5th century Monastery of Mar Sabbas the Sanctified
The origins and motivations of monasticism
Written by Newman Nahas, M.Phil.
From its inception, Christianity produced many who, while remaining fully part of their local parish, were inspired to pursue rigorous ascetic lifestyles. Indeed, even the most primitive expressions of Christianity, such as St. Paul's letters, contain strongA ascetic emphases. However, the emergence of monasticism as a distinct ascetic movement, separated from the larger Christian community, does not appear straightaway. Rather, it emerges, in diverse forms and various regions, only around the fourth century AD. In this paper, I will trace the origins and depict the motivations of this movement, primarily as it appeared in the Christian East, and I will argue that monasticism should be understood as an organic outgrowth of the Christiankerygma -- that in the development of the monastic practice the Christian community changed its outer structure precisely to preserve its inner essence.
Understanding Asceticism and Monasticism: Preliminary Observations
I shall be using monasticism to refer to that ascetic movement characterized by anachoresis, or withdrawal from the Christian community and the rest of society. Monasticism does not have a monopoly on asceticism, as asceticism is a characteristic of many non- and pre-monastic Christians (as well as non-Christians). All monasticism is ascetic, but all asceticism is not monastic. What distinguishes monasticism from the broader category of Christian asceticism -- at least as I propose to use the terms -- is monasticism's emphasis on withdrawal.
Before continuing, however, I would like qualify what I have said in two ways. First, I would like to emphasize that the withdrawal which characterizes monasticism need not be seen as signaling a complete disconnection from society. The monk may still be strongly connected with the rest of the Church (and society) through his prayers. Some of us might think prayer a negligible connection, but in characterizing the motivations of the monks we must realize that they certainly did not share this assumption. And we must also realize that the personal success of the monk possessed communal consequences. When Anthony defeats the devils in the Desert, it is not only his own victory, but ours as well. There exists a profound solidarity, then, among all humans and especially among all Christians.
Moreover, in some cases the physical withdrawal is not permanent. After time apart, some anchoritic monastics resume contact with the rest of the community. St. Anthony is a prime example of this pattern: fortified by the freedom and insight which his withdrawal helped him obtain, he was enabled to help countless others find their own freedom. Indeed, many continue to find his life, words and prayers profoundly helpful even today, sixteen centuries after his death. Yet, what enabled him to be so helpful to society was precisely his withdrawal from society.
Second, I would like to emphasize that asceticism need not denote dualist motivations or a hatred of the body or the world. While no doubt certain ascetics, Christian as well as non-Christian, may have had a pessimistic estimate of the human body and of the physical world -- the monk Dorotheus's explanation of why he taxes his body being a fine Christian example: "It kills me, so I kill it" -- the dominant view that we find among orthodox Christian monastics is more in line with Poemen's remark: "We were taught not to kill the body, but to kill the passions." The great battle is against spirits and principalities, not flesh and blood; and the battle line is drawn not between the physical and the immaterial, but between godliness and ungodliness. The passions can be as much spiritual as physical. As Peter Brown observes,
In the desert tradition, vigilant attention to the body enjoyed an almost oppressive prominence. Yet to describe ascetic thought as "dualist" and as motivated by hatred of the body, is to miss its most novel and its most poignant aspect. Seldom, in ancient thought, had the body been seen as more deeply implicated in the transformation of the soul; and never was it made to bear so heavy a burden.1
Indeed, the great burden the monks placed upon the body was evidence of the great expectations they had for it. The body along with the soul was to be saved, and this is why not only the soul but the body, too, must be brought under a strict discipline. "Against all types of Dualism, pagan or pre-Christian, Antony's perfection is shown reflected in his bodily condition, retained right up to his death fifty years later, when he was still sound in all his senses and vigorous in his limbs, with even his teeth complete in number, though worn down to the gums".2
In the case of Syrian monasticism, however, some scholars have assessed the motivations of the monks to be extremely dualist.3 While a more thorough analysis of the Syrian monastic tradition must be deferred for now, at this point it is sufficient to note that this is not the only possible interpretation of the motivations of Syrian monasticism; and it is certainly not descriptive of the great sage of Syria, St. Ephrem, who, although not a monk in the more Egyptian sense of the word, was nevertheless an ascetic and had much to say on this question. "They greatly afflict their bodies," he wrote, "not because they do not love their bodies; rather, they want to bring their bodies to Eden in glory".4
The Struggle for Freedom
If the austere fasts, the minimal amounts of sleep and the austere lifestyle of the monk are not to be taken as a rejection of the body as such, how then are they to be taken? They should be taken, I would argue, as having a more positive aim: the acquisition of freedom. One who is addicted to wine does not enjoy wine. It is only when one can say "no" to wine that one can truly enjoy it. Christian asceticism is in a sense concerned with producing precisely this sort of freedom. Asceticism enables us to say no, without which ability we can never truly say yes. In the end, asceticism is therefore the true hedonism; without asceticism, pleasures are lost in the sea of necessity.
