08 February 2011

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (2)

The Rise of the Monastic Movement

"You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height...." ~ St. John Chrysostom

In my previous posting, I wrote, briefly, about the legitimacy of monasticism, suggesting that whatever its abuses, it is still worth trying to understand. I also suggested the possibility that such a life could be rendered consistent with Reformed theology.

It's worth asking why men and women went out into the desert in the first place, since that's were monasticism began (and why we still call it "desert theology").

When we look at the first three hundred years of church history, we find the existence of what we could call proto-monastic communities. These communities were based upon and organized around ascetical principles which were in turn based upon the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Take, for example, Luke 9.63 where Jesus calls people to a radical form of discipleship, requiring death to self: "If anyone comes after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever shall save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."

As another example, in Matthew 19 Jesus told the rich young ruler, "If you want to have eternal life, sell everything you have and come, follow me."

In Paul's epistle to the Galatians, he wrote, "I have been crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live, but not I, Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."

Some think that the communities of widows mentioned in Acts and the epistles to Timothy continued into the second and third centuries, and, with a few changes, were transformed into convents. Perhaps. What is clear is that for quite some time there was in Christendom, East and West, a long standing ascetical ideal, which laid the groundwork for what became monasteries and convents.

It was during the third and fourth centuries that the turning point occured in the monastic movement. During this period, the movement took on a new life in which large numbers of men and women departed the cities for the deserts. By the end of the fourth century there were thousands of people living in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

If we ask what happened in the fourth century which caused this explosion of men and women taking up residence in desert communities, the answer just has to be Emperor Constantine's conversion. Whether or not it was a true conversion it had, inarguably, certain undeniable effects. (I try to make it a habit not to question whether anyone's profession of Christian faith is genuine or not. The only thing we can assert about a professing Christian is that when he talks about his faith what he says accords, or does not accord, with orthodoxy. And that's it. But I digress.)

In 312 AD, Constantine defeated Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. According to one tradition, anyway, Christ appeared to Constantine in a dream with the sign of the cross and a message. Constantine was to go into battle with the monogram of Christ's name (Chi Rho) on the shields and helmets of his soldiers. By that sign, he would conquer. Constantine did as instructed, won the battle, and gave Christ the credit for his victory.

From that time on, Constantine began granting favors to the Church in ways never before seen. Almost right up to that time, Christians had been undergoing severe persecution, at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian. That persecution was the worst general persecution from the Roman Empire that Christians had ever seen. Christians were sought out, beaten, roughed up, and even killed for their faith. Churches throughout the Empire were broken into by Roman soldiers. The soldiers confiscated Bibles, tore down altars, and assaulted the clergy. Thousands were murdered during this time.

Suddenly, the new Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared himself a Christian. At that time, Christians amounted to anywhere from three to ten percent of the Roman population. It is difficult to imagine that Constantine saw some political advantage to professing faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, this reversal of fortunes brought great joy to the church. Unfortunately this reversal of fortunes was not without its down-side.

As martyrdom declined, and earthly prosperity increased, people became, or seemed to become more worldly. Christians began to lose sight of the second coming of Christ, believing that nothing but good times were ahead. With Constantine's favor lavished on the Church, people began joining the Church and professing faith for the obvious social benefits involved in doing so. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the official state religion of Rome. Sadly, this meant that Romans were going to church, but not understanding the liturgy, or the theology of the Church.

As to worldliness, even some of the bishops who survived the persecutions of Diocletian now lived lives of luxury in beautiful homes with lovely wardrobes. The churches were swelling with large numbers of people. The worship services began to change. The simple liturgy became ever more elaborate. Ecclesiastical garments were embroidered with brightly colored (and therefore expensive) cloth. Services lasted longer and longer, even for hours in some cases. Thousands were attending worship; but few understood the faith at all.

In response, the Church began an elaborate educational program, the catechumenate, to teach people about the faith before they would be permitted to be baptized. Sometimes, as many as three or four years of Christian education would be required before entry into the Church. Gone were the days when one could be baptized into the faith on a mere profession of faith.

The peace which resulted from Constantine's conversion resulted in a laxity which many found distressing. The Church, in the opinion of many, was very unhealthy. And radical illness calls for radical remedies. In the eyes of many (including myself), as the needed remedy, God raised up a spriritual army of lay men and women to protest the compromise of the Church who would, and did, make themselves "eunuchs" for the sake of the kingdom (see Matthew 19.12). This spiritual army reminded the Church that the kingdom is not of this world.

It is interesting, and important, to note that the monastic movement was not a result of the clergy meeting together to determine a way to renew the Church. No renewal committee created what became the monastic movement. Judging from appearances alone, it was a spontaneous movement among laity. Judging from some of its more savory results, it was a movement of the Holy Spirit in the world, working through unremarkable lay people, most of whom were illiterate. But they understood the message of the gospel, in many respects better than the educated clergy.

Christ calls men and women to take up the cross and follow him, to die--to the world, to the flesh, and to the devil. That is what these men and women sought to do. They went into the real desert in order show those still living in the city how to live a "desert life" inside city walls, how to die to self.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 5, St. Anthony of Egypt


Nora said...

I like this particular series better than the economics/political ones.

As someone who's always grasping at the "to die to self" (still out of reach) instruction, I can relate to this series much more, and appreciate you expounding on your belief, as well.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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