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The monastic military Order – Part III
Spirit of monasticism
Monasticism is an ancient phenomenon that doesn't belong to any particular faith.
It has flourished in every people and with any religion; it is not a religion itself but it finds in the cults the instruments to express exteriorly a spirituality that is only interior.
Monasticism has had the push of genuine spirituality and therefore it has often found itself in antithesis with religious hierarchies that were keen on earthly pleasures, power, splendor and wealth. The choice to be estranged from the earthly aspects made Eastern and Western monasticism the boundary between spiritual idealism and excessive religious rationalization.
The first form of Christian monasticism was the Egyptian and Basilian one (2 nd /5 th centuries).
Even if they were less strict than anchorites, eremites and stylites (from Greek stylos, pillar, those who lived on top of a pillar), monks were keen on solitude and asceticism. They refused any religious conjecture made to man's image and concentrated only on the light of the spirit practiced in the humbleness of themselves, with love, charity, mercy and solidarity for the others. They took Jesus the Nazarene as model of Christian perfection; in fact, before his public life, he had practiced hermitage for years accompanying inspired anchorites.
For Mediterranean monks Jesus was the highest expression of living holiness (*). He was a model of faith put into practice (by doing) in full conscience (by knowledge) different from the dogmatic passivity professed by his conventional successors that practiced the belief without doing and doing without understanding.
(*) as the Franciscan monks that followed Marco Polo discovered, the name Jesus was known even in the far countries they were visiting.
Out of the worldly transitoriness, monks lived moments of true spirituality originated by a unique state of conscience; it was a very intimate way of living a faith, without the religious antagonism that made them feel out of the world and far away from its excesses. It was a faith perceived in an inner space made of silence, contemplation and prayer. To all this they added the penitential aspect, which was the central theme of Christian monasticism.
By emulation for the martyrdom suffered on the day of his death by Jesus Christ, Christians exalted suffering and considered it the highest instrument for the reconciliation with God, together with renunciation, expiation and mortification of any passion but the religious one. Penitential practices, though, didn't last only one day like Jesus', but filled big parts of the monastic life.
The prolonged rigor of monastic life, complex and cruel corporal punishments, accompanied by abstinence from food and drink, ended up by causing in the practicing physical discomforts and big emotional alterations, leading to mental disorders and obsession. In short, the cruelty on themselves and the mortification of the senses could have indecorous consequences for the spirit, like exasperated idealism, exaltation and religious fanaticism, with the sad consequences we will see further on.
The Europe of monasticism
In a time when men and women with a striking spiritual talent were not able to find what they were looking for in a courtesan religiosity, they started looking for God in themselves, in their own heart and faith.
In the 7 th century Saint Benedict of Nursia sowed the seed of spiritual renewal in Europe. The loyalty to the message of Christ was caught back by the Monastic Orders that in the year 1000 erected 694 abbeys only in the land of France. Amongst the biggest we must remember the Benedictine Order (529), Franciscan (1209), Camaldolese (1012), Olivetan (1313), Carthusian (1030), Cistercians (1098) and Cluniac, followed by Carmelites and Dominicans (1226), Silvestrines (1232) and Vallombrosans (1036).
Around these big spiritual aggregations some minor groups were created, such as the Waldensians or Poor men from Lyon (1169), the Bonomini or Catari (1170), the Humiliates or Lombards (1184). They were all dedicated to love for harmlessness, mercy, abstinence, obedience, spirituality, work, patience, silence and evangelical poverty, just to mention a few.
In order to find the spiritual light in themselves there was the possibility that they could take the primacy of universality from a Church that considered itself the only representative of the “Will of God” « omnis potestas a Deo » (Rom. 13, 1-2).
The ecclesial hierarchy feared for their sovereignty and they made every effort to obstruct such a spiritual autonomy, up to the point of accusation of heresy to the members of those spiritual groups.
In actual fact their heresy was not to follow the earthly principles of a dominating Church and to look for a spiritual essence different from the religious conventions; it was not to accept the hegemony of a man on another, even if religious, because we are all the same in front of God, and also to criticize the merchants of devotion (*). The opposition of the Catholic Church, though, had to face the obstacle of the oath for Obedience, to which the founders of monastic orders stuck and also the humbleness and absolute poverty to which they obeyed. It was an insoluble dilemma because how could they fight people who didn't own and didn't expect anything?
(*) in order to obtain respect and submission the conventional Church used men's fear for the shadows of the unknown. Catholic devotion was used as a means of exchange for messianic hopes. Visionary chronicles with a prophetic background accompanied the trade of “holy relics” and the sale of miraculous recoveries, absolutions and indulgences. Under the humbleness of the principles the catholic hierarchy aimed to subject the Western peoples, chasing expansionistic policies that upset sovereign powers, of which the ecclesiastic hierarchy was at the same time companion and antagonist. It was also difficult to hide the public vices, the ostentatious opulence and the obvious licentiousness that the members of the Church of Rome practiced at any level. Therefore it was difficult to be seen as a model of Christian virtue.
With the approval of the Catholic theocracy monasteries grew and multiplied to become great centers of spiritual energy.
In those spiritual fortresses, in the silence and contemplation of the sacred, people of any class re-arranged an earthly religiosity. They abandoned the rumbling pleas aimed to satisfy selfish wishes and turned to meditating and impersonal praying able to put in inner touch with God.
As time went by, though, the extraneity from the world of the monks as well suffered the influence of new cultural, political and social assets that forced its way in the spiritual retreat and managed to involve some monastic groups in the political participation of religion that the Church of Rome wanted.