Asceticism is also able to cultivate our uniqueness and creativity. Slavery to the passions is an assault on one's unique identity and creativity. What is more boring and predictable than the behavior of a chap addicted to the affirmation of his ego? You can almost always anticipate what he is going to say, because it is usually.5 Unlike the one who is enslaved to a passion and who is thus in a category along with countless other similarly enslaved victims, the ascetic is one of a kind.
Thus freedom from the tyranny of the passions, or apatheia, is a fundamental aim of Christian asceticism and monasticism. Freedom from a tyrant can be brought about in two ways. One can either alter the character of the relationship with the tyrant, or simply get rid of him. Similarly, ascetic and monastic theology tends to approach freedom from "the passions" in two ways. One can see the passions in Aristotelian terms, as neutral capacities capable of being put either to evil or to good use, in which case the aim would be to transform or to educate them so that they may work for our benefit. Or one may see the passions in Stoic terms, as fundamentally diseased qualities, intrinsically evil, in which case the aim is simply to get rid of them.
Either way, however, both approaches agree that the common aim of the ascetic struggle is freedom from the passions, called apatheia, whether this 'freedom' implies reform or complete eradication. It should be noted that this state is not merely "apathy" or indifference,
still less a condition in which sinning is impossible, but it is on the contrary a state of inner freedom and integration, in which we are no longer under the dominion of sinful impulses, and so are capable of genuine love . . . It is no mere mortification of the passions, but a state of soul in which a burning love for God and for our fellow humans leaves no room for sensual and selfish impulses."6
Finally, it should be emphasized that Christian asceticism and monasticism are to be distinguished from other forms of ascetic practice by their strong conviction that the ascetic struggles, while free, are effected not merely by one's own labor, but by God's grace. We must always bear in mind the monk's conviction that it is Christ who is at work in him, and that without him he can do nothing. But with him, there is nothing worth doing which he cannot do.
The Different Kinds of Monasticism and the Different Regions in which they Emerged
We shall consider four major categories of monasticism: the hermitic, the coenobitic, the semi-hermetic and the native Syrian proto-monasticism. We shall also look briefly at the way in which these different forms of monasticism existed in the following four regions in the Christian East: Egypt, Asia Minor, Palestine and Syria.
First, there is the unmitigated life of withdrawal and seclusion: the eremitic life. This is found in particular in Lower Egypt, as well Syria, but there only after the fifth century. The great father of this form of life is St. Anthony. At about twenty years of age (c. 269), he heard Christ's words, "Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me" read aloud in Church. He thus freed himself of the confines of his possessions -- although not without first securing a stable existence for his sister, for whose care he was responsible at the time (he entrusted her to a Parthenon, showing that community life for women already existed) -- and followed Christ into the Desert. His withdrawal was a gradual one: he moved further and further away from human society until, c. 285, he reached the deep desert, the outer mountain at Pispir, where he struggled day and night to liberate his true self from the 'zombiefying' delusions of the passions and the demons. Around 305, having attracted a number of followers who were inspired by his discipline and holiness, he came out of his seclusion to advise others in their own struggles.
