The Rise of The Mendicant Orders

There came a time when Medieval Christianity was at its highest point. However, the growth of cities, trade, and the monetary economy brought about changes that were not always welcome. This was also the time when the mendicant orders began and flourished. “Mendicants” refer to those who lived by begging. A forerunner of the mendicant orders was Peter Waldo, a merchant from Lyons who heard the story of a monk who practiced extreme poverty and was moved by it to devote himself to a life of poverty and preaching. His followers were thereafter called “Waldensians” who, along with him, were treated with derision due to their ignorance. Despite repeated condemnations, they continued preaching. Persecution then forced them to withdraw to remote valleys in the Alps, where they continued existing until the Protestant Reformation. At that time, they were approached by Reformed theologians whose teachings they accepted, and thus became Protestant.

The next mendicant movement was the Franciscans, which was very similar to the Waldensians. Francis, like Waldo, belonged to the merchant class. His true name was Giovanni. Due to his French lineage on his mother’s side and his father’s trade relations with France, not to mention his fondness of the songs of the French troubadours, his friends in his native Assisi called him “Francesco” or the little Frenchman. Hence, he is known today as St. Francis of Assisi, a name that the present Pope, Jorge Bergoglio, took his name from. A sister order for women was founded by St. Clare, a spiritual sister of Francis, and became commonly known as the “Clarisses” or “Poor Clares.” St. Francis died on October 3, 1226 in a chapel that he had rebuilt in his youth.

Another major mendicant order was St. Dominic de Guzman. Albeit twelve years older than Francis, his work as the founder of an order was somewhat later. He was born in the town of Calaruega, in Castile, to an aristocratic family whose tower still dominates the landscape. Dominic became the canon of the cathedral at Osma. Four years later, when he was twenty-nine, the chapter of the cathedral resolved to follow the monastic rule of St. Augustine. Despite living in a monastic community, the members of the chapter did not withdraw from the world nor did they set aside their ministry to the faithful. Due to Dominic’s concerns regarding heresy, he set out to teach and preach on orthodoxy. This he joined to a disciplined monastic life and rigorous study in order to make use of the best possible arguments against heresy. Officially, th Dominican order is called the “Order of Preachers.” From the beginning, Dominicans had seen poverty as an argument that strengthened and facilitated their task of refuting heresy. Their main objective was preaching, teaching, and study, and poverty was seen as a means to that end. A few years from their humble beginnings, the most famous and influential theologian of the West arose. His name was Thomas Aquinas, dubbed by the Catholic Church as the “Angelic Doctor of the Church,” whose monumental work was the Summa Theologica.

Both the Franciscan and Dominican orders spread throughout most of Europe. Soon there were other movements, or ancient orders that now followed their example.

Emperors and Theologians

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In reading church history, I came across the stories about the significant men of the fourth century, namely, Emperor Julian the Apostate; Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria; and the Great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.

Julian’s father was a half-brother of Constantine, and therefore Julian was a first cousin to the three emperors, the surviving sons of Constantine, namely: Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II. Sometime thereafter, Constantius became the sole emperor of the Empire. Because Consantius had no children who could aid him in government, he decided to call on his cousin Gallus and gave him the title of “caesar,” that is, of junior emperor as the emperor then was called “augustus.” As rumors spread that Gallus was conspiring against Constantius, the latter had the former arrested and beheaded just a few years after having made him caesar. Constantius then decided to set aside the bad experience with Gallus and called his one surviving relative to share his power and giving him the title of caesar and appointing him to rule in Gaul. Unexpectedly, Julian, who had spent his life among books and philosophers, became a great ruler but Constantius gave him little support. When Constantius suddenly died prior to marching against Julian, the latter had no difficulty in marching to Constantinople and claiming the rule of the whole empire.

Although baptized and raised a Christian, Julian sought both to restore the lost glory of paganism and to impede the progress of Christianity. This religious policy earned him the title by which history knows him: “the Apostate.” Rather than persecuting Christians, Julian followed a two-pronged policy of hindering their progress and ridiculing them. He even wrote a work Against the Galileans. Despite his animosity towards Christianity, Julian applied what he learned therefrom in reinvigorating paganism, including the adoption of the clergy hierarchy similar to that which was observed by the church at that time. As he was moving along in enforcing his anti-Christian policies, he died unexpectedly.

