Let us now look again at the monks. Their way of life was at first devised as a means of either practising repentance for sin, or rising to such a height of holiness as was supposed to be beyond the reach of persons busied in the affairs of this world. But in course of time a change took place. As the life of monks grew more common, it grew less strict; indeed, it would seem that whenever any way of life which professes to be very strict becomes common, its strictness will pretty surely be lessened, or given up altogether. People at first turned monks because they felt that such means of holy living as they had been used to did not make them so good as they ought to be, and because they hoped to do better in this new kind of life. But when the monkish life was no longer new, monks neglected its rules, just as those before them had neglected the rules which holy Scripture and the Church had laid down for all Christians.
In the unhappy days which had now come on, the monasteries of the West had in great measure escaped the evils of war and conquest which laid waste everything around them. The barbarians, who overwhelmed the empire, generally respected them; and now the life of monks, instead of being chosen for its hardships, as it had been at first, came to be regarded as the easiest and the safest life of all. It was sought after as one which would free people from the dangers to which they would be liable if they remained in the world, and took the common share of the world's risks and troubles.
Another important matter was this--that monkery had taken its rise in Egypt and in Syria, where the climate and the habits of the people were very different from those of the western countries. And a great part of the monkish rules were fitted only for the particular circumstances and character of the eastern nations;--for instance, they could do with less food than the people of the West, so that a writer of the fifth century said, "A large appetite is gluttony in the Greeks, but in the Gauls it is nature." Again, the Egyptians and the Syrians, in their hot climate, did not need active employment in the same way as the western nations do, in order to keep their minds and their bodies healthful. They could spend their hours and their days in calmly thinking of spiritual things, or of nothing at all, in a way which the more active mind of Europeans cannot bear. And again, many rules as to dress, which are suitable for one sort of climate, are quite unfit for a different sort.
Now the earlier rules for monks had been drawn up either in the East or after eastern patterns. And although, when they were brought into the West, people for a time obeyed them as well as they could, it was found that they would not obey them any longer when the first heat of zeal for monkery had passed away. Hence it followed, that, throughout the monasteries of the West, there was a general neglect of the rules by which they professed to be governed; and it was high time that there should be some reformation.
A reformer arose in the sixth century. This was Benedict, who was born near Nursia, in Italy, in the year 480. At the age of twelve he was sent to school at Rome, under the care of a nurse, as seems to have been usual in those days. He worked hard at his studies, but the bad behaviour of the other boys and young men at Rome so shocked him, that, when he had been there two years, he resolved to bear it no longer. He therefore suddenly ran away from the city, and, after his nurse had gone a considerable distance with him, he left her, and made his way into a rough and lonely country near Subiaco, where he took up his abode in a cave. Here he was found out by a monk of a neighbouring house, named Romanus, who used daily to save part of his own allowance of food, and to carry it to his young friend. The cave opened from the face of a lofty rock, and the way that Romanus took of conveying the food to Benedict was by letting it down at the end of a string from the top of the rock.
Benedict had lived in this manner for three years when he was discovered by some shepherds, who at first took him for some wild animal; but they soon found that he was something very different. He taught them and others to whom they made his abode known, and his character came to be so much respected in the neighbourhood that he was chosen abbot of a monastery. He warned the monks that they would probably not like him, but they were resolved to have him nevertheless. Their habits, however, were so bad, that Benedict felt himself obliged to check them rather sharply; and the monks then attempted to get rid of him by mixing poison in his drink. But he found out their wicked design, and the only reproof which he gave them was by reminding them how he had warned them not to make him their abbot. With this he left them to themselves, and went quietly back to his cave.
