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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

“He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord; for not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth.”


AUGUSTINE was the founder of the monastic system in Africa; a system which, with all its possible perversions, and its historical fortunes, has a distinct doctrinal place in the evangelical dispensation. Even viewed as a mere human addition to the institutions of that dispensation, Monachism has as fair a claim on us for a respectful treatment as the traditionary usages of the Rechabites had upon the Jews, which are implicitly sanctioned in the reward divinely accorded to the filial piety which occasioned them. If a Protestant says, that it may be abused, this is only what I might object with at least equal force against many of his own doctrines, such as justification by faith only, which he considers true and important nevertheless. But even if it could be convicted of superstition, fanaticism, priestcraft, and the other charges which he brings against it, still anyhow he surely must acknowledge it to be, not a simple self-originated error, but merely a corruption of what is in itself good—the result of a misunderstanding of primitive faith and strictness; nothing more. However, perhaps he will go on to ask what is the force of “merely” and “nothing more,” as if a corruption were not an evil great enough in itself. But let me ask him in turn, could his present system, in which he glories so much, by any possibility be corrupted, to use his word, into monasticism? is there any sort of tendency in it towards—rather, are not all its tendencies from—such a result? If so, it is plain that the religious temper of Protestant times is not like that of the primitive Church, the existing liability in systems to certain degeneracies respectively being a sort of index of the tone and temper of each. As the corruptions, so are the respective originals. If his system never could become superstitious, it is not primitive. Clearly, then, whether or not Monachism is right, he at least is wrong, as differing in mind and spirit from that first Christian system, which did become monastic.

One great purpose answered by Monachism in the early ages was the maintenance of the Truth in times and places in which great masses of Catholics had let it slip from them. Under such sad circumstances, the spouse of Christ “fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God.” Thus in those perilous Arian waters, which “the serpent cast out after the woman,”

When withering blasts of error swept the sky,

And Love’s last flowers seemed fain to droop and die,

How sweet, how lone the ray benign

On sheltered nooks of Palestine!

Then to his early home did Love repair,

And cheered his sickening heart with his own native air.

That was the cave of Bethlehem, to which St. Jerome retired; but Augustine’s monasteries were not intended for this purpose. They were intended as the refuge of piety and holiness, when the increasing spread of religion made Christians more secular. And we may confidently pronounce that such provisions, in one shape or other, will always be attempted by the more serious and anxious part of the community, whenever Christianity is generally professed. In Protestant countries, where monastic orders are unknown, men run into separatism with this object. Methodism has carried off many a man who was sincerely attached to the Established Church, merely because that Church will admit nothing but what it considers “rational” and “sensible” in religion.


There is another reason for such establishments, which applies particularly to women; convents are as much demanded, in the model of a perfect Church, by Christian charity, as monastic bodies can be by Christian zeal. I know not any more distressing development of the cruel temper of Protestantism than the determined, bitter, and scoffing spirit in which it has set itself against institutions which give dignity and independence to the position of women in society. As matters stand, marriage is almost the only shelter which a defenceless portion of the community has against the rude world;—a maiden life, that holy estate, is not only left in desolateness, but oppressed with heartless ridicule and insult;—whereas, foundations for single females, under proper precautions, at once hold out protection to those who avail themselves of them, and give dignity to the single state itself, and thus save numbers from the temptation of throwing themselves rashly away upon unworthy objects, thereby transgressing their own sense of propriety, and embittering their future life.

And if women have themselves lost so much by the established state of things, what has been the loss of the poor, sick, and aged, to whose service they might consecrate that life which they refuse to shackle by the marriage vow? what has been the loss of the ignorant, sinful, and miserable, among whom those only can move without indignity who bear a religious character upon them; for whom they only can intercede or exert themselves, who have taken leave of earthly hopes and fears; who are secured by their holy resolve, from the admiring eye or the persuasive tongue, and can address themselves to the one heavenly duty to which they have set themselves with singleness of mind? Those who are unmarried, and who know, and know that others know, that they are likely one day to marry, who are exposed to the thousand subtle and fitful feelings of propriety, which, under such circumstances, are ever springing up in the modest breast, with a keen sensitiveness ever awake, and the chance of indefinable sympathies with others any moment arising, such persons surely may be beautiful in mind, and noble and admirable in conduct, but they cannot take on them the high office of Sisters of Mercy.

