Reflections on the Beginnings of Monasticism - Part 1

The following is from a foreword I wrote for a book published by  Imagier Publishing, entitled 'Paradise of the Fathers' translated out of the Syriac by Ernest A Wallis Budge.

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What is a monk? The word ‘monk’ is derived from the Greek word monakhos which means ‘alone’ or ‘solitary’. In the early years of the fourth century, which are generally accepted as the embryonic years of Christian monasticism, individual Christian ascetics migrated into the desert wilderness of Egypt to engage in a solitary life of spiritual discipline. Their extraordinary way of life became an inspiration to great numbers of people who, following their example, withdrew from the secular world and entered the desert wilderness. Why this migration took place, how such people were perceived and why so many over so many years followed the way of the monakhos are issues too complex to be studied here.

Nevertheless, we should reflect upon how in the preceding centuries the persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire had become ever more frequent and violent, culminating in the Great Persecution instituted by the Emperor Diocletian in the year 303. It was to last for more than eight years, during which time thousands were killed and many more abused in the most terrible of ways, and it is reasonable to assume that during those years many fled into the wilderness to lead a way of life free from oppression. The Great Persecution finally came to an end when Constantine became emperor in the year 312.

That Christians of the second and third centuries, may also have looked to the desert as a place of refuge is a matter of speculation as there are few records to guide us. However, it is probable that during this period numerous people, albeit unrecorded, left the main centres of population and entered the wilderness to engage in the spiritual life free from religious intolerance, thereby establishing a precedent for the later solitaries of the fourth century. Another factor to be considered is the effect of the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine and Licinius in the year 313. This edict granted religious freedom to Christians throughout the empire, and returned to them any properties previously confiscated by the state. As a consequence, the fortunes of the Church were reversed and the power of the bishops increased. This unexpected turn of events was not without its problems, of which one in particular stands out.

Before Constantine became emperor the oppressed Church consisted of people motivated by a need to seek spiritual perfection. Baptism was the first step and it was hard won. It was clearly understood by the candidate that through baptism the soul became a member of the Church, which was not simply an organisation of people but the living Body of Christ, and in doing so received the grace and power to continue on the path of spiritual perfection, even in the face of state persecution. However, when Constantine broke the chains of the state persecution, he also forged, perhaps inadvertently, a new and more insidious means of bondage by showering imperial favour and largesse upon the Church. Thus, as the privileges of the state were bestowed upon the Church it quickly became fashionable to be a Christian.

This may have proved to be a serious issue for the recently emancipated Church, because previous to the Edict of Milan it had been normal for candidates to spend three years or more receiving spiritual instruction before being baptised. This ensured that candidates were effectively prepared for a spiritual way of life and that the growth of the Church was organic and manageable, but as the secular fortunes of the Church increased the numbers of socially aspiring applicants grew massively. The rapid increase in demand for membership generated unforeseen problems for the Church as it tried to cope with educating in the traditional manner the many thousands of people seeking to become Christians. 

In many cases the motivation for spiritual perfection took second place to the desire for wealth, power and status. The result was that nominal Christians were to be found everywhere whilst spiritually aspiring Christians were just as few as before the time of Constantine. Furthermore, conflicts arose within the Church concerning orthodoxy, heresy and the parameters of authority. In the light of these seismic changes it is easy to understand how spiritually minded Christians of the fourth century fled not so much from the material world but from the materialism infesting the Church, and from court bishops who were fighting each other for choice territories. One can imagine traditionally minded Christians fleeing from the unseemly politics of the Church, entering the wilderness of Egypt and Palestine to return to the ancient prescribed life of simplicity and spiritual purity.

The word ‘monk’ was not then a commonplace name as it is today. Initially, the term ‘monk’ (monakhos) was used specifically to describe a man living a spiritual life in solitude. Other terms were also used to describe these solitary ascetics, such as the word ‘hermit’ or ‘eremite’ (from the Greek eremos, denoting an ‘inhabitant of a desert’). They were also called ‘anchorites’ (from anachoréo, I withdraw). Eremites or anchorites were predominantly men who withdrew from the company of other people to dwell alone in isolation, although it is apparent that not all of them sought complete solitude as it is recorded that many were accompanied by a disciple. As the fourth century progressed many inspired Christians of both sexes were forming religious communities in the Egyptian desert. These communities were called coenobia – a term derived from the Greek word koinobion indicating a shared or common life. Their members were known as coenobites, but as time passed they were also called monks.

In the early years of the fourth century, the most renowned ‘solitary’, St. Anthony (c. 251–356), introduced a form of community life known as the eremitical, when he undertook the spiritual direction and organisation of the many spiritual aspirants who had gathered about him. At about the same time St. Pachomius (c. 292–348) founded what may be considered the first conventional monastery, or coenobium, at Tabenna in the far south of Egypt [see map]. These community models or systems spread rapidly and in a relatively short time were firmly established throughout the Levant. Eremites or hermits were not specifically bound to a Rule such as that undertaken by those dwelling in a ceonobium and, unlike the coenobites, were generally free to wander at will. 

