The Greek and Eastern Churches/Part 1/Division 1/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

EASTERN MONASTICISM

(b) Zöchler, Kritische Geschichte der Askek, 1863; Texts and Studies, vi., Dom Cuthbert Butler, "The Lausiac History of Palladius"; Harnack, Monasticism, 1901; Gibbon, Decline and Fall, chap, xxxvii.

We have seen that in the region of thought it was the Eastern branch of the Church that developed theology and settled the creed of Christendom. Now we have to observe how in matters of practice and conduct it was this same Oriental district that shaped the ideal and advanced farthest towards its attainment. After the early days of joyous liberty, not only during the patristic period, but right through the Middle Ages, asceticism is synonymous with sanctity for the bulk of the Church, both Eastern and Western. Now and again there appears a mystic, out of all relation to time and circumstance, as by its nature mysticism always is; and then we have a flash of light on the spirituality of religion realised by practical love. But in the main, the ideal of the Christian life all down the ages involved on one side renunciation of the world, castigation of the body, a crushing down of natural affections, and on the other side intense, whole-hearted devotion, stoical endurance, unflinching fidelity to creed and Church. Only a select minority seriously pursued this difficult aim.

The fourth century is the great age of the rise and development of monasticism in the East; a century later we see it rapidly spreading through the West. This Western movement was mainly stimulated by Jerome, who had spent years in his cell at Bethlehem, and organised by Cassian, who brought to Marseilles ideas he had gathered from Basil's arrangements in Asia Minor. Thus both of these men who were the chief influences leading to the formation of early Western monasticism—the one for its inspiration, the other for its regulation—derived their impulses and directions from the East. It is to the history of the Eastern Church, therefore, that the origin and development of monasticism belong.

The roots of monasticism lie far back in the past. Its development may be traced through the following stages:—(1) General Asceticism; (2) Specific Asceticism, (3) Anchoritism; (4) Cœnobitism; (5) Regulated Monasticism.

1. A spirit of asceticism is always found hovering round the idea of religion even where it has not penetrated deeply into that idea. Prayer and fasting go often together. While our Lord never commanded the latter practice nor even commended it,[1] and while He justified His disciples in neglecting the custom,[2] He assumed that it would be practised in times of sorrow,[3] and He also gave directions for unostentatiousness in the performance of it by His disciples, implying that, as Jews, they would be carrying on their Jewish habits in this matter.[4] In point of fact it was practised in apostolic times, though especially if not exclusively on critical occasions of exceptionally earnest prayer.[5] The Palestinian Christians of the sub-apostolic age were warned not to fast on the Jews' fasting-days—an admonition implying that fasting on set days was part of their regular practice.[6] In later times it was always pursued more or less as part of the regular Christian life among those who aimed at thoroughness.

2. During the second century asceticism received a powerful impulse from sectional bodies of Christians in protest against the increasing secularisation of the Church after the high enthusiasm of primitive times had cooled down. This was especially cultivated by the Gnostics, who claimed that in practical ethics as well as in intellectual conceptions they constituted a sort of spiritual aristocracy among their fellow Christians. Marcion, while attempting to follow St. Paul in his gospel of grace, appeared as a moral reformer in a quite un-Pauline asceticism, although his "forbidding marriage" like his other extravagances was really an exaggerated and distorted Paulinism.[7] The Montanists also pressed the rigour of their Puritanism in the same direction. On the Jewish side the Encratites were pronounced ascetics. Meanwhile, as usual, the main body of the Church took a middle course; it regarded asceticism with great respect, while not requiring it. Virginity is repeatedly honoured in the Shepherd of Hermas,[8] and Justin Martyr refers to celibate old men and women in terms of admiration.[9] By the third century this idea is much advanced, and we find Cyprian ranking celibacy as definitely higher than marriage.[10] By the fourth century we see this view of giving exceptional honour to virginity (while not demanding it, as had been done by the Encratites, Marcion, Tatian, and other Gnostics) definitely registered as the rule of the Church. In the Apostolical Constitution vows of virginity are recognised though not demanded.[11] Here then we are at the second stage in the development of asceticism. Certain people elect to live a celibate life and take vows accordingly. But these people do not come out from among their fellows; they mingle with general society; they remain as members of the family in their own homes.

