Reflections on the Beginnings of Monasticism - Part 2

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.

Asceticism is a form of self-discipline that was prominent in Greco-Roman culture and it played a significant role in the lives of the desert fathers. Derived from the Greek word askesis, meaning ‘exercise’ or ‘training’, asceticism was initially conceived as a programme of bodily exercises to be used by athletes in preparation for the athletic competitions that were so popular in the classical world. In the third century BC it was adapted and employed by Stoic philosophers who modified and applied the system of athletic exercises to the purpose of mental and spiritual development. To this end the Stoics integrated psycho-spiritual processes, such as meditation, fasting and other forms of self-denial for the purpose of separating the soul from the body and its negative influence. 

This philosophical disposition of the Stoics was not lost to primitive Christianity; even though the dualism of the Stoics, (and for that matter those we now call Gnostics), was from the beginning alien to the Church. Thus, the asceticism of the desert fathers, although similar in practice to that of the Stoics etc., was directed towards purification not by separation, but through unification – the unification of the body, soul and spirit in Christ. For the solitary monk this askesis was a means of training the whole person in a spiritual discipline, central to which was overcoming the demands of the carnal appetites and engaging in prayer according to the instruction of St Paul, who in his first letter to the Thessalonians advocates that all who aspire to the spiritual life should ‘Pray without ceasing’ [1 Thess. 5:17].

Fulfilling this undertaking required the aspirant to relinquish all but the most essential of physical needs and to renounce all needs of the personality beyond that necessary for the spiritual life. It was to this end that the solitaries engaged in the life of an ascetic. As the name implies, solitaries generally lived alone, shunning human company to concentrate their entire lives in engaging with the spiritual work according to the imperative of St. Paul. Some of them lived in caves whilst others built small stone shelters known as ‘cells’. Some, regardless of the climate, lived in the open throughout the year, a few even going naked. The majority, however, wore humble clothing, frequently wearing garments that even beggars would refuse to wear. As time passed and more formal communities were established, a recognisable dress code emerged, although the condition of such clothing did not necessarily improve. Silence was another fundamental of the solitary life. Even in communities it was common practice for the solitary to refrain from speaking to anyone and then to reply only when spoken to. It is a discipline still adhered to in many monastic communities to this day.

Inevitably, the monastic ideal of renunciation consisting of an ascetic life devoted to prayer and meditation evolved over the course of time, but although it was driven by its own irrepressible energy it was also shaped in different ways by the rapidly changing world in which it had taken root. What began as a migration of a few independent solitaries into the Egyptian desert very quickly became a mass movement of spiritually hungry people. Drawn together by a shared spiritual ideal these proto-monks gathered together to share in a common life, and great exemplars such as Anthony, Macarius and Pachomius came forward and took the lead in enabling these embryonic communities to establish social mechanisms that fulfilled their personal and communal objectives. 

Yet, although the monks had renounced the secular world, the world was not so inclined to relinquish its hold on the monks, for although established far from centres of civilisation, the political and religious conflicts that raged around and within the Church during the fourth century reached deep into the monastic communities of the Egyptian deserts. At first, when their numbers were few, and the political and doctrinal issues that troubled the Church had little effect upon the desert monks but, as their numbers grew, and as they began to organise themselves into communities and refine their teachings, what they believed and taught became a matter of significance to the politically minded authorities of the Church. Consequently there were many organisational and doctrinal issues that required clarification and agreement between the growing monastic houses and the Church administration – a process that was not accomplished without pain or indeed bloodshed.

 Nevertheless, in spite of the conflicts that plagued Church and monastery alike, the spiritual way of life of the monastic communities of the desert evolved a regular form, as did the Rule by which they lived. The monastery, with its focus on a life of prayer, meditation and labour, proved to be a very successful communal system that delivered almost everything the spiritually minded could need. An unexpected bonus was the abundance of material goods produced from the combined labour of the monastery. This increase in material wealth brought with it both benefits and liabilities. The monasteries were able to flourish, but at a cost.

Managing the resources of an increasingly wealthy monastery required changes in administration and in the life-style of the monk; changes that were driven in part by the needs of the monastery, and in part by a Church hierarchy seeking to control the material resources as well as the intellectual and religious life of the monks. For a while the monasteries were able to maintain a reasonably stable system of spiritual development that could adjust to these changes; however, it was not to last and in due course what began as a renunciation of materialism and the forces of the material world succumbed to both. Its success became its downfall; a pattern that would be repeated down through the centuries, even to the present day. 

