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.

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