In what sense is it characteristic of following Christ to flee to the desert? The answer to this may be found in considering Christ's own departure to the desert prior to his ministry, as well as his departure to the desert after the death of St. John the Baptist. Our Lord's decision to withdraw into the desert -- in the mind of the hermit -- is certainly not a meaningless accident, an arbitrary selection of a place without significance. St. Anthony is thus following Christ's model; indeed, he is following Christ himself. For, as Fr. Georges Florovsky brilliantly explains, while Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity, is everywhere present, filling all things, there is something unique about the desert and the solitude which it symbolizes (and effects) that makes Christ's presence more easily realized:
By following out Lord into the desert, St. Anthony was entering a terrain already targeted and stamped out by our Lord as a specific place for spiritual warfare. There is both specificity and type in the desert. In those geographical regions where are no deserts, there are places which are similar to or approach that type of place symbolized by the desert. It is that type of place which allows the human heart solace, isolation. It is a type of place which puts the human heart in a state of aloneness, a state in which to meditate, to pray, to fast, to reflect upon one's inner existence and one's relationship to ultimate reality -- God. And simultaneously where the opposing forces to spiritual life can become more dominant. It is the terrain of a battlefield but a spiritual one. And it is our Lord, not St. Antony, who has set the precedent. Our Lord says that "as for what is sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceit of riches choke the world, and it becomes unfruitful." The desert, or a place similar, precisely cuts off the cares or anxieties of the world and the deception, the deceit of earthly riches. It cuts one off precisely from "this worldliness" and precisely as such it contains within itself a powerful spiritual reason for existing within the spiritual paths of the Church. Not as the only path, not as the path for everyone, but as one, full authentic path of Christian life.7
The Coenobitic Life
In many ways, the anchoritic life is the most potent. Yet, precisely for this reason, it is the most dangerous, with great spiritual risks. As Fr. Florovsky indicates at the end of the above quotation, it is not for everyone. For others, a more moderated form of withdrawal and seclusion is more suitable. One such alternative form of monasticism, possessing great inherent safeguards against delusion, is the communal life. Here a group of monks live together, under a common rule and in a common monastery, mutually supporting and encouraging one another. There are two great fathers of this form of monastic life: St. Pachomius of Egypt (286-346) and St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379).
This form of monasticism became common primarily in Egypt and Asia Minor. Within the former, it was popular in Upper Egypt, a part of the country less remote than St. Anthony's area. Pachomius's communities were found around Tabbennisi in Thebaid, near the Nile. Pachomius himself attracted a number of followers; at his death he was ruling over a nine monasteries for men and two for women.
In Asia Minor, Basil also strongly encouraged this form of monasticism as being more suitable for most people than the hermetic style. However, it is unlikely that Basil's inspiration came from Pachomius; it seems to have come instead from Syria. At any rate, Basil feared that the hermetic life, among other pitfalls, could lead to a neglect of the evangelical call to charity and philanthropy, and so his monasteries were also concerned directly with issues of social justice. "Basil adds to the mystical and inner emphases of monasticism, a strong emphasis on external acts of charity and philanthropy".8 He also insists on monastic obedience as a check on the "excess, the competitiveness, and the ostentation of histrionic individuals who were bringing the monastic movement into disrepute." Basil was also careful to insist that monks remain mindful of the normal worshipping life of the Church and they remained connected and obedient to the local bishop.9
The Skete and the Lavra
Third, there is the semi-hermetic form of monasticism, which is intermediate between the two already mentioned. In this situation, the monks did not live in complete separation, like the hermits; nor did they live in complete community, like coenobitic monks. Rather, there existed a number of independent groups of monks, each of which varied greatly in size, but which would all come together for a common liturgy or meal, especially on Sunday. "The great centres of the semi-eremitic life in Egypt were Nitria and Scetis, which by the end of the fourth century had produced many outstanding monks -- Ammon the founder of Nitria, Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria, Evagrius of Pontus, and Arsenius the Great".10 Nitria was nearer to Alexandria and formed a natural gateway to Scetis. It was meeting place between the world and the desert where visitors, like John Cassian, could first make contact with the traditions of the desert. Here, we may suspect that the monasticism was more of a more learned sort, and that a more Greek-influenced type of monasticism evolved around an educated minority, of whom Evagrius Ponticus is an outstanding example.
