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What the Early Church Believed: Monks and Nuns

The consecrated life has been part of the true religion since before the time of Christ. In the Old Testament there was an entire order of men and women, known as Nazirites (“consecrated ones”), who were were essentially monks and nuns. They took vows of self-denial (Num. 6:2-4, 6-8) and had a distinctive appearance (Num. 6:5). John the Baptist was one of these (Luke 1:15), as were Samson (Judges 13:5-6) and Samuel (1 Sam. 1:11). Others too led a consecrated lifestyle, such as the prophetess Anna, who lived like a cloistered nun (Luke 2:36-37).

In the Christian age Paul himself took a temporary Nazirite vow (Acts 18:18) and recommended that others live celibate lives, consecrated to God (1 Cor. 7:32-38), especially ministers (1 Tim. 2:3-4). He set up an order of widows living the consecrated life after the deaths of their husbands (1Tim. 5:3-12), warning that those were not to be enrolled in this order if they were in danger of leaving the consecrated life to get married and so “incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge” (1 Tim. 5:12).

Based on this biblical material, the early Church perpetuated the consecrated life, and over the years it has taken a variety of forms. There arose orders of widows (à la 1 Tim. 5:12), orders of virgins of Christ (à la 1 Cor. 7:34), and orders of “deaconesses,” women who assisted in certain church duties, though they were not ordained (see the citation from I Nicaea, below). Later, these were merged into the modern concept of the nun; men living the consecrated life came to be known as monks.

As the following quotes show, the early Church Fathers recognized the role of monks and nuns in the life of the Church.

Justin Martyr

“[Scripture says:] ‘There are some who have been made eunuchs of men, and some who were born eunuchs, and some who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; but all cannot receive this saying’ [Matt. 19:12, 11]. . . . And many [of us], both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men” (First Apology 15 [A.D. 151]).

Hippolytus

“[In the last days the] temples of God will be like houses, and there will be overturnings of the churches everywhere. The Scriptures will be despised . . . And, on the whole, from among those who profess to be Christians will rise up then false prophets, false apostles . . . The shepherds will be like wolves; the priests will embrace falsehood; the monks will lust after the things of the world” (Discourse on the Antichrist 7 [A.D. 200]).

Zosimus

“After this I [Zosimus] lived thirty-six years, and communicated the way of life of the blessed to the fathers in the desert. . . . And after the completion of the thirty-six years, the angels of God came to me as to the blessed. And all the monks were gathered together and all who heard it, and this testament was read to all of them, and in such life he gave up his soul to God” (The Narrative of Zosimus 21 [A.D. 225]).

Liturgy of Mark

“Remember the orthodox bishops everywhere, the elders, deacons, sub-deacons, readers, singers, monks, virgins, widows, and laity” (Liturgy of Mark, priest’s prayer during the offering of incense [A.D. 250]).

Cyprian

“But if they [consecrated virgins] have faithfully dedicated themselves to Christ, let them persevere in modesty and chastity, without incurring any evil report, and so in courage and steadiness await the reward of virginity. But if they are unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better that they should marry than that by their crimes they should fall into the fire. Certainly let them not cause a scandal to the brethren or sisters.” (Letters 61:2 [A.D. 253]).

“If a husband comes upon his wife and sees her lying with another man, is he not angry and raging, and by the passion of his rage does he not perhaps take his sword into his hand? And what shall Christ our Lord and Judge think when he sees his virgin, dedicated to him, and destined for his holiness, [merely] lying with another? How indignant and angry is he, and what penalties does he threaten against such unchaste connections!” (ibid., 61:3).

The Martyrdom of Shamuna, Guria, and Habib

“In the six-hundredth year from the empire of Alexander the Macedonian, when Diocletian had been nine years sovereign of the Romans [A.D. 293] … a great persecution was raised against the churches in all the countries which were under the sway of the Romans. The name of Christian was looked upon as execrable, and was assailed and harassed with abuse; while the priests and the monks, on account of their staunch and unconquerable steadfastness, were subjected to shocking punishments” (Martyrdom of Shamuna, Guria, and Habib [A.D. 300]).

Council of Ancrya

“If any persons who profess virginity shall disregard their profession, let them fulfill the [penitential] term for bigamists [since they were first married spiritually to Christ]. And, moreover, we prohibit women who are virgins from living with men as sisters” (canon 19 [A.D. 314]).

Council of Nicaea I

“Likewise in the case of their [the Paulianists’] deaconesses . . . let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands [holy orders], are to be numbered only among the laity” (canon 19 [A.D. 325]).

Athanasius

“Now these arguments of ours do not amount merely to words, but have in actual experience a witness to their truth. For let him that will, go up and behold the proof of virtue in the virgins of Christ and in the young men that practice holy chastity, and the assurance of immortality in so great a band of His martyrs” (The Incarnation of the Word of God 48:1-2 [A.D. 318]).

