Sunday, 17 September 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 6 — Early Egyptian Coenobitical Monasticism

The very first coenobite in Egypt was St Pachomios, and he is credited with beginning Christian coenobitical monasticism. A very good collection of his Lives, along with the various rules and regulations of his monasteries, can be found here:

Pachomian Koinonia. Volume I: The Life of St. Pachomius and His Disciples. Trans. Armand Veilleux, OCSO. Cistercian Studies 45. Kalamazoo, MI, USA: Cistercian Publications, 1980.

Pachomian Koinonia. Volume II: Pachomian Chronicles and Rules. Trans. Armand Veilleux, OCSO. Cistercian Studies 46. Kalamazoo, MI, USA: Cistercian Publications, 1981.

Pachomian Koinonia. Volume III: Instructions, Letters, and Other Writings of St. Pachomius and His Disciples. Trans. Armand Veilleux, OCSO. Cistercian Studies 47. Kalamazoo, MI, USA: Cistercian Publications, 1982.

What should be understood, however, and what becomes clear from the Lives, is that St Pachomios was very much in the tradition of the solitary desert ascetic with his single disciple. St Pachomios’ coenobitical monasticism is essentially the use of certain ideas from the army of the day to organize monks into large groups of solitary ascetics. That is to say, the spirituality and life of St Pachomios’ monasteries is much more like the life of the solitary desert ascetics than it is like the life of the coenobitical monasteries of the Medieval West (Benedictine monasticism after the reform of Benedict of Aniane, friend of Charlemagne) or even the coenobitical monasteries of that great legislator of coenobitical monasticism, St Basil the Great. The emphasis in the Pachomian monastery was on providing a place where the somewhat weaker ascetic could engage in Egyptian desert asceticism, as briefly described in an earlier post, without all the difficulties associated with a completely solitary life. Most coenobitical monks today would find Pachomian coenobitical monasticism fearsomely ascetical and psychologically isolating.

It is noteworthy that St John Cassian, writing in France in about 420 ad, indicates in one of his narratives that there were other coenobitical foundations in Egypt besides the Pachomian ones. In fact, he himself started out in a coenobitical monastery in the Holy Land. He does not describe the way of life of the monasteries he knew except to indicate that they had a liturgical rule (or, typikon). He himself, clearly drawing on his experience in Egypt but also adapting it to conditions in France and drawing on St Basil the Great, lays down the principles of coenobitical monasticism for his own monasteries. It is noteworthy that he foresees that the coenobite will eventually become a hermit, a solitary ascetic: the coenobitical monastery is a preparation for the eremitic life.

Virtually all the women who were monastics in Egypt in this period were coenobites living in parthenones: houses of virgins. In general, it is only by exception in Christian monasticism that the woman enters into the solitary life.

We will next see what changes St Basil the Great introduced into monasticism.

Saturday, 9 September 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 5 — Syrian Monasticism

We would like to say a few words about Syrian monasticism. The best source on Syrian monasticism is a work by the Bishop of Cyrrh, Theodoret. This work is made up of the Lives of a number of Syrian monastic saints, including St Symeon Stylites, whom Theodoret knew personally. What comes through in these lives is the severity of Syrian asceticism. For example, it was common for these ascetical monks to live completely enclosed or to live completely restricted to the environs of a house without a roof (winter and summer, without protection from the elements). One can understand what is involved from the Life of St Symeon Stylites, who invented the practice of living on top of a pillar. (Incidentally St Symeon really did exist and really did have his name go out through the Roman Empire: the location of the ruins of his pillar complex is well known.)

Another aspect of Syrian monasticism is that Syrian ascetics did not work. Rather they concentrated on their religious duties. This aspect of Syrian monasticism continues up to St Isaac the Syrian, and can even be found in St John of Damascus’ Life of Barlaam and Ioasaph. In this, Syrian monasticism was quite different from Egyptian monasticism, and the Egyptian monks did not accept the Syrian point of view on the matter, as is attested in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Egyptian attitude to work is the one which prevailed in the ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church, up to and including Mt Athos today.