This "semi-hermetic" model can also be found in Jerusalem, which became a great monastic center later in the fifth century. In the Judean wilderness, and especially around the desert of Gaza, there were great spiritual fathers of the Egyptian tradition. Indeed, in the fifth and sixth centuries, leadership in the monastic movement shifted to Palestine through the influence of such figures as St. Euthymius the Great (died 473) and his disciple St. Sabas (died 532). Judea became the home of the "Lavra".11 Here, a number of individual monks would have their own cells in proximity to a main leader and would meet on special occasions, just as in Nitria and Scetis. This sort of model preserved a greater level of solitude than was common in a coenobium. Another difference between the semi-hermetic and the coenobitic models is that the semi-hermetic arrangement often functioned as a preparatory phase for the anchoritic life, and seemed to tacitly presume that the anchoritic life was the superior. "This is in marked contrast with the ideal of Pachomius, or of Basil, for whom the coenobium is a lifelong vocation".12
Finally, there is the complicated situation of Syria. In order to understand the history of monasticism in Syria, we must realize that there were two phases in Syrian monasticism. The first phase we may call "proto-monasticism," and it is the phase dominant prior to the fifth century differing considerably from the Egyptian monastic traditions. The second phase is the one that receives the most attention among historians no doubt in part because it is also the one in which all the remarkable accounts of stunning acts of self-mortification are found. This second phase reflects a fundamental shift toward the Egyptian model, which had gained an irresistible prestige and momentum throughout Christendom.
There is very little direct information concerning the first phase of Syrian monasticism. The primary sources for this period are Aphrahat and Ephrem. To understand the distinctive characteristics of Syrian "proto-monasticism," two phrases need to be understood: ihidaya (literally: solitary, monk) andBnay Qyama (literally: sons of the covenant). These phases are used almost interchangeably, especially by Aphrahat; but they do seem to convey different nuances. The ways in which they are used, primarily by Aphrahat, give us a glimpse of the character of Syrian "proto-monasticism," and so it is worthwhile to pursue this matter in detail.
Let us begin with the ihidaya (plural, ihidaye). This term refers to single persons who were committed to serving God. Griffith parallels them to the biblical widows and virgins. We know that the ihidaye occupied a special status in the church. But while they could occasionally be found among the clerical orders (particularly the lower ones), this was rare. They were primarily lay persons, whether male or female. The term ihidaye, more specifically, seems to have been used with three major senses in mind, and accordingly tells us three main things about the monastic movement: The first sense is that of "monochos", conveying the sense of unmarried or continent; second, "monozonos" or "monotropos", conveying the sense of single-mindedness; third, "monogenes", conveying the sense of union with the Monogenes (the Only-begotten Son), the Ihidaya. Griffith thinks that this last sense, with its connection between the individual ihidaya and the Ihidaya(the Only-begotten), was the most prominent in the minds of the Syrians. As Aphrahat explains:
"For those who do not take wives will be served by the Watchers of heaven: the observers of consecrated holiness will come to rest at the sanctuary of the Exalted One. The Ihidaya who is from the bosom of the Father will gladden the ihidaye. There will be neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but all are sons of the Most High. These things are befitting the ihidaye, those who take on the heavenly yoke, to become disciples to Christ. For so it is fitting for Christ's disciples to emulate Christ their Lord."13
Another important term that helps us understand native Syrian monasticism is Bnay Qyama. Qyama refers primarily to the sense of covenant, though it also connotes "station" and possibly "resurrection"; it was even used by Aphrahat to denote the whole Church. Accordingly, the Bnay Qyama (Sons of the Covenant) refers to a group of celibates who took upon themselves a special "station" in the life of the community. They assumed this station by covenant, or solemn pledge, at baptism, at which time they put on theIhidaya and became ihidaye. They also accepted to follow Christ's lifestyle in a uniquely uncompromising way, and in so doing they were revealing the life that would be lived in the age to come (and that which was lived in the pre-fallen state) -- the life to which all the baptized are called. Through their celibacy and uncompromising pursuit of holiness, they stood among their community as anticipatory images of the Resurrection to come. "Their status in the community served as a type for the expectations of all the baptized." Thus, they represented for the Church, what the Church was called to be.
