Today’s consecrated persons seem to be oblivious or ignorant of the historical heritage of consecrated life. History for them is often confined in their formative curriculum to one’s own founder/foundress and the events connected to the congregation. A glance at the history of consecrated life can give us inspiration for renewal and course correction in our era of vocation decline and strategic worries for survival, above all in the context of our seeking authentic examples of inspiration in the religious/consecrated life.
In the East in Asia, among the Hindus, we see the God-seekers living in mountains/forests/ ashrams/caves in the tradition of saṁnyāsa, even tracing its origin to 2nd millennium BC or around. There were Buddhist Monasteries founded in India after the ideals and teachings of Lord Buddha around seventh century BC. Both of these are challengingly fresh and alive even today. There are some non-Christian forerunners to Christian consecrated life which are not to be forgotten. Among the Jews: Essenes (Qumran Communities) in the Intertestamental Periods (ending period of BC and beginning of AD) within the Judaism. Among the Greeks (Sixth Century BC) there was the community of disciples founded by Pythagoras of Samos at Croton. In Persia/Iran and elsewhere there were Manichaean communities of elect and hearers of which St Augustine was deeply influenced.
Coming to the Christian consecrated life proper, we find in the Old Testament personalities who had the characteristics of a monk. Prophets like Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and Nathan, and also John the Baptist stand for such. An interesting feminine dimension of a rudimentary consecrated life is seen in Acts 21, 8-9- it mentions virgins and ascetics- daughters of Philip the evangelist. They lived in their father’s house. Along with that, we find parthenoi (virgins) of both sexes, who lived in the midst of the ecclesial community and devoted themselves not only to celibacy but to a rigorous asceticism in Syria and Persia.
Hermits (Desert Dwellers), Monks and Coenobite
The history will help us learn that the hermitic life (word meaning shows of the desert or living in the desert) and the monasticism began in the Eastern Church as a natural way of seeking Christian perfection. St Anthony of Egypt (251 – 356 A.D) led the way in hermetic life while St Pachomius (292-348 A.D.) started the cenobitic monasticism or the community monasticism. St Basil the great (329-379) established monasteries in Cappadocia. St Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, John Cassian’s Conferences and St Jerome’s Rule of St Pachomius made the western Church of aware of these movements. St Martin of Tours introduced monasticism in the West in Gaul in or around 361 A.D. St Augustine in North Africa experimented with the communities in 388 A.D. leading the way to the Augustinian Order and Augustinian rule and later as bishop monasteries of training monks for the service of the Church. In the sixth century St Benedict of Nursia who is known after the famous Rule of St Benedict and the abbey of Montecassino in Italy 529 A.D.. People with Western church traditions often think wrongly that St Benedict is the originator of monasticism either in the Church or in the West. In the Orthodox side, Athanasios the Athonite, in 963 A.D., built the Great Lavra monastery on Mount Athos, in Macedonia.
Uncloistered Friars and Mendicants
This was followed by what we call the 13th century arrival of friars and mendicants mainly of non-cloistered nature with a missionary character of preaching and teaching led by St Francis of Assisi and St Dominic. Vocabularies like profession, solemn vows, simple vows, rules etc. become part of the vocabulary. We do not forget the third orders along this line with a greater emphasis on the laity who wished to live a life consecrated nature. It was preceded by canon regulars and canon secular –mainly cathedral communities of pastoral clergy.
16th Century- Reformation, Counter-reformation and Trent
Amidst utter chaos and faced with the division of the Church of the Roman Rite in the West with Luther leading, there came the council of Trent (1545-1563) to guide the destiny. The religious order of the Society of Jesus was the most important foundation of this era and paved the way for more apostolic life communities later. There were also attempts made to create women’s uncloistured communities led by Francis de Sales and Vincent de Paul but would bear fruit only a couple of centuries later. However the grey nuns/black nuns- the nursing ladies at the time of Black Plague did sound what was to follow in the future.
French Revolution and Uncloistered Orders of Apostolic Life with charisms of mercy and charity
It was in the midst of a great historical and institutional crisis wrought by the 18th century French Revolution that the religious communities of the apostolic life of today found support and patronage in the Church. They were given to reach out to the needy and poor by way of service and charity and acts of mercy with women’s orders in the lead. Works of mercy and charity with singular emphasis on the poor and the needy was the hallmark of these orders. People in the Church and outside are mostly familiar with these orders as found among them. They had to observe and practice the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience in following Christ without compromising a cenobitic/community life. Today it is mostly in these kinds of religious orders that we face proliferation of institutional establishments and the crisis of the decline of vocation as well as die-hard competition for vocation promotion and worry about numbers than the quality and commitment. In the 20th century we see Church accepting the secular institutes (Pope Pius X11 in 1947) as a kind of consecrated life. In India we have also seen efforts for Ashrams based religious life after the dream of Brahmabandhap Upadhyay, Abhishiktananda, Jule Monchanin, Francis Acharya and Bede Griffiths.
History is the best teacher and is also a lesson in God’s grace in guiding the course of the religious in the Church. The congregations will benefit highly when they spend time for their past heritage with gratitude and revise their own curriculum in that light together with community reading and learning of the great pioneers of the consecrated life. The reason and motivation of the great religious orders will take us once again to the pristine goals of consecrated life. Deprived of this knowledge and example, today’s religious can fall into the trap of God-denying and Church breaking examples of postmodernism and relativism turning their vocation into profession of easy zones of comfort without any conviction for the evangelical counsels. Such a historical pilgrimage would once again challenge the Church to appreciate and promote efforts of persons and small scale communities which would be signs of radical following of Christ and solace of God-experience as it was in the case of Anthony of Egypt, Pachomius and Benedict of Nursia.