Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do the Monks of old have anything to teach us today?

St. Francis of Assisi

Trends in the church can often arise as a reaction to some sort of behavior that some find questionable or objectionable. Modern worship music is a great example of one of those reactions. It is a younger generation's reaction to what they found to be a stoic and boring form of worshiping God through song. Then there were the resulting "Worship Wars" when the Traditional camp reacted to what they saw as a shallow and irreverent form of worship. And many other trends that we see today are these same types of reactions. Whole denominations and Christian movements have been (and continue to be) formed based on these reactions. It really isn't a new phenomena within the church.

One of the groups of people within the greater church that I never really understood were monks. The image I had whenever I thought of monks was the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the monks were chanting and hitting themselves over the head with boards. But then a funny thing happened while I was studying early church history. I started to view Monasticism–the formal name for living as a monk–as a movement as a reaction to objectionable behavior.

Christianity was basically illegal in the Roman Empire until the year 313 A.D. It was at this point that Constantine signed an Edict that allowed for other religions to be legal within the Empire. Then in the year 380 A.D. Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. It was within this environment that Christian Monasticism started to flourish as a movement within the church.

To be sure, Monasticism in general and Christian Monasticism existed prior to this date. But prior to this time it was mostly made up of individuals that went off to live on their own. Many combined this with taking the radically obedient steps of giving up the comforts of life and living at a subsistence level. They wanted to fully devote their time to doing ministry work. But now there was a flood of new people into the church because Christianity is suddenly the official religion it led to a very serious set of issues within the church. Justo González gets right at the heart of the matter:

"When the church joins the powers of the world, when luxury and ostentation take hold of Christian altars, when the whole of society is intent on turning the narrow path into a wide avenue, how is one to resist the enormous temptations of the times? How is one to witness to the Crucified Lord, to the One who had nowhere to lay his head, at a time when many leaders of the church live in costly homes, and when the Ultimate witness of martyrdom is no longer possible? How to overcome Satan, who is constantly tempting the faithful with the new honors that society offers?"*

And in many ways these questions are not only valid today but they may in fact be more relevant for those of us in the modern Western Church.

González goes on to point out that many people ended up leaving everything behind and taking up a life of solitude. Soon we see a whole Christian Monastic movement that takes hold and starts to resemble what we think of today when we think of monks and nuns living in a monastery. These people were reacting against Christianity becoming an institution of the government and people converting because they thought they should in order to be good citizens rather than because they found the truth in Christianity. While I might disagree with their methods, I do greatly admire their reasons and passions to separate themselves from the world. That passion is something that we still need today in the church. And those questions that González identifies as being important to the Monastics back in the 300s are ones that we should be continually asking of ourselves today.


*Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1984), 136-7.


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