one Christ, in the way to the one Father (though that phrase actually comes from the Enarration on Psalm 147). For Augustine, the term monachus, so far from expressing a hostility to human ties, indicates the ideal of integration into a community.

"They who live in unity in such a manner that they constitute one man are rightly called monos that is, one alone. In them is verified what Scripture says, 'One soul and one heart': many bodies but not many souls, many bodies but not many hearts."[11]

The rest of the Rule consists of concrete applications: Chapter 2 considers common prayer. Chapter 3 considers the common meal with an emphasis on the special needs of the weakly and sick. Chapter 4 deals with inner purity and the responsibility of each monk for all the rest. Chapter 5 describes the spirit of service in such things as clothes, illnesses, and the lending of books. Chapter 6 recommends the preservation of concord by avoiding what could be harmful. Chapter 7 investigates what counts as charity in relations involving authority. And in chapter 8 Augustine offers some concluding words of incentive to this common life.

In his treatise On the Customs of the Catholic Church, Augustine ascribes to the monastic life love, holiness, and freedom. Its holiness is composed of love (i.e., social life) and freedom (i.e., under grace). The Rule sees its subject not only from the angle of the common life of Acts. It also takes its color from the Letter to the Romans, where Christians are described as set free from sin to be made slaves of God, living by his grace rather than law, and with their bodies placed at the service of righteousness, for their sanctification, which ends in eternal life. The unity which the Rule celebrates is not just group feeling. The perfect unity of the city of God is a future reality, which is why Christians must be not only amatores unitatis but amatores aeternitatis.

Is it possible to synthesize the material we have been looking at in order to produce an overall view of the monastic institution as it emerges from the New Testament through the later Church? We can say that, although the motifs of celibacy and the common life are originally distinct, they tend increasingly to converge inasmuch as people come to regard common life as a safeguard for celibates providing them with a possibility of fraternal correction (as with Cassian), or a way of turning their energies to the service of the Church (as with Basil), or a necessary training ground (as with Benedict). By the same token, the common life is seen as a life, essentially of celibates, and even, thanks to the influence of the notion of the discipline of the cell, of solitaries. A writer of the twelfth century will see the start of the monastic life in the "reclusion" of the disciples in the cenacle, after the ascension. It is a life simultaneously together and alone, alone by habitual prayer, together by common concord.

The concept of remaining unmarried for the honor of the Lord would lend itself not only to the fixed, geographically stable, existence of the hermit, but also to the more mobile, and even missionary, activities of the Syrian solitaries. Lacking impedimenta, they could travel light in the Church's service. However, the common life could also be devoted to that service: both as a manifestation of the Church's identity as a communion of charity (as in Cassian), or by enabling monks to take on institutionalized works of charity (as in Basil), or in constituting a resource for pastoral work and theologically informed preaching (as in the clerical monks of Augustine).

The foundations of monasticism in various relevant dimensions of Christian doctrine particularly the doctrines of sanctification and salvation, of Christ and his sacraments, and of the Church became gradually more apparent. In Anthony, the anchoritic life, where self-knowledge and knowledge of God advance in tandem, is a providentially created manner of laying hold on the sanctifying grace and (in hope) final salvation given by God. In Pachomius, monasticism is the instrument of the wider divine purpose to reconcile human beings with God and in this way stands at the center of the new covenant in Christ. In the Syrians, the monk is a son in the Son, and his life is plenary living out of the life in Christ given in baptism. In Augustine (anticipated to some degree by Cassian and Basil) the monastic community is the expression of the archetypal Church: the Jerusalem Church of Acts, gathered by the teaching of the apostles, structured by "the Prayers," or Hours, and centered on the breaking of bread, the Eucharistic Lord.

The parallel development of these insights into the soteriological, Christological, and ecclesiological basis of the religious life brings in time a recognition that the monastic life is very much a liturgical life. It celebrates the mysteries of salvation in the liturgical cycle; it celebrates Christ as the mediator of the liturgy, our great high priest; it celebrates the Church as his beloved partner, with the liturgy the voice of his bride. Thus the way is prepared for Benedict's declaration that to the opus Dei (the Mass and Office) nothing should be preferred. Among the canons regular and such mendicant orders as the Dominicans, this insistence is qualified by the need to make space for urgencies in the cure of souls or doctrinal preaching, yet in each case the clerical brothers are professed, significantly, "for the choir," while the nuns are indistinguishable in their liturgical life from those following the Rule of Benedict.

If the liturgy is, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the source and summit of the Church's life; if it is the most inward form of our covenant response to God in Christ and the anticipation of the life of heaven, then both hermit and cenobite must find their deepest identity within it. The first testifies to its invisible reality (the presence of the heavenly Church to the earthly), the second witnesses to its visible reality (the solidarity of the earthly Church on its way to heaven). The monastic life is a full-time ritual-symbolic liturgical existence, memorializing through day and night that remembrance of God which the liturgy proper celebrates at set times and in limited places.



1. Stephen of Muret, Book of Sentences, prologue.

2. Sayings of the Fathers, Anonymous Collection, no. 206. For the theology of the cell, see L. Gougaud, "Cellule," Dictionnaire de spiritualité 8 (Paris, 1938) cols. 396-400.

3. First Greek Life of Pachomius, 23.

4. Ibid., 136.

5. Ephrem, Commentary on the Diatessaron 14.24.

6. Augustine, Letter 238.

7. Augustine, Tractates on John 14.9.

8. Augustine, Sermon 272

9. Ibid., 345.2, with an internal citation of Acts 4:32.

10. Ibid., 346.4.

11. Augustine, Enarration on Psalm 132 6.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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