Sunday, 22 October 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 8 — Early Palestinian Monasticism

The earliest Palestinian monasticism was of course that of the primitive Church: the description in acts of the way of life of the early Church is considered by the Fathers to be a model of the coenobitic life.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, however, the Christian community of Jerusalem was a distinct backwater for a long period of time.

Further south, we know that St Hilarion, who for a period of time was in Egypt with St Anthony the Great (3rd to 4th Century), founded a monastery in or near Gaza.

By the mid-4th Century, when St John Cassian starts his monastic career in Bethlehem, there is already a monastery there for him to enter.

When in the late 4th Century Evagrius Ponticus comes down from Constantinople, then the centre of things in the East, he finds Melania the Elder in charge of a monastery near Jerusalem. Melania is an Origenist, and her fellow ascetic Rufinus will later translate Evagrius’ works into Latin. Evagrius moves on to Egypt, then the veritable centre of Orthodox monasticism.

St Chariton, although his dates are problematical, had already founded a monastery of a type that foresaw informally organized groups of partly independent ascetics.

Another strand of Palestinian monasticism is that represented by Abba Isaiah the Ascetic, who represents a non-Origenist strand of Egyptian desert monasticism, and who was one of the begetters of the monasticism of Abba Seridos, St Dorotheos, St Dositheos and the two great charismatic Elders of the 6th Century, Sts Barsanuphios and John. This strand of Palestinian monasticism is both very ascetical and very anti-Origenist.

We see two elements already in Palestinian monasticism: a very severe asceticism and an Origenist influence. These two elements will play out with and against each other until the condemnation of Origenism in the Sixth Century.

In the 5th and 6th Centuries, St Euthymios and St Savas the Sanctified will come down from Cappadocia to become monks, and will found monasteries of their own. They will play a very strong role in the battle for Orthodoxy against Origenism. By this time, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is intellectually more solid, although at times under the influence of the Origenists.

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