Monasticism was an important social, political, and intellectual force throughout Byzantine history. In a sense the monks represented the Byzantine view of life in its fullest form. It is important to understand the origins and development of monasticism, but also to empathize with the rather peculiar attitudes and practices of the monks.
A. Background: Monasticism and Asceticism in the Late Roman Empire
A Widespread Phenomenon from the Fourth Century
We do not know how many people became monks, but the impression given by Late Roman writers is that in certain regions of the empire (e.g., Egypt), many people heard the “calling,” and almost everyone knew someone who had become a monk.
Monks came from a broad cross-section of the population: women and men, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old. This makes it difficult to characterize monasticism as a social movement.
The deserts and wilderness became dotted with “cities” of monks living together .
A much wider segment of the population who did not leave society either wished they could have, or attempted to practice the same ascetic disciplines in their own cities and manners: sexual abstinence (sometimes within marriage), fasting, solitude. This was not surprisingly the period when the Church began to define the conditions and practices of its seasonal fasts (such as Lent).
Monasticism different in East and West
Monasticism originated in the east and took diverse forms, most of which survived into the Byzantine and Modern periods.
Monasticism was introduced to the West in the fourth century by people like Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who was exiled in Rome during the Arian controversy. In the West, the “coenobitic” (see below) communal form of monasticism prevailed, and the West was not as receptive to the other idiosyncratic forms that thrived in the East.
When most westerners and Americans think of monasticism, they almost always think of the communal monasticism and monasteries of the Medieval period. It is important to keep in mind that this was only one form of ascetic practice that flourished in the Late Roman Empire and continued to thrive in Byzantium.
If we are to understand the phenomenon of monasticism, we must be sympathetic and attempt to hear from these spiritual “athletes” themselves why they acted in the way that they did.
Hagiographic (stories of holy men and women) literature is filled with seemingly bizarre stories.
Dorotheus, an ascetic from Thebes in Egypt, lived in a cave for 60 years and tried to sleep as little as possible each night (in Palladius’ Lausiac History)
Ammonius, another Egyptian monk, memorized by heart the entire Bible, as well as thousands of lines from the works of other Christian writers; from his youth, he ate only raw foods (vegetables and bread), and put a hot iron to his flesh whenever he felt tempted. Palladius’ friend could speak of Ammonius: “I have never seen a man more free from passion than he was.” (in Palladius’ Lausiac History)
Other monks lived in caves, tombs, abandoned forts, pillars, and trees.
Although these acts may seem bizarre and abnormal to us, they did serve a function and purpose in the lives of these monks. We must try to understand these behaviors in light of what these people were trying to do.
B. The Origins of Monasticism
1. The origins of Christian monasticism are complex.
a. Certainly ascetic practices and the religious solitary life antedated Christianity.
b. Presumably early Christian monasticism had some connection with Jewish asceticism; the Essenes, people like John the Baptist and even Jesus himself.
c. Precedents for asceticism in the New Testament.
Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12), as well as his solitary habits (e.g., Luke 4:42; 5:15-16), would become an important model for later ascetic practices.
Jesus had at times encouraged the renunciation of commitments to important symbols of established society: marriage (Matthew 19:12 – “Others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven; the one who can accept this should accept it”), wealth (Mark 10:21 – “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor”), and family (Luke 18:29-30). He had also promoted a high level of self-denial among his followers (Mark 8:34).
The apostle Paul had stated that virginity was preferable to married life, because the unmarried person could be totally devoted to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:25-40).
d. Asceticism and self-denial had become increasingly important in the second and third centuries.
Clement of Alexandria, a Christian in the later second century, among others, encouraged ascetic practices (e.g., sleeping as little as possible, and on the hard ground; eating frugally) as a means for Christians to control their bodies, overcome temptations, and become holy.
Virginity and sexual purity especially became ideals of the faith. Origen, in the early third century AD, argued that virginity formed an important step in freeing a Christian in his progress towards holiness. Marriage, on the other hand, was relatively unimportant in this regard. This idealizing of celibacy influenced many later Christian thinking.
Some Gnostic and “heretical” groups, such as the Marcionites and Encratites, promoted a strict asceticism, fasting, and the renunciation of marriage.
There were always Christians in the church who were more rigorous than others (e.g., Tertullian and the Montanists).
e. All of these influences indicate that although monasticism was primarily a development of the third and fourth centuries, ascetic practices were widely known in Jewish, Pagan, and Christian circles.
2. St. Antony is usually regarded as the first Christian monk.
a. He lived in Egypt in the third century.
b. In fact, there were already solitary ascetics in the Egyptian desert when Antony arrived there, so he was following in an already established tradition.
c. St. Anthansius--an important supporter of orthodoxy against Arianism-- wrote a biography of Antony; this was the first example of Christian hagiography and it set the tone for the genre; this is undoubtedly the reason for Antony's popularity.
3. Monks such as St. Antony were hermits or anchorites, monachoi properly called (literally, the "alone ones").
a. They lived alone as hermits.
b. They met together only occasionally, and were thus outside the ordinary organization of the church.
c. They represented the eremetic form of monasticism, which always remained strong within Byzantium.
4. In addition, there was the tradition of the lavra.
a. Lavra means "alley," and it represented a form of monasticism in which the monks lived in their individual cells and followed the practices they wished.
b. They also had a church in common and occasionally some other buildings and they met regularly for church services.