However, this chapter is to have nothing to do with monasteries or communities, if this be any relief to the Protestant reader, but is to furnish a specimen of what to some persons may seem as bad, yet has been undeniably a practice of Christians, not from the fourth century, but from the time of St. Philip’s daughters in the Acts, viz.: the private and domestic observance of an ascetic life for religion’s sake, and to the honour of Christ.

“There were always ascetics in the Church,” says the learned Bingham, “but not always monks retiring to the deserts and mountains, or living in monasteries and cells, as in after ages. Such were all those that inured themselves to greater degrees of abstinence and fasting than other men. In like manner, they who were more than ordinarily intent upon the exercise of prayer, and spent their time in devotion, were justly thought to deserve the name of ascetics. The exercise of charity and contempt of the world in any extraordinary degree, as when men gave up their whole estate to the service of God or use of the poor, was another thing that gave men the denomination and title of ascetics. The widows and virgins of the Church, and all such as confined themselves to a single life, were reckoned among the number of ascetics, though there was neither cloister nor vow to keep them under this obligation. Origen alludes to this name, when he says the number of those who exercised themselves in perpetual virginity among the Christians was great in comparison of those few who did it among the Gentiles. Lastly, all such as exercised themselves with uncommon hardships or austerities, for the greater promotion of piety and religion, as in frequent watchings, humicubations, and the like, had the name ascetics also.”—Antiqu. vii. 1, §§ 1–3.

At present the only representatives among Protestants of these ancient solitaries are found in those persons whom they commonly taunt and ridicule under the name of “old maids” and “single gentlemen;” and it sometimes is seriously objected to the primitive doctrine of celibacy, that “bachelors are just the most selfish, unaccommodating, particular, and arbitrary persons in the community;” while “ancient spinsters are the most disagreeable, cross, gossiping, and miserable of their sex.” Dreariness unmitigated, a shivering and hungry spirit, a soul preying on itself, a heart without an object, affections unemployed, life wasted, self-indulgence in prosperous circumstances, envy and malice in straitened; deadness of feeling in the male specimen, and impotence of feeling in the female, concentrated selfishness in both; such are the only attributes with which the imagination of modern times can invest St. Ambrose, bishop and confessor, or St. Macrina, sister of the great Basil. Now it may seem an unaccountable waywardness in one who has been brought up in the pure light of the nineteenth century, but I really am going to say a few words about such an old maid, or holy virgin, as we please to call her. In the year 413, the rich and noble Demetrias, a descendant of some of the most illustrious Roman houses, and moving in the highest circles, as we now speak, of the metropolis of the world, devoted herself at Carthage to a single life. It will be worth while to relate some particulars of her history.


She was the daughter of Anicius Hermogenianus Olybrius, who was consul A.D. 395, and Anicia Juliana, his relation. Her father, who died young, was son of the celebrated Sextus Probus, prefect of Italy from 368 to 375, who addressed St. Ambrose, while yet a catechumen, and appointed to a civil post in Liguria, in the celebrated and almost prophetic words, “Act not as magistrate, but as bishop.” The riches of this prefect were so abundant, that some Persian noblemen, who in the year 390 came to Milan to St. Ambrose, went, as the second object of curiosity, to Rome, to see the grandeur of Probus, His wife, that is, the paternal grandmother of Demetrias, Anicia Faltonia Proba, belonged, as her first name shows, to one of the most noble families in Rome. The consulate seemed hereditary in it; its riches and influence were unbounded; while its members appear to have been Christians from the time of Constantine, or, as some suppose, from the time of the persecutions. Of the same illustrious house was Juliana, the mother of Demetrias.

Rome was taken by Alaric in 410; and on this most awful visitation, among other heirs of grace, three females were found in the devoted city,—Faltonia Proba, Juliana, and Demetrias,—grandmother, mother, and daughter,—two widows and a girl. Faltonia, and Juliana, her daughter-in-law, had, in the days of their prosperity, exerted themselves at Rome in favour of St. Chrysostom, then under persecution, and now, in their own troubles, they found a comforter and guide in St. Augustine. So closely was Christendom united then, that ladies in Rome ministered to one bishop at Constantinople, and took refuge with another in Africa, At first they seem all to have fallen into the hands of the barbarians, and many of the holy virgins of the city, who had sought protection with Proba, were torn from her house. At length, obtaining liberty to leave Rome, she embarked for Africa with her daughter-in-law and grand-daughter, and a number of widows and virgins who availed themselves of her departure to escape likewise. Our history shall be continued in the following letter, written by St. Augustine to this high-born and well-connected lady:—

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