When I first approached this discipline from a Christian tradition perspective, I believe I judged monastic movements a little too harshly. Upon further study, I realized why the pendulum swung as far as it did and perhaps I understand their struggles a little more.
I had to go all the way back to the New Testament era. Life for early Christians was difficult and often ended in imprisonment and more likely death by stoning within Jewish communities. You could say that they understood Christ’ warning about the world hating them in the most literal sense.
Yet, regardless of the many attempts to snuff out its lifeblood, Christianity continued to expand. In the 4th Century AD, the gospel caught the ears of a very important person in the Roman Empire: Constantitine. Under his conversion & rule, Christianity went from a taboo heretical movement to national religion, lifting the burden of hiding for your life when you decided to follow Christ.
This lead to an influx of people claiming Christianity. It became harder (much like today) to distinguish Christians from everyone else. Sincerity diminished as more just accepted it as part of the national religion. In response to this, some Christians sought to withdraw literally from society. And hence the birth of monastic movements in Christianity.
The first to challenge the status quo were the Desert Fathers who literally moved into the desert to get away from society. Some formed communities that renounced money and property in favor of doing hard labor and serving the poor. Others, like Simon Stylites, chose extreme asceticism by living on top of a pillar and having supplies roped up to him. Others lived in trees, exclusively wore garments of thorns, etc.
As the acts became more extreme, you see in the later 4th and early 5th Century a formalization of the monastic life. For example, in the late 4th century Basil, the Bishop of Caeserea, lad some rules down that forbade the unnecessary and eccentric behavior, encouraging practitioners to help the poor and orphans. In the 5th Century, Benedict of Nursia founded a monastic order with rules concerning manual labor, directed reading and regular worship through out the day. They were stripped of their belongings and kept busy to avoid succumbing to temptation.
The pendulum continued to swing and after the Reformation, you see Protestants such as the Anabaptists, condemn monasticism. In its stead, they gave communally in order to help the poor. The emphasized alleviating the poverty of others instead of striving for it.
At first, I would have argued against the monastic movements. They were rooted more in asceticism than simplicity. Life as a monk was more about the abasement of possessions, than learning to be content whether among princes or paupers. I think they had only one half of the equation and forgot that Christ called us to be the salt of the earth. In order to serve and shape the communities we find ourselves in, we can not withdraw full time. Yet, I understand now where they were coming from and I think I probably would have made a similar decision.
What about you? Do you see a difference between asceticism and simplicity?
Discipline of Simplicity Series
- Spiritual Discipline: Simplicity
- Simplicity: Lens of Tradition
- Simplicity: Lens of Reason
- Simplicity: Lens of Experience