Since in Syria there was a strong presence of Manichaeans, and since the more advanced Manichaean ascetics also did not work, we wonder whether the Syrian attitude towards manual labour by the ascetic does not reflect an attitude that was ‘in the air’ because of the presence of the Manichaeans. This is not to question unnecessarily the Syrians’ Orthodoxy: such an influence would not automatically mean that the Syrian ascetics were heterodox.

In general, in the history of Orthodox asceticism, whenever we encounter ascetics living on pillars, and other such severe forms of asceticism that were originally encountered in Syria, we can assume that there is a Syrian influence. That is why these things are so sporadic in the Lives of the ascetical saints of the Byzantine Empire: it was an essentially foreign practice that was being adopted by the saint in question. That is also why these things were somewhat more common in Asia Minor: there was more of a Syrian influence there, in our opinion.

The case is somewhat different of St Ephraim the Syrian, interlocutor of St Basil the Great, lyrical poet of Eros towards Christ and a profoundly humble man. His way of life seems somewhat more moderate than what we encounter in the saints described by Theodoret, and he is distinguished by the quality of his writings: the other Syrian ascetical saints did not occupy themselves with letters.

The case of Cappadocia is important; we will discuss it after we discuss early Egyptian coenobitic monasticism.

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 4 — Early Egyptian Monasticism

Let us now turn to Egyptian monasticism. This is probably the most important early source of Orthodox monastic practice.

We will not spend much time on St Anthony. It is not that he is unimportant—he is very important—but that it would take us too far away from the task of outlining the fundamentals of Orthodox monasticism. At this point the most important notion we can take away from St Athanasios’ Life of Anthony is the notion that after his many years of severe asceticism, St Anthony had restored the image of God in himself to its condition according to nature. St Athanasios emphasizes that when St Anthony came out of the Fort, he was neither fat nor thin, neither emaciated nor overweight, neither gloomy nor excessively jovial: he had returned to his condition according to nature, as God intended him.

The next important aspect of Egyptian monasticism was that it was an individualistic monasticism based on severe bodily asceticism and solitude, together with strict obedience of the disciple to the Elder. This asceticism was based on a rationed intake of extremely simple food and water, and on a rationed sleep. Apart from the rationing of sleep, which was to refine the mind and prevent it from becoming dull, much of the night was to be spent in private prayer and prostrations. This was in addition to the Church services in the cell.

There was an emphasis, not exaggerated, on personal courtesy.

There was an avoidance among the monks of either seeking or accepting the priesthood or other ecclesiastical dignities.

This model of asceticism has remained in Orthodox monasticism even to the present day, especially on Mt Athos.

There is an exception on Mt Athos in that the solitary ascetic often practises the Jesus Prayer instead of saying the Church services. However, the Church services in Egypt were much simpler than Orthodox Church services today (see the Institutes of St John Cassian, who brought Egyptian spirituality to the West).

In some of the masters of the Egyptian desert, we sense a spiritual athleticism: who could make the most prostrations, that sort of thing. This orientation has not continued in Orthodox monasticism except among the young and immature.

The next important characteristic of Egyptian monasticism is that the monks worked at handicrafts to support themselves. As St John Cassian points out in his Institutes, this was intended to anchor the mind of the ascetic so that it did not wander while it was engaged in spiritual activity, for example the repetition of a passage from the psalms, the precursor of the Jesus Prayer. It was intended to make the monk self-sufficient and able to give something left over to give to the less fortunate. This emphasis on self-support of the solitary ascetic has also continued down to the present day, especially on Mt Athos.

The handicrafts that the Egyptian monks engaged in were intentionally simple. This was both for the sake of humility and for the sake of spiritual activity during the handicrafts: the handicraft was chosen to be simple and repetitive so to anchor the mind and to support the spiritual activity of the monk.

Of course there are exceptions: Evagrius Ponticus, for example, calligraphed Psalters for a living.

The received icon of Egyptian monasticism was that it was not an intellectual monasticism, and this is certainly to an extent historically true. However, Egypt was intellectually a very cosmopolitan area. Moreover, there are indications that some currents among the Egyptian monks were quite learned. Evagrius comes to mind, as does his teacher Didymus the Blind.

Christian Responsibility

We were listening to a homily of a well-known Elder yesterday while going about our business and something he said made an impression on us. We shall all be judged according to our works. Paradoxically, since we don't claim to have any works, this word entered into us and remained, bringing us joy. It brings us joy to think of our Christian responsibility for our actions.

