The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World


A guided tour through the fascinating history of Catholic religious orders

From their monastic prehistory in the Egyptian desert through their political heyday in Medieval and Renaissance Europe to their present-day work of education, human care, and the pursuit of social justice, the Catholic religious orders have been a driving force in Western civilization. In The Lord as Their Portion Elizabeth Rapley paints a broad portrait of the full ...

See more details below
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (16) from $2.47   
  • New (7) from $13.26   
  • Used (9) from $2.46   
Sending request ...


A guided tour through the fascinating history of Catholic religious orders

From their monastic prehistory in the Egyptian desert through their political heyday in Medieval and Renaissance Europe to their present-day work of education, human care, and the pursuit of social justice, the Catholic religious orders have been a driving force in Western civilization. In The Lord as Their Portion Elizabeth Rapley paints a broad portrait of the full spectrum of religious orders spanning the vast canvas of their history.

Rapley shows how religious orders led the way in learning and inventiveness throughout the early periods of Western civilization. She explores how religious orders contributed to Western politics and the global spread of Christianity. She examines the ways in which religious orders have championed the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised throughout history and gives attention the ongoing work of religious orders today.

More than simply highlighting the sweeping progress of monasticism's past and present, however, Rapley also takes time to share, in a clear and engaging fashion, the fascinating stories of many of the men and women who chose to take “the Lord as their portion” — and whose piety, devotion, and energetic pursuit of a holy life profoundly shaped the course of history.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Life under a religious rule has been a hallmark of the Catholic tradition for millennia. Elizabeth Rapley shows how these rules of life have given shape to a plethora of religious orders and why those orders are crucial for understanding the history of Christianity. Her overview of this way of life, ranging from the fourth-century desert ascetics to the missionary orders of men and women in the modern period, is a carefully researched and highly readable work.”
— Lawrence S. Cunningham
University of Notre Dame
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802865885
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Rapley is adjunct professor of history at the University of Ottawa. Her books include The D�votes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France and A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


1. The Beginnings of Christian Monasticism....................1
2. 1200-1500: The Middle Ages....................51
3. The Sixteenth Century: The Age of Reformation....................109
4. The Seventeenth Century: The Age of Confessionalism....................161
5. The Eighteenth Century: "A Time to Break Down"....................213
6. The Nineteenth Century: "A Time to Build Up"....................261
Read More Show Less

First Chapter

The Lord as Their Portion

The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World
By Elizabeth Rapley

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Rapley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6588-5

Chapter One

The Beginnings of Christian Monasticism

* * *

"If You Wish to Be Perfect ..."

The Greek word monos signifies "alone." At the very foundation of early Christian monasticism lay the imperative of aloneness, flight from the world, submersion in deep and holy silence. And the traditional setting for this was the desert.

Christian monasticism took root in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century. This is not to say that the monks of that time and place had no precursors. From the second century, and possibly earlier, groups of men and women had sought separation from the world through practices of chastity and self-denial. These Christians, and those others, less radical, who lived ascetic lives without renouncing their ties to society, were not wholly out of step with the mood of the times. Asceticism was prized in Judaic tradition, and even more strongly promoted in the Christian sacred books. "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace," wrote Saint Paul. What is more, asceticism appealed, to some degree, to the spirit of contemporary paganism. Self-control and sexual continence were held in high esteem, at least among the elites. While the pagan world did not noticeably practice asceticism, it gave it a wary respect. So all in all, there was an openness in public opinion to the notion of self-control.

However, the men we know as "the Desert Fathers" took things to a new level. They laid the ground rules for Christian monasticism. What is more, by their example they "sold" the idea of monasticism to their contemporaries, so that within a short time the desert became home to thousands of monks. The literature that developed around them — personal writings, biographies, collections of sayings, and collections of anecdotes — spread with remarkable speed across the empire, and, arguably, did for monasticism what the histories of the martyrs had done for martyrdom. Throughout the Christian centuries, Egyptian monasticism, mediated through this literature, was a model for the greater part of European monasticism.

The movement to the desert began at about the same time that the status of the church changed under Constantine. This was no coincidence. In A.D. 313 the great emperor decreed an end to the persecution of his subjects on religious grounds. Suddenly Christians, who had lived for generations under the threat of martyrdom, and who had identified themselves in that light, found their faith comfortably tolerated, even privileged. They no longer risked anything by believing. The fading of the threat left them in a spiritual void. Monasticism came to fill that void. The grace and high esteem once awarded to the martyr's death were transferred to the death of the flesh represented by virginity and the asceticism that accompanied it.

But why the desert? According to a tradition originating with Saint Jerome, they went there to find solitude and serenity. However, ancient tradition also saw the desert as the place where demons lived, and in time hagiography, and historiography, represented the monks as self-appointed shock troops advancing against these enemies of God. And they may have had another motivation. They may have gone into the desert in the first place to find God, by placing themselves in a situation where they were physically free from all distraction and entanglement. Once there, loneliness and hardship made them subject to forces that they may well not have anticipated.