C. The Growth of Cenobitic Monasticism
1. The solitary life was not suitable for all monks, and many of them could not sustain its vigor.
2. St. Pachomius is usually regarded as the "founder" of the cenobitic life, in which monks lived in common and shared all things.
a. Such monks were not solitaries (hermits), although they gave up life in the ordinary world.
b. They lived under the nearly absolute authority of the hegoumenos or abbot.
c. Pachomius’ community of Tabanessis along the Nile in central Egypt quickly grew to 3000 in Pachomius’ own day, and as many as 7,000 by the early fifth century. These figures do not include the other smaller monastic communities in the area, including the several monasteries nearby that contained only women.
3. The cenobitic form of monasticism became very popular and it spread rapidly from Egypt to Palestine and into Asia Minor.
a. Much of the history of monasticism in the fourth century involved the attempt of the church hierarchy to control this movement.
b. Monasticism became very popular and men and women flocked to the monasteries.
c. What explains this: growing problems within society, a simple desire for the religious life, or the end of martyrdom?
4. One of the leading figures in the spread of monasticism was Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia.
a. Basil was a bishop and a monk and he wrote two works in which he set down rules for the administration of cenobitic monasteries.
b. These rules have been very influential in the development of eastern monasticism.
c. However, each monastery was still free to establish its own rules, and there is simply no such thing as "Basilian monasticism" or the Basilian order:" in fact, there are no "orders" in the eastern church--only monks and monasteries.
D. The Fringes of the Monastic Movement
1. All three kinds of monasticism (hermits, lavra, cenobitic monastery) continued to exist in Byzantium and the hermit was always considered the most perfect monk.
2. Most monks spent their whole lives in prayer and good deeds, and we know little about them, but there was always those who practiced a more spectacular kind of asceticism.
a. The most famous of those were the Stylites, monks who lived on columns, made famous by Symeon Stylites and later Daniel the Stylite.
b. Other monks lived in trees, in caves, behind brick walls, in old abandoned tombs or temples, or they subjected themselves to excessive physical hardship.
c. Excessive asceticism was generally admired by contemporary society.
3. In addition, the monks became the "shock troops" of Christianity in the struggle against, paganism, Judaism, and heresy.
a. Many abbots became famous as leaders of terrorist bands of monks.
b. Many of the monks were uneducated and one must wonder how much they understood of the issues they were defending.
E. The Ideals of the Monastic Life
1. The Byzantine monks were not particularly concerned with work or education, as were monks in the medieval West.
a. Educational and cultural activities were well supplied in the eastern empire; monks did not need to "preserve" culture there.
b. The goals of the monastic life were not primarily social or cultural, but almost entirely spiritual
2. The goal of the monastic life was simply union with God.
a. This was the purpose of the ascetic practices which the monk underwent.
b. Such thinking involved a very special view of man and the relationship between God and man.
c. The monk was to find God within himself, by separating out everything else.
c. Thus, the primary goals of the monastic life were hesychia (quiet) and apathia (literally "senselessness," but this was only senselessness to the normal feeling and perceptions of the body).
d. Thus, apathia was not primarily negative (an attack on the body as something bad); it was positive in that its goal was the perception (possibly even the physical perception) of God.
Monks were the "athletes of Christ": they were to train their body and their mind to focus on the presence of God within themselves.
They sought to train their senses to perceive God.
The ultimate goal of monasticism was this perception of God or even theosis ("becoming" God, or union with God).
These ideas were set out by John Klimakos (John of the Ladder) and Evagrios Pontikos (Evagrios of Pontos).
The image below (from the Monastery of Esphigmenou on Mt. Athos) shows the "Life of the True Monk" -- with demons tormenting him, although he remains unmoved, with his whole body in the form of the Crucified Christ)
e. Humans were not inherently “bad” (in contrast to Augustine and much of the western tradition) so much as unable to overcome the pleasuresof the physical world. Once humans attain apathia in regard to these distractions, they can pursue and perhaps see God.
F. Monks and Society
Monasticism in Byzantine society was not something practiced by a few “abnormal” people far away from the eyes of society. Rather, there were many points of contact between monks and the people around them.
Although monks might prefer to be alone, it is clear that they felt a burden to help the ordinary people around them: work miracles, heal the sick, cast out demons, end droughts and plagues, and feed the hungry. Monks visited villages and cities for these purposes.
Monks clearly had important public roles, such as advising and even rebuking leaders (e.g., Theodore with the emperor Maurice), defending citizens against the demands of the wealthy, and offering just counsel. Clearly emperors and generals respected their wisdom and authority.
Holy men and women were important leaders and models of devotion to Christ and Christian spirituality. They preach and convert (sometimes entire tribes); encourage fairness, patience, humility, and faith; discern and bring “evil” to light; pray consistently; and offer wisdom. Some of these people were inspired to attend to the monk’s needs or become his disciples in the monastic habit.
In this light, monks are the spiritual athletes and heroes of hagiographic literature. People hear about their examples in readings during services at church or in literature that circulated widely about them. One remembers that a major step in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity was reading a copy of Athanasius’ Life of Antony.
It was not uncommon for monks to become clergy members, and many eastern bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries had previously been monks.
From the fourth century, people begin to take pilgrimages to tour the monasteries in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine and talk to the holy men and women living there.
Monks play important roles in the various theological controversies in the east. They support bishops representing their position and some come to the councils themselves to voice their positions.
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