Thursday, January 17, 2013

History of Early Monasticism in the Christian Faith

What is Monasticism?

Monasticism, in the context of this piece, is a Christian movement originating in the latter third century with its roots and teachings found in the Gospel of Jesus.  The word itself comes from the Greek word 'monachos' which translates to 'solitary' or 'living alone.'  Hence, the monastic life is one of a solitary state between man and God; however, this does not mean that other individuals are not present and interacting but ultimately the monastic life is one where the utmost concern is relationship between the believer and his God.  Interestingly, any relationship that is primarily concerned with God can not help but become concerned with the world around them for the Divine fills all places. Official monasticism is typically a life of celibacy, forsaking the material benefits of the world (as much as feasible), and consecrating oneself fully to the commandant of Christ: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hadst, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me." (Matthew 19:21) It is the denial of ones own desires and wishes in this life, in order that the complete focus of the individual can be on the next life, union with Christ, and obtaining salvation or theosis while aiding the world through prayers and good works.  It might be said we are called to be 'monastic' in order to follow after Christ and his teaching, but out of grace and reality Our Lord knows not all are called to such an extreme single life.  Rather many are to find salvation, grace, and communion with the Divine in marriage, partnership, and-or children and this means of life is just as sacred and to be cherished as a gift from God. Ultimately, an individual is monastic when they make a decision to compose their entire life to reflect that of Christ's and always choose to love those around them, becoming an icon of the resurrected one.  Matthew 25:45 tells us, "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'"

The Prelude to Monasticism in the Early Church

Since the beginning of the Christian faith there have been those who have forsaken normal life to follow after Christ in a specific and radical way, this can be found early in the Gospels as women and men would leave behind family and home to accompany Christ on His journeys.  Christ Himself is the greatest example of monastic life as he journeyed into the wilderness, forsaking the comforts of His home and earthy family, and practicing continual prayer with the Father often in private apart from His disciples.  Christ told us, "If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple (Luke 14:26)," and in this we see an early call to monasticism. A life where all is secondary to obedience to the will of God, a self sacrificing of oneself just as Christ would perform on Calvary.  Obviously, the same man who called us to love without reserve did not also condone the hatred of family but he did desire us to embrace a life where we would lay die on our own life to help another, that is the definition of following Him. In Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians it is made obvious that the celibate life is sacred, if one has the blessing and grace to live in such a way.  St. Paul encouraged all who wished to remain solitary in life do so, in order to place all their effort and focus upon God and their ministry to others.  We also see an early form of monasticism in the widows of the early church who remained celibate after their spouse died, living often communally and offering up prayer (Acts 6).  While monasticism would not officially appear and take shape, as we know it, until the mid fourth century it is clear in history that since the beginning of The Way there have been those who lived ascetically, leaving typical life behind, and offering themselves fully to God in a different way.

Early Hermetic Monasticism & St. Anthony

The monasticism which appeared officially was a result of many factors including the legalization of Christianity and in return what many felt the secularization and loss of purity in the Church.  Some Christians, feeling they could no longer practice their faith in the cities, left for the desert in order to experience the peace and solitude of Christ, which had become blurred by the noise of civilization.  In return, initially, this meant leaving the Church but soon monasticism would be embraced by the Church and both would mutually support and benefit each other, sharing leaders and becoming one.  St. Anthony the Great is considered the founder of monasticism, an Egyptian born around 250AD and reposed in 356AD, who spent twenty years in solitude in the desert fighting temptations and obtaining, in his perspective, holiness.  He reentered the public around the beginning of the fourth century working miracles according to legendary tradition, interceding in situations, and abounding in wisdom.  One of his most famous quotes is, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, "Humility.""  We all know humility and love are inseparably linked and the greatest path to unity with God is to humble ourselves an demonstrate love to all for God is love.  The humility, love, service, and credibility with which Anthony practiced his life did not go unnoticed.  Quickly, other hermits followed in his footsteps entering the desert and coming under his training, likely in the thousands, forming loose communities but essentially living a solitary life.  Monasticism had officially arrived and would only grow to be that much more key to the ever-changing Christian Church in the coming centuries, often defending their view of doctrine when others would depart from perceived orthodoxy. One might agree or disagree with their stance on issues but all can find respect for the sacredness and sincerity with which they approached their faith.

