3. The Early Church, Monasticism

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Ever since Christianity became a church, as we understand the word, a power structure, the doctors of the Church have played down or denied the communal nature of early Christianity. On the other hand, social radicals have made much of it, and of the early Church’s close connections, or even identity, with the Essenes. An unprejudiced reader, uninvolved in this controversy, reading the New Testament for the first time, would certainly form the impression that primitive Christianity was communist and that its “communal life” endured throughout the ministry of Paul, and, if he were to read them, on through the time of the apostolic fathers. The statements in Acts are indisputable.

Acts 2.44-47:

And all that believe were together, and held all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4.32-37 and 5.1-10:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own: but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses, sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, the son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost; and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.

This narrative is given in full because it is the crux. It certainly leaves no doubt whatever that the apostolic Church was communalist. Both the Epistle of James and the Epistle of Jude fit best into this context and it is significant that both documents claim to be by brothers of the Lord. Scattered through the Pauline epistles are remarks which can be interpreted as antagonistic to the communalist life of the so-called “Jerusalem Church” of which James, the brother of Jesus, was supposed to have been the bishop, or even in later accounts “bishop of bishops.” When the attack on the celebration of the Eucharist as part of the common meal of the whole Christian community began, the key passage was I Corinthians 11:20-22, in which St. Paul seems, or certainly can be made to seem, to reject the practice.

Those early heresies, the Ebionites and Nazarenes, which preserved the communal life rejected the Pauline epistles and claimed direct descent from James and the Jerusalem Church, practiced a Jewish life, obeying the Old Law as well as the New, and have often been called Essene-Christians. “Ebionites” means “poor men,” and the term “Nazarene” may have been employed for an Essene-like sect even before the ministry of Jesus.

Eusebius, Hippolitus, and Origen, who were already beginning to etherealize the eschatology of the Gospels, remark on the extreme millenarianism of the Ebionites. They seem to have lived in separate communities and, like the Essenes, took frequent baths of purification. The pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions are usually attributed to them and the curious can read their ideas there. Centuries later the Mennonites would refer to the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions as primitive Christian authorities authenticating their own beliefs. We read in the early fathers of various other heretical communist sects but we know almost nothing about them. There does seem to be a general tendency amongst those who split from the Church over doctrinal matters also to reject its worldliness and to revive the communalism of the apostolic Church. These heresies come and go all through the centuries before the establishment of the State Church by Constantine and definition of its dogmas in the ecumenical councils called by the emperor. The remarkable thing about the Ebionites is that they survived as communities in the marginal lands of the Near East until they were absorbed or overrun by Islam in the seventh century.

In the Orthodox Church communism was taken away from the laity and made a privilege of the monks, but monasticism is simply authoritarian, celibate communism. Christian monastic communities first appear in the deserts of Egypt and then of Syria, Palestine, and Sinai — in the same kinds of place as the Essene community at Qumran and the Essene-like Egyptian Therapeutae described by Philo. In Toynbee’s terms these monastic communities could be described as “successor states” to the Essenes.

The earliest monks known to us were hermits who did not live in organized communities but, as it were, in loosely associated hamlets, on the edges of the desert above the Nile in Lower Egypt. Curiously they do not seem to have always been celibate. Many of them lived with a female companion, a soror mystica. What this means we have no way of knowing but the practice survived in the eremitical life and reappears in the early Irish Church.

St. Pachomius is said to have established the first organized monasteries in Upper Egypt. Although the earlier hamlets of hermits must have had some kind of community, they apparently did not live together, much less share meals and work in common or live by rule. All these factors in the monastic life were introduced by Pachomius and from his foundations, which eventually came to number seven thousand people in his lifetime, descend all future orthodox monastic orders.

The significant thing about St. Pachomius is that he had been an officer in the army of Constantine. Organized monasticism appears as a reflex of the State Church. Even under the most tolerant emperors the Christian communities had been at cross-purposes with the dominant society. Christians were still awaiting the Second Coming. Although the most extreme chiliasm was dying out amongst the orthodox as the years went by, and the apocalypse receded from the immediate to the remote future, the Church was still the community of the remnant that would be saved, antagonistic in all its values to those of secular society. The apostolic life was held binding on all its members, although the early communism was abandoned for a simple community of people forced to live in the world. In practice the Gospels’ constant insistence on charity led to a considerable measure of “communism of consumption.” Pre-Constantinian monasticism was simply a more extreme form of the life of the ordinary Christian. Due to the fact that it was not governed by any communal discipline it tended to push ascetic practices to ever greater extremes.

