Part 5: Catholic Europe. Lesson 3 of 8.
Lesson 28. Monks

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will embrace the situation God has given you in this world, and believe that God will give you the power to have victory right where you are, without having to escape; we hope you will have an active life of personal worship, without trying to have an experience of God outside of His word; we hope you will devote yourself to good works, keeping in mind that your good works are the result of the good relationship that .God has given you as a free gift, and that your good works are not the source of that good relationship.

1.Living alone. Some believers in the Roman Empire were distressed at the immorality of society.  Because they felt that they could not live a life of morality and prayer in such a society, the7 went to live alone in the desert.    Some lived in caves.  Another was famous for living on the top of a pillar for many years.  Many people admired them, and the life of one who avoids marriage and refuses to fulfill his physical needs gradually was thought of as an ideal spiritual life.

2.Groups. As time went by, others gathered around those who had isolated themselves, and they formed groups to sustain and encourage one another.  Those who live together in this kind of a life called monks.  The buildings they live in are called monasteries.  Eventually there were also groups of women, called nuns.  The buildings they live in are called convents.  These groups spread throughout Europe, and are still a part of the Roman Catholic Church today. Monks are also found in the Eastern Orthodox church.  The Protestant churches formed at the time of the Reformation generally did not continue the custom of having monasteries.  There are a few monasteries in the Church of England and in the Lutheran church in Germany.

3.Guidebook. There were many different rules for living in a monastery, some more strict than others.   In 540 a monk named Benedict wrote a set of rules for monasteries that was recognized as a good balance, not too severe and not too lax.  Pope Gregory I wrote a biography of Benedict that increased the popularity of his ideas.  For the next 700 years, the Benedictine monastery was the most common type in Europe, along with another style of monastery established by Irish monks who entered Europe from the north.  Most people in Europe did not have an opportunity for education after the Roman empire was ended by the invading Germanic tribes. The people in the monasteries preserved learning after the Roman Empire was driven out of Europe in the 5th century, because the monks continued to read and copy Bibles and other old manuscripts.  The monks also kept agriculture going, expanded the area available for farming by clearing the wild areas around their monasteries, and spent their days in hard farm labor.

4.Worship. Eight times a day the monks stopped their labor in order to come together for worship.  This arrangement was suggested by Benedict, following the Jewish custom of praying at regular times during the day, and the command in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.”

5.Psalms.  Typically, they sang several Psalms, using a plan to sing the entire book of Psalms once each month.  The method of singing Psalms throughout the Middle Ages is called chant. As Lesson 8 explained, chanting does not use instruments or chords.  There is no beat: the music flows along at the speed of the words.   Listen to chanting. By emphasizing the Psalms, the monks have reminded all of us of the value of the Psalms in worship.  The Psalms show us how to praise God by mentioning God’s character and God’s mighty works.  The Psalms are examples of prayer, showing that we can pour out our grief and even our complaints to God.  The Psalms show us that both objective and subjective concepts have a place in worship.

  1. Hymns. The other parts of monastic worship were prayers, songs from other places in the Bible other than Psalms, 4 hymns, and Bible readings. Some Protestant churches, the Anglicans and the Lutherans, make use of two² of these simple services.  As time went by, more and more people wrote hymns to be sung in the monasteries, since hymns were seldom sung in the Sunday services at that time.  Some of these have become familiar hymns still used by Christians today.  Some of the hymns that Luther provided for the common people to sing were based on monastic chants and hymns, with the addition of a strong beat.

7.Reform and lapse. Many people have tried to reform the church over the ages.  During the Middle Ages, there were two major movements¹ to reform the Benedictine monasteries.  The purpose was to return to their original discipline and poverty.  Each reform had a time of success, but by the 1500’s, there were again many people who criticized the monks for lax morality and love of money, so many people were willing to accept the closing of monasteries by the reformers.