It is difficult to say very much more about this movement. We can surmise that it was carried out neither in a strictly hermetic form, nor in a coenobitic form, although there may have been a proto-rule that the Bnay Qyamafollowed. Thus, it is difficult to pinpoint the differentia of this movement and to fit into the taxonomic system I have been employing thus far. Indeed, I wonder if perhaps it may not be better to call this movement simply a Syrian expression of pre-monastic asceticism. Why do we want to call it 'monasticism', if we define the differentia of monasticism as the emphasis on withdrawal, and we do not find such an emphasis among the Syrians? This phase of Syrian monasticism seems rather similar to the accounts of pre-monastic asceticism in other regions chronicled in Susana Elms's Virgins of God. On the whole, this first phase of native Syrian monasticism is still understudied, with many scholars disagreeing over its character and motivations; and perhaps, owing to the dearth of evidence, it is likely to remain in this state of enigma.
But by the fifth century, this ascetic tradition --whatever its characteristics-- quickly becomes displaced by the Egyptian variety. There is a greater emphasis now placed on many of the monastic themes, such as martyrdom, that were prevalent in Egyptian thought; and withdrawal is certainly more emphatically pursued. In the case of the Ihidaye and the Bnay Qyama, while some might have pursued withdrawal, most did not. After the fifth century, however, the opposite is true.
By this time, "in the Syriac speaking world the term ihidaya came to have the same range of meanings as did the Greek term monachos, the very Greek term that, if some modern scholars are correct in their surmises, writers of the early fourth century had first used in a Christian context to render the Syriac term ihidaya!".14 And it is during this period
that one begins to find the appearance in inner Syria of institutions typical of the "Great Church," including one that would uniquely mark Christian life for centuries to come, the institution of monasticism. This institution was easily as powerful and significant at the time as the institution of the hierarchical episcopacy, which also appeared in Syria in the fourth century."15
Nevertheless, the Syrians did not simply import Egyptian monasticism; they incorporated it into their region in a creative way that reflected their own idiosyncrasies. We find that these idiosyncrasies were expressed in a range of behaviour that might strike the modern reader as deeply disturbing, even deeply un-human. Chadwick describes the situation:
"In Syria and Mesopotamia asceticism occasionally took bizarre forms. The majority of the monks were simple Syriac speaking people, ignorant of Greek. Their recorded mortifications make alarming reading. A heavy iron chain as a belt was a frequent austerity. A few adopted the life of animals and fed on grass, living in the open air without shade from the sun and with the minimum of clothing, and justifying their method of defying society by claiming to be 'fools for Christ's sake.'16
However, I think Chadwick and many historians who similarly characterize the Syrian monks, fail to keep in mind that their austerities were not simply motivated by their simple-mindedness or personal imbalances. Peter Brown captures well their view of the fall, which I believe possesses the key to understanding their unique behaviour:
According to the author of the Book of Degrees, Adam had fallen because he had looked around him in Paradise with a hot lust for the land. He had wished to possess its rich soil. He had wished, through property, to replace God as Creator. He had set about creating economic wealth by labour, and had wished to pile up the physical wealth of progeny by intercourse. He had turned from the contemplation of God to build the society that we now know, a society ruled by the iron constraints of the "law of Adam."
The righteous might live decently in this society by the simple code of fallen Adam -- tilling their fields, doing good to their co-religionists, caring for the local Christian poor. God, who had shown mercy on Adam by allowing him to live by that law, would not deny the righteous their reward. But for those who had regained the first, Spirit-filled eyes of Adam, the present social world, the social structures of town, village, and the family, must seem, forever, unaccountably strange. The power of the "present age," made manifest in the care-worn state of organized society, and, only tangentially, the present state of human sexuality.17
Thus, many of the structures and customs of human society are understood as fundamentally the result of the fall. Such a conviction may indeed shed light on the curious behaviour of a Symeon of Emesa, who "would enter the women's section of the public baths, stark naked, with his robe on his head as a turban; and he would dance the jig with the townsfolk in the local tavern".18
We may disagree with the premises of the Syrian monks. But we should realize that if one starts with their premises and assumes that majority of the present structures of society are purely the product of the fall, then it makes good sense to flout the present structures of human society so conspicuously. Doing so would be the truly human thing to do, since the present state of affairs is supremely subhuman.
