On leaving Athens Basil visited the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine; in the latter country and in Syria the monastic life tended to become more and more eremitical and to run to great extravagances in the matter of bodily austerities (see Monasticism).
The tendency observable in many of the austerities and miracles attributed to St Catherine to outstrip those of other saints, particularly Francis, is especially remarkable in this marvel of the stigmata, and so acute became the rivalry between the two orders that Pope Sixtus IV., himself a Franciscan, issued a decree asserting that St Francis had an exclusive monopoly of this particular wonder, and making it a censurable offence to represent St Catherine receiving the stigmata.
Her first idea had been to combat alike the heresies and the worldliness of her time by a return to the austerities of a more heroic age.
His monks were allowed proper clothes, sufficient food, ample sleep. The only bodily austerities were the abstinence from flesh meat and the unbroken fast till mid-day or even 3 P.M., but neither would appear so onerous in Italy even now, as to us in northern climes.
The Benedictine rule was taken as the basis of the life, but was supplemented by regulations notably increasing the austerities practised.
In all these lesser orders may be discerned the tendency of a return to the elements of Eastern monasticism discarded by St Benedict - to the eremitical life; to the purely contemplative life with little or no factor of work; to the undertaking of rigorous bodily austerities and penances - it was at this time that the practice of self-inflicted scourgings as a penitential exercise was introduced.
The Benedictine Rule was taken as the basis of the life; but austerities were introduced beyond what St Benedict prescribed, and the government was framed on the mendicant, not the monastic, model, the superiors being appointed only for a short term of years.
All this was a reaction from St Benedict's reconstruction of the monastic life - a reaction which in the matter of austerities .nd individualistic piety has made itself increasingly felt in the later manifestations of the monastic ideal in the West.
He declared that the cenobitical life is superior to the eremitical; that fasting and austerities should not interfere with prayer or work; that work should form an integral part of the monastic life, not merely as an occupation, but for its own sake and in order to do good to others; and therefore that monasteries should be near towns.
He must always be read, whether lovingly or interestedly, for he has all the variable charm, the strange saturninity, the contradictions, austerities and delightful surprises, of Nature herself.