Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Monasticism's Enduring Value

by Michael Petruzzelli


This article provides an overview of the historical functions of the monasteries of the early Church as well as the role they played in preserving scholarly advances in all areas of education. Michael Petruzzelli also urges present-day religious orders to rise to the challenge of supporting and strengthening our Christian intellectual foundation and the sacred tradition of the Catholic faith in order to fight against the deficiencies of relativism and secular positivism.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


56 – 61

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, January 2007

Vision Book Cover Prints

It is significant that many of the founders and promoters of Christian monasticism — Antony of the Desert, Benedict, Cassiodorus, Columba and Columbanus — were men of faith, charity and zeal who were born into nobility, wealth or attained a respectable social position and secure level of comfort. Yet, they were men who freely chose to set aside worldly possessions in order to serve God more perfectly. A skeptic whose perspective will not admit of the acceptance of faith and divine Revelation as a ground for truth or knowledge naturally tends to view the renunciation of property and the assumption of an ascetic life to beat least fanatical, if not insane. Notwithstanding the rationalist's unknowing reliance upon a transcendent order, which is the basis of reality, sole reliance on reason tends to deny the existence of a provident deity who has revealed his divine plan of salvation.

Even more preposterous for those who pursue worldly wisdom would be the acceptance of Christ as the fullness of divine Revelation who directs the rich man and all who wish to "be perfect [to] go and sell what thou hast and give to the poor and come follow me and thou shall have treasure in heaven." (Matt. 19:6). But, it was precisely this directive that Antony of the Desert accepted and acted upon when he rejected the goods of this world and sought the permanence of God. St. Athanasius tells us that Antony sold his father's estate which he inherited and "having got together much money, he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister's sake."1 Antony sought to live a happy, ascetic life of solitude and penance so that, in rejecting the desires of his own will, he would grow in his desire for God. Antony found God's will to be that he live such a sacrificial life as a means of praising God and giving an example of self-denial and self-control for others to follow.

Such a pursuit of personal holiness was bound to draw other men of like-mindedness to follow and to live similar lives of self-denial and self-conquest in pursuit of God through Christ. Antony received these followers and formed them into a community of hermits whose simple rule was based on penance and Christian charity. Antony instructed his followers to believe in the Lord and love him and to keep themselves pure of heart while continually praying and bearing each other's burdens.

The austere life of the hermits, says historian David Knowles, was to be "lived alone or by two and three in caves, huts or brick-built cells supporting themselves on the produce of their vegetable patches." They would come together as a group perhaps "daily or more commonly weekly for the celebration of the Eucharist."2 Knowledge of these groups of holy men spread through Egypt, offering the good example of a genuine Christian life lived in pursuit of self-perfection. These early monks facilitated through their prayer and self-sacrifice the Holy Spirit's bestowal of grace upon the emerging early Church and their intercession did much to convert the sinner and unbeliever and strengthen faith.

Early Christian monks also provided practical help in the formation of society and the promotion of economic well-being. Pachomius, another Desert Father who was a contemporary of Antony, provided a more detailed rule for his hermits and, in so doing, earned the designation of being the founder of Christian cenobitic, i.e., communal, monasticism. In Pachomius's monasteries, work was fundamental and monks were "divided into houses of thirty or forty, in which monks were grouped according to their skills or crafts — tailors, bakers, gardeners and the rest . . ." These houses made up "small towns of a thousand or two thousand inhabitants."3 While the monks continued to pray and study, life was not as austere in these monastery towns and productivity grew with specialization and surplus farm products were shipped down the Nile for sale in Alexandria. The multiplication of these monastery towns had a strong economic impact on the well-being of Egyptian life in the fourth and fifth centuries.

As we move forward in time, we see in the three centuries after Benedict of Nursia founded his monastery at Monte Cassino in the mid-sixth century and composed his famous Rule, that the Benedictines who followed him developed an approach similar to the early Christian monasteries of Egypt. These Benedictine monasteries grew into extensive complexes with open courts, a large church, accommodations for monks, infirmaries, housing for guests and peasant laborers. In contrast to these formidable monasteries that actually developed over time, the Rule that Benedict composed was originally intended to be a simple and practical guide for a small, spiritual family of about a dozen monks whose motto of prayer and work was to be carried out in a communal life.