With Constantine’s establishment the very nature of the Church and the entire concept of the kingdom changed. The Church ceased to be a remnant, but thought of itself as coterminous with society itself. Its bishops became part of the state structure. Its theological disputes were settled by councils of state attended by functionaries appointed by the emperor. Its congregations became parishes fixed in place, its bishops administrators of a given territory. The apostolic and Pauline organization of intervisitation, correspondence, and wandering missioners ceased. All the future monastic rules were to have paragraphs condemning wandering monks and preachers. The contrast is so great that it is easy to see why future heretical and Protestant sects would come to look on the established Church as an organization for the suppression of Christianity and its heads — emperor or pope — as Antichrist.

The apostolic life, said the established Church, was a council of perfection meant only for those with a special vocation — monks and nuns. In the future the term “religious” would be applied to them only, in distinction to the laity. Since the dynamism of the apostolic life was so great that if it were allowed to run loose in society it would bring down both established Church and empire, or for that matter any worldly polity, then or now, it was necessary to isolate this dynamism. Organized monasticism was a method of quarantining the Christian life. This is why the Church has always insisted that monasticism be celibate. There have been only a very few religious orders which have associated monks, nuns, and married people in one community, and they were only created to counteract heretical associations. Lay monasticism, a community of families holding all things in common, living a life modeled on that of the apostles, unavoidably becomes a counter-culture, a remnant awaiting the coming of the messianic kingdom. Time and the emperor postponed the Second Coming to the remote future — the established Church is the kingdom.

These ideas are usually attributed to St. Augustine, but they are only worked out in systematic detail in his City of God, and are adjusted there to the collapse of the empire in the West. It is significant that Augustine’s master, St. Ambrose, still believed, or half-believed, in the communism of the apostolic life, while Augustine not only preached against it, but denounced again and again the merging of the Eucharist in the agapê, the community meal. The two most important rites of the Christian cult ceased to be communal functions and were reorganized and directed toward support of the State religion. The Eucharist became a sacrifice performed by the priest in which the laity participated only as praying spectators. The important meaning of the insistence on infant baptism was that it tied the lay family to the parish, to the territorial administration — as in the future both the Anabaptists on the one side, and Luther and the Catholics on the other, were to insist, each for different ends.

In areas remote from the control of Church and Empire like Ireland and, to a lesser degree, Britain, or both remote and heretical like the Nestorian Church, which left the Roman for the Persian Empire, monasticism was both more eremitical and more socially effective, both on the Church and on the surrounding secular society, Christian or pagan — an apparent measure of the quarantine established by St. Pachomius, St. Basil, and St. Benedict.

The social effectiveness of organized monasticism was due to the founders’ insistence upon work, an insistence that increased from Pachomius to Basil to Benedict. The early monks of the desert must have been parasitic on the ordinary Christian community. Considering where they lived, there is no other way they could have supported themselves. They devoted themselves to prayer, meditation, fasting and other austerities. St. Pachomius’s foundations were governed by an elaborate rule. The members lived in dormitories instead of separately in caves and huts and had their meals and prayers in common. The abbot of the motherhouse was the superior of all the other convents whether of men or women, appointed their superiors, visited them periodically, and presided at a general chapter held annually at the motherhouse. As tightly organized a system as this would not appear again until the Benedictine reforms in the early Middle Ages. Time not spent in prayer was spent in work. Each monastery had its own farmlands and craft workshops and was largely self-sufficient. In other words, they achieved a large measure of “communism of production.” Pachomian monasticism flourished until the Muslim conquest of Egypt, when it entered into a long decline; and it is now almost extinct except in Ethiopia.

St. Basil owed his advance from scholar to priest, and from priest to bishop and monastic founder, to his forcefulness as a polemicist against the Arian heresy which was threatening the integrity of Church and empire. The monastic life in Greece and Asia Minor had largely been eremitical and not subject to any discipline either in way of life or in theology. St. Basil adapted the rule of the Pachomian monks to the conditions of the patriarchate of Constantinople and established the type that would prevail to this day in Eastern Orthodoxy. Originally there was great insistence in the rule on work and on strict obedience to Orthodox doctrine. As time went on monasticism in the East became more and more parasitic economically. The monks lived on land that they did not farm but left to peasants on shares and hired laborers, while they devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation. Perhaps due to this rather hothouse atmosphere, the heresies, schisms, and enthusiastic movements which have arisen in Orthodoxy have originated in the monasteries. Eventually there would arise monastic cities like Mount Athos, not at all self-supporting, isolated from, yet parasitic on, lay society.