This originated an incredible alliance between the spiritual rigor of some monastic Orders and the pressure for colonialism supported by the Church (see the Crusades) but most of all the adhesion to the despicable event of inquisition. From this alliance, as we will see, originated the phenomenon of the military monks and the monks executing and persecuting in the name of a sovereign religion.
In the search for the link between military monasticism and militant religion we get to:
Religion between spirituality and conventions
A few details are enough to distinguish between spiritual religiosity, religious conventions and devotional cults. Paraphrasing the hermetic language, the spiritual conscience that fills the soul of the mystic reminds us of the heat of the fire element. Religious conventions resulting from reason, on the other hand, remind us of the steadiness of the earth element. The passion that moves devotion reminds us of the mobility of the water element.
The first aspect of fire is light, that of earth is darkness and that of water the instability and the fogs of emotional illusion. Therefore the spiritual experience, or the lack of it, originates unmistakable signs.
Love and inner peace reflect in the eyes, which are the mirror of the soul. Wisdom irradiates without emphasis in the calmness of words and the serenity of spirit fills an attitude able to transmit slightly simple and essential meanings.
Religious conventions try and represent peace through the solemnity of ceremonial uses, where the essentiality of the word turns into rhetoric and gestures become ritual expression.
Spiritual experience is overshadowed by the indefinable, abstract and universal ideal of a God whose unlimited love, affection and comprehension are the most transparent aspects for the essence of the mystic.
Conventional religions reflect the human heart, whose intention for wellbeing are accompanied by the fatal passion that posses it, whilst the god they represent is a violent, possessive and jealous one.
For the mystic, sacredness is emanated by the spirit. By convention the sacred is projected into fetish, ritual instruments and earthly work. These two views are apparently incompatible; to them we can add the devotional view of those who kneel down before the bonfire of their faith expecting a lot from God, but only giving requests accompanied by hymns and lamentations.
The strength of royal and religious sovereignties was based on two intermediate classes: the Milites Bellatores , men whose task was to fight and the Clericus Oratores , men whose task was to pray. They were two antithetical classes because the former looked for honor in the cruelty of the battle; the latter looked for God in the prayer.
This separation was kept until events started threatening the political-religious stability of the West that suffered ferocious raids from Northern, Eastern and Southern peoples.
The continuous pressure to its boundaries and the risks of invasion amplified more and more the importance of the Milites Bellatores , warriors and noble knights who inspired admiration to the kings and their noble followers. The Church as well, threatened in their prerogatives, exalted the class of Bellatores and raised them to “bulwark of faith” making them the instrument of their values. They became so important that the Church started consecrating arms and warriors.
Following the idea of defense of the Western religious values, some people belonging to the classes of the Bellatores and the Clericus suddenly mixed up, originating the Clericus ac Miles (clerics-soldiers).
In support to the idea of an armed religiosity, it started the cult of saints armed with lance and sword ready to kill in order to defend their faith. In this way the metaphor of the conflict between good and evil that occurred in man's conscience (inner angels and demons) was taken in the literal meaning of physical and bloody battle. This seems to be, in that particular historical moment, the reason why part of the monastic body armed itself, backing up the expansion of a Church that thought that violent proselytism, religious war and physical elimination of the different ones were acceptable.
Consecration of the cavalry
Nobilis or Miles was an armed soldier who fought on a horse. The knight, who was an aristocratic, a vassal or a noble subject, dedicated himself to the orders of a Master (Senior), a prince or a king, in order to defend his wealth and his lands. The high rank knight administered justice on the vassals, vavaussors and villains of the fief. He defended clerics, monks, defenseless women, orphans, travelers and pilgrims; in exchange he was granted support and fiscal immunity. He might also receive donations and prizes of various amount and nature, such as nobiliary titles, marriage suitable to his rank and lands to rule (*).
(*) By sovereign appointment the knight received the power of legislator and administrative manager of feudal lands; this title could be transmitted to his heirs.
Cavalry became a restricted military caste not only because of rank reasons.
The costs to equip and arm a soldier were extremely high. It was necessary to buy horses, light and heavy armors, coats of mail, long swords for fighting on horse and short ones for fighting on foot. Everything was meticulously manufactured. Furthermore they needed instruments for the fight such as cuirasses, maces, daggers, war and jousting lances, shields and any other tool required for any kind of military event. To the costs of the arms were added those for ordinary siege and travel equipment, such as harnesses, saddles and saddlecloth, insignia and banners. In the event of camping it was necessary to have tents, furniture, furnishings, utensils and provisions. There was also to consider the staff; squires and servants to be armed and fed. The best knights had also other knights to accompany them and watch their back during the battle. In short, embracing the job of arms for a first knight was a huge financial investment. For this reason many knights were at service of a Master, prince or king.
When the Church made of cavalry an instrument for their own defense and to fight internal and external enemies to the orthodoxy of faith, the initiation of the knight, called investiture , wasn't any more only a military matter.
The Church intervened on the initiatory ceremonial transforming it into consecration; the neophyte was blessed with a sword with a ritual similar to the royal consecration.
The Militi Christi (soldiers of Christ) opened a new chapter in which the chivalrous consecration reached an extraordinary status. The ordination and consecration of priest and knight reached an equal Status.
The constitution of knight-deacons and monks originated the monastic-chivalrous Orders. They spent their lives in the armed defense of the Great Ideal of faith, characterized by courage, altruism and Christian caritas.
Athos A. Altomonte