A great deal of our understanding about the rules and practices of these various communities, especially with regards to the communities of Nitria and Scete, has come down to us through the writings of contemporaries such as the anchorite Evagrius of Pontus [c. 345–398]. Evagrius spent the majority of his years among the cells of Scete engaging in the ascetic life. He was highly regarded in his day with a reputation for great wisdom and piety. He was also a fervent Origenist and a prodigious and acclaimed writer who fell foul of the Church for his adherence to the teachings of Origen. His writings were, nevertheless, used by John Cassian [c. 355–c. 445] as a basis for introducing Egyptian monasticism into Western Europe. Cassian had spent several years in a monastic community located near Bethlehem in Palestine before travelling to Egypt where he dwelt for several years among the desert monks, collecting and recording information about the ascetic life and rule of the desert fathers. In 415 Cassian established two monasteries near Marseilles, one for men and one for women. He instituted a Rule for both based upon his experience in Egypt and upon the writings of Evagrius.

In the sixth century, St. Benedict (c. 535), drawing on the work of Cassian and through him upon Evagrius and the legacy of the desert fathers and their communities, established what was to be the most successful Rule for a monastic community. In his Rule he classifies four kinds of monk. The first kind he called coenobites. As described above, these were spirituals who lived together in a community, following a common rule under the supervision and guidance of an abbot. The second he called anchorites or hermits, who after appropriate training in the discipline of a community, went forth to lead a life of solitude. Both of these embraced the life of renunciation, accepting the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity. Accordingly, they met with Benedict’s approval as following a fit and proper life for a monastic.

However, he also listed two others that he did not approve of. The first he called sarabites, a class of ascetics in the early Church who lived either in their own homes or in small groups near the cities and acknowledged no monastic superior. Of these Benedict stated that ‘ … they had not been tried under any Rule nor schooled by an experienced master …’ Because of this there was real doubt in the Church concerning them, and the term ‘sarabite’ has since become synonymous with the self-taught of whom it is said, ‘the self-taught have inadequate teachers and even more inadequate students’. The fear was that such people were in danger of becoming the ill-informed misinforming the uninformed. The second he called girovagi (wandering monks), these he condemns as people who lived off the charity of others and whose religious life was but a pretence, following their own will without the restraint of obedience.

Benedict’s condemnation was not harsh. On the contrary, he recognised that for good reasons stability in the contemplative life of the monk, from the very beginning, had been based upon withdrawing from the world, and in his Rule he enshrined that long-established commitment to renunciation by requiring the monk to reside within the monastery, dedicating every moment of the day to spiritual discipline. In doing so he acknowledged the teachings of earlier exemplars of the monastic life who maintained that above all things the contemplative life was best served by removing all distractions from the field of experience, and because the external world was full of distractions the cell, and subsequently the monastery, was the most effective way of eliminating them.

It was with this in mind that Benedict condemned the sarabites and the girovagi; as such people were more likely than not to deviate from the work and fall into error. It was a common saying that a monk out of his cell is like a fish out of water – both will perish! With Benedict, monasticism entered a new phase, a phase that focussed as much, if not more, upon the spread of monastic communities in Europe rather than the East.  

As for the desert fathers themselves, it would be a mistake for the reader to accept their sayings in the literal sense only. These sayings frequently carried different levels of meaning. Indeed, allegory and metaphor were frequently employed in the Greco-Roman world. And given that Palladius and many of the desert monks were followers of Origen, it should come as no surprise that many of the passages contained in this book may also be understood in allegorical or metaphorical terms.

One example is the use of the term ‘fornication’. Throughout the ages this word has been commonly understood to signify inappropriate or unlawful sexual congress. It is a subject that is frequently referred to in the Paradise, but careful reading of such passages often reveals a deeper meaning, a meaning that alludes to the soul’s obsession with the things of the senses, of which irrepressible sexual fantasies are but one expression. Many of these passages demonstrate that among the early desert monks the term ‘fornication’ was applied to a wide range of carnal desires that could dominate the minds of solitary monks, thereby leading them away from the essential work of prayer and meditation.

