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Monasticism: Gift From the East

Monasticism in the West developed from the ancient traditions of the Eastern monks.

The year 1980 marked the 1500th anniversary of the birth of St. Benedict, father of Western monasticism. All over the world, Benedictines, Cistercians, and monks of other orders have held celebrations to honor their founder, whose rule is the basis of their way of life.

Benedict’s accomplishment has greatly influenced the development of Christianity in the West. Throughout the many centuries of barbarian invasion, the monks of St. Benedict were often the sole representatives of piety and learning. For eight hundred years, from the saint’s death to the thirteenth century, monasticism was the strongest institution in the Christian West.

Benedict’s Rule was not the first of its kind, however; the long history of the search for Christian perfection commenced in the East hundreds of years before.

The ascetic life began as a response to Jesus’ words, “Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow Me.” Individual men and women took up this challenge at the very beginning of Christianity. While living at home, they set themselves apart from other Christians by leading a celibate life that was confirmed by a solemn promise made before their bishop. They were expected, thenceforth, to spend long hours in prayer, to keep the fasts of the Church rigorously, and to put themselves at the service of their communities in caring for the poor and sick. St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in the second century, called them “the finest part of the flock of Christ.”

It was not until late in the third century that organized monastic life began. In Egypt, a young man named Antony went into the desert to seek God. He found shelter in an abandoned fort, where he spent the day in prayer and meditation. It is said that Antony often had to fight Satan himself, who tempted him to forsake his quest.

Each day Antony fasted until sunset. Then he took his daily meal, which consisted only of bread, salt, and water. He slept on the ground at night and denied himself every comfort, even bathing. For Antony only one thing was important: to deny his body so that his soul might expand its love for God.

Nearby villagers, amazed at the holy man in their midst, sought out Antony to inquire how they might become better Christians. Several of them set up dwellings close to him, and regarded Antony as their spiritual father. His instruction provided them with a rule of life. By the time of his death in 356, communities of monks were to be found in the hills along the Nile and in the empty wastes between the river and the desert. Antony’s hermitage still serves as an Egyptian Christian monastery to this day.

Antony’s personal direction was adequate for small groups of hermits, but as the number of ascetics increased it became obvious that better organization was needed. The solitary life in the desert was a dangerous one. Marauding Bedouins and soldiers were always a threat, but an even greater menace was the undisciplined direction that self-guided asceticism might take. Some hermits took on mortifications such as standing in the sun for hours at a time; others fasted so much that their bodies were reduced to bones covered by skin. Some had themselves walled up inside buildings, while others lived a life of constant wandering.

Such extremes called for a man of common sense who would control these excesses and restore a balance to the monastic life. He appeared in St. Pakhomius.

Pakhomius was born into a pagan family near Thebes. When he was twenty years old, he was drafted into the Roman army. On a long and tiring march through the desert, his exhausted unit had been cared for by a group of Christians. Pakhomius was so taken by their charity that he later requested baptism. One day, on a journey to Tabennisi, a village on the east bank of the Nile, he heard a voice telling him to build a monastery there.

What Pakhomius understood better than his contemporaries was the heed for a common life for the monks. Within a community monks could practice charity toward one another, while obedience to a superior would temper the individual’s desire for extraordinary mortifications. The goal of Pakhomius, as he stated it, was “to bring souls together in order to save them.”

Pakhomius constructed a mud-brick wall with his own hands in order to enclose his monastery. It was the first time this had been done. He required all the monks to adopt a uniform habit, and to attend the Sunday Eucharist and spiritual instructions that he gave. Tabennisi soon was overflowing with ascetics, and another monastery had to be started.

Meanwhile, Pakhomius’ sister Mary followed his example. She organized a group of women to occupy a monastery constructed by her brother’s followers. By the time of his death, Pakhomius had established a total of nine monasteries and had placed the movement for communal monasticism on a solid base.

In the late fourth and fifth centuries the Egyptian desert became so populated with monks and nuns that it attracted the attention and admiration of the whole Christian world. Monasticism spread northwards into Palestine, Syria, and Anatolia, and eastwards into Armenia and Persia.

