With the best of intentions, a Christian congregation throws its energy and resources into obeying Jesus' command to be salt and light in society. Its members feed the hungry, care for the sick, and strive for social reform. They have scholars and teachers of the highest caliber and even publish their own literature for the wider community. Their spiritual reputation and social connections have earned them the ear of the leaders of the land and a foot in the door of powerful government offices.

They are eager to serve the world, but the world bites them back. Their activities become more and more shaped by society's agendas. Their leader is hardly more than a political pawn, his eyes set more on money and prestige than on spiritual matters. Are they transforming the culture, or is the culture transforming them? Have they gained the world only to lose their souls?

The situation sounds remarkably contemporary, but this tension has recurred throughout history—and it was the tension faced by Benedictine monasteries in the early Middle Ages. The original monastic impulse was to be countercultural, to separate from the distractions of the world in order to be single-mindedly devoted to God. Under the emperor Charlemagne and his successors, however, the monasteries were thrust into the center of cultural influence—leading to remarkable accomplishments that forever changed Western Europe, and also to challenges that tested the soul of monasticism.

A New Empire

Charlemagne (Charles the Great) dwarfed the previous rulers of war-torn Europe with his enormous military prowess and a personality as towering as his six-foot frame. As King of the Franks, he subdued the barbarian tribes, held back the Muslims aggressors in Spain, and extended ...

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