Christianity and the Poor

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Roy Gamse 3. Schistosomiasis Control Initiative 1. Sean King 4. Stefano Gunawan 1. Steve MacIsaac 2. This came in the East from Basil, and in the West from Benedict. Basil — , bishop of Caesarea, in what is now Turkey, laid down some common sense rules for the monastics. 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.

In Italy, Benedict of Nursia — 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. 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.

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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.

The Urge for Poverty | Christian History | Christianity Today

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.


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Such situations convinced some of the more devout monks and nuns of the superiority of their vows of poverty. Reformers always appeared to return others to the ideals of the ascetic life, especially poverty and chastity. 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.

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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 full-time monks.

Unlike the friars, the laymen could own money and property. 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.

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 —, 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.

In fact, not only the laypeople, but also the clergy themselves were exempt from otherworldly constraints, though clergy were expected to be celibate. They were unique organizations often accountable only to the pope, or to themselves. 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.

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