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.

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