Benedict had been influenced by, among others, the Fathers of the Desert and by the Cappadocian Basil whose own earlier monasteries practiced communal life. In Basil's monasteries, the agricultural work and craftsmanship of the monks was pursued along with maintaining an orphanage within the monastery, a hospital and workshops which employed the poor. So, too, Benedict saw a need to include in his Rule a provision for the "great care and concern" which was to be given to "poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received."4 Christ was received in the graciousness and safety of the Benedictine monasteries which served as the towns that had been destroyed by the invading tribes of the Dark Ages throughout what had been the Roman empire.

By the 700s, Benedictine monasteries of western Europe had grown far beyond what Benedict originally intended and had become centers of burroughs which provided a wide-range of services within their confines for nearby villagers. Many monasteries had a hospital, a school, halls for meetings, and even within some monasteries, courts for civil and criminal proceedings. Around these monasteries there eventually grew up secular communities which formed full towns and even small cities that depended on the monastery to provide the core economic base. During and after the Carolingian dynasty, these monasteries, along with feudal estates, provided an essential source of commerce, education, social well-being and even protection for the peoples of western Europe who were often subject to the incursions of barbarian invaders and attack by highwaymen.

During the sixth to tenth centuries, the monasteries kept the faith alive. They were the major source of religious instruction and liturgical devotion. They became storehouses of relics and objects of art; they were sites to be visited by pilgrims; they stored beautiful, hand-illuminated books and manuscripts. The monks became the keepers of Christian culture in the medieval age of Teutonic paganism, which was slowly being transformed into an acceptance of Christ and Christ's heroes, the cult of the saints. But far from promoting a primitive or superstitious Christianity, monastic communities from the 500s - 900s A.D. kept literacy and Christian learning alive and with it much of the classical learning of the West.

As early as the sixth century, a contemporary of Benedict in Italy, Cassiodorus, a nobleman and former official in the courts of the Ostrogothic kings, retired from public life and established a monastery on his own estate patterned after the Benedictine model. Unlike Benedict, however, Cassiodorus emphasized the scholarly life for his educated monks as a means of supporting the Christian faith. According to historian Eleanor Duckett, Cassiodorus sought manuscripts of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, those of the Church Fathers including works by Basil, Chrysostom, Eusebius and Origen as well as those by the Latin Fathers.

Manuscripts, copies and translations of Scripture, the Greek and Latin Fathers, Church histories and documents from Church councils as well as, perhaps, classical writings from non-Christian sources, formed a valuable library of western faith and culture which was left at the monastery founded by Cassiodorus. Here, also, the ancient arts of trivium [grammar, logic, and rhetoric] and quadrivium [arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy] were taught. Cassiodorus' monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy endured at least until after his death in 583. After nearby Monte Cassino was destroyed in 580, the Benedictine monks fled to Rome.

It would be reasonable to conjecture that at least some of Cassiodorius's library may have found its way into the monasteries of the Benedictine order. Although the monasteries were, for the most part, independent and self-subsisting, we should not conclude that they had no contact with each other. We should emphasize, however, that the Benedictine monks were trained in classical Latin but not in Greek. The works which they would preserve and copy in their scriptoria [writing rooms] would be those of the western Church Fathers and Roman writers.

The historical importance of this contribution by western monasticism in retaining classical learning for the posterity of the West cannot be overstated. In his Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson states: "It was only the Church and, particularly, by the monks that the tradition of classical culture and the writings of classical authors, 'the Latin classics,' were preserved . . . monastic schools and libraries and scriptoria became the chief organs of higher intellectual culture in Western Europe."5

Around the time of the death of Cassiodorus, Columban left Ireland [ca. 590] and brought Celtic monasticism into eastern Gaul [modern-day France] and northern Italy. St. Columban had studied the classics and theology and he and his fellow monks preserved the Irish tradition of scholarship in the monasteries which they founded — in modern-day France, in Switzerland and in northern Italy. In 719 St. Boniface received the approval of Rome to travel to Bavaria in Germany as a missionary and to establish monasteries and convert the German tribes. At the time of the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century, Charlemagne ordered monasteries and bishops' houses to establish centers of learning and he commissioned the scholar-monk Alcuin to be the instructor of the Palace School so that the best minds of the Church could be taught theology, philosophy and the sciences. This would have been an impossible task if the manuscripts of the Church Fathers and of classical learning, including the tradition of the seven liberal arts [trivium and quadrivium], had not been preserved by the Benedictine monasteries of western Europe.