This sequence of events is traced in the life of Saint Anthony (250-356). Anthony, still a young man, was left by his parents' death in charge of house, property, and a younger sister. His call came suddenly, in the words of the Savior: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell all that thou hast, and give it to the poor; and come, follow me and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven." He immediately gave away his property, as his early biographer wrote, not wishing "to encumber himself or his sister in any way whatever." Within a short time, again upon hearing the word of the Lord, he gave away even the small sum that he had reserved for his sister. Without leaving his village, he took up a life of self-denial and search for spiritual direction. And yet this was not enough; thoughts of his home and his attachments continued to plague him, and he gradually moved farther away, first to another town, then to the tombs that lay some distance away (where he made his first acquaintance of the demons), then across the river and into the desert, and then, finally, to an inaccessible mountain near the Red Sea. Here he fought the epic battles against the demons that have been memorialized so often in literature and in art. He prevailed, and lived to a peaceable old age, with the devil still keeping a close eye on him, but no longer able to disturb his calm.

In a sense, Anthony's journey into the desert can be compared to that of an explorer. He did not know, when he started, what he would find. As a young man he had asked for nothing more than to follow Christ, to carry his cross. The desert provided the pedagogy, so to speak, of asceticism: the loneliness, the dangers, the harsh and sterile environment. His body was subjected to the constant need for food, which could be won only by unremitting labor. His thoughts constantly went astray, back to the home he had left, and thence into images of impurity. What Anthony experienced first, other hermits experienced after him. Gradually a collective self-knowledge built up, to be passed on by the "old men" to the neophytes. This marked a new stage, a "professionalization" of asceticism, and the beginning of a long drawn-out war of attrition waged in the desert, by Anthony and by the others who followed him, against unchastity in all its forms.

The principal weapon was the fast. The old men were soon teaching what they themselves had learned, that "the drier the body, the more flourishing is the soul." If the monk wished to approach God with an "undivided heart," he had to eliminate all other demands upon himself. For the hermits of the desert, fasting and other self-denials such as sleeplessness were necessary if the flesh was to be subdued. Greed and fornication were twin vices with shared roots in the flesh; "the defeat of the first weakens the one that depends on it." The eradication of the two together could be achieved only by "mortifying the flesh, by vigils, fasts and back-breaking labor." These practices were not seen as self-destructive; indeed, in Saint Anthony's view, they brought the body back to the uncorrupted state that it had enjoyed before the Fall, free from anger, physical appetite, and sexual urge. Thus clarified, the body would one day pass with the soul into glory. But it was not an undertaking for the faint of heart. In the stillness of the desert, inner struggle was intensified; sexual urge and the desire for food became a torment. Some of the greatest monks confessed that they had carried these agonies with them into their old age.

But at the end of the day, the ascetics of the desert knew that physical mortification had to have a purpose; it had to prepare man for virtue. Without the proper dispositions it was worthless. This was a lesson not always easily learned. The hermit could very easily fall into a sort of spiritual athleticism and become more concerned with breaking records of self-abnegation than with being humble of heart. A whole lifetime of penance could be washed away by a moment of pride. The "old men" had a warning: "Drinking wine within reason is better by far than drinking water in arrogance." Very early on, it became the general practice of solitaries to moderate their aloneness by submitting to the spiritual direction of others.

Another solution to the problem was quickly arrived at: a sort of lowering of the bar, in the form of cenobitism. The great architect of this form of monasticismwas Pachomius. A contemporary of Saint Anthony (he died in 346, ten years before Anthony), he first attempted life as a hermit, before being inspired in prayer to gather his followers into a community. The form of life he established was so successful that by the end of the fourth century there were some seven thousand Pachomian monks and nuns in Egypt.

Instead of living alone, these men and women joined together in communities, retaining the privacy of their cells but otherwise working and praying together under the direction of an abbot. This removed one of the most oppressive burdens of monasticism, the burden of solitude. In positive terms, it offered individuals the opportunity of regular spiritual direction. It also tended to moderation in daily life. A monastery was not a cave in the hills. Food was adequate and predictable, work was hard but not overwhelming, clothing was sufficient though simple. There was even provision made for the occasional snack, and a fire when the weather was cold. As for private practices of mortification, they were allowed but not promoted. Space was made, in this system, for the brothers "who do not give themselves up to great practices and to an excessive ascesis, but walk simply in the purity of their bodies and according to the established rules with obedience and obligingness." Not for these monks the austerities and the struggles of the desert.

It was a natural progression. A community cannot tolerate too many rugged individuals; it has to maintain a certain level of humility, sociability, and obedience. It was this last, destined to become one of the three great monastic virtues, that Pachomian monks and nuns had to practice, as compensation, so to speak, for the alleviation of their ascetical load. Their obedience was to be total, unhesitating, uncomplaining. It involved an assault on nature as ruthless as any physical self-mortification. Or at least, so its practitioners would claim. For others, both at the time and in the long centuries ahead, it was a lower form of monasticism or, at best, a stepping stone toward the more perfect eremitic life. The competition between "obedience" and "sacrifice" would resurface many times in the monasticism of the future.

