It is very easy to underestimate the influence of monasteries on the spiritual and political life of the Church. Monasteries made their first primitive appearance in the fourth century, provided structure in the Roman West through the “Dark Ages,” and blossomed throughout the medieval era. Monks had immense influence upon pastoral care of the faithful, notably in the development of moral theology and practice. It was the Irish monks who developed the concept of repeatable sacramental celebration of forgiveness and absolution, in the form we celebrate Penance today. The monks and their monasteries were such major forces in the Medieval Church that the monastic institution itself became a major target of Protestant reformers, including Luther himself.
The idea of a monastery was originally a flight from the temptation of the world, specifically the declining religious fervor of Constantine’s Rome. Early hermits migrated to the deserts and isolated regions to fast, pray, and do penance for their sins. Early monastic life encompassed men and women in adjoining structures, and evolved through the first millennium from isolated individuals to little villages of huts to the massive monasteries like Cluny, France, the largest Church structure in the world till the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome in the 1500’s. Cluny did not escape the fury of Protestants or the French Revolution, and only 10% remains today. Cluny’s later fate is a significant hint of how monastic idealism impacted Reformation debates.
Monasteries were usually erected in locations far from distractions, such as cities. Thus, the typical monastery served as a spiritual center for the countryside, and the bond between monk and layman in such settings was close. Medieval historians over my lifetime have come to appreciate the intense grass roots piety of peasants and laborers, and the remarkable ways that laity established their own group identities. In many cases lay communities clustered near to existing monasteries; in many other cases, these bands of spirituals wandered about doing good to save their souls from hell fire, a major medieval preoccupation. The Franciscans, for their part, developed from the penitential brotherhoods common to their time.
The monks, for their part, contributed to the renewal of the eleventh century and far beyond in several ways. Most significantly, the monasteries as a rule came to espouse the idea that affective spirituality was preferable to scholastic theology. They were early adherents of a maxim written in later Medieval times by Thomas a Kempis in his classic The Imitation of Christ: “I would much rather feel compunction than know its spelling.” As brilliant as medieval philosophy and theology would prove to be, its pastoral influence would never surpass the piety of monks and laity who turned to the spiritual writers among the Church Fathers, not the rationalists, and to the Gospels and the example of Jesus Christ. Many popular devotions flowed from this religious attitude—the rosary and the stations of the cross come to mind immediately, as well as devotion to the Holy Eucharist. The focus on the Bible should set your radar pinging. As early as the eleventh century there was a “democratization” of spiritual experience in terms of prioritizing the direct words of Jesus in one’s prayer and belief, as opposed to dependence upon the routine of Church liturgy and parish life. The emphasis upon personal devotion and Scripture will become a major factor in Luther’s theology of Sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone [is man saved.]”
Despite the distance and solitude sought in monasteries, monks were not necessarily isolated from Rome. Our focus today falls upon the successor of the reform pope Leo IX, a monk named Hildebrand who may or may not have lived in the Cluny monastery. Hildebrand, an extraordinary leader, shared the passions of his time for a Church reform. He was brought to Rome by the future Leo IX, and then elected in his own right under the name (St.) Gregory VII and reigned from 1073-1085. “The Gregorian Reform Era” was a marriage of the reform movement mentioned above to a papal effort to consolidate Church Law and the primacy of the papacy and independence from civil kings and rulers in such matters as the appointment of bishops and even the election of popes themselves.
When I return from my Thanksgiving Trip, Page 6 of the Reformation will look closely at Gregory VII’s influence in his own day (he was the first pope to strictly enforce celibacy, for example), his relations with the kings of his time, and his role in setting the stage for one of Western Christianity’s most controversial ventures, the Crusades.