An obvious example of this is passage numbered 123 [p. 86] in which Abbâ Epiphanius says, ‘Whenever a thought fills your heart with vainglory or with pride, say thou unto thyself, “Old man, behold thy fornication.”’ [p. 98] These ‘fornications’ or obsessions had to be overcome if the solitary monk was ever to find the ‘peace that passes all understanding’, and consequently they were the subject of a great deal of reflection within these communities. 

When considered in such a way, many of the fabulous stories concerning the seemingly impossible events and supernatural experiences that befell these solitary monks were not simply tales of wonder and imagination. They also reveal a profound understanding of human psychology. However, to understand them they need to be considered in context, and there is one context above all that needs to be recognised, which is that the central objective of the life and work of both the anchorite and the coenobite was spiritualising their life and being. This they did by withdrawing from the world and from the domination of the senses; turning away from everything that the biology and psychology of the terrestrial body – defined in scriptural terms as the First Adam – is programmed to facilitate.

Paul describes the nature of First Adam in his first letter to the Corinthians [15:39–54]. It is a subject worthy of prolonged meditation. The most common reaction of the terrestrial body to this kind of discipline is to instinctively revert to its biological programming and psychological conditioning. This instinctive response manifests in many ways but generally follows a recognisable pattern, a pattern that begins with the arousal of natural appetites (biology), accompanied by the stimulation of the imagination and the mind (psychology). Regardless of the forms it took it was the duty of the monk to overcome such impulses and to refocus on the spiritual work at hand. 

If the monk was successful in overcoming the instinctive nature of the terrestrial body then the conflict, far from being over, could be externalised. This externalisation is described by the desert fathers (and by spiritual aspirants from other traditions) as afflictions imposed upon them by demons seeking to deflect them from their spiritual objective by confronting them with a host of carnal temptations, or by trying to sow seeds of doubt to undermine their resolve.

Thus, a war ensues on a supernatural level between the monk and the demonic forces that may continue for many years. Yet, even when the demonic adversaries are defeated, and peace reigns in the soul of the solitary monk, it is not the end of the matter, for just as the internal conflict between the soul and the needs of the terrestrial body is externalised into a conflict with supernatural forces (demons), so the conflict between soul and demons may translate further into an external conflict with a physical being or creature who manifests in a physical form the demonic forces arrayed against the monk. 

Many of the stories of the supernatural battles told by or about solitary monks conform to this pattern and only come to an end when either the solitary has overcome the instinctive nature of the terrestrial body or has surrendered to its demands. Now, it should be mentioned here that whether the reader is prepared to accept the reality of demonic entities, or to think of them as being hallucinations induced by unnatural means such as fasting or sleep deprivation, is a matter of personal preference, but it should be understood that to the monks of the time the experiences were often real, and as such they were defined and conveyed, primarily in the form of short stories or sayings, according to the conventions of the time, which included the use of allegory and metaphor. Thus, far from being simple tales of superstitious ‘primitives’ many subtle meanings were embedded into their conveyance, and because of the wisdom they were understood to contain, these stories were used as educational tools, being passed on from teacher to student, from one monastery to another and from generation to generation. The problem for the casual reader or unwary student lies in accepting their literal meaning only, and/or imposing upon them modern theories that were never relevant in their time. 

 Far from being quaint remnants of a bygone age, these sayings embody a spiritual wisdom that is as fresh and relevant today as it was when it was first written some 1,600 years ago. In sum, as a social experiment monasticism has been clearly very successful, with perhaps the most outstanding reasons for that success being the combination of dedicated people and a stable organisational structure. Even in the arid environs of the Egyptian wilderness the well-organised monks were able to build and sustain extensive communities and, further, were able to generate surplus produce for distribution among the poor of the region. In some cases the surplus was sent as far as Alexandria for distribution among the urban poor.

Remarkably, this was only the beginning, for history demonstrates that the emergence of monasticism in the Egyptian deserts was a revolutionary movement that not only transformed the communal life of Egypt but also much of the Roman world. Indeed, throughout the fourth and fifth centuries the communal model of the monastery rapidly spread throughout an increasingly unstable Roman Empire.

In due course, the focus of the world of monasticism shifted, inevitably, from the Near East to the world of Western Europe where a new world order was to emerge. Here, through the influence of Cassian, Martin of Tours and in due course Benedict, the inspiration of the desert monks slowly rooted itself, but with a different form and dynamic, however, that is another story.

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