Syrian monasticism should therefore not be seen simply as a more extreme form of monasticism stemming from either a greater degree of dualism or intellectual simplicity, but rather as a form of monasticism stemming from a different theological emphasis. We may not accept their paradigm, but we should see its internal integrity and conceptual sophistication.
From Pre-Monastic Asceticism to Monasticism: Changing in Order to Stay the Same
Prior to the emergence of monasticism in the fourth century, the practice of asceticism was widespread, and a number of church fathers, East and West, had already developed an ascetical theology. Indeed, asceticism goes back to the New Testament, and less dramatically to the Old Testament. On the level of practice, many celibates or consecrated virgins could be found, be they widows choosing to remain in their bereaved state, young virgins choosing to consecrate their lives to God, clergyman choosing to pursue their ministry in a state of celibacy (or, if already married, choosing to live with their wives in continence), married couples among the laity similarly choosing to live together in continence, or even in some cases unmarried men and women choosing to live together as brother and sister (although this particular practice would quickly fall into disfavor).
"Anthony and the monks of the fourth century inherited a revolution; they did not initiate one. In the century that had elapsed between the youth of Origen and the conversion of Constantine, the horizons of the possible had already been determined, silently and decisively, in a slow folding of the moral landscape of the Christian world. Total sexual renunciation had become a widely acclaimed feature of the Christian life."19
No doubt Peter Brown is correct in emphasizing the continuity between pre-monastic asceticism and monastic asceticism. Asceticism was certainly no revolutionary idea; but Anthony's emphasis on withdrawal was, in some sense, revolutionary. Prior to Anthony, all examples of pre-monastic asceticism were undertaken within the milieu of the larger Church community and human society. We do not yet hear of specific cases of formal, systematic withdrawal. This is precisely, I think, the differentia of monasticism.
On the level of theology, however, there is not much in the way of innovation to be found. There is rather a profound continuity between the monastic and pre-monastic ascetic theology. "In the Writings of Clement of Alexandria and especially of Origen all the essential elements of an ascetical theology may already be found".20 Clement, for instance, emphasizes that "the aim of the Christian life is not to trouble ourselves with what lies outside, but to purify the eye of the soul and to sanctify the flesh," and that "Jesus heals the whole human person, body and soul." Clearly, for Clement, salvation is not merely the extrinsic imputation of righteousness; salvation is far more than merely a juridical declaration of righteousness. It is ontological: the Christian is to bemade righteous. In addition, we see a very holistic emphasis present in monastic theology: the whole person, body and soul is to be healed. Indeed, here we already find a framework that can happily support Chitty's observation: "One thing can be certain. This making a City of the Wilderness was no mere flight, nor a rejection of matter as evil (else why did they show such aesthetic sense in placing their retreats, and such love for all of God's animal creation?)".21 In Origen, too, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of martyrdom, and a very well developed understanding of the "senses of the soul" and the injunction to personal sanctification. Both Origen and Clement speak of mystical union with God. Such emphases would certainly figure prominently in subsequent monastic theology.
In understanding the motivations of the various monks, I should like to highlight two fundamental themes. First, there is the ideal of martyrdom, the recognition that nothing -- family, possessions, even our own life -- is more important than union with the Lord. From this point of view, ascetic life is indeed a renunciation of the present world, a sober recognition of its secondary status. Secondly, the monastic life is centered on another ideal: that of returning to (if not surpassing) the state prior to the fall. By returning to the pre-fallen state, the monk seeks not only his own redemption but also that of the created world around him. Since through man that the created world fell, through man the created world can be restored. While full restoration will occur only at the Parousia, the monks partially anticipate this restoration here and now. From this point of view, asceticism is indeed an affirmation of the created world; while the monks renounce the world, they are renouncing only the fallen state of the world. Their willingness to die to the world reflects their conviction that the world is not as it should be, a recognition with which the created world, itself, would certainly agree as it groans in anticipation of its redemption. Thus, the created world rejoices in the monk's striving for salvation, for it knows that its own salvation is tied to the monk's success. The monks are carrying out a supreme act of love for the world, striving to restore it to its true vocation and state. And so the monk's partial anticipation of the final redemption of all things is prophetic: it provides a glimpse of the world as it should be and will be.
