Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 1.djvu/848

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770

ASCETICISM


770


ASCETICISM


On the contrary, the germs of religious life were implanted in it by Christ Himself from the very beginning. For in the Gospel we have repeated in\ntations to follow the evangelical counsels. Hence, in the first days of the Church, we find that particular kind of asceticism widely practised which later developed into the form adopted by the Religious Orders. In the "History of the Roman Breviary", by Batiffol (tr. Bayley), 1,5, we read: "In proportion as the Church in extending itself had grown colder, there had taken place within its bosom a drawing together of those souls which were possessed of the greatest zeal and fervour. These consisted of men and women, alike, living in the world and without severing themselves from the ties and obligations of ordinary life, yet binding themselves by private vow or public profession to live in chastity all their life, to fast all the week, to spend their days in prayer. They were called in Syria Monazonites and Parthcnce, ascetics and virgins. They formed, as it were, a third order, a confraternity. In the first half of the fourth century, we find these associations of ascetics and virgins established in all the great Churches of the East, at Alexandria. Jeru.salem. Antioch, Edessa." Men hke Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and others wrote and legislated for them. They had a special place in the church services and it is noteworthy also that at Antioch "the ascetics there formed the main body of the Nicene or orthodox party". But "dating from the reign of Theodosius and the time when CathoHcism became the social religion of the world, comes the movement when a deep cleavage in religious society manifested itself. These ascetics and virgins, who, till now, have mingled with the common body of the faithful, abandon the world and go forth into the wilderness. The Church of the multitude is no longer a sufficiently holy city for these pure ones; they go forth to build in the desert the Jerusalem which they crave. " (Cf. Du- chesne, Christian Worship.)

The time when these foundations began is said by Batiffol to be " when Catliolicism became the social rehgion". Pre\nous to that, with their pagan sur- roundings, such establishments would have been out of the question. The instinct for monastic institu- tions was there, but its realization was delayed. Those who enter a religious order take the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which are considered here only inasmuch as they differentiate a particular kind of asceticism from other forms. They are called substantial vows because they are the basis of a permanent and fixed condition or state of life, and affect, modify, determine, and direct the whole attitude of one who is bound by them in his relations to the world and to God. They constitute a mode of existence which has no other purpose than the attainment of the highest spiritual perfection. Being perpetual, they ensure permanence in the practice of virtue and prevent it from being inter- mittent and sporadic; being an absolute, free, irrev- ocable, and complete surrender of the most precious possessions of man, their fulfilment creates a spiritu- ality, or a species of asceticism, of the most heroic character. Indeed it is inconceivable what more one can offer to God, or how tliese virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience can be exercised in a higher degree. That the observance of these vows is a reproduction of the manner of life of Christ and the Apostles, and has, as a consequence, given countless saints to the Church, is a sufficient answer to the accusation that the obligations they impose are degrading, inhuman, and cruel, a reproach often urged against them.

While concurring in the practice of the same fundamental virtues, the religious bodies are differen- tiated from one another by the particular object which prompted their separate formation, namely, some


need of the Church, some new movement which had to be directed, some rebeUion or here.sy that had to be combated, some spiritual or corporal aid that had to be brought to mankind, etc. From this there resulted that besides the ob.servance of the three main virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience, some special virtue is cultivated by each. Thus, in the beginning of Christianity, when labour was con- sidered a badge of slavery, the great, the learned, the noble, as well as the humble, the ignorant, and the poor, filled the deserts of Egj'pt and supported themselves by manual labour, their withdrawal from the world being also a protest against the corruption of paganism. After the destruction of the Roman Empire the Benedictines taught the barbarians agriculture, the arts, letters, arcliitecture, etc., while inculcating the virtues of Christianity; the poverty of the Franciscans was a condemnation of the luxurj' and extravagance of the age in which they originated; the need of protecting the faithful from heresy gave rise to the Order of Preachers; rebellion against authority and defection from the Pope called for a special emphasis on obedience and loyalty to the Holy See by the Society of Jesus; the defence of the Holy Land created the Military Orders; the redemption of captives, the care of the sick and poor, education, missionary work, etc. all called into ex- istence an immense variety of congregations, whose energies were directed along one special line of good works, with the consequent development to an un- usual degree of the \irtues which were needed to attain that special end. Meantime, their rules, covering every detail and every moment of their daily lives, called for the practice of all the other virtues.

In some of the orders the rules make no mention of corporal penance at all, leaving that to individual devotion; in others great austerity is prescribed, but excess is provided against both by the fact that the rules have been subjected to pontifical approval and because superiors can grant exceptions. That svicli penitential practices produce morbid and gloomy characters is absurd to those who know the light- heartedness that prevails in strict religious com- munities; that they are injurious to health and e\'en abbreviate fife cannot be seriously maintained in view of the remarkable longevity noted among the members of very austere orders. It is true that in the lives of the saints we meet with some very ex- traordinary and apparently extravagant mortifico- tions; but in the first place, what is extraordinarj', and extravagant, and severe in one generation may not be so in another which is ruder and more inured to hardship. Again, they are not proposed for imitation, nor is it always necessary to admit their wisdom, nor that the biographer was not exaggerat- ing, or describing as continual what was only occa- sional; and on the other hand it is not forbidden to suppose that some of these penitents may have been prompted by the Spirit of God to make themsehcs atoning victims for the sins of others. Besides, it must not be forgotten that these practices went hand in hand with the cultivation of the sublimest \irtues, that tliey were for the most part performed in secret, and in no case for ostentation and display. But even if there was abuse, the Church is not responsible for the aberrations of individuals, nor does her teach- ing become wrong if misvmdcrstood or misapplied, as might have been done inadvertently or uncon- sciously, even by the hohest of her children, in the exaggerated use of corporal penance. The virtue of prudence is a part of asceticism. The reformation or abolition of certain orders because of corrujition only empliasizes the truth that monastic asceticism means an organized effort to attain perfection. If tliat purpose is kept in view, the order continues to exist; if it ceases to be ascetic in its hfe, it is abolished.