Thursday, September 1, 2011

The early times

St. Benedict
St. Pachomius, St Basil, St. Anthony of Egypt: each of these in his own way shaped the early years of religious life. They were the earliest founders of monastic communities - places where those who wished to follow the Gospel of Christ could live out their desires more securely. They looked at the teaching of Christ and wanted to live it out with heroism. And they did. Austerity, sacrifice, poverty, obedience, these men wanted to give everything and they did.

It was an extreme form of life. As in so many things, over time it needed a balancing hand. The drive to perfection, without guidance, often did not turn out as well as the beginner hoped. In seeking to be holy, there are many false roads. And so, after many years, God raised up St. Benedict of Nursia, the man now known as the founder of western monasticism. His rule guided the development of religious life for centuries and remains strong today. 

"Pray and work" was the cry that brought men a stable form of life. Those seeking to be holy could come to the monastery and learn a way to come to God through prayer, silence, hard work and appropriate penance. So wise was his way that men and women flocked to it over the centuries. It held on to past knowledge and lived a practical Christianity that saved Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. 

St. Gertrude the Great and St. Mechtild of Hackeborn

Benedict's sister, St. Scholastica, adapted his rule for women. She began the tradition that led through the great European monasteries for women. These became places of learning, healing and hospitality where women who sought to follow the way of Christ could give themselves wholly to following him.

The names are odd to us: Gertrude, Hildegard, Elfeda, Mechtild, but these taught women how to come to union with Christ. Because their eyes were fixed on heaven, they exercised enormous influence on earth.

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