“The Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, having become man for our sakes . . . bestowed this also upon us, that we should possess upon earth, in the state of virginity, a picture of the holiness of angels. Accordingly, such as have attained this virtue, the Catholic Church has been accustomed to call the brides of Christ. The heathen who see them express their admiration of them as the temples of the Word. For indeed this holy and heavenly profession is nowhere established, but only among us Christians, and it is a very strong argument that with us is to be found the genuine and true religion. … [Yet now the Arians], having obtained the consent and cooperation of the magistrates, first stripped them and then caused them to be suspended . . . and scourged them on the ribs so severely three several times, that not even real malefactors have suffered the like. . . . All men shudder at hearing the bare recital of deeds like these” (Defense Before Constantius 33 [A.D. 357]).

“After the death of his father and mother [ Anthony] . . . gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers-they were three hundred acres, productive and very fair . . . And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however . . . And again, as he went into the church, hearing the Lord say in the Gospel, ‘be not anxious for the morrow’ [Matt. 6:34], he could stay no longer, but went out and gave those things also to the poor. Having committed his sister to known and faithful virgins, and put her into a convent to be brought up, he henceforth devoted himself outside his house to discipline, taking heed to himself and training himself with patience. For there were not yet so many monasteries in Egypt, and no monk at all knew of the distant desert; but all who wished to give heed to themselves practiced the discipline in solitude near their own village” (ibid., 2-3).

“Athanasius the bishop to the brethren in foreign parts: You have entered upon a noble rivalry with the monks of Egypt by your determination either to equal or surpass them in your training in the way of virtue. For by this time there are monasteries among you, and the name of monk receives public recognition. With reason, therefore, all men will approve this determination, and in answer to your prayers God will give its fulfillment” (Life of Anthony, introduction [A.D. 359]).

Council of Hippo

“[H]oly virgins, when they are separated from their parents by whom they have been wont to be guarded, are to be commended by the care of the bishop, or presbyter where the bishop is absent, to women of graver age, so that living with them they may take care of them, lest they hurt the reputation of the Church by wandering about” (canon 31 [A.D. 393]).

Jerome

“The Arians do right to accuse me, but the orthodox forfeit their orthodoxy when they assail a faith like mine. They may, if they like, condemn me as a heretic; but if they do they must also condemn Egypt and the West, [Popes] Damasus and Peter. Why do they fasten the guilt on one and leave his companions uncensured? . . . I blush to say it, but from the caves which serve us for cells we monks of the desert condemn the world. Rolling in sackcloth and ashes, we pass sentence on bishops” (ibid., 17:2).

“Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. . . . But, as I have before hinted, the case of monks is different from that of the clergy. The clergy feed Christ’s sheep; I as a monk am fed by them” (Letters 14:8 [A.D. 396]).

Augustine

“We lately put forth a book, The Good of Marriage, in which also we admonished and admonish the virgins of Christ, not, on account of that greater gift which they have received, to despise, in comparison of themselves, the fathers and mothers of the People of God; and not to think those men … who did service to Christ about to come hereafter, even by the begetting of sons, on this account of less desert” (Holy Virginity 1 [A.D. 401]).

“[N]o one may reproach you who are Catholics by reason of the name [‘monk’]. When you with justice reproach heretics by reason of the Circumcelliones, that they may be saved by shame, they reproach you on the score of the monks. . . . [T]here are they who are false monks, and we know men of this kind; but the pious brotherhood is not annulled, because of them who profess to be what they are not. There are false monks, as there are false men among the clergy, and among the faithful” (Explanations on the Psalms 133:3-4 [A.D. 405]).

“[I]t is not right to give occasion for God’s servants to think that a promotion to a better position is more readily given to those who have become worse. Such a rule would make monks less careful of falling, and a most grievous wrong would be done to the order of clergy, if those who have deserted their duty as monks be chosen to serve as clergy, seeing that our custom is to select for that office only the more tried and superior men of those who continue faithful to their calling as monks” (Letters 60:1 [A.D. 412]).

Council of Chalcedon

“It is not lawful for a virgin who has dedicated herself to the Lord God, nor for monks, to marry; and if they are found to have done this, let them be excommunicated. But we decree that in every place the bishop shall have the power of indulgence toward them” (canon 16 [A.D. 451]).

Patrick

“How, then, are the people of Ireland, who never had the knowledge of God, but until now worshiped idols and unclean things, how are they lately been made a people of the Lord, and are called the sons of God? The sons of the Scots and the daughters of their kings are seen to become monks and virgins of Christ!” (Confession of Patrick 41 [A.D. 452]).

“And especially there was one blessed lady of Scottish birth, of noble rank, and most beautiful, of full age [that is, an adult], whom I had baptized. And after a few days she came to us for a special counsel. She told us in confidence that she had received a message from God, and it admonished her to become a virgin of Christ and so come nearer to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day afterwards, most admirably and most eagerly she embraced that which all virgins of Christ do. Not that they have their fathers’ agreement. Nay, rather they endure persecution and lying reproaches from their parents. Nevertheless their number increases more and more. And we know not the number of our race who are thus reborn [as virgins], in addition to the widows and the continent” (ibid., 42).

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