The Urge for Poverty

MOST CHRISTIANS TODAY rarely question the notion that material wellbeing is a goal worth pursuing. Particularly to those of us in the affluent West it appears peculiar that people would voluntarily choose poverty as a way of life. Here at the end of the twentieth century we find the ancient practice of asceticism a strange phenomenon; to us it often looks as much like self-torture as self-discipline.

Who were these Christians who shunned the world’s comforts in order to pursue holiness? Did they not believe—as we do—that the Christian life can be pursued while still living a reasonably conventional life? Their answer was a definite “no,” and they found their reasons why in what they considered the mandate of Jesus in the New Testament.

Biblical Roots

The early Church took root within Judaism, which is not an ascetic religion. The Jews believed that creation was a good gift of God, given to man to enjoy. To deliberately deny oneself the pleasures that come from prosperity was to appear ungrateful. King Solomon was remembered as much for his wealth as for his wisdom, and Abraham and Job were archetypes of the wealthy man who is a friend of God.

Jesus was not an ascetic. His critics contrasted his lifestyle with John the Baptist’s, who lived on wilderness food and wore crude clothing. They accused Jesus, by contrast, of being a glutton and a “wine-bibber.” Not that he was such, but his behavior was conventional enough to contrast with John’s. Still, Jesus had harsh words for the rich who worshiped their possessions. He claimed it was “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” On at least one occasion he told a rich man to sell all he had and give the money to the poor. Yet Jesus called people to a God-centered life of self-denial and self-control, not a thoroughgoing asceticism. However some later Christians believed this was what he taught.

Change with Constantine

Persecution of Christians began fairly early, as we see in the New Testament. Official persecutions carried out by Rome were sporadic, but they were widespread enough that many believers became martyrs. Early on, Christians developed a reverent tradition surrounding those who died for their faith. It was considered the greatest honor to give up one’s life and thus to die for, and with, Christ. Martyrdom was the ultimate sharing in the sufferings of the Savior.

Not everyone, of course, was called to martyrdom, but sufferings of other sorts were inevitable. Christians were regarded with suspicion, and as scorners of imperial religion they had no social prestige and little chance for social advancement. They were often sneered at by their pagan neighbors, so suffering for Christ was a common occurrence. In such a context there was little call for voluntarily taking new burdens on oneself.

With the conversion of the Roman emporer Constantine (ruled 312-337), the Church’s situation changed drastically. Martyrdom was no longer a threat, and Christianity gradually changed from a persecuted minority cult to a respectable religion with state toleration and favor (whether by offical proclamation is unknown and debated). When the masses started to pour into the Church in the fourth century, it became harder and harder to distinguish the Christians from everyone else. What had been a religion of the dispossessed became the religion of the many. Faith became “easy,” and sincerity became less common. For the zealous, the answer was to withdraw from a Church that had compromised with the worldly empire. This was how monasticism began.

Before discussing monastic asceticism, we should briefly consider the role of wealth in the pre- Constantine Church. While it’s true that the Church appealed more to the dispossessed than to the wealthy, there were wealthy believers. Some abused their position by expecting favoritism, but some were genuinely eager to help their less-fortunate brethren. In the ancient world, with no systematic welfare provisions, the Church was unique in offering both spiritual and material solace to the deprived. Because the churches came to fill this need, the budget of the ancient bishop was large. Assisted by his deacons, the bishop administered widespread relief work, caring for the sick, prisoners, travelers, captives who needed redeeming, and the unemployed. When Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 330, the bishops of Rome became the most important figures in the “eternal city.” Along with the bishops in other large cities, they became, in effect, regional governors, responsible for both the spiritual and material well-being of those under their charge.

Sadly, though many bishops were models of Christian character, the position of bishop became a tempting prize for the greedy and power-hungry. Bishops were exempt from taxes, and in the larger cities they had much wealth at their disposal. As Christianity became the favored religion, the hierarchy became increasingly prestigious and wealthy. No wonder the spiritually sensitive were often appalled at how far the Church had moved from the New Testament model.

Early Monasticism

Probably the first Christian monk of renown was Anthony of Egypt (c. 250-356), who, believing that Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler also applied to himself, sold his inheritance, gave the money to the poor, and withdrew into the desert to live as a hermit. His admirers were many (including Athanasius, who wrote his biography), and some followed him into the desert to find solitude and to draw closer to God.

