Sunday, 1 October 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 7 — Cappadocian Monasticism

Cappadocia is really not well understood from the point of view of the history of Christian monasticism. It was the home of the three Cappadocian Fathers, St Gregory the Theologian (329–389), St Basil the Great (c.330–379) and his brother St Gregory of Nyssa (c.331–c.394). It brought forth two great figures of early Palestinian monasticism, St Euthymios the Great (377 – 473) and the St Savas the Sanctified (†532). In more modern times, it has brought forth both St Arsenios the Cappadocian (†1924) and the beloved Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (†1994).

That great theoretician of the spiritual life, Evagrius Pontikos (344? – 399), although not himself from Cappadocia but from Ibora in Pontus, entered into the circle of the Cappadocian Fathers at an early age. He was for a time in the retinue of St Basil the Great, who ordained him Reader. He later joined St Gregory the Theologian, who ordained him deacon, made him archdeacon and ‘taught him the rudiments of theology’.

Yet for all that, and even given the ascetical writings of St Basil, the mystical writings of St Gregory, the writings of Evagrius and the contemporary lives of St Euthymios and St Savas, we really don’t know much about Cappadocia as a monastic centre. For example, today a tourist can visit Cappadocian monasteries which date to roughly the 6th Century. The wall-paintings of those monasteries have a thematic cycle which is not strictly Orthodox, but no one knows who the monks were, nor where they belonged.

St Gregory the Theologian and St Basil the Great hailed from aristocratic Christian families. Even at home they were well educated, and they later studied at the University of Athens, then the Oxford of the world. St Basil left the University before his friend St Gregory and first travelled to Egypt, where he visited the monks of the desert. He was said to be the most impressed with the Pachomian system of monasteries—the more so than with the solitary ascetics of the desert. When he returned to Cappadocia, however, and when St Gregory had returned from Athens, the two friends lived together as Hesychasts (i.e. hermits) in the country-side. Moreover, St Gregory explicitly states in his funeral oration for St Basil that St Basil wanted to have Hesychasts living in close proximity to his coenobitical monasteries. Hence, the notion that St Basil was a strict coenobite uninterested in the ascetical life of the Hesychast must be tempered by the facts.

Although the coenobitical monasticism of St Basil was influenced by the concept of St Pachomios, it was really quite different from St Pachomios’ monasticism. First of all, St Basil was a highly educated Greek aristocrat, whereas St Pachomios was an uneducated Egyptian (Coptic) desert ascetic. As we pointed out in the last post, St Pachomios was essentially organizing Egyptian desert asceticism on a large scale for the sake of the weak. However, although he himself had experience of asceticism and was himself a great faster (one of the reasons he died so young), St Basil was organizing a socially relevant coenobitical monasticism inserted into the (urban) society of his day. Even given the wish of St Basil to have Hesychasts living close to his coenobitical monasteries, there is a completely different attitude here. To take but a small example, the Egyptian desert ascetics did not foresee a monk having any contact whatsoever with a nun. However, St Basil foresees that his monks and nuns will have occasion to meet each other, and he legislates concerning proper relations between monks and nuns.

Moreover, although obedience is very strongly emphasized in St Pachomios’ monasteries (see the lives given in the last post), obedience is actually secondary to the ascetical life of the monk in the Pachomian system. But in the Basilian monasteries, it is so not far off to say, bodily asceticism played second fiddle to obedience, which itself was the primary tool of asceticism. These differences come into play when later reformers such as St Theodore Studite (759–826) and St Athanasios of Athos (930–1001) introduce the typika or rules of their monasteries.

However, an even more precise explanation of the role of obedience in the Basilian monastery, as compared to the Pachomian monastery, is that St Basil assumes that the monk is perfect and legislates accordingly. St Pachomios treated the monk or nun as an imperfect human being striving towards God and perfection—albeit in a very severe ascetical context. St Basil assumes that the monk or nun is already in complete control of his or her emotions, dispassionate (although he certainly does not use that word)—in a word, an angel. That is why St Basil’s prescriptions for the erring monk or nun who is obstinate about his or her behaviour are always the same: expulsion from the monastery: the angel has fallen and must be expelled from Paradise.

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