The circumstances of the fourth century, and the conditions of the Egyptian desert, set the scene for an extraordinarily rich period of development in monasticism. The literature, ancient and modern, emphasizes over and over again the need for the monk to "know himself." It may be argued that during Saint Anthony's lifetime monasticism as an institution came to "know itself": to recognize the heroic efforts required to reach its goal of an "undivided heart," the importance of asceticism as a means of clearing the mind for prayer, the importance of the Scriptures, of spiritual direction; the value, even for hermits, of charity toward neighbor, the great profit, for cenobites, to be gained from mutual support and edification and the practice of obedience and humility.

Many of these elements were as old as Christianity; some were even older. But in a crowded period of time they were practiced, experimented with, added to, all in the most demanding and uncompromising of physical conditions. Within a few short years there emerged a living institution capable of filling the spiritual void that had appeared when the age of the martyrs drew to its close, and of setting the basic patterns of monasticism for centuries to come.

* * *

Within a few years of Anthony's death, monasticism appeared in Europe, not through any conscious policy of church or civil rulers, but more or less by accident. In the words of one of its best-known historians, Dom David Knowles, "it spread gradually and sporadically as a plant spreads from seeds that are blown abroad." In the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries, people traveled for all sorts of reasons, and with them traveled their ideas and concepts. Among the concepts that traveled from Egypt to Europe was the concept of monasticism. Here and there along the Mediterranean coast and in Italy, small communities of men and women began practicing one form or other of eastern monasticism. From there the practices spread inland, into Gaul and Spain, carrying with them — perhaps in a shadowy and attenuated form — the imprint of Egypt, of Anthony and Pachomius. But they were not long-lived, because the environment was too unstable. For this was the start of the age of the great Völkerwanderung, the inrush of tribes from the east — Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Slavs.

The first European monastery to achieve permanence was Lérins, founded in 410 on a little island off the southern coast of France. To the men who joined it, it offered rigorous discipline along with a serious course of studies in Scripture and religion. In time a number of them became bishops in various parts of Gaul, and established monasteries in their dioceses; here we see a foreshadowing of the role monasticism was to play in the future, as a moving force in the development of the Western Church.

One of the great men of the age (and some of us would surely say the greatest!) who carried the influence of Lérins with him was Patrick. His story is often told: how he was snatched by pirates from his own home in Britain and kept for some time in Ireland; how around 440 he escaped and made his way to Gaul, to return some years later to Ireland, a bishop now, and charged with the task of evangelizing the country. What is perhaps less well known is that while in Gaul he had some sort of contact with Lérins, enough to assimilate some of its monastic spirit. Certainly, when he came back to Ireland the seed of monasticism came with him, and the Christianity he brought to the country bore, from the very start, a monastic imprint. In time it had a remarkable flowering. Irish monasticism developed its own spirituality, rigorous in the extreme: a "white martyrdom" of self-denial to replace the "red martyrdom" of the heroic past. More than that: the sixth and seventh centuries would see Irish monks going out as missionaries to the world, building communities not only in the homeland but also in Scotland and England and the Continent from Brittany to the Rhine to the Alps. Some of their foundations made their mark in history: we think of Bangor in Ireland, another Bangor in Wales, Iona in Scotland, Lindisfarne in England, Luxeuil in Burgundy, Saint-Gall in Switzerland, Bobbio in Italy. But these are only a few of the many monasteries they established across Europe, each of them a force for the evangelization of the neighboring peoples. For whereas in established monastic practice stability (staying put within one's walls) was one of the principal obligations of a monk, the Irish monks saw "wandering" and evangelization as central to their vocation. And consequently, for many years northern Europe, from west to east, bore the imprint of Celtic monasticism.

* * *

These were all promising beginnings. But they were engulfed, in their time, by the huge tidal wave already coming out of the east: wandering tribes who poured across Europe, down through Gaul and into Spain and North Africa, obliterating old landmarks and old ways of life as they went. In 476 the Roman Empire officially died, along with its last emperor. But its decline had begun much earlier, with a steady shrinking of population, trade, wealth, culture and learning, the rule of law — of virtually everything that, to the ancient Romans, constituted civilization. Whole cities with their stately homes, their paved streets and public baths and massive public buildings, turned into deserts; opulent country villas crumbled and fell apart. The newcomers had little use for these luxuries; they lived simply and close to the land; their law was the law of the tribe. And in any case, no sooner did they begin to settle than another wave of invaders came to push them on. For many lifetimes to come, Europeans were too busy struggling to survive, or to prevail, to care for the niceties of "civilization."

The nascent Christianity of the West suffered the shocks of the barbarian invasions, but it survived. In one way, it benefited. The collapse of the old structures of civil power left many areas with no viable authority except that of the Christian bishops. They stepped into the void, taking control of their cities and the surrounding areas. We have here the birth of the prince-bishop, very much a figure of the early Middle Ages: by unshakable custom an aristocrat, an autocrat, sometimes even a warrior for the protection of his interests and those of his people. It should be noted that those people were city people; the church of the Roman Empire was very much an urban institution, with little outreach as yet into the countryside.


Excerpted from The Lord as Their Portion by Elizabeth Rapley Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Rapley. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)