Anthony’s monasticism was strictly for rugged individualists. Another Egyptian, Pachomius (c. 290-346), started cenobitic (communal) monasticism. Here persons subjected themselves to discipline in community, renouncing money and property, doing hard labor, and taking sparse meals together. Some of the feats of the hermits and community monks are amazing, even bizarre. Simon Stylites chose to live for years atop a pillar among ruins and have supplies passed up by rope; others lived in trees. Some had themselves walled up in narrow enclosures and fed through small openings. Some wore only garments of thorns. Strange as some of their practices seem to us, these monks were trying hard to express something valid: total devotion to God and imitation of Christ. Money was seen as a hindrance, an entanglement with the world that the truly spiritual person would avoid.

Some scholars claim that Christian monasticism was much affected by various world disparaging Greek and Oriental philosophies. Christian leaders fought against these movements for years, but their influence was probably important in the perpetuation of asceticism. Yet as G. K. Chesterton pointed out, Christian asceticism was still Christian, and world-denying though it may have been, it was ultimately rooted not in sheer hatred for the world, but in the desire to be a true follower of Christ.

In order to remind the monks and nuns that they were indeed striving to follow Christ, the authority of orthodox teaching was needed. This came in the East from Basil, and in the West from Benedict. Basil (330-379), bishop of Caesarea, in what is now Turkey, laid down some common sense rules for the monastics. While in no way trying to soften the monastic life, Basil’s rules forbade unnecessary and eccentric behavior. He also prescribed helping the poor and orphans, thus ensuring that even while detached from the world, the monks would be of benefit to it. Sadly, Basil’s teaching was too often neglected in the monastic life.

In Italy, Benedict of Nursia (480-547)founded a monastic order with rules about manual labor, directed reading, and regular worship throughout the day. Monks were to own nothing (see the sidebar), and were to keep constantly busy to avoid succumbing to temptation.

As previously mentioned, after Constantine the title of bishop was eagerly sought by the avaricious and power-hungry. Wisely, the Church often found its best bishops from among the monks. While greedy clerics continued to vie for bishoprics, monks seldom did, and the more saintly among them often found themselves—sometimes unwillingly—in control of a diocese. (One retiring monk who was persuaded to leave the cloister became Pope Gregory I, “the Great,” in 590).

Often the best bishops were men who early in life had decided to renounce property and retreat from the world. Even today in the Eastern Orthodox Churches most bishops are former monks. Of course, not all monks were saintly. The abuses of monasticism are too numerous and well-known to examine here in detail. Of interest to us here, however, is the fact that, ironically, the same monks who had dedicated themselves to poverty often became very prosperous. The industrious monks were highly productive farmers, and this productivity inevitably brought wealth. Certain monks were pioneers in agricultural methods, especially those who settled in and developed more remote and untamed areas of Europe.

While in principle they still continued the practice of not owning property individually (the monastic orders owned vast areas of land), wealth naturally emerged from their industry. Some was given to the poor, but not all or most. And as the monastic wealth increased, so did moral laxity. Too many forgot about sharing the wealth with those outside the abbey walls. Personal behavior was often scandalous; the ascetic ideal was distorted.

Immorality was not merely the result of hard work producing wealth. Many monasteries and convents served as refuges for wayward children of the wealthy. These people, having no desire for the spiritual life, often tried to maintain their affluent lifestyles within the abbey walls. Records tell of masses being interrupted by the baying of hounds belonging to certain nuns who had recently come from the ranks of the wealthy. Such situations convinced some of the more devout monks and nuns of the superiority of their vows of poverty.

Medieval Monks and Friars

It’s a mistake to think that Medieval monasticism was totally corrupt. Reformers always appeared to return others to the ideals of the ascetic life, especially poverty and chastity. Giovanni Bernadone, better known as Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), abandoned his frivilous youth and family riches, and taking Jesus’ advice to his disciples as given in Matt. 10:7-19 as a personal call, left his possessions. He ate the plainest food, wore simple gray garments, and owned practically nothing. He refused to accept money, only food. His followers, the Franciscans, took vows of poverty, and went two by two on preaching missions, begging for their food. A similar order, the Poor Clares, was formed for women.

Most significantly, a third order was formed, called the Tertiaries, for laypeople who could not commit themselves totally but wanted more intense spiritual lives. The Franciscans were extremely attractive to the common folk, and the third order for laymen proved that vital Christianity was for all, not just fulltime monks. Unlike the friars, the laymen could own money and property.

