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9. Ascetics, Coenobites, Monks, Fraternities

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER II. Names and classes of christians

9. Ascetics, Coenobites, Monks, Fraternities

The ascetics of antiquity, and of the middle ages were essentially different in many respects. To the first class belong all those who sought a life of solitude for religious exercises, and private contemplation, and either alone, or in company with others, separated themselves from christian society without wholly excluding themselves from the communion of the church. These constituted, therefore, a distinct class of the laity.

The origin of the ascetic manner of life dates back far beyond the christian era. In Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and India, there were at this early period ascetics, hermits, and recluses. The Therapeutics, of whom Philo and Josephus speak, were a religious fraternity, who in many respects had a striking influence in the subsequent formation of monastic establishments. Many of the Pythagorian institutes also bore a striking resemblance to the monastic rules of later date. Some again have compared them with those of the Nazarites and Rechabites of Scripture, respecting whom, Witsius and Less may be consulted. The prophet Elijah, the schools of the prophets, and John the Baptist, have also been considered as patterns of monastic life. But its high antiquity is sufficiently proved by Jerome. 

As early as the second century, the foundations of monachism were laid in a vain admiration of the supposed virtues of fasting, solitude, and celibacy. Soon after the age of the apostles, bodily mortification, and a contemplative life, began to be regarded by many Christians as indications and means of extraordinary piety. In the time of Cyprian and Tertullian, the "sacred virgins of the church," or the "canonical virgins," were recognized as a distinct class, and celibacy was extolled as a species of super-eminent sanctity. Cyp. Ep. 62. al. 4, ad Pompon. Such superstition with its pernicious adjuncts and consequences made rapid progress in the church.

But many Greek and Latin writers concur in ascribing the origin of christian Anchorets and Monks to the third century. They are believed to have arisen first in Egypt. Among the founders of this sect, some of the most celebrated were Paulus, Antonius, Pachomius, Hilarion, and Athanasius. To these may be added Basil the Great, Ephraim the Syrian, the two Gregories, Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Cassian, and many others.

In the fourth and fifth centuries the monastic life had become common to all orders of men, not only in the Eastern, but also in the Western church; but it had not attained the celebrity which it afterwards acquired. Men of the highest distinction obtained indeed great renown from this manner of life; but as yet, they were far from enjoying equal privileges with the clergy. Neither were they reckoned among the laity. But they were accounted a distinct religious order, denominated Religiosi, or Canonici, by which, until the tenth century, they were distinguished, both from the clergy and laity. From that period they began to be reckoned with the clergy. About the same time arose the distinction between the Clerici seculares, and Clerici regulares. The former denoted such as had a regular parochial charge and cure of souls; the latter, the clergy belonging to some religious order. The Clerici seculares, however, uniformly refused to own the monastics as fellow laborers in the ministerial office. Indeed the monks have never been fully blended with the clergy. On the contrary, in all cloisters, there have ever been a certain class of lay-brethren, or lay-monks, monachi laid, who, without discharging any of the appropriate functions of the ministry, have, as in the ancient church, occupied an intermediate station between the clergy and the laity.

The following are the principal orders of the monks and the names by which they are distinguished.

  1. Ascetics*. Originally the term was used by profane writers to denote the gladiators and athletae of the ancients. But in the fathers it denotes all those, of every age and condition, who devote themselves peculiarly to acts of piety, such as fasting, prayer, watchings, and the denial of sensual desires. They are sometimes styled unmarried* and continentes*. There were also female ascetics. The places appropriated for these exercises were styled*.
  2. Monks, appropriately so called.*. Such as lived a sequestered life, taking no part in the ordinary pursuits of men, and retiring alone into desert places, and solitary cells; or, in company, frequenting the wilderness and distant mountains. These belonged exclusively to the laity, and were characterized chiefly by their deep seclusion from society, while the ascetics belonged either to the clergy or laity,, and were distinguished particularly for their austerities. These monks were sometimes denominated Coenobites, Solitarii, Solitares, etc. 
  3. Anchorets, Hermits*. A distinction however is sometimes made between the two – anchorets denoting those who led a solitary life without establishing their residence in solitude, while hermits are those who inhabit the most desolate and inhospitable places, in solitary cells and caves. 
  4. Coenobites, from communis vita*. So called from their inhabiting one place in common, styled coenohium, and having all things common. They are also called *. and from *, conventuales*. 
  5. Grovagi. Strolling vagrants, whose lives were dishonored by the lowest sensuality, and the most shameless vices, 
  6. Pillarists*. So called from their living continually upon a pillar, a manner of life so austere and forbidding, that few were induced to adopt it. 

