The Monastic Life: A Mark of Authenticity
Matthew James Bellisario 2010
One sign that you are part of the authentic Christian faith is the fact that faith and works are lived out in harmony and are not artificially separated from one another. The true Christian faith takes very seriously the command of Jesus to keep His commandments (John 14:15), and to be perfect as our Father is in heaven. (Matthew 5:48) The Church has heard the words of Jesus and followed Him, “Yet one thing is wanting to thee: sell all whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” The Church has consistently lived out Saint Paul’s call to chastity and obedience. (1 Cor 7:5, Col 3:22) Catholicism as well as all of the ancient apostolic Churches, have throughout the ages given us great witnesses, who have by the grace of God, lived these Scripture verses to the fullest. These Scripture passages are witnesses to the core principles of monasticism: poverty, chastity and obedience.
Those of the true faith do not view mankind infused by God’s grace as a dunghill, which was how the infamous arch-heretic Martin Luther viewed man. In fact, Luther’s thought was blasphemous and was ultimately an insult to God. The grace that God bestows upon His children actually changes them and makes them holy. “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51, 2 Cor 7:1, 1 John 1)The Saints knew this and they dedicated their lives not to merely believing in Christ, but believing Jesus Christ, and actually dedicating their lives to doing His will. “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” (James 2:18) The Saints also knew that true faith in Christ was based on their faithfulness to loving Him and keeping His commandments. Christ Himself said, “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.” (Matthew 16:27) It is in the monastic lives that we see the passages of Scripture coming alive with a pure radiance that can never be extinguished.
Monasticism is therefore another stamp of authenticity for the true Christian faith. It is a practice that has been part of both the East and Western Christian traditions since the most ancient times of Christianity. We see the marks of monasticism lived out in Scripture with St. John the Forerunner, who lived on locusts and wild honey, practicing penance and calling for others to do the same. Jesus and His apostles also lived a type of monastic life. They did not make their homes in any certain place, and they often retreated into the wilderness where they often prayed. Jesus Himself spoke of those who would come after Him who would fast and do penance. (Matthew 9:15) The early Christians likewise also adapted a variety of forms of monasticism in imitation of the Savior and His apostles.
Most Church historians admit that there had been individual hermits practicing their Christian faith in a monastic form since apostolic times. We see Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony of the Desert living ascetic lives in the middle of the third century, yet there are records of strict Christian communities existing from at least as early as the second century. St. Macarius the Great, following in the footsteps of the disciplines set forth by St. Antony and St. Pachomius, founded a type of monastery in the year 328 in Scetis. These monastic fathers were followed by St. Basil the Great, St. Martin of Tours and later Saint Augustine and St. Benedict, who all were important figures in developing the monastic way life.
We look at St. Antony of the Desert and we find a man driven by God’s grace to be prefect for the kingdom of heaven. People traveled days to seek his spiritual direction and witness the grace of God flow from him like a fountain of living water. St. Athanasius greatly admired St. Antony and he wrote of St. Antony’s life telling us of his piety and asceticism through which God deified him and humbled him, and making him more Christlike each day. Many great Saints like him lived lives devoted to doing God’s will by imitating Christ. They went into the desert or wilderness and sold all they had to go about preaching the Gospel and living a life of prayer.
Who can forget Symeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar for 36 years in Syria, building his column higher and higher in an effort to obtain silence and solitude? Yet he could not escape those who traveled from afar to see the grace of God shine through him, as well as to seek his wisdom, prayers and advice. These Saints gave witness to the saving grace of Christ, and it was this grace that people were drawn to as well as their examples that drove them to imitate their virtuous lives as best as they could. These monastics, even though they spent much of their time alone, did not practice the faith for themselves only. God used them in a variety of ways including using their prayers to bring many to salvation, as well as using them as examples of what God was capable of doing in the sinful lives of men. In short, these Saints were beacons of light for the faith, and many have found their way to God through them. Monasticism continued to grow and flourish throughout the ages in both Eastern and Western Christianity.
We only see the break with monasticism with the rise of the pretended “Reformers” in the mid 16th century. Martin Luther, who was an Augustinian monk eventually realized that he could not hack the monastic life, and therefore broke his promise to God to live a life dedicated to Him alone. Luther had serious problems trying to live this type of life, and it eventually tormented him to the point of abandoning the true faith in favor of one of his own invention. Luther was no stranger to playing the character of Hamlet well, and frequently said he was “forced” into making a vow that he he never wanted to make. “When I was terror-stricken and overwhelmed by the fear of impending death, I made an involuntary and forced vow” (Hausrath, "Luthers Leben" I, Berlin, 1904, 2, 22) Not only would he leave the monastic life in a state of cowardice and despair, but he would eventually share his malicious contempt for the monastic life with an ex-nun in an invalid marriage.
Likewise Henry VIII across the channel in England would also turn his face away from the Church. After breaking with the Church over his obsession for womanizing, he eventually attacked and destroyed countless monasteries, ransacking them for the gold chalices and other precious items found in them that were used to give glory to God. As time went on, the pretended “Reformers” continued in their assault against monasticism, and to this day they have lost this beautiful mark of the true faith to the detriment of many souls.
Today however, the true Church still bears the mark of monasticism. The Catholic Church is home to many monastic communities who continue to pray unceasingly for the salvation of souls. The examples of Padre Pio and Mother Teresa, still shine brightly. Likewise, the Orthodox Churches also retain their Eastern monastic tradition. We see the monks on Mt. Athos who have been consistently practicing monasticism on the peninsula for over 1000 years now, praying with their prayer ropes and living lives of holiness to uphold the very foundations of the Church. Certainly, any Christian “church” that does not retain the practice of monasticism cannot be considered as an authentic expression of the true Christian faith. All of the ancient apostolic Churches retain this practice of asceticism. Monasticism is surely a mark of the true faith, and it will continue on until the end of time.