Admiring the 58 billionaires, led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for pledging half their wealth to charities, prompts us to examine those who have gone much further and to question their motives, their methods, and their successes. What can we learn about the human pysche?
CASE STUDY I:
Francis could ignore the grave social problems in his city. He attended the most expensive schools, and he would inherit his father's profitable fabrics business. But, needing excitement, he joined a popular revolt against authority. After a painful jail sentence, he returned to his father's business, grew wealthy in his own right, and was renowned for extravagant parties. The soft life soon disturbed him, so he took a commission in the army. When 25 years of age he revolted completely against this life. Returning all of his expensive trappings to his father, he travelled the country for a year as the poorest of all hippies. Then, for two years, he went about repairing public buildings for no pay. His food and clothing were only what he could beg. He was the scorn of his former associates.
CASE STUDY II:
All rebels are not young. When three wealthy sisters: Clare, Agnes, and Beatrice gave up all their luxuries to devote their lives to nursing patients with contagious diseases, their mother joined them.
CASE STUDY III: As a member of a wealthy family, Bernard’s lusty poems were popular. At age 22, he chucked it all for a life of poverty and contemplation, even persuading 30 of his friends into joining him. In fact many married men left their families to follow him into a male society of hard work and poverty.
There are many similar studies. You will recognize Case Study I as the 1207 beginning of the story of Saint Francis of Assisi. Case Study 11 concerns Saint Clare who did such amazing work with lepers in the 1200's. Case Study III is about Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) who founded the Cistine monasteries. But things are different today! Our world faces extinction from nuclear war, pollution, over-population, and germs that have outbred our controls. These earlier dissidents were all doing their thing for religion, and were not bothered by nagging doubt. Yet all could have served their God more comfortably. There was always need for dedicated people in the Church. What good was served by abandoning all luxuries?
Beliefs that wealth and worldly entanglements distract the mind have always been widespread. It is argued that poverty, chastity, and obedience are necessary to free the soul for perfect love of, and service to, the divine being. Religious hermits, for instance, existed in the pre-Aryan Indus Valley civilization over 3,500 years ago. In the early Hindu times (600-200 B.C.) hermits began to live in groups.
This first organized monastic life was founded by Mahavira, a Hindu prince who in 569 B.C. rejected his wealth to spend 12 years of mortification as a wandering beggar. Jains will not knowingly harm any animal life. Some monks reject all clothing; some fast to death. One of the two sects admits nuns.
A monastic religion, Buddhism, like the Christian Benedictines, observes a rule that excludes extremes. Gautama Buddha tried, but rejected, the austerity of the Jains. Buddhist nuns have never been numerous; they live apart; and are considered inferior. Indian monasteries disappeared by 1200 due to invasions by Muslims, and today are few. In China, Buddhism has suffered from Marxism.
Saint Anthony founded the earliest Christian monastery in 305 in the Egyptian desert. After the Edict of Milan in 313, freeing Christians from persecution, other monasteries were built, attracting thousands from all classes.
Influenced by Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor grew in Palestine and in the Sinai. Text books of this period remain required reading in many modern orders.
Byzantium and Greek Monasticism:
There were hundreds of such monasteries, most following the rule of Saint Basil of Caesarea who travelled extensively in the Near East, seeking the best aspects of monasticism. These northern monasteries survived the Muslim conquest of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria (632-649). Monastic houses were ruled by abbots who could demand absolute obedience. Orders of nuns were permitted. Abbots enjoyed from partial to full independence from church and state officialdom. Monks shared the work of the monastery and catered to the health and education of the civilian community.
Slavic Monasticism: The spread of monasticism from 900 to 1000 introduced Christianity to Serbia and Russia. The Mongol invasions of the 1200's destroyed monasteries near cities, but many survived in the northern forests to spark revival in the 15th and 16th centuries. Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine the Great (1729-1797) greatly restricted monasticism. After the 1917 Russian Revolution monks were expelled and monasteries destroyed. There has been a small revival since World War 11.
Irish Monasticism - St. Patrick and St. Columba:
Patrick founded many monasteries in Ireland prior to his death in 461. His name (from patrician) denotes noble birth and Roman descent. Irish raiders in 389 stole him from his home in Britain, using him as a slave until he escaped in 395. He got back to Britain where he studied to return to Ireland in 432 to convert the people to Christianity. He was a humble man who wrote little of himself. Only two of his works survive, and his biography was not written until 200 years after his death. There could have been two Patricks, one each from Britain and Gaul. In any event Irish monasteries in the 500's and 600's were the best schools in Europe. With 12 monks (to represent Christ's 12 apostles) Saint Columba, of a reigning family, left Ireland to found, off the west coast of Scotland, the monastery at Iona which became one of Europe's most famous. These monks then went on to convert Scotland, and to found over a hundred monasteries in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.
Religious Orders and Education: After the fall of Rome the Church assumed responsibility for education. Monasteries spread all over Europe and Asia, but education was by no means universal. Only those who showed aptitude and who indicated a desire to join the clergy had much opportunity to be educated. As late as the 1500's there were only 26,000 schoolboys in England's population of 5,000,000. Convents were available to girls, but they were quite inferior to monasteries as the Church prolonged the inequality of the sexes. On the other hand, when monasteries produced new thought, the world was often not ready. Gregor Johann Mendel, an Austrian monk at Brno, Czechoslovakia, developed from 1857 to 1865 the principles of heredity. The scientific world paid little attention. In 1900 his papers were rediscovered by European scientists who went on to conduct their own experiments which verified Mendel's findings.
Why Do People Join Monasteries or Otherwise Desert the Material World?
Like the French Foreign Legion, monasteries offered an escape from the duties of life. Life in the Legion was hard and dangerous; life in a monastery was hard but relatively secure. How many joined these organizations because they needed direction in all aspects of living? The vast majority of entrants never rose to positions of command. They could lead lives where everything was either black or white. Gone were all those million shades of gray. There were so many hours of prayer, labour, soldiering, eating, and sleeping. Were there no other reasons? Man has always exploited man, yet man has always looked up to higher ethics that always seemed unattainable in a sinful world. How do you equate what-should-be with what-is? In a monastery one could desert worldly trappings that caused greed, pride, strife, and injustice. Is this the coward's way out? Could not these people with high ideals better serve humanity by living good lives in their own communities? Did personal salvation rate higher than community salvation? Or were monasteries a more dramatic way of pointing up dissatisfaction with the world of materialism? Without monasteries could we have preserved higher moralities?
Monasteries did decline when the Church managed to have the worst aspects of feudalism outlawed. A strong church in Europe and South America did lighten the load of slaves while a fragmented church in the United States was incapable of halting abuses. We have come from a long line of ancestors who felt the need to harmonize with the animism of Nature. As our materialism and science grew we saw less substance in the spiritual world. Yet people continue to revolt against a world based solely on materialism. The visible world, they argue, is only a small part of the spiritual world. Meditation, solitude, and prayer are avenues of communication and channels for the flow of spiritual energy that can produce effects, psychologically and materially, in the visible world.
Harmonizing, then, must be a very personal thing as no two of us are the same. In the midst of the gigantic forces that sway our tiny galaxy in its brief moment of time can we be so egotistical as to believe that God - or the gods - care for each of us or that we can evolve to reach him, her, it, or them? But we are here. We exist. We know we are part of the forces we dimly understand. Part of your essence and mine has survived the frightening obstacles of some 3.5 billion years on this globe. There can be exhilaration in pitting our brains and stamina, puny as they are, to understanding the purpose of it all and to the promotion of harmony among all living things.