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Monasticism is living a life of religious seclusion. The philosophical basis of monasticism is neither Jewish nor Christian. According to Jewish belief, God created man for society, and therefore there is nothing contaminating in it. Jesus himself was no ascetic. Nor did he hesitate to mingle with people, even with the outcasts of society. He taught that sin is in nothing that is external to man, but has its seat in the heart. He made no fixed rules of conduct.

Monasticism probably began during the 3rd century. When the church was made popular by the action of Constantine, many who really were not Christians, but were pagans at heart, entered the Church. With the advent of these new Christians, many of the really religious sought to escape from the Church to avoid contamination.

The earliest monks were hermits, who lived alone. The hermit movement began in Egypt and spread to Syria. This form of asceticism was never popular in western Europe because the climate was too cold during many months of the year.

Soon communities of hermits began to appear. From these communities of cenobites there evolved the monastic organisation. The first monastery of western Europe was organised in the 4th century on the Isle of Lérins, near Cannes. When St. Benedict organised the famous monastery at Monte Cassino near Naples in 528, the monastic movement became a definite part of he life of Europe.

The Cluniac reforms of the 10th century greatly stimulated the movement, leading to the formation of such orders as the Cathusians in 1084, Cistercians in 1098, Premonstrants 1120, and the Carmelites of 1156.

Monasticism furnished the missionaries who Christianised western and northern Europe. Monasteries were centres of learning. Monks cleared and cultivated lands and taught by example the dignity of labour in an age that exalted the warrior. They preserved and transmitted the civilisation of Rome to the barbarians, and they copied and wrote books. Monasteries were the hotels of the Middle Ages. Monks cared for the poor and the sick. They were the greatest builders of the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, monasticism has its dark side also. There are many periods of decadence in its history. The principles of monasticism are opposed to the dignity of the family and to the proper position of women in society. During the Middle Ages, the best human talent was frequently drawn into the monastery and thus lost to the state.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
23 June 2002


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