His name now grew more and more famous. Great multitudes of people flocked to see him, and even persons of high rank sent their sons to be trained under him. He built twelve monasteries, each for an abbot and twelve monks. But there was a spiteful monk, named Florentius, who would not allow him any peace so long as they were near each other; so Benedict thought it best to give way, and in 528 he left Subiaco, with some companions, and, after some wanderings, arrived at Mount Cassino. There he found that the country people still worshipped some of the old heathen gods, and that there was a grove which was held sacred to these gods. But he set boldly to work, and, notwithstanding all that could be done to oppose him, he cut down the grove, destroyed the idols, and built a little chapel, from which in time grew up a great and famous monastery, which still exists. And at Mount Cassino he drew up his Rule in the year 529; so that the beginning of the monks of St. Benedict was in the very same year in which heathen philosophy came to its end by the closing of the schools of Athens (p 143).
PART II (AD 529-543)
Benedict had seen the mischief which arose from too great strictness of rules. He saw how it led to open disobedience and carelessness in some, and to hypocritical pretence in others; and therefore he meant to guard against these faults by making his rule milder than those of the East. It was to be such that Europeans might keep it without danger to their health, and he allowed it to be varied according to the circumstances of the different countries in which it might be established.
Every Benedictine monastery was to be under an abbot, who was to be chosen by the monks. The brethren were to obey the abbot in everything, while the abbot was charged not to be haughty or tyrannical in using his authority. Next to the abbot there might either be a "provost," or (which Benedict liked better) there might be a number of "elders" or "deans," who were to help and advise the abbot in the government of his monasteries. Any one who wished to join the order was to undergo trial for a year before admission. Those who were admitted into it were required to give in a written vow that they would continue in it, that they would amend their lives, and that they would obey those who were set over them. Every monk was obliged to give up all his property to the order; nobody was allowed to have anything of his own, but all things were common to the brethren. The monks might not receive any presents or letters, even from their nearest relations, without the abbot's knowledge and leave, and if a present were sent for one of them, the abbot had the power to keep it from him, and to give it to any other monk.
It was one important part of the rule that the monks should have sufficient employment provided for them. They were to get up at two o'clock in the morning; they were to attend eight services a day, or, if they happened to be at a distance from their monastery, they were to observe the hours of the services by prayer; and they were to work seven hours. Portions of time were allowed for learning psalms by heart, and for reading the Scriptures, lives of holy men, and other edifying books. At meals the monks were not to talk, but some book was to be read aloud to them. Their food was to be plain and simple; no flesh was allowed, except to the sick. But all such matters were to be settled by the abbot, according to the climate and the season, to the age, the health, and the employment of the monks. Their dress was to be coarse, but was to be varied according to circumstances. They were to sleep by ten or twenty in a room, each in a separate bed, and without taking off their clothes. A dean was to have the care of each room, and a light was to be kept burning in each. No talking was to be allowed after the last service of the day.
The monks were never to go beyond the monastery without leave, and, in order that there might be little occasion for their going out, it was to contain within its walls the garden, the well, the mill, the bakehouse, and other such necessary things. The abbot was to set every monk his work; if it were found that any one was inclined to pride himself on his skill in any art or trade, he was not to be allowed to practise it, but was obliged to take up some other employment.
Benedict died in 543, and by that time his order had made its way into France, Spain, and Sicily. It soon drew into itself all the monks of the West, and was divided into a number of branches, which all looked up to Benedict as their founder; and, although it would be a sad mistake to wish for any revival of monkery in our own days, we ought, in justice, to see and to acknowledge that through God's providence these monks became the means of great benefits to mankind. Not only were their services important for the maintenance of the Gospel where it was already planted, and for the spreading of it among the heathen, but they cleared forests, brought waste lands into tillage, and did much to civilize the rude nations among whom they laboured. After a time, learning began to be cultivated among them, and during the troubled ages which followed, it found a refuge in the monasteries. The monks taught the young; they copied the Scriptures and other ancient books (for printing was as yet unknown); they wrote histories of their times, and other books of their own. To them, indeed, it is that we are mainly indebted for preserving the knowledge of the past through many centuries.