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Ch. 3: Monastic Vow of Perpetual Solitude

The religious Orders were the fundamental principle of the growth of the Papal monarchy. These orders assumed certain vows, the nature and tendency of which we will proceed to investigate in the spirit of candid inquiry. The first vow to which we will invite attention, is the vow of perpetual solitude and seclusion. Although at the first introduction of these monastic orders into the church, this vow, and those which we shall hereafter examine, were not formally assumed, yet they were invariably observed; and in the year 529, under the auspices of St. Benedict, the express assumption of them became an indispensable condition of membership. Until the tenth century, the hermits and the Benedictine monks and nuns were the only Catholic Orders that existed; the former generally, and the latter entirely, lived in solitary seclusion.

The devout misanthropy of the hermits induced them to select for their habitations the most gloomy, cheerless, and inhospitable regions they could hunt up. Piously scorning the salubrious and magnificent localities, so prodigally furnished by nature, they constructed their huts at the bottom of dismal pits, among the cliffs of rugged rocks, in barren deserts, and in solitary wildernesses. Some lived under trees, others under shelving rocks, some on the top of poles, and others in the deserted caverns of wild beasts. Some buried themselves in the gloomy depth of trackless forests, isolated from human contiguity, and assimilated in aspect and habits to the brute creation. Their bodies divested of decent apparel, and covered with a profusion of hair, and their aspect horrid and revolting beyond description, the hermits sought to acquire the reputation of saints by attaining the nearest possible approximation to wild beasts. Another class of these eccentric devotees constructed a number of contiguous dungeons, and formed themselves into a sort of monastic community. In these vaults they imprisoned themselves for life, the door being locked, and sometimes walled up, a small window only was allowed, through which to receive aliment and give pious advice. In these dungeons they manacled their limbs with ponderous chains, encircled their necks with massive collars, and clothed their legs with heavy greaves. In the depth of winter they would immerse themselves in icy water, and sing psalms. To make themselves revolting; to imitate the habits of wild animals, until they became more horrible, because more unnatural; to subject themselves to voluntary torture, severe and bloody flagellations, were deemed the highest acts of piety. Whatever conspired to comfort they considered profane; whatever was pleasurable they avoided as sinful; and whatever was absurd, filthy, and disgusting, they imagined allied them to gods and angels. St. Anthony, who was so holy that he never washed himself, nor wore any apparel except a shirt, was canonized by the Catholic Church for his extraordinary attainment in sanctification. The approbation which the church so readily conferred on oddity and singularity might at the first appear surprising, but when we recollect the immense pecuniary and political advantage she derived from them, we will no longer doubt her motive, nor avaricious sagacity. A singular custom suggested by this ludicrous institution may be worthy of a passing notice. The abbots of the monasteries, in order to dispose of a brother abbot, whose celebrity surpassed their own, or whose circumventive genius they feared, or who had excited their suspicion, jealousy or revenge, would congregate together, and declare that the fated brother had arrived at a degree of sanctification that better qualified him for the hermit's cell than for an abbotship of a monastery, and that to protect him from the contamination of the world, and to enable him to perfect his holiness, it was necessary to wall him up in eternal seclusion. In accordance with this pious regard for their brother's sanctity, they adepted summary measures for its forcible execution.

Silence, gloom and solitude, according most congenially with the designs of the monastic institutions, they were generally located in sterile wastes, dense and trackless forests, and other localities adapted to excite the sensation of loneliness, dreariness and desolation; but when secular considerations suggested they occupied picturesque and luxuriant localities, commanding the sublimest prospects of Nature. These edifices, which often rivalled gorgeous palaces, were nothing but religious penitentiaries, in which the inmates endured all the privations, and were shackled with all the irons with which criminals are punished in ordinary penal institutions; and though they were ostensibly constructed for religious purposes, they were really designed for the infliction of punishment, in accordance with the ecclesiastical code. With regard to this code Guizot says: "The Catholic Church did not draw up a code like ours, which took account only of those crimes that are at the same time offensive to morals and dangerous to Society, and punishing them only because they bore this two-fold character; but prepared a catalogue of all those actions, criminal more particularly in a moral point of view, and punished all under the name of sins." (Gen. Hist. Civil., Lee. x., p. 118). In what light these religious penitentiaries have been regarded by their inmates their eternal seclusion has prevented them from publicly divulging, but the few who have broken their enthralment, and the "heretics" who have been confined in them, have described them as the most intolerable of dungeons. In fact the modern penitentiary system has originated from them. Guizot thinks this is one of the great blessings which Catholicism has bestowed on society—(see Gen. Hist. Civil., Lect. vi., p. 135).