The next great figure of antiquity was Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius is well known because of his significant contribution during the Council of Nicea. Being so dark and short, his enemies called him “the black dwarf.” Although the time and place of his birth are not known, it is assumed that he was Coptic in ethnicity due to the language that he spoke and his complexion. Therefore, he was a member of the lower classes in Egypt. After the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, most people thought that the Arian problem has been finally dealt with. However, not long after the death of Constantine did the Arians regain supremacy due to the influence of the new emperor, Constantius II who was himself a staunch supporter of Arianism. As a convinced Arian, Emperor Constantius felt the need to rid himself of the champion of the Nicene faith. Instead of banishing Athanasius, by the use of force, Constantius ordered a synod to condemn Athanasius. Athanasius took refuge among the monks of the desert to whom he had a close relationship. Although Athanasius never saw the final victory of the cause to which he devoted his life, his writings clearly show that he was convinced that in the end Arianism would be defeated. As he approached his old age, he saw emerge around himself a new generation of theologians devoted to the same cause. Most remarkable among these were the Great Cappadocians, to whom we now turn our attention.

They are called Cappadocians because they hail from the region of Cappadocia in the southern Asia Minor, in lands now belonging to Muslim Turkey. The first two, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa were bothers. However, unknown to most people, their sister Macrina played a major role in the Christian life of Basil when due to his studies in Caesarea, he became vain and especially after their brother Naucratius had died unexpectedly. Macrina became Basil’s counselor since he was so badly shaken due to his close relationship with Naucratius. Macrina spent the rest of her life in monastic retreat in Annesi. Her fame was such that she was simply called “the Teacher.”

In Annesi, Basil and his friend, the other Cappadocian Father and later Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus, founded a community of men similar to the one Macrina had founded for women. They believed that the core of monastic life is service to others; hence, the necessity of community life for one who lives alone has no one to serve. Basil also wrote rules to be followed in the monastic life.

Christian Monasticism

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“Monks who leave their cells, or seek the company of others, lose their peace, like fish out of water loses its life.”

-St. Anthony

During the years prior to the Edict of Milan, when persecution was still rampant throughout the Roman Empire, followers of the Way were always aware of the possibility that one day they might be taken by the Roman authorities and be made to choose between death and apostasy. However, when the peace of the church seemed assured there are those who, unlike Eusebius of Caesarea, did not take Emperor Constantine’s peace positively with open arms. To them, imperial tolerance and even promotion of Christianity resulted in the widening of the narrow gate to salvation which Jesus had spoken about enabling multitudes to go right through it. Thus, people were lining up and demanding to be baptized without even fully understanding the Christian Faith. Furthermore, this situation likewise elevated the office of the bishop to one of prestige and power so much so that ministers competed against each other for the episcopate.

To this apparent dilemma, many found the answer in the monastic life. This is characterized by fleeing from human society and leaving everything behind in order to dominate the body and its passions which give way to temptation. Albeit monasticism had already been in existence before Constantine’s time, its practice only became widespread during the time of Constantine. It was the Egyptian desert that provided the most fertile soil for the growth of monasticism due to its inaccessibility. The word “monk” is derived from the Greek monachos, which means “solitary.”

Although it is impossible for us today to determine who really was the first monk or nun of the desert, the two that are usually given that honor are Paul and Anthony, about whom Jerome and Athanasius wrote respectively. Studying the lives of Paul and Anthony will enable us to learn about the earliest forms of monasticism, which is that of the “anchorite” or the solitary monk. As more and more people withdraw into the desert searching for and experienced teacher, a new form of monasticism arose and solitary monasticism gave way to a communal form of the monastic life. This form of monasticism is called “cenobitic,” a name derived from two Greek words which mean “communal life.” Despite not being its founder, Pachomius deserves credit as the organizer who most contributed to its final shape. Pachomius demanded that any who wished to join his community must give up all their goods and promise absolute obedience to their superiors. The basic rule was mutual service, so that even those in authority had to serve under them in spite of the vow of absolute obedience. The daily life of a Pachomian monk included both work and devotion, and Pachomius himself set an example by undertaking the most humble tasks. They prayed “without ceasing” as per the Apostle Paul’s instructions even while performing their respective trades. This most probably is the precursor to the Benedictine motto of “Ora et labora” or “Pray and work.”

