Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
This verse from the gospel of Matthew is the underlying tone for the commencement of monasticism in the Middle Ages. Monasticism (from the Greek monos, meaning "single" or "alone") usually refers to the way of life - communitarian or solitary - adopted by those individuals, male or female, who have chosen to pursue an ideal of perfection or a higher level of religious experience through leaving the world. In the novel The Secret of Santiago the character Altvitus can be characterized as a devout follower of God, a hermit by the communities standards. From viewing the practices and beliefs of Alvitus we can see how monasticism and self-denial brings one to a closer relationship with God. Through the observances of the life of St. Antony, the Benedictine Rule, and the practice of asceticism by the monks of the time we can closely examine how monasticism was an important factor to the Middle Ages.
For thirty years Altvitus claims to have been called from a life of shepherding sheep to a life of strict and obedient monastic lifestyle by his God. Monasticism always entails Asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. This asceticism may include fasting, silence, a prohibition against personal ownership, and an acceptance of bodily discomfort. Almost always it includes poverty, celibacy, and obedience to a spiritual leader. The goal of such practices is usually a more intense relationship with God, some type of personal enlightenment, or the service of God through prayer, meditation, or good works such as teaching or nursing.
The practices of self - denial can be dated back in history. Christian monasticism began in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the fourth century AD. Saint Antony the Great was connected with the first Egyptian hermits and is revered as the founder of monasticism. He followed after the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament which says "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all that you have" (Matt 19:21). He then sold all his possessions and took up a life of solitude and communal prayer in the desert. Leviticus fasted daily and was only brought scraps of food now and then from the woman of the town. He would deny his body any of the nourishment that it needed. He tells us how his "muscles cramp up" . This self - denial is much similar to the lifestyle of Antony.
Antony's quiet spiritual life and his ability to provide solid spiritual advice and directions brought many visitors to his cave-adobe. Many, who came to visit, stayed and lived in the vicinity of Antony's simple dwelling. Inspired by the example, which Antony set, those who came to visit him, committed themselves to the monastic life. Like Antony, Altvitus took to a quiet dwelling place outside the city, and waited for the calling of the Lord for thirty years.
In the person of Antony they found a gently but strict monastic guide and father. Among those who visited Antony for the purpose of guidance and advice were many learned men of the area. In Antony, a simple monk, they found wisdom par excellence. During the course of his eighty-five years of monastic life, Antony is said to have left his cave dwelling and gone to the city of Alexandria, Egypt only twice. The first time was to comfort Christians who were being tried by fire and sword during the persecution waged by Emperor Maximus. The second visit to Alexandria was to defend the true faith against Arius and his followers. Antony's endowments to the monastic community were rules and spiritual counsel, which continue to be used by all Orthodox monastics.
Christian monastics drew their spiritual strength from Christ's emphasis on poverty (Mark 10:21) and on the "narrow way" (Matt. 7:14) to salvation. Early monastics believed that Paul preferred celibacy to marriage (1 Cor. 7:8). Indeed, the first nuns seem to have been widows of the late Roman period who decided not to remarry. From one point of view, the decision of some Christians to live separate from the community, both physically and spiritually, was regrettable. From another, the commitment and the service of the monastics made them the most valued people in early medieval society.
The organization of western monasticism is due primarily to Saint Benedict of Nursia (6th century), whose Benedictine rule formed the basis of life in most monastic communities until the 12th century. Benedict was disturbed by the immorality of the society and retreated to a cave for three years. After this, Benedict traveled around to various different areas and interacted with several groups of monks and eventually went on to establish a monastery at Monte Cassino. Benedictines most prominent contribution to monasticism was his Regula sancti Benedicti , or the Benedictine Rule. In this rule, Benedict sets out the laws that were to govern the monasteries. Some main tenants of the Rule were absolute loyalty to the abbot and the concept of Opus Dei (work of God) which included reciting scripture, praying, singing hymns, and commentaries on the scriptures. The essence of Benedict's rule is its sensible approach to Christian living. The monastery was truly "the workshop where the tools necessary for spiritual life" were acquired. Thus Benedict set out the basis of what was to become the dominant order of Monasticism in the early Middle Ages.
