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.

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.