We can now see from the discussion above how these monastic communities that are still present today came about. Knowing their history enables us to appreciate their various contributions to the Christian life. To know more, read The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez.

The Purge

In its early years, Christianity suffered enormous setbacks. The early Christians suffered persecution under various Roman emperors. At first, the Roman Empire saw Christianity as just one new sect of Judaism. This is significant because the Romans had a policy of leaving the Jews alone in their religion since they were very inwardly focused and hence, generally did not bother other people. In fact, even the first Christians, being Jews themselves, did not even believe that they were following a new religion. The only difference between them and the other Jews was that they were convinced that the Messiah that they have all been waiting for had already come. Thus caused serious rifts with the ruling Jews because of their varying ideas on what the Messiah would be like. Most Jews, including Jesus’ apostles at first, believed that the Messiah would be a sort of military leader who would liberate them from Roman rule and restore the glory Israel had during the reign of Kings David and Solomon. Unfortunately for them, they saw that the man Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the Messiah, was killed by crucifixion by the Roman authorities. They thought that Jesus could not be the Messiah for he had failed in his mission miserably. Nevertheless, the early Christians did not see it that way. They saw the death and resurrection of Jesus as a victory and not as a defeat. As a result, Jesus was recognized as the Messiah or in Greek, the Christ.

As the distinction between Judaism and Christianity became clear, along with the Christians’ observance of Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize and teach, and as more and more Gentiles were converted, the Roman authorities quickly took notice of this new growing sect. It did not help at all that rumors of cannibalism and other horrific practices were being spread about Christianity. Due to the riots and disorder that this new sect has been causing among the Jews, the Roman authorities decided to expel and prevent them from teaching in the name of Christ, just as Peter and John experienced in Acts 4 under the Jewfish temple authorities.

As problems caused by Christians increased, including their stubborn refusal to burn incense to and worship the pagan gods and the emperor, not to mention their abstinence from participating in pagan festivities, the persecution against the followers of the Way increased all the more. First was under Emperor Nero, then under Domitian, the Pliny, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Decius, Diocletian and Maximius. It was during this time when a lot of Christians suffered horrific tortures and death. Thus, the rise of the martyrs. Simply put, a martyr is a witness. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that his disciples shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon and that they will be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth! And this, they, the Christian martyrs such as Stephen, Ignatius, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicitas, Thelica and Justin, among others, fulfilled without shame or ambivalence.

Fortunately however, these persecutions later on came to a decisive end during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the first so-called “Christian” Emperor.

The Dawn of the Kingdom

The Bible says that in the fullness of time, God sent His own Son, born of a woman, born under the Law. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent into the world, the world He himself created, at a certain point in time. A lot of people would ask why Jesus wasn’t sent earlier, maybe right after Adam and Eve sinned or after the Great Flood of Noah’s time. Others would ask why He wasn’t sent during our time today when there are thousands of people who refuse to believe in God and the Messiah or Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was born during the time when Israel was under Roman sovereignty. Prior to that, the Jews enjoyed a brief period of independence from foreign rule due to the revolutionary efforts and leadership of Matathias and his son, Judas Maccabeus. This period in Israel’s history was known as the Maccabean period or the Maccabees. However, after the death of Judas Maccabeus, his descendants fought over the territories causing a weakening of Israel, precipitating the intervention of the Roman Empire.

Jesus often refers to the Kingdom of God whenever He teaches, especially in His parables. If Jesus came earlier the conditions would not yet be ripe for the people to understand His message about the Kingdom of God. Albeit there were already kingdoms existing later on and before the Roman Empire, such models were still insufficient for the purposes of God. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, leaven, etc. These illustrations show that the Kingdom of God is something that starts small and then spreads to other nations and kingdoms, just like the expanding Roman Empire, which started out as a republic.

In addition to this, the paved and well-guarded roads built by the Romans greatly aided in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which was not even due to intentional missionary activity but to commercial trade where Christians were involved, especially after the dispersion due to Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the same. Jesus commissioned His disciples to go and make disciples of all nation, to baptize them in the name of the Triune God and teach them everything He had commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20). Unlike the Jews who were inwardly focused and tended to see themselves as God’s special people to the exclusion of others, the Christians went around sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ not only to Jews but also to the Gentiles.