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 3 — Christian Monaticism Prior to 313 AD

Let us look briefly at the image we can glean, from the Synaxaria, of monasticism prior to the Edict of Milan, and even prior to the departure of St Anthony for the desert. There are some brief mentions of ascetical saints from this period in the Synaxaria. As is reasonable, their ascetical endeavours are often combined with flight from one persecution or another of Christians, or even with a retirement to the wilderness after confessing the faith (i.e. after shedding their blood for Christ without being martyred—without dying). One notable ascetical saint of this sort is St Chariton, who founded one of the important monasteries of Palestine, before St Anthony retired to the desert.

Of course, St Anthony himself discovers St Paul of Thebes in the desert. St Paul had retired to the wilderness to escape a persecution and had remained even after the persecution ceased.

The image that comes through of these saints is that they retired to the wilderness in solitude and chastity to engage in asceticism. The primary means of asceticism was fasting. Indeed, we find in the Synaxarion that St James, the brother of the Lord, ate only vegetables and that his knees were affected by the prostrations he made. However, as can be seen from the example of St James himself, not all such saints retired to the wilderness.

Hence, the faint image that comes through from the Synaxaria for the early ascetical saints is that they engaged in chastity and asceticism, primarily fasting, on their own personal initiative, sometimes but not always in the wilderness.

Monday, 4 September 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 2 — Origins as Christian Practice

Let us look at the origins of monasticism as a Christian phenomenon. In the Old Testament, we encounter Elijah the Prophet as a type of the monk: he has long, unkempt hair; he is celibate and so on. We find in Scripture at the same time as Elijah, brotherhoods called ‘Sons of the Prophets’. Scripture is silent on the practices of the ‘Sons of the Prophets’, but it is often thought that these brotherhoods were monastic in nature. Elisha the Prophet, chosen by Elijah by divine command as his successor, was also celibate.

Extra-biblically, we know that at about the time of Christ there existed a monastic brotherhood called the Essenes, one that is referred to by Josephus the historian, who says that he spent part of his childhood among them. However, the New Testament is completely silent on the Essenes. Naturally, we do not know why. However, the silence of Scripture on the Essenes suggests to us that they were not accepted by the Christian Church as either Jewish or Christian, or as having some connection to Jesus Christ or St John the Baptist.

Finally, there is St John the Baptist himself. Here Scripture is anything but silent. It is clear that St John the Baptist is a type of a monk: he has unkempt hair; he wears a camel-hair tunic and a belt around his waist; he eats locusts and wild honey; he clearly lived in the desert before his divine prophetic call to preach a baptism of repentance.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christian community is described as living a common life, where everyone gave what they had to the common treasury and received according to their need, eating at a common table. This is usually taken in Orthodoxy to be a divinely inspired model of the coenobitical life. Among the Apostles, most were celibate, especially St Paul, who remarks in one of his epistles that he wishes that all as he is (celibate), but that each has his own gift; and in another place that he who marries does well, but that he who does not does better.

In the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself is unmarried. Moreover, when discussing marriage, our Lord points out that there are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of the Heavens. This is interpreted by the Church to mean not those who have physically castrated themselves (this was always forbidden) but those who have adopted celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the regard it is well to remember St Paul’s remark that he who marries has to take care to please his wife (and similarly for the woman who marries), whereas he who does not can take care solely to please God (and similarly for the woman who remains single). However, the Gospel passage referred to goes on to say concerning celibacy that it is not for all but for those who to whom it is given, to those, the passage goes on to clarify, who have the strength. Hence we can see that Scripture teaches us that celibacy is better than marriage but not all are able to practise it; and that, moreover, the purpose of celibacy is to free the person to devote his or her time solely to God, to the attainment of the Kingdom of the Heavens.

In the epistles of Paul there are references to ‘widows’ who were enrolled in the Church as such and supported by the Church. These widows are taken to be the precursors of female monastics. At one place St Paul remarks that young widows should remarry because they are not stable in their commitment to permanent chastity and hence put off their commitment to Christ.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Dorcas, who is raised from the dead by Peter, seems to be an example of a widow enrolled by the Church. When Peter comes to the place where Dorcas’ remains are laid out, he is shown the handicrafts which she has made for the Church.