The vow of perpetual seclusion comprises a renunciation of the pleasures and business of life, an abnegation of the claims of consanguinity, friendship and society; and an abjuration of all filial, parental and natural affection. This vow is in contravention of the obligations imposed on man by Nature, to improve society by contributing to the advancement of its financial, social, political and scientific welfare. It precludes the exercise, and consequent development, of the varied powers of the human organism. It surrenders the personal refinement and moral strength which may be acquired by social intercourse, and conflict with opposing habits and principles. It ignores the imperative duty of understanding and judiciously relieving human want and misery, and of aiding the execution of efficient schemes of public utility and philanthropy. It is not only in violation of the obligations of humanity, and the noblest principles of human enjoyment, but it debars the recluse from correcting any error into which he may have been betrayed by false representations, or an overheated fancy; or, of modifying his condition according to the change which experience and reflection may have effected in his opinion and feelings. Yet, although such are the absurd nature and injurious consequences of the vow of perpetual seclusion, it is proposed by the church of Rome, as the surest means of obtaining the sanctification of the soul and the crown of eternal happiness. If to bury our talents, to wall ourselves up in a dungeon; to sit for years upon a pole; to scorn the society of human beings; to reject the comforts of civilized life; to retrograde into barbarism; to assume the habits, and acquire the aspect of wild animals; to imprison ourselves where we can never respond to the demands of consanguinity, society, friendship and patriotism: where we can never contribute to the knowledge, wealth or prosperity of the country of our nativity—if this is religion, then Catholicism has the honor of confirming the most revolting condensation of these monstrosities that has ever disgusted the spirit of civilization. But if religion really consists in fair dealing, in noble deeds, in moral integrity amid moral turpitude, in individual purity amid general corruption, in unwavering virtue among the strongest incentives to guilt, then the organization that sanctions vows subversive of these attainments cannot be admitted, consistently with the most indulgent liberality, to be of a religious character.

Thus far in our judgment, we have presumed that the novices, in assuming their vow, were actuated by the laudable desire of obtaining the highest degree of moral purity. This worthy ambition was doubtless the governing motive of a proportion of them. Either from the instigations of moral insanity, or from the vagaries of a distempered fancy, or from the misrepresentation of artful and designing priests, or from the despondency which misfortune is apt to engender in weak, or too sensitive minds, or from a misconception of the natural tendency of solitude, men and women have at times been led to assume the vows, and submit to the penance prescribed by the religious orders. But there were other motives equally, and perhaps more generally, active. Ludicrous as were their holy isolation and penance, still the sanctity which the monks imitated, and the tortures which they self-imposed, were rewarded by a credulous and superstitious world with profound homage and admiration. By undergoing sufferings which appeared intolerable to human fortitude, they acquired the reputation of being sustained by divine agency; and, as their popularity increased in proportion to their wretchedness, they labored to extend their fame by adding to their misery. Their sufferings and fortitude alike incomprehensible to human reason, an awe-struck fancy betrayed the public into the delusion that what it beheld was the results of superhuman sanctity; of a sublime elevation above ordinary humanity; and of the interposition of divine power. These misconceptions, artfully cultivated by the priesthood, extended the fame of the self-tormentors beyond the celebrity of heroes, poets and philosophers. Kings and queens visited them with superstitious reverence; statesmen consulted them on abstruse questions of governmental policy; peace and war were made at their mandates; and pilgrims from remote regions bowed at their feet and begged their blessing. Thus favored by the profound homage of all classes of Christendom, they were enabled with more facility than any other profession to become opulent bishops, royal cardinals, or monarchical popes. Such being their eligibility to the honors and emoluments of the spiritual dignities of the church, vanity was quick to perceive that the anchorite's hut and the monk's cloister were the surest paths to universal adulation; religion, that they were the most respectable methods of becoming honored in life, and worshipped after death; avarice, that they were the most available means of obtaining lucrative positions; and ambition, that thay were the shortest roads to dignity and power. With these attractive facts glaring on the eye of sacred aspirants, it requires but little knowledge of human nature to conceive with what avidity the ambitious would crowd into the most repulsive cloisters; with what eagerness they would adopt the revolting habits and ludicrous privations of the recluse; and with what ingenuity they would indurate and torture the body, in order to win the applause of the world, and the privilege of selecting its most advantageous positions. Accordingly, monastery after monastery arose with sudden and astonishing rapidity, and their cells became supplied—not with aspirants after holiness and heaven—but with aspirants after secular and ecclesiastical dignities, and the indolence, luxury, and licentiousness which they afforded.

