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Monasticism from St. Benedict to Cluny

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  • 0:05 Introduction to Monasticism
  • 1:17 History of Monasticism
  • 2:35 Benedictine Monks
  • 4:11 Cluniac Reform
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will trace the history of Western monasticism from Benedict to Cluny. It will focus on the Benedictine rule while also highlight monastic contributions to society.

Introduction to Monasticism

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'.

Monks have often been responsible for reforming the Christian Church
Monks Reform Church

This statement from the Rule of St. Benedict encapsulates the very essence of Christian monasticism. Seeking to live within structure and severe self-discipline, monks have fervently pursued a continual awareness of the presence of God. Not only have they pursued this for themselves, they have often been responsible for reforming the Christian church, seeking to free it from the corruption power can bring. To grasp an understanding of monasticism, we're going to focus primarily on the Benedictine order of monasticism, tracing it from its inception to the Cluniac reforms. We'll then take a look at the influence monasticism has had on our modern world.

History of Monasticism

Before we dive into Benedictine monasticism, let's nail down some history. Monasticism has its roots in the very life of Christ. Seeing the manner in which Christ lived, some early Christians sought to mimic his self-sacrifice and purity. They began abstaining from Earthly pleasures, even refusing to marry, giving themselves wholly to a life of prayer and sacrifice. However, they usually did this while still living in and amongst their families. Many historians consider these men and women the precursors of monasticism.

It wasn't until around the middle of the 3rd century that the monasticism most of us think of when we hear the word 'monk' began to take shape. During this time, Egyptian Christians began pulling away from secular life, cutting themselves off from all and any human interaction. Perhaps one of the most famous of these hermit monks was St. Anthony. Tradition tells us he actually spent years in the land of Egypt during which time he never once came in contact with another human being. For these hermits, a life of complete detachment from the secular world was of extreme importance. Some even went as far as to abuse their bodies in an effort to rid themselves of the sinful nature.

St. Anthony was one of the most famous hermit monks
St. Anthony

Benedictine Monks

With this we come to Benedict of Nursia, the man considered to be the father of Western monasticism and from whom came the Benedictine order of monasticism - arguably the most well-known of all the monastic movements.

Born in the year 480 C.E., Benedict of Nursia began his religious journey much like St. Anthony. He, too, chose to remove himself from the world in an effort to rid himself of the sinful nature. In other words, he also spent time as a hermit, living in the hills near Rome. However, unlike many hermits, Benedict made the decision to re-enter society. Ironically, instead of living in solitude, he began attracting followers, who, within time, became a community of Christians who desired to live free from Earthly and fleshly desire. At their Earthly helm was Benedict of Nursia with a code of conduct of sorts, which came to be known as the Benedictine Rule. This rule, which came to be the guide for most monastic practices, held three things at its core. First, monks were to live a life of poverty. Second, monks were to live a life of chastity and celibacy. Third, monks were to submit to the authority of the monastic community. In order to maintain this life, Benedictine monks followed, and still follow, a strict life of scheduled prayer. Although different orders of medieval monks, such as the Dominican or Franciscans, had their own rules and schedules of order, they still held (and hold) to the three tenets of the Benedictine rule.

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