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April 10, 2013
How the Church built Western civilization: part one
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

At his papal election in 2003, why did Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger take the name Benedict? Because it was the Benedictine Order who, systematically and comprehensively, rebuilt Europe after the barbaric invasions. This fact is of such vital importance that it must be restated, or even stated for the first time, and without embarrassment. It is quite remarkable that some European leaders refuse to acknowledge Europe’s Christian roots and, specifically, the Church’s role in building its civilization. Had it not been for the Church, Europe would have developed in a different form.  The Church was Europe’s light in darkness.

The title of this essay is the very same as the informative book by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., who answers the implicit question: What was the role and significance of the Catholic Church in the development of Western European civilization? In other words, How the Church Built Western Civilization.

Remote Roots of Western Civilization

How and when did Western civilization begin?  Early Christianity developed according to a Hellenized Judaism, and the Church is largely responsible for handing down the cultural thoughts and traditions of Greece and Rome. Until the fifth century, Western Europe was overrun by nomadic and barbaric tribes. After the sack of Rome in 410, the Church became the one indispensable instrument for christianizing them, first through the monks and their monasteries.

The Rise of Monasticism

The early forms of monastic life developed from the third century in the Christian East where hermits and consecrated virgins lived ascetical lives while serving the poor and the sick. They are known as the first monastics because the word from the Greek, monos, connotes solitude.  The first monastics wanted to flee from the world because they believed it to be evil.

Western Monasticism

Western monasticism is a way of life in which men and women consecrate themselves by public vows to live in a stable place.  There they alternate communal and solitary prayer and work in their daily lives. Their prayer is mainly the Liturgy of the Hours, sung or prayed round the clock to fulfill the Lord’s command to “pray always.” Today, some monks and nuns are more withdrawn than others, living the cloistered life.

St. Benedict, the Benedictine Order, and the Monastic Centuries

In the middle of the sixth century, a small movement changed the landscape of the European world. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) introduced a new way of life and thinking that has brought vitality to contemporary men and women. He laid the foundation of Benedictine monastic life with his monks first at Subiaco and Rome, and then at Monte Cassino in 529.

Benedict composed his Rule of disciplined balance that fostered order and peace.  If “pray andwork” (ora et labora) was the Benedictine motto, the way to live it was through beauty, piety, and learning.  Every monastery was built on an expansive tract of land, and  eventually it became a center of life—a miniature civic center for the townspeople. Today, people gather at shopping malls or in village squares.

Monastic Activity

After the year 600 and for five centuries thereafter, the Benedictines promoted a rich liturgical spirituality and high intellectual pursuits. During these centuries, the monks served as church administrators. By and large, they were the only educators and writers of the ages.

Living the Liturgy

Medieval culture was synonymous with Christian culture. Monasteries celebrated the year of grace with simple beauty. Every day of the calendar year was identified with a saint’s name and not with a number, as we do today. Peasants paused and prayed at Noon, three o’clock, and at six to mark three Hours of the liturgy. Sacramental celebrations were village celebrations. People punctuated their greetings with adieu, adios, or good bye, the equivalent of "God be with you."

The Practical Arts

The monks were the agriculturalists of Europe. The list of their accomplishments is almost limitless: They drained swamps and converted them from disease-ridden places into fertile regions; cleared away forests for the neighboring inhabitants, introduced new crops, and stored up waters from springs to distribute in times of droughts. They ran a basic hospital for the sick. Not surprisingly, the Benedictines pioneered the production of wine in addition to the discovery of champagne. In all these endeavors, they linked their activity with preaching the gospel (Woods, 28ff).

The Monks as Technical Advisers

The monks built their own monastery chapels and other monastery buildings. With their expertise, they advised the people as technologists in areas such as metallurgy, iron works, marble quarrying, glassworks for stained glass windows, all done with monastic savoir-faire. They saw the beauty of creation everywhere (Woods, 34ff). 

Ministry of Hospitality and Other Charitable Works

Anyone who has ever visited a Benedictine monastery or abbey knows first-hand about its gracious manners and warm hospitality.  The monasteries served as gratuitous inns providing a safe and peaceful resting place for the foreign traveler, pilgrim, and the poor. 

“A special bell rang every night,” reports Woods, “to call any wandering traveler or to anyone overtaken by the intimidating forest darkness.  The people called it ‘the bell of the wanderers’” (38).

The Scriptorium and Preservation of Manuscripts

Many monasteries came to be known for special skills: some, for medicine, others for painting and engraving, producing and copying illuminated manuscripts of the Ancients. Still others composed and copied the music that had been handed down to them or shared with them from other monasteries.

A monk would be sent to another monastery to learn new music being sung there. Then he would return to his scriptorium where adaptations might be made. Copyists recorded this music or the music that was composed within that monastery. A monk with beautiful handwriting was assigned to do the calligraphy; gifted monks pained illuminated letters. Every once in a while, a jokester-monk might write in the margin of a page: ‘I’ve been here for four hours.’ These artistic works were without signature, done anonymously and for God’s glory. Today, museums are indebted to the monastics for the preservation of all types of manuscripts.

Monastic Schools

Education in the Middle Ages was conducted within the confines of the monastery by monks, and later, by nuns. They offered religious and general education to youth who intended to enter the monastic or clerical life and to youth who were preparing for public life. These lived at home. Young children of six or seven years of age were taught the basics. The majority, especially potential monks and nuns, were taught to read Latin, writing, chant, arithmetic, and learning how to read time on the sun dial. The main text was the Psalter.  From the eighth century onward, students were taught the seven liberal arts, the trivium, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music.  The ideal monastery of the Benedictine Orderwas that of Saint Gall in present-day Switzerland where the town flourished around the monastery.

The So-Called Dark Ages

“The monks gave to the whole of Europe a network of factories, centers of breeding livestock, centers of scholarship, preservation of manuscripts of earlier ages, especially of Greece and Rome, the art of manners, the art of hospitality,” writes Woods (5). These disciplines were supported and advanced under the guidance of the Church in the so-called Dark Ages. By the eighth century, Benedictine monasteries had spread from Italy to Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, to present-day France, the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia.

St. Benedict of Nursia is considered the architect of western monasticism. His monks, the fathers of European civilization.  To be continued.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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