Dominic (1170-1221), a contemporary of Francis', founded the Dominican order. The Dominicans were dedicated to preaching and teaching. (Their emphasis on teaching was a result of the need to counter various heretical teachings of their day.) Like the Franciscans, they were friars, who worked or begged for food, dressed plainly, practiced celibacy, and were forbidden to own property.

In time, as with other ascetic groups, the Dominicans and Franciscans were compromised by the society around them and fell away from their original ideals. However, the monastic life was still seen as the best way to God, and people often spent their last days in monasteries, hoping to increase their chances of divine forgiveness.

The great Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), helped solidify the Church’s position on property. For Thomas, the best way to be spiritual in this area was to renounce material goods. However, a famous story about a meeting of Thomas with Louis IX, king of France from 1226-1270, tells us how much admiration and respect Thomas had for the pious crusader king, who represented great wealth. Both men were canonized by the Roman Church, showing that the Church recognized that both those with wealth and those without could enter the Kingdom of God.

But for the most part a double standard prevailed: salvation was possible for the layman, but a sure thing for the monk or nun. Total devotion to the true spiritual life was the exclusive domain of the monastics; the Christ-like life was not something those outside of the monasteries were expected to pursue. Because this special class of religiosi ("the religious") existed who were supposed to renounce all worldly pleasures, laypeople were not expected to renounce anything. In fact, not only the laypeople, but also the clergy themselves were exempt from otherworldly constraints, though clergy were expected to be celibate. [It is important to keep in mind that the monastic orders were not within the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church; they were not clerical. They were unique organizations often accountable only to the pope, or to themselves.] Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales paints a picture of the friars as corrupt and lecherous hypocrites. As the Middle Ages progressed, many thoughtful Christians came to believe that the ideal that called for renunciation of money and property had done more harm than good.

Important lay movements did spring up, notably, as mentioned, the lay monastic orders. Also, groups such as the Waldensians in southern France, the Humiliati in Lombardy, and the Brethren of the Common Life in Holland and Germany provided the laity opportunity for a devout life: to study the Bible, pray, and help the poor. Various other movements arose as people became concerned that parishoners needed a more vital spirituality. Most of these movements emphasized discipline and moderation, not abstinence. The notion that one could be spiritual while living in the world and owning money and property was gaining more and more acceptance.

The Reformation

By the time of the Reformation, monasticism was held in disrepute by so many believers that the Reformers had no qualms about dismissing it completely. Martin Luther (1483-1546) had been an Augustinian monk, and as a youth he held the common view that monasticism was the true Christian life. He had delighted that the ascetic life of the monastery offered freedom from the distractions of the world. However, shortly after his Ninety-five Theses were written in Wittenberg and shook the Church, Luther published On Monastic Vows, in which he stated that monks’ vows conflicted with Scripture, and with charity and freedom. Railing against the Church’s system of good works, Luther rejected the whole monastic system. He not only claimed that all believers were priests, but that no occupation, whether professionally “religious” or not, was any better in God’s sight than any other. All people can honor God, he claimed, with honest labor in their “divine calling,” no matter how menial.

John Calvin (1509-1564) had never been a monk, though he had always lived a relatively austere life. Educated as a Christian humanist, Calvin had a lifelong suspicion of any form of excess, including religious excess. He was hostile toward asceticism and called on Christians to rejoice in the good things God had given them. Though he was a creation-affirming man, like Luther, Calvin attacked greed and ostentation and upheld the virtues of humility and moderation. He did not see evil in Christians accumulating money, so long as it did not distract them from God.

The Anabaptists, in agreement with the other wings of the Reformation, frequently condemned monasticism. But, unlike the more socially established Lutherans and Calvinists, Anabaptists were often the objects of persecution by the state. Persecuted wherever they lived, Anabaptists wrote much about sharing in Christ’s sufferings. They also shared materially with each other, and placed much emphasis on helping the needy. For the most part they did not practice a strict communism, but community for them was very important. Like Calvin (who was no friend of Anabaptism), they taught restraint more than deprivation. Like the New Testament Church, they emphasized alleviating the poverty of others, not striving for it.

By Stephen Lang

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #19 in 1988]

Stephen Lang is an editor at Tyndale House Publishers.
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