8.Traveling monks. During the 1200’s a new kind of monk emerged.  Instead of staying in the monasteries, they set up schools, or they traveled around the countryside, preaching outdoors.  Usually they created their own rules rather than following the rules of Benedict.  At that time a man named Francis was preaching against luxury in the church and promoting the idea of simplicity and poverty. This was a condemnation of the way the popes were living, but the pope at that time prevented them from turning people against him by accepting him as his followers as a special organization within the church, called an “order.” The Franciscan order, along with another order, the Dominicans, later played a large role as missionaries.  Here are some of the  “orders:”

Group Founder Date started Other famous members
Dominicans Dominic 1216  Thomas Aquinas
Franciscans Francis of Assisi 1223  Bonaventure
Augustinians Based on Augustine’s rules of 423 1256 Martin Luther, before the reformation
Jesuits Loyola 1540 Missionaries Xavier, Ricci

As European explorers found the routes to other countries of the world, these groups were ready and willing to serve as missionaries.  Monastic groups lost members during the 1700’s and 1800’s, but today are expanding and continuing to work, especially among the poor.

9.Reformation Churches. The followers of Luther and Calvin closed monasteries.  One reason was that the reformers stressed salvation by faith, Forgiveness and  eternal life are gifts from God, and not the results of a monastic lifestyle, so it was not necessary to leave society in order to be saved.   A famous quote from Luther demonstrates his attitude toward monks.  After talking about how the shepherds saw the baby Jesus, Luther continues by asking whether they then deserted their flocks and joined monasteries.  No, he said, but rather on they returned to the work God had given them; Luther said this was an example for all of us.  Luther and the other reformers emphasized the possibility and benefit of doing our duty in the world. Those who stayed in the world were serving God as much or more as those that had gone to live monasteries.

10.Consequences. As the monks and nuns left their monasteries, Luther encouraged them to forsake their vows and to get married.  In 1536 the king of England disbanded the monasteries there.  One of his reasons was to obtain their property and wealth.  A small number of Protestants have been interested in returning to the ideas of monasteries.  In 1626 a place was established by the Church of England where families could live a monastic type of life.  In 1865, two Episcopal monasteries were founded in America, one for men and one for women.

11.Human concerns.  Protestants do not need to struggle to be saved, because they believe we are saved by faith. But Protestants are interested in finding help to live the Christian life.  For this they t still faces the same issues that the monks dealt with.  We depend on God to find the balance between self-discipline and freedom. We put down our old sinful natures, and yetl find joy in our faith. While we are free to stop eating for spiritual growth, and are free to marry or not marry, we also believe that the Holy Spirit will strengthen our new life, without with-holding what our bodies need.

12.Daily life. In John 17:13-17, Jesus tells us that we live in the world, but we do not belong to the world.  We depend on God to find a balance between being “in” the world, but not “of” the world?.  We interact with non-Christians without becoming like them.   Our challenge is to set high standards for behavior without thinking that we are better than others. We want to refrain from the open sins of society, but yet remember that our salvation is totally by God’s grace, and not by any amount of good works that we do?. We realize we must live among people if we are gong to obey the Bible’s command to “love your neighbor.”

13.Good Works.The Protestant reformers noted the dangers in the monasteries of thinking that being a monk was a better way to achieve salvation.  Even many of the common people believed this, and so they felt there was no way they could be close to God.  The monastic movement resulted in a misunderstanding that there were two levels of Christians: the religious ones and the ordinary ones.  Do we ever act as though we can put Christians into different categories?  The reformers stressed grace alone and faith alone as a balance to this misunderstanding that arose in the monasteries.  But we can fall for the same misunderstanding if we feel inwardly that we are closer to God than others who don’t have our sense of dedication or our victory over sin.  A big challenge for Christians remains how to live out Ephesians 2:8-10: we are saved by grace, but not by  works; However, we are saved for the purpose of doing works.

