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Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

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Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

An example of the difference in perspectives emerged in 451, at the Chalcedon Council. Leo had prepared a doctrinal statement he called the Tome. It was to be read at Chalcedon and accepted as official because he, Peter's embodiment, had said it should be so. Eastern clerics did indeed accept it, yet only because it agreed with previous councils' ideas. That it emerged from the See of Peter was not the issue for them, creating a schism about the sources of authority within the Church. Leo's discontent was augmented by the same council, whose Canon 28 accorded Constantinople precedence over Alexandria and Antioch and increased the Imperial See's territory. His successor Gelasius I (492-496) excommunicated the Constantinople Patriarch Acacia when Zeno articulated a compromise doctrine of Christ's nature, and went on to state that "the sacred authority of the priesthood... is more weighty" than royal power. Strife increased when the Constantinople Patriarch began calling himself Ecumenical Patriarch by the 490s.

Intellectually, the two major challenges the Church faced during these years were a) explaining Rome's fall after it had gone Christian, and b) improving the spiritual-moral level of its flock and representatives. The sack of Rome in 410, and then in 455, had been a real problem for Christian thinkers. Conversion of the Empire not only did not help the longevity of the Empire, but it appeared, especially in conservative Roman eyes, to have hastened its fall. Indeed, in the 390s and even on the eve of the 410 sack, there had been some pagan revivals. Thus, various clerical writers began to expound non- linkage between Christianization and Roman fall. Orosius of Spain wrote Seven Books of History Against the Pagans in 418. For him, no matter how damaging Barbarian attacks on the Empire and Rome had been, the pagan period was far bloodier and more destructive. Also, the conversion of the Goths to Christianity had even ensured their relatively kind treatment of Romans during the sack. On a higher intellectual level and much more philosophical was Augustine's view, articulated in On the City of God (413-25). He invited Christians to de-link the Roman state and Christianity. It was not necessarily the agent that would realize Christian aims of world salvation. Indeed, secular institutions were irrelevant to this, as compared with individual human striving for perfection. This is an understandable view, as the Bishop of North African Hippo died while his city was under Vandals' siege.

In terms of improving the ethical standards of Christendom, people had been sensitive to this from the outset. The response took the form of monasticism, one of the most self-invigorating movements in Christendom from the 300s past 1000. Monasticism traditionally begins with St. Anthony in Egypt around the 260s. A wealthy young heir, he happened upon a Gospel text where Jesus indicates that to be perfect, one must make all possessions over to charity and live in poverty. He did so, moving to an abandoned fort on the fringes of the Egyptian desert. He tried to get himself martyred during the 313 Maximin era persecutions, after which he moved farther into the desert, in order to avoid admirers attracted by his self-mortification. Emulators in the ensuing years all concentrated on individual salvation. In the same vein, the fifth century's Stylites would seclude themselves atop pillars in Palestine and Syria. St. Simeon Stylites (388-460) lived near Antioch, and was even consulted by Imperial emissaries due to his presumed devotion.

In contrast to solitary monasticism was a more communal approach to spiritual seclusion. Though at one time a hermit, Pachomius (295-350) began to organize large numbers of his disciples into communities. The communal, cenobitic monasticism was seen as a preparatory phase, but sufficed for many who could never ascend to the next level of solitude. This cenobitic monasticism is what caught on in the West. It began in more of an urban way, with aristocrats establishing house cloisters from the fifth and sixth century. As an example, Cassiodorus' son, with the same name, retired to a monastery he patronized in the 580s. Jerome became such a mentor in Rome, while John Cassian left Egypt for Constantinople, settling in Marseilles as a refugee from Church disputes in the 410s. Up until this time individual monasteries had been following their own rules. On the request of a local bishop, John wrote a rule-book entitled Institutes, based upon Greek rules from Basil of Caesarea (370s). The latter had been the founder of organized monasticism in the Eastern Church. Nearly a hundred years later, a unified code of monastic life was written by St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480- c. 543). Living in Italy during the seemingly apocalyptic period of Byzantine-Ostrogothic warfare, he wanted to create a rule of life for personal spiritual improvement within a corporate, communal framework. Unlike his Egyptian predecessors, essential to the Benedictine Rule was "nothing harsh nor burdensome." A monastery was to be a school for beginners, with monks remaining in one location--a vow of (territorial) stability. A rigorous daily schedule of prayer and work was to embody the key principles of humility, obedience (expressed through total submission to the abbot), and work in the fields, to prevent idle thoughts and laziness. For Benedict, rather than escalating asceticism, ordered spiritual focus was the way.

During the next century, the Eastern Church followed the direction of the Emperors, willfully or otherwise. The usurper Basiliscus of the 470s, as well as Anastasia past 510 in particular was Monophysite inclined, and this injured Papal-Byzantine relations, to the point that Rome excommunicated Constantinople in the 510s. With the advent of an Orthodox Emperor in Justin and Justinian, relations were reestablished, especially as Byzantine reassertion of power in the West was partly in opposition to Arian Goths. This points to the Catholic predicament. Since Constantine's beginning of patronage, the Church had become relatively wealthy, and one of the biggest land-holders in the West. Still, to the 520s, temporal power in Italy was held by heretics in the form of Theodoric's Ostrogoths. While usually cooperative with the Catholic administration, there was always tension, and when Theodoric began to see Roman-Byzantine religious rapprochement, he put pressure on the Catholic Church. Later, from the 540s to the 570s, almost all popes were imperial nominees chosen for their loyalty to Byzantium. Farther north, the Franks began to convert from the 500s, and the Papacy enthusiastically supported this through proselytizing missions. Frankish Christianization was a mixed blessing, however. On the one hand, Frankish kings reciprocated by providing estates to clerics, and using the Gallo-Roman, literate priests in their administration. Furthermore, Roman era privileges were extended. Only the Church could police and judge its officials, and Church establishments were often exempt from counts' exactions. On the other hand, the level of culture and civilization was much too low among the Merovingians to sustain a Christian flowering, and their warlike temperament encouraged them to ride roughshod over Christian morality.

In this century of undistinguished popes one emerges as a giant, typifying positive trends and laying the foundations for future grandeur. Gregory I, 'The Great', was born into a noble Roman family in 540. He lived through Justinian's campaigns as well as the Lombard depredations, entering into imperial service and becoming he Prefect of Rome by the 570s. In 574, he left secular life to become a monk. From 579-85 he lived in Constantinople as Rome's ambassador, returning to Rome to help in Church administration. In 590 he became Pope. The first, immense challenge facing him was the Lombard invasions. Civil administration was almost nonexistent in this period, so he assumed control of the city. During the total vacuum of imperial control, he made a truce with the invaders in 592, and then directed urban defenses when war re- ignited the following year. To provide for the Church and laity's material survival, he reorganized Papal Estates in the south, making them turn profits from their crops. Revenues relieved famines, endowed churches, as well as hospitals and schools. Gregory's next accomplishment was to enforce Papal supervision over all churches in Italy and southern Gaul through agents of the central church. Farther north was more of a problem, as Frankish Kings saw the church as their property. Upon building churches or monasteries, rulers would appoint priests, and tried to control Christian hierarchies. Gregory stood against this. Commanding priests not to marry, he hoped to end the familial alliances that produced Frankish control over clerics.

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