Monasticism in the Western empire was the creation of Benedict of Nursia. Although the entire meaning and purpose of the monastic life as he conceived it was prayer and contemplation centered around the “work of God,” eight “hours” of the Divine Office when the community solemnly chanted psalms, sang hymns, and prayed together in chapel, there was in fact a much greater emphasis on work in the field, in shops, in copying manuscripts, than in Eastern monasticism. The reason for this is simple. What had been the Roman Empire in the West was in ruins. Cities were being deserted, land went out of cultivation, population declined unbelievably, to perhaps a fifth of what it had been under Marcus Aurelius, and the appurtenances of civilization, namely, literature and the arts, ceased to be produced by the secular society. Irish monasticism was a special exception, unlike any other, with probably pre-Christian sources.

The Benedictines cleared forests, drained land that had gone back to marsh, reorganized peasant cultivation, carved and painted religious statues and pictures, and copied manuscripts, mostly religious, but some also of the classic culture of Rome. Many monastic leaders in the West were quite conscious of their role as preservers of civilization. Cassiodorus founded a monastery devoted to saving the literary heritage of Latin civilization. In the case of the Benedictines the “quarantine” of organized monasticism had a reverse effect. The secular society had broken down in chaos. Within the monasteries civilization survived in what was really a garrison state, protected by supernatural sanctions, within the barbaric secular state.

Each Benedictine monastery was an entity unto itself. There was no central administration. Early Benedictinism was not a religious order in the later sense of the word. The reason for this too was simple. Centralization requires ease of communication and communication had broken down. The Benedictine rule is in some ways stricter than that of Basilian or of Pachomian monasticism but it is still more rational, more flexible, and more communitarian. The abbot functions as the president of the chapter, the council of monks in which all the professed have a vote. The monks are vowed to obey the rule and the abbot and therefore the rule is not easy to change, but the abbot rules as the head of a kind of democratic centralism. Decisions are subject to discussion and vote, but once made must be obeyed absolutely. There are officers in charge of all the various activities of the community, whether in the fields, the workshops, the hospital, the kitchen, or the scriptorium and library, and each overseer is subject to the control of the abbot and the chapter.

Unlike the Essenes at Qumran or the earliest monks, the Benedictines did not look upon themselves as a saved remnant, antagonistic to a world doomed to perdition. Quite the contrary; they were called to save the world in the most literal sense. Not only were they called to save and rehabilitate a shattered civilization, but they thought of themselves as called to spread the Gospel to the heathens beyond the limits of the former empire. The Benedictines, together with the Irish monks of the Rule of St. Columba, inaugurated a second wave of missionary activity, after that of the early Church, and were responsible for Christianizing Middle Europe and Scandinavia. The strategic importance of such missionary activity as a defense of Latin civilization was obvious.

The Benedictine rule and bylaws and administrative measures are a priceless deposit of information on the techniques and the problems of a communal fellowship in dynamic relationship with a disorganized society. Unfortunately, although some Church historians have thought otherwise, the example of the Benedictine life seems to have had little direct effect on later communalist religious groups, whether heretical sects or movements within the Church.

There is only one religious order of any importance which included priests, monks, nuns, and married people all living in one community, usually a village with a monastery at one end, a nunnery at the other, and the lay people in between. This was the order founded in England by St. Gilbert of Sempringham. It never spread beyond England, although its example influenced a very few small continental foundations. Since the Church had always feared such an organization it is strange that the Gilbertines seem to have had very little influence on society and were not in any way connected with the lay monasticism which was to become so popular on the continent on the eve of the Reformation, specifically the Béghards and Béguines, the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Gottesfreunde or Friends of God.

This dynamic relationship was to come with the friars, especially the Franciscans. It is significant that St. Francis himself always refused ordination to the priesthood. Both Franciscans and Dominicans were lay-oriented. The proper name of the Society founded by St. Dominic is the Order of Preachers and the Franciscans were dedicated to preaching, hearing confessions, and to manifest poverty both as a virtue in itself and as a witness to the world. The life of St. Francis, like that of Pope John XXIII, is a perfect example of what happens to the Church when it accidentally permits a person who models his life closely on that of the historical Jesus to attain a position of influence or power.

The Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages are remarkably free of large-scale millenarian and communist sects and heresies. The Benedictine solution seems to have been effective in satisfying the demand implicit in Christianity for a life of apostolic community and poverty. The doctrine of St. Augustine that the Church itself was the kingdom seems to have been almost universally accepted. There was a pandemic of millenary fever as the literal millennium, the year one thousand, drew near (many modern historians deny this happened except in the imagination of nineteenth-century historians who thought it must have — the evidence is slight at best); but when it passed without the end of the world, millenarianism died out, and in those days it did not take the form of separate sects claiming to be the “saving remnant” but affected the entire population. From the fall of Rome to the twelfth century the spiritual energies of men went to building medieval civilization itself with little diversion. The so-called “medieval synthesis” was a remarkably self-contained structure in the history of cultures, and as it was growing it was able to absorb all the possible activities of its society. The Church was not just coterminous with society; society was coterminous with the Church. As in primitive cultures, Catholicism was an anthropological religion, one method of defining society.

The only important heresy, that of the Paulicians-Bogomiles-Cathari-Albigenses, was not a heresy at all, but a different religion, Gnostic and Manichaean. That is, it was Oriental and pre-Christian in origin, and concerned with the progress of the soul through the stages of a cosmogonic drama, a progress abetted by the knowledge of occult mysteries. It was very far from communistic and only incidentally millenarian. The judgment, the fire, and the kingdom were internalized as stages in the salvation of the soul. The Albigensian church was governed by an elite of illuminated adepts and where it could, as briefly in Bulgaria, was quite willing to become an established church. When it threatened to become so in the south of France it was suppressed in the bloodiest of all Crusades — which took the form, significantly, of a territorial war.

Gnosticism was never totally suppressed, and vestiges of occult mysteries turn up here and there in the heresies of the later Middle Ages, but they remain occult, difficult to trace, and never important in any popular movement except possibly the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit. This did not prevent the Church from seeing Cathari everywhere, all through the later Middle Ages and the Reformation. But in fact dualist, Manichaean, or Gnostic doctrines are exceedingly rare in the evidence, although there is no way of proving or disproving the latter-day occultists’ claims that they were an esoteric teaching confined to the inner elites of various heretical movements.

Certainly as we survey the many tiny heretical groups that got in trouble with the authorities from the tenth to the twelfth century, it is possible to see emerging an orthodoxy of the heterodox, a consensus which would later form a body of doctrine characteristic of the more radical offshoots of the Reformation, of which the Taborites, the Anabaptists, and the more extreme sectaries of the English Civil War are perfect examples. For instance, eight different sects denied the existence of purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead. The baptism of children was rejected by fifteen such groups; the reality of the humanity of Christ, by four; the resurrection of the body, by three. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was abandoned, either as communion or sacrifice, in twelve separate cases. Almost all heretics denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was still only in the process of definition in the Church itself. Prayers to and veneration of the saints were likewise denied. Auricular confession was rejected by an indefinite number, although many groups practiced public confession to the congregation, as in the early Church. There are nine cases of vegetarianism, ten or more admissions of the practice of free love, group sex, or ceremonial orgies, and a far larger number of unsubstantiated accusations. Catharist and Gnostic influence led some to the rejection of the Old Testament, but most groups placed greater emphasis on it than did the Church, and a few followed the letter of the Jewish law. Without exception they all rejected the authority of the established Church and condemned its clergy for simony, adultery, pederasty, ignorance, and hypocrisy.

Only a very few are known to have practiced the apostolic community of goods. Outstanding was the community of Monteforte, a castle in the archdiocese of Milan. When the archbishop discovered their existence, he had them all arrested and brought to Milan to trial. The entire population of the castle and its domain had been converted by a man we know only as Giardo. Led by him, the more articulate defendants turned their trial into a propaganda demonstration for themselves, and so we have a fairly complete record of their beliefs. They did not believe in a priesthood or in sacraments, but lived lives guided and sanctified by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They were vegetarian and ate nothing which had been begotten by sexual intercourse. Those who could lived in strict chastity with their spouses, or did not marry. When the archbishop asked how, if every one lived so, the human race could perpetuate itself, Giardo replied that when men had become pure they would reproduce asexually like bees. The elders of the group kept up a continuous chain of prayer, replacing each other night and day. They interpreted the Trinity allegorically — the Father as Creator, the Son as the soul of man, beloved of God, and the Holy Spirit as the divine wisdom in each human soul. From the countess and nobles to the lowliest peasant they practiced a complete communism and lived a largely self-sufficient life, independent of the surrounding economy. They claimed to have brethren all over Europe. They also held a belief, peculiar to themselves, that to be saved they must die in torment. They were so convinced of this that if one of them started to die a natural death, he called upon the others to torture and kill him. The archbishop set up a cross and a stake and demanded that they choose between submission to the Church and death by fire. Only a few chose the cross. Almost all went joyfully to their deaths.

