Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Beginning of an Ideal: Background & Formation (Part 2)

Carmelite Cave

Western Monasticism

Life in Europe by the 3rd century was marked by both growth and destruction.  The Roman Empire was overrun by barbarians.  The face of civilization was being threatened by murderous rampages and looting.  The face of monasticism as lived by the Desert Fathers changed with the advent of St. Benedict 
(c. 480-543).  The simplicity of life lived in silence and solitude in the desert of the East was replaced by a different monastic culture.  St. Benedict himself did not seek to be a hermit2 living in a desert , but only to live a life of silence away from city life, so that he can better dedicate himself to God.  He came from a Roman noble family of Nursia and was highly educated.  Our knowledge of St. Benedict comes mostly from his biographer, Saint Gregory the Great3.  The changes discernable from Benedictine monasticism are:  the rise of monasteries, study as a path to God, high structured liturgical rituals and worship, the installation of abbots as head of monasteries.  Monasteries became places of learning and higher studies.  Many of its members came from rich and influential families that brought with them endowments and wealth.  Even if individual monks lived his life of poverty according to what was expected of him, the wealth of these monasteries which came from noble ties and endowments gave rise to bigger, structurally elegant churches and abbeys. {Not all were wealthy.]

The fall of the Roman Empire created a vacuum in the western civilization.  There was no other superpower around to balance, if not ward off the advances of a pagan culture.  Monks in monasteries were busy preserving the culture by hiding and copying books of western literature, Holy Scriptures, and the like.  Learning was used as an antidote to this cultural chaos.  The structure of monasticism changed from the study of mysticism to humanism.  This created a dichotomy.  The foundational interests of learning were the Scriptures, Patristic writings and Classical Studies.  By the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, monasticism became a life of pure worship acts and rituals.  It gave rise to frustrations in the monks.  The former emphasis given to solitary encounter with God in prayer was replaced by the highly structured liturgical celebrations. [that is in Cluniac  monasteries.] Monastic life became rigid and dry. Some abuses were rampant in the Church among its members, including the Papacy. This moral decadence in the members of the Church will produce anger, discontent, disillusionment and spiritual restlessness among the masses.  It will eventually result in several Church Reforms and create an empowerment of the laity which in turn will give birth to the apostolic movements of the Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites.  

The Rise of the Apostolic Life

When Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) became king of Franks and first sovereign of the Christian empire of the West, he brought back order, learning and culture in the western world.  By his mighty ability as a soldier, Emperor and protector of the Holy See, he initiated and made room for church reforms. These reforms addressed the pervasive abuses of the day among church clerics and hierarchy.  There were reforms focusing on the education of the clergy, clerical celibacy, and freedom of the Church from royal appointments of parochial priests and bishops and revival of trade to improve city life.  The laity was more and more scrutinizing of authentic witness of the Gospel teachings in their church leaders.  As city population increased in number and diversity, a spiritual hunger for the Word of God and an alienation from the existing life of the Church developed.  With learned clergies and high sounding theological sermons, simple people from outside the cities who left home and farms to find works in the burgeoning trade industry, no longer found a home in this urbanized church life.  This deeply felt need to go back to the simplicity of the Gospels as lived by the Apostles gave way to several Christian movements among the laity.  Examples of these lay movements were the Waldensians (12th century, France) founded by Peter Waldo and the Albigensians .[The Albigensians were hardly a reform!]  The Waldensians focused on lay preaching (which was not sanctioned by the Church.  Only the ordained priest can publicly preach), voluntary poverty and good works.  The Albigensians were gnostics adopting a dualist and Manichean belief of two realities- the physical and the spiritual worlds.  Anything belonging to the physical is bad and only the things pertaining to the spiritual are considered good.   Both of these groups were branded by the Roman Catholic Church as heretical.  The Humiliati is another controversial group of pious lay people who came together as a community in the 12th century.  They practiced penitential disciplines, voluntary poverty, common funds, organized humanitarian works and common prayers.  They also practiced lay preaching which caused them to be excommunicated.   Several men of notable character in the Church (St. Bernard, St. John of Meda, Pope Innocent III, St. Charles Borromeo (16th century.) intervened one way or another to bring this movement into orthodoxy, but failed.  Saint Albert of Jerusalem was commissioned by Pope Innocent III to draft a rule for their lay branch.  The rule resembled the Regula Penitentiae of the Franciscan Order.  This same Albert  drafted another formula of life- this time it will be for the Carmelites.

The Mendicant Movement

The mendicant movement was the result of societal changes and urbanization which created a spiritual, physical and moral destitution among the people in the Middle Ages. With the increasing wealth in the cities brought by trade and industry, more and more people were pushed in the margins of society.  The scale of balance was tipped in favor of the powerful. With the increase in city population, the center of gravity shifted from the countryside and rural areas to the city centers and towns.  The feudal system that supported this social fabric for centuries could no longer hold it and the parochial system collapsed.  This phenomenon created such destitution in the social, spiritual and physical realms.   With this reality before the people, the search for true Gospel values and the simplicity of the first Christian community in Jerusalem became the ideal.  The life of the apostles became the standard of true discipleship and the measure of authenticity.  Groups of men, spearheaded by Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic, came together as communities of Christians.  They embraced austere poverty, simplicity of life and identified themselves with the poorest of the poor.  They patterned their lives on the lives of the apostles.  They brought with them a life of mysticism, a mysticism that fixed its gaze on the humanity of Christ and gave expression to it in the imitation of His life.  They became identified with the people, ministered to their spiritual, intellectual and physical needs.  An intellectual wave was sweeping around Europe at this time of the second half of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th.  This was manifested in the rise of universities, scholastic movements and a new spirit of democratic [democratic seems an anachronism here.] freedom. The mendicant friars were answering all these needs. 

The Order of the Mendicant Friars grew to such proportion that within a generation of the death of the two founders, Dominic (1221) and Francis (1226), their institutes spread all over Europe and into Asia and their friars can be numbered in the thousands .  In all the great cities of Western Europe friaries were established, and in universities theological chairs were held by Dominicans and Franciscans. 

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