The Church in the Middle Ages – The Rise and Contribution of Monks


The blog posts over the past couple of months have journeyed through the first few centuries of our family heritage as Christians. For the month of March, we now move into what is often labeled the “Middle Ages” or “Medieval Period” (essentially 500-1500). I feel like this period is often overlooked in church history, similar to the era of American history from the Civil War to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (the 1870’s-1900 is often called “The Gilded Age”). That is a time of mostly forgotten presidents, but there were key developments in that era that paved the way forward in American history. Similarly, there are some key developments in our family heritage as Christians in the medieval age of church history. This week we will hopefully learn a little more about our ancestors who were monks.

The Birth of “Monkery” Business

There were monks prior to the middle ages, with Antony of Alexandria (251-356) often seen as the first monk. He gave up his possessions and embraced an ascetic life, becoming a hermit. He fasted and prayed regularly, eating only bread and drinking water as he was in the desert of Egypt battling the desires of his own sinful heart. He became something of the prototype of the Christian ascetic, in part because Athanasius (mentioned in the last post) wrote a biography of his life. Antony and other monks tried to avoid people and focus on silence and prayer but were viewed as famous celebrities of the early church, which led to a problem as people would seek to come out and meet these individuals who were trying to get away from people! 

There was also another type of monk that emerged, one who did not live by himself but rather in a community since often one is more vulnerable to the attacks of the devil when alone. Pachomius (who lived in the early 300s) was a key leader in this movement, which would lead to monasteries. Another person who influenced the monastic ideal was Basil of Caesarea (329-379) who wrote a Rule of Discipline that has guided monasticism in Eastern Orthodoxy. Benedict (480-c.550) of Nursia (which is in north central Italy) also formed a community and wrote a rule that would be the organizing principle for Western monastic orders; women would also join the order and live in convents. In this rule, a person would undergo a year of testing to determine if this person would be admitted to the monastery. The monk would then take a three-fold lifelong vow of poverty, celibacy, and obedience (to the abbot, the leader of the group) and stay in the community for the rest of life. Their lifestyle would be one of prayer and work — they would pray and worship seven times a day and engage in hard manual labor to take care of the needs of the monastery (collecting firewood, cleaning, preparing meals, etc.).

The Motivation and Views of Monks

More people seemed to become monks after Christianity became a legal, and then the favored, religion. This seems to be the case because they no longer had to take Jesus’s commands as literally to be willing to give up one’s own life — there were no longer martyrs in the Roman empire. These monks became martyrs of a different type, as they would give up worldly comforts and seek to get away from the dangers of the world. At times these movements would create multiple levels of spirituality, with the monks being viewed as the “more spiritual” since they were engaged in spiritual practices. It should be noted, however, their lives were not directed at the service of others, but rather to save one’s own soul through a life of contemplation, prayer, and spiritual disciplines; this was seen as a more certain way to salvation. 

Ironically, this movement designed to wage war by removing oneself from the world began to be weighed down by some of the common trappings of the world. Because people respected the monks, many would give money, gifts, or land to monasteries in exchange for “praying for my soul.” In fact, monasteries would often be the wealthiest places and have political power. These practices led to some cynicism and eventually to some reforming order of monks that sought to reclaim the spiritual vision. For example, there was a reform within Benedictine monasticism called the Cluniac Reforms (910) that sought to return it to the spiritual ideals. Mendicant orders also emerged as responses to monks in the 1200’s, with these groups having friars who lived out their call in service to society rather than in isolated communities. Two of the most notable groups (with individuals labeled as friars) were the Franciscans (founded by Francis in 1209) and the Dominicans (founded by Dominic in 1216). The Francisicans were committed to poverty, preaching, and penance, seeking to serve the world by helping the poor and encouraging people to confess their sins. The Domincians were similarly committed to poverty and preaching, but their focus was less on penance and more on the defense of the faith, seeking to convert people to the faith and refute heretics; the Dominicans would often become the theologians of the church. The Carmelites and Augustiniains are some other orders from this time period.

Later Developments and Contributions

The monks played a key role in the history of the church in the middle ages, and their influence extends to today. They served as scholars and key leaders in the church and they helped to preserve the faith and learning in the midst of warfare and disease. They also served as missionaries that brought the church to new places. These individuals sought to take their faith seriously and can serve as inspiration for us to be willing to sacrifice everything as we seek to follow Jesus. Of course, there are ways in which they may have gone to extremes in their commitment to follow Christ. It is a reminder that even healthy impulses and desires can end up in places that we did not intend.

At times, however, the motivations from their behavior may have sprung from an impulse in all of us to do things to earn God’s favor rather than relying upon His grace to save us. To be honest, that is why the Protestant tradition is often uncomfortable with the monastic movement. However, we also need to recognize that there are monks that wrote and pointed to God’s grace, such as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). 

We know that our friends and families are imperfect people, but we still stand in relationship with them. Similarly, there are things we admire and also things we  disagree about when it comes to our ancestors known as the monks. But the bottom line is that the monks are part of our family heritage as Christians.

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