PODCAST: Benedictine Monasticism, Part 1 (History of Christianity #179 with Daniel Whyte III)

This is Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International, with the History of Christianity Podcast #179, titled, “Benedictine [BEH-NUH-DIK-TEEN] Monasticism, Part 1.”

When I became a believer in Jesus Christ, I somehow had the false idea that Christianity began when I got saved. I had no concept of the hundreds of years of history that Christianity had gone through since the time of Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago. I have found that many believers, young and old, have the same false idea. The purpose of this broadcast is to dispel this notion by sharing with listeners the history of Christianity from the ministry of Jesus Christ all the way up until the present day in an easy-to-understand format. You don’t have to worry: this is not a lecture. This is a look at the basic facts and figures of Christian history that every believer and every person needs to be aware of.

Our Scripture for today is 1 Timothy 6:6-7 which reads: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from St. Augustine. He said: “Faith is to believe what we do not see; and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Benedictine [BEH-NUH-DIK-TEEN] Monasticism, Part 1” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

We have already seen that when the church was joined to the empire, and thus became the church of the powerful, there were many who found in monasticism a way to live out the total commitment that had been required in earlier times. Although this movement was particularly strong in Egypt and other portions of the Eastern empire, it also found followers in the West. This Western monasticism, however, tended to differ from its Eastern counterpart on three points. First, Western monasticism tended to be more practical. It did not punish the body for the sole purpose of renunciation, but also to train it, as well as the soul, for a mission in the world. Columba and Augustine of Canterbury are examples of this practical bent of Western monasticism. Secondly, Western monasticism did not place the premium on solitude that was typical in the East. From the beginning, Western monasticism sought ways to organize life in community. Finally, Western monasticism did not live in the constant tension with the hierarchy of the church that was typical of Eastern monasticism. Except in times of extreme corruption of the heirarchy, monasticism in the West has been the right arm of popes, bishops, and other ecclesiastical leaders.

The main figure of Western monasticism in its formative years–in many ways, its founder–was Benedict, who was born in the small Italian town of Nursia [NOOR-SEE-AH] around 480 CE. Thus, he grew up under the rule of the Ostrogoths. Since his family belonged to the old Roman aristocracy, he was well aware of the tensions between orthodox and Arian, and the persecutions that the former suffered. When he was about twenty years old, he resolved to become a hermit, and went off to live in a cave. Then followed a period of extreme asceticism, as he sought to overcome the temptations of the flesh. Eventually his fame grew and, as had happened earlier in Egypt with other admired monks, a group of disciples gathered around him. When the place proved unsuitable for his purposes, Benedict moved the small community to Monte Cassino [MON-TAY CASS-EE-NOH], a place so remote that there still was a sacred grove, and the local inhabitants continued celebrating ancient pagan worship. Benedict and his followers cut the grove, overturned the pagan altar, and built a monastic foundation in that very place. Shortly thereafter his sister Scholastica [SKO-LAS-TIH-KAH] settled nearby and founded a similar community for women. Eventually, Benedict’s fame was such that the Ostrogothic king went to visit him. But the monk had nothing but harsh words and dire prophecies for the man whom he considered a tyrant.

Benedict’s greatest significance, however, was in the Rule that he gave to his community. Although fairly brief, this document would determine the shape of monasticism for centuries. Rather than extreme asceticism, what the Rule seeks is a wise ordering of the monastic life, with strict discipline, but without undue harshness. Thus, while many of the monks of the desert lived on bread, salt, and water, Benedict prescribed that his monks would have two meals a day, each with two cooked dishes, and at times with fresh fruits and vegetables. Also, each monk was to receive a moderate amount of wine every day. And, in addition to his bed, each monk should have a cover and a pillow. All this was to be done only in times of abundance, for in times of scarcity monks should be content with whatever was available.

There are, however, two elements of the monastic life that are crucial for Benedict. These are stability and obedience. The first means that monks are not free to go from one monastery to another as they please. Each monk must remain for the rest of his life in the monastery that he has initially joined, unless ordered to go to another place. The commitment to stability on the part of Benedictine [BEH-NUH-DIK-TEEN] monks proved one of the sources of the institution’s great relevance in a time of chaos.

Secondly, the Rule insists on obedience. First of all, this means obedience to the Rule itself. But the abbot is also to be obeyed “without delay.” This means not only instant obedience, but also that an effort is to be made to make that obedience willing. If what is commanded is impossible, the monk is to explain to the abbot why it is so. If, after such explanation, the superior insists on the command, it is to be obeyed as well as possible. The abbot, however, must not be a tyrant, but is himself subject to God and to the Rule. The word “abbot” means “father,” and as such should the abbot behave.

Next time, we will continue looking at “Benedictine [BEH-NUH-DIK-TEEN] Monasticism.”

Let’s pray.

—PRAYER—

Dear friend, simply knowing the facts about Christian history without knowing the One on Whom this faith is based will do you no good. If you do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, may I encourage you to get to know Him today. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can be a part of the church in this life and in the life to come. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will. Romans 10:13 says, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Until next time, remember that history is truly His story.