14.Meditation. the Bible does speak about meditation,  Psalm 119:15 tells us to meditate on God’s paths.   Psalm 119:27 tells us to meditate on God’s wonders.  The Hebrew word used is “chew.”  One thinks deeply about the meaning of a verse, and applies it to one’s self. This is one of the habits of daily life that all believers value.  Monks and nuns typically spend time in meditation on God’s Word.

15.Techniques. Some people mistakenly think that they can get into a state of mind which makes them think they are having an experience of God through using certain techniques, such as making one’s mind empty or repeating a phrase over and over, rather than using the biblical concept of meditation.  These techniques have been used by some in church history, and these techniques are the same as those used in several different religions, though the state of mind is explained differently in each religion.  For example, in Islam ths state of mind is called “seeing God,” in Hinduism it is called “realizing that all is one,” and in Buddhism it is called “realizing that all is illusion.” Some Christians who have tried to do this talk about getting a “vision of God.”³  In all these cases, the person may achieve a mental experience,, but has not actually obtained a relationship with God. That relationship is given to us when we believe in Jesus. 1 Peter 3:18 says “Christ died, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” You are already close to God by faith in Christ.

16.Getting closer. When we say, “I do not feel close to God today,” we have forgotten that we are always close to God, for Ephesians 2:13 says that those who were once far from God have been brought near “by the blood of Christ.” So we cannot get far from God. What we probably mean when we say “not close to God” probably is that we feel guilt, or we sense we are not depending on God for a certain problem. In fact we are always close to God and that means God is right there to hep us when we have these feelings. When we say “I do not feel close to God today because I did not take enough time for Bible study and prayer,” we should check whether we are relying on techniques or on Jesus to get close to God.  Our relationship to God is not based on those activities.  It is based on faith in Jesus alone. It is the fact that we are already in relationship to God that prompts us to Bible study and prayer.

17.Summary.  The Protestant Churches still promote the habit of reading and thinking about God’s Word, and praying for the needs of ourselves and others.  They are not ways to bring us to God, but they do remind us that we are already close to God by faith. They help us to cope with life and to grow in Christ as we play the role God has given to us in society.

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Footnotes.  1) The first of the  two movements was the Cluniac reforms, centered in the city of Cluny in France starting in 909 AD.  See details.   The second was the Cistercian reforms, started in the city of Citeaux in France in 1098.  See details.

2) The two services used in some Protestant churches are Matins (the morning service) and Vespers (the evening service).

3) the attempt to have an experience of God outside of simply believing that we are already one with God through faith in Jesus is called “mysticism.”  The experience is called a “mystical experience.”  In Islam, a mystic is called a “Sufi.” In Judaism, a “kabbalist.” Hindus and Buddhists use these same techniques. Some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers have tried to have mystic experiences, and have written about their techniques (See article.} It is great to say a prayer and believe it., and it is fine to repeat a prayer several times to help you think about it.  But if you would repeat it a certain number of times because you think you are gaining merit, the question is whether you believe that Jesus has already accepted you by faith.  If you repeat it over and over again in order to get your mind into a different state, just as a Hindu might repeat “om” over and over, is it because you believe this will give you an experience of God that makes you closer to him than you already are because of the blood of Jesus?

4) Bible songs other than Psalms that were selected for use in the worship services in the monasteries are called “canticles” (that word just means “something sung”).
1. Song of Mary (Latin, Magnificat). Words are Luke 1:46-55. Samples: chant in Latin. Englishchant plus choir.  Choir and orchestra, by John Rutter.
2. Song of Simeon (Latin: Nunc Dimittis = “now let.”) The words are in Luke 2:29-32. Samples:  chant in Latin.  Choir, in English.
3. Song of Zechariah (Latin: Benedictus)  Words: Luke 1:68-79. Samples.  Chant in Latin.  Choir and orchestra, Latin.  by Jenkins. Words start at minute 4.

In addition, a song probably written around the 300’s is also used. The Latin title is Te Deum, which means”to you, God)  See the Words.  Hear it  Chanted in English.   Hear a version for choir and orchestra, by Handel.