During this cycle from 392 to 1246 the European culture went through a period of withdrawal, a going within. It lost its military and economic domination and apparently became a less important player on the world scene. It was actually a time of change to another structure, as the basis of the current European nation states began to take shape. While much of Europe was seen to be in an economic recession, underneath all these external difficulties there was occurring a spiritual renewal – a renaissance. The Christian teaching was establishing itself deeper in the hearts and minds of the people.
The monastic movement flourished during this period, as did the idea of service to the community. From the time that Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the ‘state religion’, the message of Christ expanded rapidly in Europe and became increasingly influential in guiding the way people thought, spoke, and lived their lives.
As noted, the link to the previous cycle was the contemplation, reflection and meditation that had been encouraged by the Desert Fathers, Plotinus and others, aimed at quieting the mind and turning one’s attention within, to connect with internal peace and happiness.
Air Period, A New Impulse 392 – 630 CE
Gradually monasteries formed around Europe which encourage literacy, learning and the preservation of the classics through the work of fine calligraphers called scribes. Service in the community later became an integral part of their work and, as a result, monks were well respected in the community. The prominent founders of monastic orders in this period were:
St Basil the Great, created monastic rules that are followed in the Byzantine Empire, John Cassian, founded a house for monks in Marseilles and another for nuns. Augustine of Hippo created a Rule for the Augustinian order, which spread to Britain in 4th and 5th centuries and St Benedict founded a monastery at Monte Cassino and wrote guidelines for monastic life, The Rule of Benedict.
What is most striking about the first stage of the new inward cycle was the speed with which the movement to greater stillness, silence and inner reflection, came about. The loss of economic power meant that there was a dramatic decrease in employment opportunities for young people. Many young men joined a monastery, which provided an opportunity to work and serve, under strong spiritual guidance, with a real sense of community.
Water Period, Expansion 630 – 928 CE
Monasticism expanded further around Europe. Many new orders of priests and nuns were founded, as the appeal of monastic life increased.
Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great and Charles I, in 800 was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, in an effort to revive the Roman Empire in the West.
Alfred the Great was known for effectively safeguarding his kingdom against the Vikings and continuing to expand his influence, finally becoming England’s ruler.
Fire Period: Summit Reached; Decline Begins, 829–1107 CE
The period is full of examples of wars and conflicts within society and within the church. Another indication of the Fire influence was the appearance on the scene of a number of militarily oriented religious orders.
The invasions of Europe by Saracens, Magyars and Vikings and also the Norman invasion of England 1066 were dominant. It is then that the Crusades began with the first being in 1096 which prompted the forming of military orders like the Knights Templar, and Teutonic Knights
Earth Period: Consolidation; Decline; Conclusion, 1107–1246
The final stage of a cycle reflects the manifestation of the key elements of the cycle, the ideas and inspirations experienced in the initial Air period. These motivators take on a physical form during the Earth period. Two of the main examples of this were the founding of first European Universities in several countries and the building of fine cathedrals. There were also new monastic orders formed to counter the excess in some of the existing orders
Lessons Learned from Cycle II
The rejection of the external materialistic approach to life resulted in a looking within. During this cycle, the concerted efforts to control the outgoing senses resulted in a spiritually oriented initiative of the Air period, which came to be known as the monastic movement.
The spiritual dimension of man was explored, using the teachings of Christ as the guide. Christianity grew in strength and influence, mainly due to the experience and fine example of dedicated worshippers, both in and out of the monasteries.
The work of the monasteries to serve the community expanded rapidly in the Water period. Greater intellectual development was also part of this expansion. It was important and much time was spent by monks in study. A major effort was made to translate many fine spiritual works into local languages, such as French and English, to give access to an even wider audience.
At some point the monastic orders attracted the financial support of the nobility. This was very useful initially. Gradually, though, the rich people contributing wanted something for themselves in return. As the monasteries became rich, all the material conveniences were provided, and this came to be the norm. In addition, with the coming of the Fire period, the actions in the world became more outward and aggressive.
During this Fire period, there were a number of militarily oriented religious groups formed, who actively participated in the warlike crusades. It was also observed that as the monasteries became wealthier, monks started taking advantage of their position. They now expected to be served and, as discrimination slipped, they began going to excess in their consumption of food and drink. Fat monks were common sights in the final stages.
On the positive side, what was observed in the final Earth stage of the cycle was the establishment of institutions of learning to help promote the intellectual development of people, and the beautiful design and presentation of places of Christian worship. A movement began in Europe to form universities, where unity in diversity was the underlying aim. The design and construction of numerous places of worship, including majestic cathedrals, came to fruition in this period, along with complementary artistic presentations of the Christian tradition through sculpture, paintings and stained glass.
At the end of this feudal period as it is called there was a rigidity with those in authority claiming absolute rule. The rights of individuals were of secondary importance. This was to change in the next cycle.