The river of Egyptian monasticism was fed by three tributaries. In Upper Egypt [see map] through the influence of Pachomius, monasticism took the form of the coenobium. In Lower Egypt, through the influence of Anthony the eremitical type of monasticism predominated. A third was established in the mountains of Nitria [see map], a desert some sixty miles south of Alexandria. The monks who dwelt in Nitria and in the wastes of Scete followed the lead of two great figures: Macarius, much influenced by Anthony, and Pambo. At its height this movement consisted of five thousand monks, divided into fifty ‘Lavras’ or congregations. In due course these systems merged, more by mutual osmosis than anything else, and it became the custom for those seeking the life of a solitary or hermit to first enter a coenobium where they received spiritual direction and guidance from the abbot, a preparation that could, and frequently did take years before they were ready to undertake the arduous life of an anchorite. Yet, regardless of the various names and titles, the term ‘monk’ or Monakhos was, by the middle of the fourth century, commonly applied to those who were known to have consecrated their life to God, be they solitaries or coenobites; thus, I shall use the term ‘monk’ henceforth. 

Did monasticism begin earlier than the fourth century? We will probably never know for certain but, apart from the political turmoil taking place in the fourth century, there are several interesting factors that suggest it may have. One is the role of John the Baptist. He is described [Matt. 3, Mark. 1] as being clothed in a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and that his food consisted of locusts and wild honey, and it is generally accepted that he resided in the ‘wilderness’ [Luke 3: 2–5]. John was neither an isolated nor a unique example. Several Old Testament figures are closely associated with the desert. For example, Moses led the people of Israel into the desert wilderness for some forty years [Book of Exodus]. Another example is that of the great Jewish prophet Elijah [1 Kings 17–19]; both allude to traditions concerning the withdrawal from human society for the purpose of seeking spiritual knowledge and experience, so it is quite probable that small loose-knit communities of ‘spirituals’ had existed in the wilderness previous to the fourth century.

John the Baptist is particularly significant, because if we accept that his recognition and acceptance of Christ made him a Christian, then he is the earliest known Christian solitary living in the wilderness and engaging in the spiritual life and, clearly, many of the Christians who entered the wilderness with the purpose of communing with God saw John as their role model. This is obvious in the earliest texts about the desert fathers, many of which are contemporary or near contemporary accounts of the lives and works of these extraordinary people. The earliest is the Life of Anthony issued in 357 (Anthony died in 356) by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (296–373).

John’s lifestyle, particularly his diet of ‘locusts and wild honey’, may seem odd if not unbelievable to many readers; after all, where does one find a regular supply of locusts and honey? It is true that in the arid regions of North Africa and Palestine there is a history of eating locusts, when they are available, and it is possible that John may have taken advantage of this source of protein. However, this is highly unlikely because the early solitaries generally disapproved of eating meat, vegetarianism being a fundamental characteristic of early monastic life. So where does John’s diet fit into this scenario? Arguably, it is a matter of translation. The Greek word that is usually translated into the English language as ‘locusts’ is akrides, which does mean the insect, but it also refers to the ‘locust-bean plant’, otherwise known as the carob tree, a species of shrub or tree whose fruit is very nutritious and relatively easy to acquire as it is native to Mediterranean countries, including Palestine, and is very common in the arid regions of North Africa, including Egypt. Furthermore, the reference to wild honey may also be a question of mistranslation as the Greek words for wild honey, mela agria, are thought by some to be a misunderstanding of the word melagria or melagrion, which is a nutritious and versatile plant well-known to solitaries and other dwellers in the wilderness. A diet including these plants is sustainable and consistent with the lives of the early solitaries who, following John’s example, lived on the vegetation they found in the wilderness.

It is evident that dietary control featured heavily in the asceticism of the desert fathers. Indeed, the ascetic discipline of the solitary monk, following the example of John the Baptist, involved a restricted diet of simple and often uncooked foods that were typically eaten no more than once a day, and from time to time, during Lent for example, even less frequently. Some are reputed to have fasted for many days, even weeks at a time. Most drank water only and that sparingly, although some were occasionally known to have taken a little wine. Generally, the monks followed a simple vegetarian diet and were able to grow their own food (especially in communities), supplemented by other foodstuffs, bread for example, obtained by the labour of their hands, in weaving linen, basket making, or rope making. The solitaries tended to be more extreme and varied in their approach. Many of them, following the example of John the Baptist, foraged for food in the wilderness, which to the informed and observant is a plentiful and dependable larder.

The most famous of the early solitaries, St. Anthony and Paul of Thebes, established their asceticism upon the precepts of Scripture, particularly the Gospels, in which John plays a significant role. The Scriptures describe John as, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness’ [Matt. 3:3], whose mission was to prepare the people of Israel by teaching them a way of repentance as the precursor to spiritual regeneration, an undertaking established in Baptism and completed in Christ. To the early followers of Christ, repentance meant changing entrenched behaviour patterns dictated by nature and social conditioning. To achieve this meant renouncing the world and undertaking a new way of life: a life of spiritual discipline, rooted in Christ’s words, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me’ [Matt. 19:21]. The desert solitaries did just that, and in doing so they established in their asceticism a spiritual path that was available to all who had the will and strength to persevere. They lived according to the precepts of the Scriptures, which defined their rule of life, for no acceptable alternative existed until the mid-fourth century when the celebrated Pachomius put into writing a Rule, itself based upon Scripture, for the life of the community of monks that grew around him at Tabenna.

To be continued . . .

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