    There are a multitude of names denoting different classes of monks and ascetics, the mention of which may serve to show how numerous were these religious orders in the ancient church, and the estimation in which they were held. Such as the following:
  7. Studiosi*, electi*, insomnes*, pascentes* , who lived by themselves in perpetual silence; quiescentes*; renuntiantes; Culdei, Eeldei, Keledei, etc., certain monks in Scotland and the Hebrides; Apostolici monks in Britain and Ireland.
  8. Canonici regulares, clerical monks. These were the priests who were addicted to a monastic life in distinction from the secular or parochial clergy, canonici seculares.
  9. Secular Monks, Monachi Seculares; a class distinct from the lay brethren. These without renouncing marriages and the social relations, under the guidance of overseers of their choice, devoted themselves to various offices of piety. Thus constituted, they served as patterns for those religious fraternities or brotherhoods which first appeared in France, Italy and Germany in the ninth century, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries became exceedingly numerous and powerful, and widely dispersed. All these fraternities occupied an intermediate rank between the laity, the monks, and the clergy. 

Monastics of the female sex were not, at first, accounted a distinct religious order. Nor is there mention of them as such so long as the ancient rule of the church remained in force, which positively debarred women from ever conducting religious worship, or assuming any of the offices of the priesthood.

Monasteries and nunneries probably arose simultaneously. The first traces of the associations of women in a monastic life discover themselves in the fourth century. In this period they begin to be denominated Movaxal, but more frequently Movul, monae, solae, viduae. Jerome was the first to call them Nonnae, Nuns. By some, this is understood to be the same as matron, or venerable widow. Others derive it from a virgin*. They are also called by many other names, such as Sanctimoniale, Virgines Dei, s. Christie Ancillae Dei, Sorores ecclesiae, etc. But by whatever name they are known they are carefully to be distinguished from the ancient order of deaconesses in the church. As early as the fifth and sixth centuries, the office of deaconess ceased in the Western church. After this, many offices of charity which they were wont to perform to the poor and the sick, were discharged by the sisters of the church. For this purpose they formed themselves into various associations and corporations. Their influence was, in general, very happy, and so powerful that they outlived the storms of political revolutions; and, to a great extent, still survive under various names and in different establishments.

Jerome, Vit. S. Pauli, Ep. ad Paul, de instit. Monach. comp. also Barcepha, De Syris Monophys. in Assemani, Bibl. Or. tom. iii. P. 2. p. 861.

Assemani, Bibl. Or. tom. i. p. 31, 35, 54.

Assemani, Bibl. Or. tom. iii. P. 2. p. 857. tom. i. p. 28, 138.

Cod. Theodos. lib. xi. tit. 30. 1. 57.

Socrat. h. e. lib. iv. c. 23.

Assemani, Bibl. Or. torn. iii. P. 2. p. 857.

Regiil. S. Bened. c. i.

Bingham's Ant. bk. viii. sec. 5.

Euseb. h. e. vi. c. 11.

Clemens Alex. tr. quis div. salv. n. 36.

Niceph. Hist. lib. xv. c. 28.

Sozomen, h. e. vi. c. 33.

Justin, Novel, v. c. 3; Suicer, Thesaurus.

Pallad. hist. Laus.'c. 15.

Bingham, bk. 8. sec. 13; Mosheim, vol. iv; Atbanus, ep. ad Dracant; Augustin, De haeres. c. 40; Hieron. Vita Hilar, c. 19; Du Cange, Glossar. art. Fraternitas.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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