MONASTICISM grew naturally out of the necessities of the age in which it first appeared. The multitudes who flocked round hermits like Antony and Pacho-mius became the inevitable germ of monastic institutions. During the two centuries after St. Antony a different type of devotion had grown up and awaited its fitting organisation. The example of the early hermits had been mainly a personal protest for the awful importance of the individual soul. The example of the monks was mainly a social protest for the dignity and holiness of a common life. By the close of the fifth century the wild bands of Gothic barbarians were shattering the political fabric of the Empire to pieces. Amid homeless men, amid depopulated provinces, amid perishing institutions, amid the rising deluges of heathenism and barbarity, " A type of common life," it has been said, " was needed to preserve the inheritance of the old world and to offer a rallying-point for the Christian forces that should fashion the new. Again this type was found in a system of rigid discipline." What was it that had preserved the best elements of Christianity in the fourth century ? The self-sacrifice of the hermits. What was it which saved the principles of law, and order, and civilisation ? What rescued the wreck of ancient literature from the universal conflagration? What restrained, what converted the inrushing Teutonic races ? What kept alive the dying embers of science ? What fanned into a flame the white ashes of art ? What redeemed waste lands, cleared forests, drained fens, protected miserable populations, encouraged free labour, equalised widely-separated ranks ? What was the sole witness for the cause of charity, the sole preservative of even partial education, the sole rampart against intolerable oppression ? What force was left which could alone humble the haughty by the courage which is inspired by superiority to those things which most men desire, and elevate the poor by the spectacle of a poverty at once voluntary and powerful ? What weak and unarmed power alone retained the strength and the determination to dash down the mailed hand of the baron when it was uplifted against his serf, to proclaim a truce of God between warring violences, and to make insolent wickedness tremble by asserting the inherent supremacy of goodness over transgression, of knowledge over ignorance, of quiet righteousness over brutal force? You will say the Church; you will say Christianity. Yes, but for many a long century the very bulwarks and ramparts of the Church were the monasteries, and the one invincible force of the Church lay in the self-sacrifice, the holiness, the courage of the monks. Let those who have nothing but blind anathemas against monasticism remember that to it we owe the light of liberty and of literature; that there " learning trimmed her lamp and contemplation pruned her wings;" that the Benedictines instituted schools; that the Augustinians built cathedrals; that the Mendi cant Orders founded hospitals.
Now he who gave to monasticism its best and most permanent form was St. Benedict of Nursia.
The keynote of that immortal rule, to which is due a very large part of the vast services rendered to the world by true and uncorrupted monasticism, is self-abnegation. "Antony," it has been admirably said, "had shown the foundation of individual freedom in self-conquest; St. Benedict showed the foundations of social freedom in self-surrender." That perfect obedience means perfect liberty; that to lose our lives for Christ's sake is to find them; that complete submission to the will of God is a serene and tranquil empire over ourselves;—these were his leading conceptions. Poverty, chastity, obedience had always been the triple vow of the monk—poverty in ages which were dying of opulence; chastity in an age weakened by orgies; obedience in an age perishing of disorders. But to these St. Benedict added Work and Prayer. " Or a et labora " was the rule of his followers. It was Work, whether in the form of handicraft or study, which rescued so many a noble ancient poem and history from oblivion, and made so many a waste into a fruitful land. It was Prayer which inspired so many a hope amid the general despondency; which reconquered Europe into Christianity from the invading barbarians, which brought down the dew of God's blessing upon the fainting world. To them we owe the preservation of Roman literature, for the copyists of manuscripts were Benedictine monks. To them we owe our English Christianity, for Augustine of Canterbury was a Benedictine monk. To them we owe no small part of the protest which saved us from irresponsible despotism, for Lanfranc and Anselm were Benedictine monks. And very noble in its theory, very beautiful in its realisation of social life, was a Benedictine monastery under a holy abbot, faithful to its principles and vows. Equality reigned there: the proudest noble who came as a novice had to serve like the humblest peasant. Brotherhood reigned there: the rule was, "Submit yourselves to one another in the fear of God." Tenderness reigned there, for " There is always something," said St. Benedict, "to which the strong may aspire, and from which the weak may not shrink." Humility reigned there, for if any one were appointed to even the humblest office, he had to fall on his knees before his brethren and beg their prayers, always ending his work with the words, " Blessed art thou, O Lord, who hast holpen me and comforted me." Charity reigned there, for morning and evening the Lord's Prayer had to be said in the hearing of all, that all alike, brought face to face with the petition, that we may be forgiven as we forgive, "might cleanse themselves from every offence against Christian love".
You cannot, my brethren, and ought not to copy the monasticism of the monks, but you can and ought to copy this their ideal of brotherhood and tenderness, of humility and charity, of work and prayer. " The Kingdom of God," said the brave and good St. Hugo of Avalon, " is not made up of monks and hermits. God at the Day of Judgment will not ask a man why he has not been a monk, but why he has not been a Christian. Charity in the heart, truth on the tongue, chastity in the body, are the virtues which God demands".