Only slaves die of overwork. Work a weariness, a danger, forsooth! Those who say so can know very little about it. Labor is neither cruel nor ungrateful; it restores the strength we give it a hundredfold and, unlike financial operations, the revenue is what brings in the capital. Put soul into your work, and joy and health will be yours.
The idea of the monastery is as old as man, and its rise is as natural as the birth and death of the seasons.
We need society, and we need solitude. But it happens again and again that man gets a surfeit of society–he is thrown with those who misunderstand him, who thwart him, who contradict his nature, who bring out the worst in his disposition: he is sapped of his strength, and then he longs for solitude. He would go alone up into the mountain. What is called the “monastic impulse” comes over him–he longs to be alone–alone with God.
The monastic impulse can be traced back a thousand years before Christ: the idea is neither Christian, Jewish, Philistine nor Buddhist. Every people of which we know have had their hermits and recluses.
The communal thought is a form of monasticism–it is a getting away from the world. Monasticism does not necessarily imply celibacy, but as unrequited or misplaced love is usually the precursor of the monastic impulse, celibacy or some strange idea on the sex problem usually is in evidence.
Monasticism has many forms: College Settlements, Zionism, Deaconesses’ Homes, Faith Cottages, Shakerism, Mormonism, are all manifestations of the impulse to get away from the world, and still benefit the world by standing outside of it. This desire to get away from the world and still mix in it shows that monasticism is not quite sincere–we want society no less than we want solitude. Very seldom, indeed, has a monk ever gone away and remained: he comes back to the world, occasionally, to beg, or sell things, and to “do good.”
The rise of the Christian monastery begins with Paul the Hermit, who in the year Two Hundred Fifty withdrew to an oasis in the desert, and lived in a cave before which was a single palm-tree and a spring.
Other men worn with strife, tired of stupid misunderstanding, persecution and unkind fate, came to him. And there they lived in common. The necessity of discipline and order naturally presented itself, so they made rules that governed conduct. The day was divided up into periods when the inmates of this first monastery prayed, communed with the silence, worked and studied.
Within a hundred years there were similar religious communities at fifty or more places in Upper Egypt.
Women have always imitated men, and soon nunneries sprang up here and there. In fact, the nunnery has a little more excuse for being than the monastery. In a barbaric society an unattached woman needs protection, and this she gets in the nunnery. Even so radical a thinker as Max Muller regarded the nunnery as a valuable agent in giving dignity to woman’s estate. If she was mistreated and desired protection, she could find refuge in this sanctuary. She became the Bride of Christ, and through the protection of the convent, man was forced to be civil, and chivalry came to take the place of force.
Most monasteries have been mendicant institutions. As early as the year Five Hundred we read of the monks going abroad a-questing, a bag on their backs. They begged as a business, and some became very expert at it, just as we have expert evangelists and expert debt-raisers. They took anything that anybody had to give. They begged in the name of the poor; and as they traveled they undertook to serve those who were poorer than themselves. They were distributing agents.
They ceased to do manual labor and scorned those who did. They traversed the towns and highways by trios and asked alms at houses or of travelers. Occasionally they carried cudgels, and if such a pair asked for alms it was usually equal to a demand. These monks made acquaintances, they had their friends among men and women, and often being far from home they were lodged and fed by the householders. In some instances the alms given took the form of a tax which the sturdy monks collected with startling regularity. We hear of their dividing the country up into districts, and each man having a route that he jealously guarded.