The desert became a magnet for Christian pilgrims. Among those who came to learn from the spiritual fathers was a young man named Basil, a member of one of the most prominent families in the province of Cappadocia.

Basil was a Greek, a man with the best education the late Roman Empire’s schools could provide. Until then, the vast majority of monks had come from peasant stock, and they had little formal schooling and even less theological training. As a result, the bishops of the Church were often uneasy about them. Even ordinary Christians of middle-class background were repelled by the extremes that some monks had gone to in “holy competition” to prove their endurance.

Basil’s decision to become a monk helped to dispel this uneasiness, for he was a man held in the highest esteem by the emperor, the bishops of the Church, and the educated laity. When he returned to Cappadocia, he and his schoolmate, Gregory Nazianzen, built a hermitage for themselves on one of his family’s estates along the Iris river. Inspired by the monk-bishop Eustathios of Sebastea, the two friends drew up a rule of life which added study to the usual monastic routine of prayer and manual labor. Their attempt to be self-sufficient sometimes foundered because of their inexperience. Basil’s sympathetic mother Emmelia would then dispatch a basket of food from the family kitchen across the river, lest the novice monks should perish.

With the passage of time, Basil’s monastery became more secure and was sought out by large numbers of men who wanted to imitate him. He became a spiritual father to these aspirants. Two collections of sermons given to his brotherhoods, as they were called, make up what is known as the Rule of St. Basil. This Rule lacks precision and order, for the compositions follow no pattern and allow for a great deal of interpretation. They did not copy the harsh asceticism of Egypt, but sought to provide entrance into the monastic life for even the moderately-motivated Christian.

The many talents Basil possessed could not be hidden even in seclusion, and in 370 he was enthusiastically elected bishop of Caesarea (modern Kayseri in Turkey). Accompanied by his brother monks, Basil moved into Caesarea, which was then an active metropolis. Although occupied with administrative duties and the struggle against the heretical Arians, Basil found time to continue his direction of the brotherhoods. His most ambitious goal was to found a large hospice outside Caesarea where a combination school, hospital, orphanage, and leprosarium would be staffed by his disciples. So successful was this enterprise that modern Kayseri has built up around Basil’s hospice rather than the ancient Roman city.

Basil’s Rule was translated into many languages. A Latin version was brought to the West, where it served as a guide for several monastic centers.

The passage of monasticism from the East to the West took many paths. The first contact Rome had with Egyptian monasticism came when St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, was exiled to Trier in Germany. He passed through Rome in 339 with two monks as his companions. Their way of life attracted many Romans, especially women of the upper class, who were deeply moved by the instructions given by the monks.

Athanasius later composed a Life of Antony which elevated the founder of Egyptian monasticism into an exemplar for all who would seek perfection. A Latin translation of this biography spread throughout the Christian West. It played an important part in the conversion of St. Augustine.

After Athanasius, Western monasticism continued to draw support from the East. St. Martin set up a monastery in Tours which faithfully imitated the Pakhomian model. John Cassian, born in the region of modern Romania, visited Egypt and Palestine to receive his initiation into the monastic life. Later, when he moved to Marseilles, he founded two monasteries based on Eastern practice.

His Institutes and Conferences were written there about 420.

All of these influences were at work in the mind of Benedict as he composed his Rule. Indeed, he states in the last chapter of the Rule that he has written it for beginners; he recommends the works of John Cassian, the Lives of the Egyptian saints and spiritual fathers, and the Rule of St. Basil for further study. Out of the Christian Orient had come monasticism; Benedict suggests that his monks return there if they seek to penetrate more deeply into the wisdom of the monastic vocation.

Today the number of monks in the East is severely reduced. In Egypt, less than a dozen monasteries survive. Russia has but six or seven. Only on Mount Athos in Greece is there to be found a resurgence of the monastic ideal, with recruits coming in greater numbers to its twenty foundations. The debt that is owed to these survivors of the Christian East can only be repaid if Christians in the West express interest, concern, and respect for these venerable centers of monasticism.

Charles A. Frazee is a professor of Byzantine history at California Sate University, Fullerton.

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