The Monks of the West

Author: Charles Montalambert


By Charles Montalambert (1810-1870)

The subject of monasticism thus developed embraces too vast a field--it belongs at once to the present and to the past. The links which attach it to all our history are numerous and manifest. When we look at the map of ancient France, or of any one of our provinces, no matter which, we encounter at each step the names of abbeys, of chapter-houses, of convents, of priories, of hermitages, which mark the dwelling place of so many monastic colonies. Where is the town which has not been founded, or enriched, or protected by some religious community? Where is the church which owes not to them a patron, a relic, a pious and popular tradition? Wherever there is a luxuriant forest, a pure stream, a majestic hill, we may be sure that Religion has there left her stamp by the hand of the monk. That impression has also marked itself in universal and lasting lines upon the laws, the arts, the manners--upon the entire aspect of our ancient society. Christendom, in its youth, has been throughout vivified, directed and constituted by the monastic spirit. Wherever we interrogate the monuments of the past, not only in France but in all Europe-- in Spain as in Sweden, in Scotland as in Sicily--everywhere rises before us the memory of the monk,--the traces, ill-effaced, of his labors, of his power, of his benefactions, from the humble furrow which he has been the first to draw in the bogs of Brittany or of Ireland, up to the extinguished splendors of Marmoutier and Cluny, of Melrose and the Escorial.

And there is also a contemporary interest by the side of this interest of the past. Universally prescribed and dishonored during the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth the religious orders everywhere reappear. Our age has witnessed, at the same time, their burial and their resurrection. Here we have succeeded in rooting out their last remnants, and there they have already renewed their life.

Fundamental Character Of Monastic Institutions

Before entering upon this history, it seems necessary to make some observations on the fundamental character of monastic self-devotion--upon that which has been the principle at once of the services it has rendered, and the hate which it has inspired.

Some years ago, who understood what a monk really was? For myself, I had no doubt on the subject when I commenced this work. I believed that I knew something which approached to the idea of a saint--to that of the Church; but I had not the least notion of what a monk might be, or of the monastic order. I was like my time. In all the course of my education, domestic or public, no one, not even among those who were specially charged to teach me religion and history, no one considered it necessary to give me the least conception of the religious order. Thirty years had scarcely passed since their ruin; and already they were treated as a lost species, of whom fossil bones reappeared from time to time, exciting curiosity or repugnance, but who had no longer a place in history among the living. I imagine that most men of my own age regarded them thus. Have not we all come forth from college knowing by heart the list of the mistresses of Jupiter, but ignorant even of the names of the founders of those religious orders which have civilized Europe, and so often saved the Church?

We may, besides, without excess of ambition, claim for the monk a justice more complete than that which he has yet obtained, even from the greater number of the Christian apologists of recent times. In taking up the defence of the religious orders, these writers have seemed to demand grace for those august institutions in the name of the services which they have rendered to the sciences, to letters, and to agriculture. This is to boast the incidental at the expense of the essential. We are doubtless obliged to acknowledge and admire the cultivation of so many forests and deserts, the transcription and preservation of so many literary and historical monuments, and that monatic erudition which we know nothing to replace; these are great services rendered to humanity, which ought, if humanity were just, to shelter the monks under a celestial shield. But there is, besides, something far more worthy of admiration and gratitude-- the permanent strife of moral freedom against the bondage of the flesh; the constant effort of a consecrated will in the pursuit and conquest of Christian virtue: the victorious flight of the soul into those supremo regions where she finds again her true, her immortal grandeur.

Among so many founders and legislators of the religious life, not one has dreamt of assigning the cultivation of the soil, the copying of manuscripts, the progress of arts and letters, the preservation of historical monuments, as a special aim to his disciples. These offices have been only accessory--the consequence, often indirect and involuntary, of an institution which had in view nothing but the education of the human soul, its conformity to the law of Christ, and the expiation of its native guilt by a life of sacrifice and mortification. This was for all of them the end and the beginning, the supreme object of existence, the unique ambition, the sole merit, and the sovereign victory...

Everywhere and always she has flourished most when her religious communities have been most numerous, most fervent, and most free.

To the period immediately following the peace of the Church, the monks of the Thebaide and of Palestine, of Lerins and of Marmoutier, secured innumerable champions of orthodoxy against the tyrannous Arians of the Lower Empire. In proportion as the Franks achieved the conquest of Gaul, and became the preponderating race amongst all the Germanic races, they permitted themselves to be influenced, converted, and directed by the sons of St. Benedict and of St. Columba.

From the seventh to the ninth century, it was the Benedictions who gave to the Church, Belgium, England, Germany, and Scandinavia, and who furnished, to the founders of all the kingdoms of the West, auxiliaries indispensable to the establishment of a Christian civilization.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the same Benedictines, concentrated under the strong direction of the order of Cluny, contended victoriously against the dangers and abuses of the feudal system, and gave to St. Gregory VII, the army which he needed to save the independence of the Church, to destroy the concubinage of the priests, simony, and the secular occupation of ecclesiastical benefices.

In the twelfth century, the order of Citeaux, crowned by St. Bernard with unrivalled splendor, became the principal instrument of the beneficent supremacy of the Holy See, served as an asylum to St. Thomas of Canterbury, and as a bulwark to the liberty of the Church, till the time of Boniface VIII.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth, the new orders instituted by St. Francis, St. Dominie, and their emulators, maintained and propagated the faith among the souls of men and the social institutions throughout the empire; renewed the contest against the venom of heresy, and against the corruption of morals; substituted for the crusades the work of redeeming Christian captives; and produced, in St. Thomas Aquinas, the prince of Christian doctors and moralists, whom faith consults as the most faithful interpreter of Catholic tradition and in whom reason recognizes the glorious rival of Aristotle and Descartes.

In the fifteenth century, the Church underwent the great schism, and all the scandals which resulted from it. The ancient orders, also, had lost their primitive fervor, and no new institutions came to renew the vigor of the Christian blood.

And we know what was, in the sixteenth century, the invincible progress of Protestant Reform, until the day when the Jesuits, solemnly approved by the last General Council, came forward to intercept the torrent, and preserve to the Church at least the half of her inheritance.

In the seventeenth century, the splendors of Catholic eloquence and science are contemporary with the great reforms of St. Maur and of La Trappe, with the foundations of St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul, and with the marvelous blossoming of Christian charity in all these congregations of women, the most part of which survive for our happiness....

During ten centuries the religious have been, as they still are in our own day, the most intrepid missionaries, the most indefatigable propagators of the Gospel. And, in brief, during ten centuries, the religious orders have endowed the Church at the same time with an army active and permanent and with a trustworthy reserve. Like the different forces of the same army, they have displayed, even in the diversity of their rules and tendencies, that variety in unity which constitutes the fruitful loveliness and sovereign majesty of Catholicism, and, beyond this, have practiced, as far as consists with human weakness, those evangelical precepts, the accomplishment of which conducts to Christian perfection. Occupied, above all, in opening to themselves the way to heaven, they have given to the world the grandest and most noble of lessons, in demonstrating how high a man can attain upon the wings of love purified by sacrifice, and of enthusiasm regulated by faith.

Translated into English by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant. , 1954 edition, has this information concerning this work of Montalambert: "His studies of monachism in the West bore fruit in his (first five volumes, 1860-67), unfinished at the time of the author's death, but completed later from some long fragments found among his papers (volumes vi and vii, 1877)."

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.