Friday, March 19, 2010
The Monastic Impulse
Beguinage Antwerp, Belgium
Why would anyone want to join a monastery? To answer that question, we need to understand how monasticism developed over the years. Although most modern Christians cannot grasp the rationale for becoming a monk or nun, monasticism has played a key role in preserving and propagating genuine faith throughout church history. During the past twenty centuries, many of the most on-fire believers of the church were monastics.
From around the year 250 AD through the Middle Ages, many serious believers who wanted to follow God with their whole heart saw joining a monastery as their best avenue to do so. “Do not love the world or anything in the world,” states 1 John 2:15 (TNIV). “If you love the world, love for the Father is not in you. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do—comes not from the Father but from the world.”
Especially after Constantine came to power and made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire in the early 300s, nominal Christians began to fill the church. No longer a place for those who were passionately seeking Christ, churches merged with the politics and culture of the day. While it was great to be free from persecution, lukewarm Christianity grew rapidly. From that point on, radical believers began to pull apart to form their own communities—thus monasticism began to grow.
In addition, entering a monastery was the only chance that most Christians had to learn the Bible. Individuals and families had no personal Bibles. However, especially by the Middle Ages, joining a monastic community gave one a chance to hear Scripture read daily and memorize it. Many monks and nuns had the whole book of Psalms memorized, reciting all 150 Psalms by heart each week as they gathered for chapel seven times each day. (By the way, how is your Scripture memory coming along?)
The monasteries also offered a good education, a safe place to live, and community with like-minded believers who, for the most part, truly wanted to grow in Christ. Younger brothers and sisters could find older mentors. Therefore, radical followers of Christ often gave up the opportunity for marriage and joined a monastery for a unique environment in which to grow spiritually.
Over the years many from the outside—both Protestant and Roman Catholic—have misunderstood monasticism. However, when seen in context, we can begin to appreciate the monastic impulse and what brought hundreds of thousands into monasteries and convents up to our day. Of course not all monastics live up to the ideal. That should not surprise us, however, or tarnish the goal that they had in mind—indeed, far too many evangelical preachers and other clergy today fall into the same sins as did some monks and nuns.
Nevertheless, we can be spurred on by their example and their genuine zeal. While we may not want to join a monastery, per se, we need to pursue many of the same goals: soaking in Scripture, vital Christian community, freedom from this world’s materialism, and a deep personal walk with Jesus.
2010 © Glenn E. Myers