Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 1.djvu/849

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771

ASCETICISM


771


ASCETICISM


A common accusation apaiiist rclicious asceticism is that it is synonymous with idleness. Such a charge ignores all past ami contemporary history. It was the iuscetic monks who virtually ereateil our present civilization. I)y teaching the barbarian tribes the value and dignity of manual labour; by training them in the mechanical arts, in agriculture, in arclii- tecture, etc.; by reclaiming swamps and forests, and forming industrial centres from which great cities develoix-'d, not to speak of the institutions of learning which they everywhere established. Omitting the especially prominent instances now before the world, namely the vast amount of industry and toil implied in the establisliincnt. organization, management, and support of tcn< nf ihcmsands of a-sylums. hospitals, refuges, and scliools in civilized lands by men and women who are wearing themselves out in labouring for the good of humanity, there are hundreds of thousands of men and women bound by vows and practising religious asceticism who, without any comoensation to themselves except the supernatural one of .-iacrificing themselves for others, are at the present moment labouring among savage tribes all over the world, teacliing them to build houses, till their fields, work at trades, care for their families, while at the same time imparting to them human learning in the drudgery of schools, and leading them in the way of salvation. Idleness and asceticism are conditions absolutely incompatible with each other, and the monastic institution where idleness prevails has already lost its asceticism and, if not swept away by some special upheaval, will be abol- ished by ecclesiastical legislation. The precept which St. Paul laid down for ordinary Christians has always been a fundamental principle of genuine a.sceticism: "If any man will not work, neither let him eat" (II Thess., iii, 10). But, as a matter of fact, the Church has seldom had to resort to .such a drastic measure as destruction. She has easily re- formed the religious orders which, while giving her many of her most learned men and illustrious saints, have been ever a source of pride because of the stupendous work they have achieved, not only for the honour of God and the advancement of the Church, but in uplifting humanity, leading it in the ways of virtue and hoUne.ss, and establishing institu- tions of benevolence and charity for every species of human suffering and sorrow.

In apparent contradiction with the assertion that the higliest expression of asceticism is to be found in monastic life is the fact that monasticism not only exists in the pagan reUgions of India, but is associ- ated with great moral depravity. Attempts have been made to show that these Hindu institutions are merely travesties of Christian monasteries, prnbal)ly those of the old Nestorians, or the result of primitive Christian traditions. But neither of these suppo- sitions can be accepted. For, although, doubtless, Indian monasticism in the course of ages borrowed some of its practices from Nestorianism. the fact is that it existed before the coming of Christ. The explanation of it is that it is nothing else than the outcome of the natural reUgious instinct of man to withdraw from the world for meditation, prayer, and spiritual improvement, instances of whicii might be cited among the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, and among ourselves in the Brook Farm and other Ameri- can experiments. But whether they were merely imitations or the promptings of a natural instinct, it only goes to show, in the first place, that monastic eeclu-sion is not unnatural to man; and .secondly, that some Divinely constituted authority is needed to guide this natural propensity and to prevent it from falling into those extravagances to which re- ligious enthusiasm is prone. In other words, there must be an acknow^ledged and absolute spiritual power to legislate for it along the lines of truth and I.— 49


virtue, to censure ami condemn and punish what is wrong in individuals and a.s.sociations; a power able to determine infaUibly what is morally right ami wrong. The (^athoHc Church alone claims that power. It has always recopiized the ascetic instinct in man, has approved asstjciations for the cultivation of religious perfection, has laid down minute rules for their guidance, has always exercised the strictest surveillance over tlicin, and has never hesitated to aboUsh them wlien they no longer serve< I the pur[X).se for which they were intended. Moreover, as genuine jusceticism does not rest .sati.sfied with natural, but aims at supernatural, perfection, and as the super- natural in the New Dispensation is in the guardian- ship of the Catholic Church, under its guidance alone is asceticism secure.

Jewish .Asceticism. — Besides the ordinary ob- servers of the Old Law, we have the great Hebrew saints and prophets whose deeds arc recordeil in Holy Writ. Tliey were a.scetics who practised the loftiest virtue, who were adorned with remarkable spir- itual gifts, and consecrated themselves to the service of (!od and their fellow-men. .Xs to the Schools of the Prophets, whatever they may have been, it is ad- mitted that one of the objects intended was the prac- tice of \irtue, and in that respect they may be re- garded as schools of asceticism. The Nazarites were men who consecrated themselves by a perpetual or temporary vow to abstain all the days of their Nazariteship, that is, during their separation from the rest of the people, from the u.se of wine and all other intoxicating drink, from vinegar formed from wine or strong drink, from any liquor of grapes, from grapes dried or fresli, and indeed from the use of anything produced from the vine. Other observ- ances which were of obligation, such as letting the hair grow, avoiding defilement, etc., were ceremonial rather than ascetic. The Nazarites were exclusively men, and there is said to be no instance in the Old Testament of a female Nazarite. They were a class of persons "holy to the Lord" in a special sense, and made their vow of abstinence an example of self-denial and moderation and a protest against the indulgent habits of the Chanaanites which were in- vading the people of Israel. Sain.son and Samuel were consecrated by their mothers to this kind of life. It is not certain that they lived apart in dis- tinct communities, like the Sons of the Prophets, though there is an instance of three hundred of them being found together at the same time.

The Rk(H.\hites, whom, however, Josephus does not mention, appear to have been a nomad tribe, distinguished chiefly by their abstinence from wine, though it is not certain that other into.xicants were forbidden, or that such abstinence was prompted by motives of penance. It may have been merely to prevent the culture of the vine in order to keep them m their nomadic state, the better to escape corruption from their Chanaanitish neighb<iurs. There were also Essenes who lived a communal life, pos.sessed no individual pn)perty, affected an extreme simplicity in diet and dress, and lived apart from great cities to preserve themselves from contamination. Some of them abjured marriage. They devoted theni.selves to the sick, and for that purpose made a special study of the curative qualities of herbs and boasted of po.ssessing medical recipes hande<l down from Solo- mon. Hence their name, Kssenes, or Healers. Finally come the Phari.sees, who were the Puritans of the Old Law, but whose \irtues and austerities we know to have been often only pretence, although there were, doubtless, among them some who were in earnest in the practice of \'irtue. St. Paul describes himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Outside of Judea, there were .said to l)e a certain number of .lews, men and women, living on the shores of Lake Mareotis, near Alexandria, who mingled their own