Overview of Medieval Monasticism – Part One

December 28, 2007


“Let a man consider that God is always looking at him from heaven, that his actions are everywhere visible to the divine eyes and are constantly being reported to God by the Angels. . In order that he may be careful about his wrongful thoughts, therefore, let the faithful brother say constantly in his heart, “Then shall I be spotless before Him, if I have kept myself from my iniquity.”

–from The Rule of St. Benedict


Christian monasticism is a structured, ascetic pursuit of the Christian life. It involves a return to God through attention to the classic spiritual disciplines of silence, chastity, prayer, fasting, confession, good works, obedience, and vigils. The monastic experience–from monas (Gk. “alone”)–is an inward and solitary one, though it may be practiced in community. The nature of the monastic pursuit is one that involves ora et labora (Lt. “prayer and work”), a submission of every aspect of one’s life to a practiced awareness of God’s presence.

Most monks and nuns were not priests, relying on the local parish to administer the sacraments; however, often isolated communities could seek to have one or more members ordained if needed. Likewise, bishops have often been chosen from monastic leadership.

Christian monasticism, while primarily concerned with the individual pursuit of the “spiritual life,” that is an ascetic pursuit of God, has also arguably been responsible for: the survival of education and culture during the period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire; the perpetuation of important Greco-Roman and early Christian manuscripts in monastery scriptoriums; the development of important early medicines in rudimentary pharmacies; the beginnings of Western capitalism with early advances in agricultural production, manufacturing, corporation law, and labour division; important advances in art, music, and cooking; social stability in Western and Eastern Europe, often serving as an outlet for the second sons and daughters of wealthy aristocratic families; and for important reform movements within Christendom.

The history of Christian monasticism, especially in Western Christianity, has been one of a cycle of reformation, stability, growing laxness and wealth, followed by new reformation, and so on.