The pious flattery that was lavished on voluntary suffering, and the distinguished rewards which recompensed it, strongly tempted the feeble conscience of monks and hermits, to task their ingenuity in inventing contrivances for magnifying the apparent and diminishing the real sufferings of their self-imposed torture. By the aid of an improved invention an artful hypocrite could procure a greater reputation for sanctity than a contrite penitent, and become more eligible to the worldly honors and emoluments of the church. St. Simeon Stylltes, who sat upon a pole for thirty years, convinced Christendom, by his wonderful absurdity, that he was miraculously supported; while living he enjoyed its profoundest respect, and when dead was canonized by the Catholic Church. But an observer by describing the numerous gesticulations of this sainted mountebank, disclosed the secret of his artifice. By means of a system of gymnastics, he kept up a vigorous circulation of blood through his frame, and thus acquired a health and longevity which would have been incompatible with a state of inactivity. But it appears that he was tormented with an ulcer on the thigh, inflicted by the devil, who had tempted him to imitate Elijah in flying to heaven, but who maliciously smote him upon his raising his foot to make the ascension. His mystical gesticulations not healing, but probably inflaming the wound, may have shortened the natural term of his miserable existence. As he had gradually arisen from a pole of seven feet high to one of fifty feet high, if had not been for his vanity and his evil company he might have gained a still higher position; but whether by this means he would ever have reached heaven may be questioned by astronomy and heresy: but there is no doubt he acquired by his folly and artifice the beatification of the Catholic Church.

The apathy with which the self-tormenters endured their excruciating penance and the severe rigors of the seasons, was chiefly the effect of artificial callousness, induced by an ingenious discipline, calculated to destroy the susceptibility of the nervous system to the influence of external agents. A similar course of training has always been practiced by the religious orders of the Hindoos and the Mohametans, who, like those of the Catholic Church, endure self-imposed torture which seems to surpass human fortitude, and acquire by this species of ambition unbounded popularity. Even the uncleanness of the holy brotherhood was an artifice. It formed a protecting incrustation on the surface of the skin, which, by covering the the papillae, the sentient, organs, or destroying their capacity for sensation, enable the hermits to endure without apparent emotion the cold winters and bleak winds of inhospitable forests. This secret is known and practised by some African tribes, upon whom washing is consequently inflicted as a penalty for crimes. To the eye of superstition, clouded with ignorance, and fascinated by the ignes fatui of sacred fiction, the calmness of the monks and hermits under torments and exposures which seemed insufferable to humanity, appeared a palpable demonstration of miraculous interposition, and consecrated them in its estimation. Their acts, however, were as much tricks as are the mysterious capers of a conjurer. As the more artful and callous could endure the severity of penitential acts with greater indifference than the candid and sensitive they acquired a higher reputation for holiness, advanced to the enjoyment of more distinguished honors, and finally became canonized as paragons of virtue and objects of adoration.

Such are the nature and consequences of the vow of perpetual seclusion. Such is a portion of the "doctrinal definition already made by the general councils and former pontiffs," which, according to Bishop Kendrick, "are landmarks which no man can remove." (Primacy, p. 356). Such are some of the Catholic dogmas, which, "in regard to every subject whatever," according to Brownson "have been always the same from the beginning, remain always unchangeably the same, and will always continue in every part of the world immutable." (Review, January, 1850). Such is in part "what the church has done, what she has tacitly or expressly approved in the past," and according to the same authority "is exactly what she will tacitly or expressly approve in the future, if the same circumstances occur." (Review, January, 1854). "The same circumstances" is the universal church, which Jesuit Hecker, in his recent speech in Chicago, thinks the United States needs, and which the people (Catholics) will at no distant day proclaim.