Monday, 4 September 2006

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.

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