In any case, his Rule lays down no specific tasks for his organization unlike later orders, which specifically dedicated themselves to such charisms as preaching, teaching, combating heresies, emancipating slaves or nursing the sick. Indeed, his admonitions were simply a ladder provided to aid a man in his search for God. For Benedict, a monastery was nothing more or less than:
"The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen"
Benedict had the revolutionary idea that work was a necessary instrument of virtue almost on par with prayer, and often indistinguishable from it. To him it was the natural condition of man, and he envisioned a state of life in which the physical components of work, prayer, and reading were in all ways equal. He warned against outward expressions of piety and excessive mortification, especially when they were to be, as is most often the case, an end in themselves. His was a voice of moderation and reason; his Rule is, indeed, a document about how a man can live with God in an imperfect world.
The life of a hermit was popularly viewed as being the summit of holiness; in actual fact considerable perils lay in wait for those inclined to venture on to its slippery inclines. There was no Rule to consult, no infallible teacher existed whose position it was to correct the vanities and delusions of the monk who considered himself to be at one with God; nor in fact was it really possible for many of them to practice two of monasticism's most important tenets, obedience and humility. Externals in many cases won the day, and more than a few of the Desert Fathers appeared to compete with each other in their austerities. A visible and tangible holiness became its own reward. In his own time Benedict himself would warn against such spiritual self-satisfaction.
The great work of the monasteries of the Middle Ages was the Opus Dei, the work of God, prayer and praise to the Almighty thoughout the day and night. This "work" was organized into the offices of the monastic day. These varied somewhat according to place and season, but generally vigils were chanted throughout Christendom. In addition, monks and nuns performed physical labor, provided charitable services, and kept learning alive. They studied and copied the Scriptures and the writings of the church fathers as well as classical philosophy and literature. They were leaders in the so - called Carolingian Renaissance, during which time (eighth - ninth centuries) writing was reformed and the liberal arts defined. In monastic hands writing became an art. The monasteries had a monopoly on education until the evolution of the cathedral school and the university in the High Middle Ages.
We see many correlation's between the Benedictine Rule and the life of Altvitus. Accordingly, the person who fears God "guards himself at every moment from sins and vices." For Benedict, this struggle against the vices of body and mind is the monk's greatest task as was Alvitus's. The prospect of the amendment of these vices is the greatest hope of the abbot. The totality of the battle to be constantly waged is emphasized by the saint's listing of the human elements to be guarded: thoughts, tongue, self-will, and fleshy desires. There is moreover, one specific fault to be denounced above all others by Benedict: murmuring. In fact in the Prologue he cites Psalm 94:, "today you would hear his voice; do not harden your hearts." With this he recalls the entire salvation history of the Israelites. This quotation serves to remind the monk that an entire people, chosen and formed by God, ultimately through its murmurings turned away from him, losing its privileges in the process and eventually failing even to recognize its savior. If Alvitus were to listen to the murmurings of the people he would have left his calling and never would have fulfilled the will of the Lord. As much as he thought in the back of his mind to turn away from the calling he didn't and was later rewarded by the calling.
The total spiritual poverty that is demanded of us and to which Alvitus responded to this without hesitation, is lovingly granted through the Beatitudes. Alvitus is like the student of the Gospel, who adheres to the opening of the Prologue, "Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of the heart." Alvitus would have taken this as an urgent invitation for a return to God. Each of its elements: listening, the call, the promise of true life, is an echo of the cry of Jesus to his contemporaries. It is as a response to this cry that Benedict asks us to seek through prayer, renunciation, and a conscious sharing in the sufferings of Christ, a share in his kingdom.
Through having ones mind focused one hundred percent on God, one tends to become consume with a passion for the Lord. Through Alvitus's beliefs and practice of denying himself the daily necessities he becomes more attune to the will of the Lord. Benedictines Rule and the life of St. Antony are markers in the starting of a revolutionary movement that would change people lives forever as it did for Alvitus. One of religious faith can only dream of the relationship that Alvitus and many other monastics of that age had with their God.