With the fall of the Roman empire and the influx of the great waves of barbaric tribes that swept over Europe, the cleared lands and cultivated fields reverted to forest and moor, cities and towns lay in ruins, and the citizen was reduced to the condition of the beggar and the slave. France Germany, Spain, Italy and England had all fallen a prey to the never-ending swarms that poured across the barrier rivers of the Rhine and Danube.
But out of the midst of this universal chaos and desolation now burst forth an army of Christian soldiers. Some, taking upon themselves vows of solitude and self-renunciation, penetrated the wilderness to live as ascetics, – a life of prayer and holy calm, withdrawn from the turmoil and wretchedness of the world; others, seeking out the most inaccessible and unfrequented spots erected their buildings, and gathering about them their disciples, entered upon the true monastic life; while yet others again as missionaries, advanced boldly into the enemy’s dominions, to conquer back for the Church the territory it had lost, and to gather into its folds these new peoples and new tribes whose invasion had destroyed the Roman world.
And it was their glory that in a few short centuries they succeeded. Solitaries who shrunk from all contact with humanity were becoming the unconscious instruments for the civilization and conversion of savages and heathen. They penetrated valleys choked with rocks, brambles and brushwood, the overgrowth of generations interlaced into a barrier not to be penetrated by anything weaker than their untiring energy. They are the sternest of ascetics and most isolated of hermits. But their rest is broken by penitents who come to ask their blessing and who implore permission to live under their authority. The solitary cell of the hermit becomes the nucleus of a society,—the society a centre of many congregations radiating from it. The little plot of herbs becomes a garden; the garden stretches out into fields of waving grain; the hills are clothed with vines, the valleys bowered in fruit trees. Opening their doors to all, receiving under their shelter and protection the oppressed, the weak, the criminal, the slave, the sin-sick soul weary of this life and despairing of another, the mourner and the comfortless, it frequently happened that the inmates of these cloisters, those attached to one community and under one jurisdiction, numbered thousands.
Henry M. Goodell, “The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture and Christian Civilization” (Sacred Heart Review, 3 December 1910)