When Charlemagne's empire began to fall apart in the mid-ninth century, it was the monasteries, during arguably the darkest and most anarchic period of Western history, that continued to preserve this learning along with the knowledge of the faith. During this era, many monasteries were destroyed, many monks murdered and much lost; yet, by the time the reform monastery of Cluny [France] was founded in 910, the books, manuscripts and traditions that had been preserved provided Cluniac monasteries with a store of religious, scholarly and cultural wealth. Knowles states that "monks have rightly received credit . . . in multiplying manuscripts of the Latin classics and patristic writings" without which "Latin literature might well have been lost," along with the "heritage of ancient science of all kinds, medical, astronomical, botanical, biological."6

The theological and academic learning, along with the sciences and secular knowledge which the monks also preserved, formed the foundation for the universities which were to emerge in the 11th and 12th centuries. The learning which came out of the universities would provide the basis for the great metaphysical revival by prominent Church scholars of the Middle Ages. We note with emphasis that if the western universities of the Middle Ages had to await the arrival of Aristotelianism from Islamic centers of learning, they were nevertheless arguably much more prepared to receive it and develop it, having the benefit of the store of learning preserved by monasticism in the West.

We might also argue that the Renaissance of the 14th-16th centuries would not have progressed as vibrantly as it did, along with its emerging sciences which led to the modern period of rationalism and empiricism with its experimental methods, if the monasteries and their men of faith had not preserved the groundwork of learning from classical antiquity. We might also propose that the Christian faith as preserved and spread through the activities of the monasteries influenced the development of law and social culture out of which modern Europe was to evolve. So, too, these Christian influences contained the moral capital upon which the celebrated rights of man were to develop and be understood.

But, as the post-modern era in which we now live tends to lose its Christian intellectual foundation, so, too, it loses the reasons on which these rights exist. Without the Christian faith, the meaning of human rights and the understanding of human progress fall subject to the deficiencies of relativism. The monks, excelling in Christian virtue, and the monasteries, providing oases of Christian truth and spirituality, are now once more needed to preserve the sacred tradition of the Christian faith and to assimilate what is good in contemporary culture by subjecting this culture to the critical understanding of the Spirit-guided Bride of Christ — to the Church.

The Benedictine monasteries of the first millennium were primarily schools of conversion, learning, and sanctification. And, it was the mendicant orders of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, inspired by, and given direction in part, by the original monastic ideal of Gospel simplicity, which produced the great, creative thinkers and teachers who integrated within the patristic tradition classical learning in support of the faith.

Today the need is as great as ever for religious orders and their houses of study to stand as both a refuge of spiritual purity and of intellectual insight as to how best to support the truth of the Catholic faith in an era of secular positivism. There is a great need to return to the foundational understanding of philosophy in particular and classical learning in general in support of theology and the dogmatic truths of the faith while addressing the issues of a technologically advanced age. As in the past, monasteries offer great hope in providing havens of spiritual and scholarly retreat where the Catholic Renaissance of tomorrow could be launched to address the need for advancing orthodox theological explanation and guidance at a time of what fairly may be termed considerable moral and intellectual confusion.

End notes

  1. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 4, St. Athanasius: Life of Antony, edited by Archibald Robertston. Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1955, at 196.

  2. David Knowles, Christian Monasticism. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1969, at 13.

  3. Knowles, at 14.

  4. St. Benedict, The Rule [of St. Benedict in English], edited by Timothy Fry, O.S.B. Collegeville, Mn: Liturgical Press, 1982, at 74.

  5. Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1950, at 45.

  6. Knowles, at 45 - 46.

Mr. Michael Petruzzelli's B.A. is in political science from St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Duquesne University and a Master's in Religious Studies [MRS] froth Catholic Distance University. Prior to teaching, he was a director of religious education at St. John Baptist de la Salle Parish in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. He currently teaches church history, world religions, and Catholic morality at the Academy of the Holy Cross, Kensington, Md., a Catholic high school for young women. This is his first article in HPR.

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