Early Communal Monasticism

In Upper Egypt a much more communal form of monastic life took shape under the leadership of St. Pachomius (290-346AD), who was a former soldier and upon being baptized immediately took up the life of a hermit.  In 320AD he began the first established monastic community in Tabbenisi, where all the members lived a common life sharing all they had and eating and praying together.  They also practiced obedience to their leaders and to a formal Rule (spiritual guidelines with specific actions) eventually assembled and written by St. Pachomius.  In time other communities or centers, including those of women, were established following the Rule of Pachomius creating the first monastic orders.  This form of monastic life is termed 'cenobite' coming from the Greek words: 'koinos bios,' which mean 'common life.'  Cenobite monasticism is quite opposite to the more extreme ascetic forms as practiced in Syria by those who tended towards ultimate self denial, an example being St. Simeon the Elder (390-459AD) who lived for thirty years on top of a pillar praying and preaching.  Eventually, other than in unique cases, the communal life would become the standard in Christian monasticism. Thereby bringing together the idea of separation from the world but still forcing one to live communally and help his brothers and sisters, very similar to how Christ lived.

St. Basil the Great & The Rule

St. Basil of Caesarea or the Great (330-379AD) finally established the rules for monasticism as used, to this very day in the Byzantine traditions.  He firmly believed in the communal approach and that the monks should share all things in common.  He insisted on obedience to God and the community, in the person of the abbot, having disapproved of the more ascetically forms which often led to instability rather than holiness.  He also felt the monastic life should be one of service to Christian community, as a whole, and so he placed monasteries in locations where the monks could minister to the faithful and offer hostility.  St. Basil was known for his good works to the poor and sick and this greatly affected his view of how monastic life should be approached.  His teachings and order for communal life were eventually compiled, some parts even during his life, and became known as the 'Longer Rules' and 'Shorter Rules.'  These rules were introduced by Eustathius of Sebaste to Cappadocia, Pontus, and eventually the whole of Asia Minor and in time the entirety of Christianity.

Monasticism in the West

Monasticism first came to the West by St. Athanasius who had written a book entitled "Life of Anthony" which was translated into Latin around 360AD and quickly spread among the Church there.  Monasticism also found its way into the Western Church via St. Martin of Tours, who established a community of hermits and eventually became bishop popularizing this lifestyle in the eyes of the local faithful.  Other key individuals in the West were: St. Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli and St. Augustine of Hippo who both formed their clergy into a monastic community of sorts following ascetically rule.  Also, St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan sponsored a male monastic community in the late fourth century which aided in the official recognition of monasticism from a hierarchical  viewpoint.  One of the greatest treasures we have today, for both the monastic and secular Christian, is St. John Cassian's "Institutes & Conferences," a volume on the practical and spiritual sides of monastic life and filled with teaching on defeating the vices and excelling in virtues.  While no doubt some of these teaching are entrenched in a lack of scientific thought and modern knowledge they still, at their core, hold vital truths for all generations wishing to follow the command of Christ: Love God, yourself, and your neighbor.

St. Benedict & His Rule

As monasticism spread in the West many rules were composed for individual communities, eventually one rule would triumph over all the others becoming the foundation for all monastic practice: The Rule of St. Benedict.  The life of St. Benedict of Nursia (480-550AD) was recorded by Pope St. Gregory the Great, he was originally a hermit but in time formed a cenobite community where he wrote his rule in Monte Cassino.  His rule was a compilation of his own experience, wisdom, and also clearly took cues from the Rules of St. Basil and St. Pachomius, it is a highly regarded rule for it's straight forward teaching and easy means to implement in a community.  St. Benedict believed strongly that all must be shared in common, obedience to the abbot was a must but in return the abbot consulted with the brethren - thereby minimizing manipulative abuse by elders, regular meditation and study of Scripture was key, no personal possession were kept, and the monastic vow was for life.  He was very leery of extreme forms of asceticism, including the full solitary lifestyle, believing communal to be best for the mind and spirit.  The Rule also required that all monks participate in the readings and prayer of the community so education was a key element of the monastery and led to them eventually becoming the educational centers in Europe. In time, under the support of St. Gregory the Great, the Rule of St. Benedict would transcend all other rules to become the standard by which all communities were judged and arranged.
No matter the path you choose in life may it be one of service to God and others. Love unconditionally and exemplify the grace of God in all you do!

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