Historically there has been conflict between monks and others who think the Church should be poor, and those who think that it is okay for the Church to hint at the glory of God through architecture, art, and well-dressed leaders
Perhaps the clearest and least flexible form of isolation from worldly desires and concerns is the separation from the opposite sex. Early on, the high value on abstinence may have been fueled by the belief that women or sex are inherently defiling, or that physical desire, sensuality, and lust are the opposite of spirituality. Even later, as sexuality found a respectable role within Christianity, there was still value placed on removal from the concerns of taking care of a family and devoting one’s work fully to God or the Church.
In Catholicism today the priesthood remains celibate even if not monastic. There is room for informed people to debate about the “real” reason for this. The major arguments are: (a) continuity with the early Christian ideal of spirituality through overcoming physical sensuality; (b) the increased portability, flexibility, and full-time devotion of unmarried people to serving the needs of the Church; and (c) the economic implications of children claiming inheritance from priests when the Church wanted to hold onto that property.
Whereas a bishop could be expected to wear fancy, gold embroidered vestments and bling-class gold cross and rings, monks would dress and live as simply as possible
The third common thread in all monasticism is poverty. In early monasticism this leaned in the direction of asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of denying the needs of the body in order to discipline oneself to be free of bodily desires, seen as distractions from spiritual pursuits. Early monks would regularly deprive themselves of food, sleep, and comfortable clothing or bedding. Over time, as monks took on more duties besides prayer and contemplation, it was recognized that monks do need their basic bodily needs met in order to be productive in their responsibilities. The ideal of poverty continued in that monks were not to have personal property or indulgent comforts beyond the basic necessities. Perhaps the head of a monastery (abbot) did need to worry about finances home, but for most monks liberation from the problems that come with managing money was at the core of monastic life.
Poverty was never a requirement for the bishops, who often came from wealthy families and may have thought of “dress to impress” as a core strategy for their leadership. The bishops were responsible for leading society in lawful and orderly ways, not escaping from it. Certainly individuals can have their preferences, but it seems fair to acknowledge that both approaches have existed and can exist in the tradition. Different Christians can follow different spiritual courses, choosing poverty or not.
Some monks were devoted to prayer and contemplation, but fairly early on the ideal of spirituality through hard work developed. Increasingly monasteries took on roles of service to society.
- Besides food for their own meals, monasteries often exported goods. Some famous liquors and wines were originally the product of monastic communities, perhaps capitalizing on the long-term stability of monastic communities (it takes decades to make some liquor).
- Monks were also responsible for hand copying scriptures, biblical and otherwise. Some monks went beyond copying writings, and produced commentaries and texts of their own.
- At the very least, monasteries would educate their own members, often from an extremely early age. In the days before universities, monasteries were the centers of learning. Eventually, parents would send their children to monasteries for education on a temporary basis. To this day, the religious communities that most survived are the ones devoted to education, since there is no better way to recruit new members.