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.

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