"The denigration of marriage and sexuality may be the negative expression of the desire to return to the original blessings of paradise and the original, blessed condition of humanity and body. (And of course early Christian ascetic theorists understood both the similarities and differences between these two notions, and went to great lengths to distinguish the orthodox affirmation of the value of chastity, fasting, and other ascetic disciplines from the heretical -- namely, Manichean, Encratite -- condemnation of marriage and meat eating.)22
The themes of monastic theology were not innovations. They had their roots in the earliest expressions of Christianity and were articulated by many, well before the emergence of monasticism itself. Why, then, does monasticism emerge only in the fourth century and not before? If we cannot point to a new shift in theological understanding that could account for this new lifestyle, might we point to a shift in external circumstances?
After Constantine's conversion, the Christian situation became ripe for monasticism. Persecutions had ceased, and Christianity had become rather more socially acceptable. It was becoming possible, in a sense, to convince yourself that you were serving God when you were really serving Mammon. The Church was becoming increasingly influential in high society. Bishops had become increasingly important figures in the secular sphere. Many local churches had obtained considerable wealth, becoming substantial landowners. Although there is nothing inherently contradictory between the Christian gospel and such developments, these developments nevertheless changed the character of the challenge facing the Church.
From its beginning, Christianity was a call to self-denial, to a life of the cross. Without such willingness to part with one's old self, the new, true self could not arise. During the persecutions this call was often put before the Christian unambiguously: Do you have the discipline to accept the pain of parting with the familiarity of your fallen life for the sake of your true life in Christ? Christians could seldom hide behind a nominal acceptance of the faith. There were no secular advantages that might provide ulterior motives for becoming a Christian. Persecution kept sharp the line between being for Christ or against him.
After Constantine's peace, however, this line was no longer so sharp. With peace between the City of God and the City of Man, there was a danger of forgetting Christ's injunction that "My Kingdom is not of this world." The call to self-denial for Christ's sake was no longer being put before the Christian with such unmistakable directness. The invitation was becoming quieter, and had to come from within. "The monks with their austerities were martyrs in an age when martyrdom of blood no longer existed; they formed the counterbalance to an established Christendom".23 Monasticism, a formal life of internally imposed self-renunciation, emerges in response to the diminishing presence of externally imposed self-renunciation.
1. Brown, The Body and Society, 235. [back]
2. Chitty, The Desert A City, 4. [back]
3. Voobus's History of Syrian Asceticism is the primary proponent of this view. However, there is no consensus on the validity of his analysis, and others, like Dr. Sebastian Brock, would question the universal applicability of his assessment. [back]
4. St. Ephrem, On Hermits and Desert Dwellers in the Fathers of the Churchseries, by Catholic University of America. [back]
5. Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love, 55. [back]
6. Asceticism, 12. [back]
7. Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, vol. X: The Byzantine Ascetics and Spiritual Fathers. [back]
8. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin), 178-9. [back]
9. ibid., 178-9. [back]
10. Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, The Orthodox Church, 37-38. [back]
11. Chitty, The Desert A City, 15: "The word lavra does not occur in the fourth-century Egyptian records, and its monastic use seems to originate in Palestine. Perhaps the sense of market that comes instantly to mind when we connect it with the Arabic suq is not inappropriate. Here the ascetics brought together their produce on Saturday mornings, worshipped and fed together, and transacted any necessary business, taking back with them to their cells on Sunday evenings bread, water, and raw material for their handiwork for the coming week." [back]
12. Chadwick, The Early Church, 178-9. [back]
13. Wimbush and Valantasis, Asceticism. [back]
14. ibid., 238. [back]
15. ibid., 221. [back]
16. Chadwick, The Early Church, 180. [back]
17. Brown, The Body and Society, 336. [back]
18. ibid., 335. [back]
19. ibid.., 208-209. [back]
20. Chadwick, The Early Church, 177. [back]
21. Chitty, The Desert A City, xvi. [back]
22. Wimbush and Valantasis, Asceticism, 78. [back]
23. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 37.[back]