Finally, outside Scripture, the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (†45 ad?) , wrote a short work describing the therapeutae and their practices. The therapeutae lived outside Alexandria. It is not known who they actually were, but one theory is that they were very early Christian monastics.

Orthodox Monasticism 1 — Philology and Sources

Let us first discuss the meaning of monk and monasticism from a philological point of view. The words derive from Greek μοναχός, which means ‘alone’. Hence, in the Orthodox Church the original meaning of monk is he who lives alone. Clearly, from what we know about monasticism, this means someone who has renounced the world and marriage and family and retired to the desert. However, St Athanasios the Great in his Life of Anthony states that until St Anthony’s time, monks lived in cells at the edge of town rather than retiring to the desert. We can take this as a practical observation that applies at least to Egypt at the time of St Anthony, about 250 ad.

Let us now look at the origins of monasticism in the Orthodox Church. Let us first look at general social conditions in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin in the Late Classical period. There will be these areas that especially interest us: Constantinople, Cappadocia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

Syria and the Mediterranean Basin were rather sophisticated, cosmopolitan regions. Clement of Alexandria, writing about 150 ad, refers to Buddhism, as does St Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechisms writing about 350 ad. The briefness of these references indicates that Buddhism was not a serious force in these areas, but it is important to realize that the region was not backwoodsy. There was much more intercourse between the region and the East than is generally realized. Moreover, there were various heresies that were more or less prevalent in the region, for example Manichaeism and Gnosticism. There was much more intercourse throughout the Mediterranean, despite the difficulties of travel, than is generally realized; we can see this from the Acts of the Apostles. The intellectual world of these regions was quite sophisticated, much like in our own day.

We make this remark to set the stage for our consideration of the development of monasticism in Egypt and Syria. It is now advanced by some scholars that St Anthony, for example, in the letters attributed by some to him, was a much more sophisticated and unchristian thinker than is generally supposed. We doubt these scholarly assertions, lacking as they do the phronema or authentic thought-world of the Orthodox Church, but it is well to bear in mind that the region was more sophisticated than we sometimes realize.

Let us now consider sources for our knowledge of Orthodox monasticism. There are three primaries types of source: the lives of saints, including in the early period the Sayings of the Desert Fathers; writings of the saints themselves, especially testaments and Typika (‘rules’) for their monastic foundations; and dogmatic or ascetical treatises by ascetical saints.

Most of the available lives of the saints have been collected and published at least in the original Greek by the Bollandist Fathers. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers has been published in the entirety of the various editions in French. The situation in English is not as good.

The Synaxaria, the collections of lives of the saints, are usually fairly modern editions where the original lives of the saints have been worked over by one or another editor (this is even true of the older Synaxaria). Hence, the critical edition of a saint’s life is to be preferred. However, occasionally, the brief entry in the Synaxarion is the only record we have of a saint’s existence. This is especially true of saints prior to the Edict of Milan, 313 ad. In cases of an ascetical saint prior to the Edict of Milan, the Synaxarion may be the only record we have of ascetical or monastic practice in the period.

The testaments and typika of the Byzantine Empire have been published in the original Greek with English translation by the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, and the entire collection can be found free on-line at

Many critical editions of ascetical works have been issued in the original Greek with French translation in the series Sources chrétiennes, published by Les Éditions du Cerf (Paris).

There are a number of works in any of the three categories that have been published as separate monographs either as critical editions or otherwise.

Finally, if all else fails, we can look in Migne for an edition of the work that interests us, although the editions published in Migne are not always up to today’s scholarly standards.

In the case of works in Syriac dealing with Syrian monasticism, we have to turn to works now being published in critical editions in the West, perhaps with English translation.

Since we are here interested in the origins of Orthodox monasticism, we here restrict ourselves to sources that apply to the region under discussion. Russian monasticism really starts after 1000 ad, so Russian sources apply to a much later phase of Orthodox monasticism.

New Series on Orthodox Monasticism

We begin today a new series on the nature of Orthodox Monasticism. The posts will be entitled Orthodox Monasticism 1, 2, 3 The series might occasionally be interrupted by posts on other topics. This is very much a work in progress, so we will often return without notice to earlier posts on this subject to correct, change or expand them.