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Early Christian monasticism parallels what we saw about the forest ascetics in India.  It appeared in Egypt in areas very much influenced by Gnostic thought, which would account for an often extreme asceticism as isolated individuals seemingly competed in the rigors to which they put their bodies in order to liberate their souls from evil.  Another factor playing a role was the cult of the martyrs, which saw instant entrance to heaven for those who had been put to death for their faith.  As Roman persecution ended, "dying to the world" as a monk for some became an equivalent.  Originally these desert monks were hermits or loners, but quickly monastic communities were formed, and the idea of a monastery spread north.  In remote areas, such as Ireland, monks preserved knowledge of Greek even as it disappeared in Italy, and everywhere in Europe, as new tribal groups replaced the Romans, monasteries were typically the only places where one might find literate individuals. 

Saint Benedict, who lived at the turn of the sixth century, formulated a set of rules that set the standard for European monasticism throughout the Middle Ages.  A key to the lifestyle of the monk, who ordinarily committed himself to a particular community for the rest of his life, was expressed in the Latin phrase ora et labora (pray and work).  Prayer above all was the chanting of the liturgical hours (the divine office, as it was called, consisting of the Psalms and other passages from the Bible) beginning before dawn and continuing at different times until the early evening.  Work was all that it takes to maintain what in effect was a small village as well as the copying and illustration of manuscripts.  Most monasteries were for men only, although, as in the Buddhist world, there were communities of women.  All monks were expected to take vows committing themselves to lifelong poverty, chastity, and obedience (they could not own private property, they were to remain celibate, and they were to follow the directives of the individual who was elected head of the monastery).  Only some would become priests but all were considered to be "religious" who were then outside the control both of the local bishop as well as whatever government otherwise existed.  Because in order to chant the scriptures one had to be able to read them, young men who wanted to become monks had to be literate, and one result was that anyone who wanted his son to get an education in order to gain a governmental post would have him live with the monks in order to be taught his Latin (still the only common language in Europe and virtually the only language as yet in written form). 

A Benedictine monastery in early France or Germany or Italy would very much resemble a Buddhist monastery in China or Japan.  It often was a fortress refuge from banditry, and it was often enough the only civilizing influence in areas that were characterized by vicious local warfare.  Understandably, as in Asia, a Western monastery might slip considerably from its ideals.  We already learned about Hui Neng, the future Sixth Patriarch who had to flee for his life and even then faced threats of assassination from men who supposed were on the road to enlightenment.  Benedict himself had formulated his rule in response to the failings he had seen in his own monastic training, but this still did not prevent his own monasteries from having worldly abbots who lived very luxurious lives or ordinary monks who were just as capable of violence as their Chinese counterparts.  Throughout the Middle Ages various reformers would appear who would attempt to develop more austere and prayerful communties (the Cistercians were an example), and as European religious unity came to be threatened more mobile religious communties were formed by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. 

The Reformation spelled an end to monasteries in Protestant Europe as well as in the England of Henry VIII.  Martin Luther, himself a priest in the Augustinian monastic order in Germany, had rejected celibacy for the clergy and this alone would have meant an end to the type of celibate community he had belonged to, but a more signficant factor was that with newly emerging ideas of nationalism a Catholic monastery, with its rich holdings of land, was both an obstacle and an appealing target.  The fact too that the printing press made the monks' scriptorium (the area where manuscripts were recopied by hand and usually elaborately illustrated) obsolete as well as the fact that nationalism dictated an end to Latin as a liturgical language (the language used in religious ceremonies) meant that the principal cultural role of the monastery was over.  This combined with the Protestant emphasis on Bible reading and a rejection of the cults dealing with the Virgin Mary and the saints meant that religious services became very different, and in a way all churchgoers were expected to live in a more ascetic manner. 

The Benedictines of Saint Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo in the high desert past Palmdale remain an example of  the ideals Saint Benedict proposed fifteen hundred years ago.  They welcome visitors, especially at the time of their fall festival in late September, and any of you who would want to get a greater feeling for what their world is about might want to make the drive and attend services at their chapel. 

Monasteries and convents do need to be seen as poltical structures in their own right.  For a fictional portrayal that also reflects the persistence of old Gnostic traditions in medieval Europe, read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose or rent the 1986 film with Sean Connery.  For a nonfictional account of convent life before the Second Vatican Council rent the Audrey Hepburn film The Nun's Story.  To better understand what attracts someone to monastic life, there is no better book than the enormously influential Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

Monasticism has continued to play a dominant role in the Greek and Russian Orthodox worlds as well as in Ethiopia and the Mideast, and it remains important in the Roman Catholic world even as other types of religious communities proliferated, and it has even been revived to some extent in the Protestant world.  In the last few years there has been an increased interest in the monastic life among Catholic and Orthodox men and women.  Does this withdrawal from the world seem like an excuse to escape from ordinary responsibilities--or do you think the monk or nun (especially the individual committed to what is called a contemplative lifestyle) can have a positive influence on the world around?

Janwillem van de Wettering is a Dutch mystery writer who as a young man traveled to Kyoto and was allowed to live in a Zen monastery even though he did not share Buddhist religious beliefs (his account is in a wonderful little book entitled The Empty Mirror) .   Given Zen teaching, this is not particularly surprising.  However, do you think it would make sense for a Buddhist to have made a similar trip to spend time in a Catholic monastery?  In thinking through your answer, what do you see as the difference--or the connection--between spirituality and religion in the sense of an organized structure of beliefs and practices?