This was only the second official execution for heresy in the Western Church. It had been preceded by that of a group of heretics in Orléans about 1015. They seem to have been Gnostics, more Gnostic in fact than the Cathari, and what we would call today upper-class bohemian intellectuals. They were accused by a spy, who had been initiated for the purpose of exposing them, of ritual sexual orgies and the worship of devils. As far as we know they did not practice community of goods nor was this an accusation at all common in the heresy trials of the early Middle Ages.

An important factor in later heresy was the spread of knowledge of the Bible, especially after it had been translated into the vernacular. The appeal to the communism of the apostles was an appeal to the Bible, and the sole authority of the Bible was not an important factor in early heresy. The un-Christian wealth of the Church was. It took only a slight familiarity with the Gospels and epistles read at Mass to realize that if Christianity was the patterning of one’s life on the life of Christ and his disciples, then the Church was literally Antichrist, shorn up of its apocalyptical personification as the great evil figure, Antichrist. The accusation was certainly just. Nothing was more dangerous to the power of the established Church than the little bands of laymen devoted to voluntary poverty, Bible study, and good works that began to flourish in the twelfth century in northern Italy, eastern France, the Rhineland, and Bohemia.

In 1176, a generation before St. Francis, one Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant of Lyons, sold all he had and gave it to the poor and gathered together a group of pious laymen who wished to return to the apostolic life of poverty and evangelism. Soon they were in communication with other little groups and the movement grew rapidly. Pope Alexander III approved their vow of poverty and placed them in obedience to their local bishops, who in most cases forbade them to preach, for simply by living an apostolic life they were challenging the clergy as representatives of the apostles. When the bishop of Lyons forbade them to preach they decided to obey God rather than man and were excommunicated and expelled from the city and three years later condemned by Pope Lucius III and the Council of Lyons in 1184.

So began the heretical sect of the Waldenses or Poor Men of Lyons which spread rapidly over Europe to become the largest and most widespread of any medieval heresy. Tirelessly persecuted by the Church, and the object of several Crusades, they were eventually driven into the mountain valleys of Lombardy, Savoy, the Tyrol, and Bohemia and Moravia, where they managed to survive down the centuries. The Czech Waldenses were absorbed into the Taborites or the Czech Brethren. The Lombard Waldenses were rediscovered by the Reformers and became the special care of English Protestants after the massacre immortalized in Milton’s sonnet, and a minor object of Cromwell’s foreign policy. They are still in existence in the same mountain valleys and in recent years have established chapels in some of the cities of northern Italy.

The original Poor Men of Lyons practiced community of goods and at various times embattled groups of Waldenses returned to a kind of siege communism. But through all the doctrinal changes of the sect down the centuries they never abandoned the practice of voluntary poverty. They were originally accused only of refusing to take oaths, bear arms, or approve of capital punishment. Eventually, they came to believe that any layman not in a state of mortal sin could consecrate the bread and wine of communion, rejected the sacrifice of the Mass, and denied that the papal Church was the Church of Christ, insisting rather that it was the scarlet woman of the apocalypse and that none of its special teachings or practices could be followed without sin.

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century the Waldenses were extensively proselytized by the reformers and doctrinally became assimilated to the main body of Protestantism in its Swiss Calvinist form. Throughout the nineteenth century English Protestants, led by a Colonel Beckwith, who settled amongst them, spent considerable money building schools, hospitals, churches, and other social services in their communities. Although doctrinally they differ little from the Swiss Protestants to the north of them, the entire feeling of their mountain villages is different. Although they no longer practice communism they are not acquisitive or competitive. They remain much poorer than they need be and live by a social ethic of mutual aid, cooperation, and close spiritual unity, not unlike the settlements of strict Mennonites or Amish in America.