3. The next stage is the most fertile and significant. The end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth saw the rise of the anchorites. These men forsook the cities and fled into the desert, living in solitary huts or caves or even out in the open air exposed to all weathers, roughly and thinly clad, feeding meagrely on a vegetarian diet, castigating themselves with vigorous self-discipline, vying with one another in an eager rivalry of self-mortification, spending their time in prayer, meditation, wrestling with evil impulses, performing a minimum of work, if any, lust sufficient for a bare livelihood, by cultivating a little plot of ground, basket-making, or other manual labour, but when otherwise provided for doing nothing of the kind, often developing amazing extravagances of self-torture, sometimes going mad in their wild, cruel life, sometimes flinging it up and rushing into the vortex of city dissipation with the fury of a fierce reaction.

The rapid rise and spread of this movement, which proved to be so immensely influential on all subsequent ages, demands an explanation; and seeing that it took place at a particular historical moment, we must look for that explanation in part at least among the circumstances of the times. The main root of monasticism, as of all asceticism, is to be found in the dichotomy of human nature, the discord between the animal part and the soul in the constitution of man, the war between the flesh and the spirit—a conflict realised in Indian religions as keenly as in Christianity. But if that is always present the question faces us, Why did it take this peculiar form of monasticism especially at the beginning of the fourth century a.d.? This was just the time when the tempest of persecution which had swept over the Christians from time to time passed away, and the sunshine of imperial favour bringing with it a luxurious summer of fashion broke out over the Church. Formerly the better life had been braced by the buffeting of adverse winds; now it was in danger of being relaxed by the soft zephyr of worldly prosperity. The adoption of Christianity as the court religion turned on to it the stream of fashion. The world crowded into the Church; the consequence was that the Church became rapidly assimilated to the world. In the hard times the confessor was regarded as the athlete. His endurance then toughened his spiritual muscles. Now the occasion for that fine athleticism had passed. How was the pure flame of devotion to be kept clear and bright in the stifling atmosphere of a world nominally Christian, but really almost as unspiritual as the pagan society it was succeeding? That was the question of the hour. Earnest men answered it in a way that we may think selfish, if not cowardly. Instead of remaining in the world as its leaven, they fled from the world to escape its contamination. But the mischief of their mistake has been exaggerated where it was least hurtful. These men were not lost to society as moral influences. It became customary for town bishops and others to take their holidays in a retreat with an anchorite for a spiritual tonic, as modern town workers recruit their strength by mountaineering or some other recreation in touch with nature. The fame of great anchorites spread through the Church and held up the ideal of the simple life to the people of a decadent civilisation. Some were preachers whom the multitude sought after like John the Baptist in the wilderness. Again and again a monk trained by the discipline of solitude was called to fill some high post in the Church, and then, responding to the unwelcome summons, proved himself singularly effective by reason of his detachment from secular concerns.

There is another side; but that is scarcely where the superficial observer might look for it. It is doubtful if the men who fled from the world could have influenced it much more by adopting the ordinary life of citizens than they did by awakening the popular imagination and firing the popular enthusiasm from their lonely retreats.

The real mischief of monasticism was more remote and subtle, but not less hurtful in the end. The empire suffered by the withdrawal of so many of the strongest men from public service. Besides, for the best people not to marry, and for the continuation of the population to be left to men and women of a second grade morally, must have made for the deterioration of the race. Yet to hold up the ascetic ideal as the loftiest to aim at tended in that direction. It is evident that the diminution of the effective population caused by the enormous exodus of celibates into the wilderness, just at the time when swarms of rapidly growing Teutonic peoples were gathering on the confines of the empire and even bursting through and pouring over it, was one of the direct causes of the break-up of the empire. The later emperors saw this and some of them regarded the monks as the deadliest enemies of the State. Moreover, even considered ecclesiastically, monasticism—especially in its earlier stages—acted as a disintegrating influence. In his desert retreat the monk was well out of reach of the bishop. He recited his psalms and conducted his devotions in his own way, and so shook himself free of the stiffening rubric that was followed in the usual assemblies for public worship. He was a Free Churchman at a time when authority was strenuously maintained in the Church as a whole. In the honour that was spontaneously given him by an admiring public he became a dangerous rival to the bishop. Usually he was a fierce champion of orthodoxy; but his orthodoxy tended to become narrow, hard, cruel. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, it may be that monasticism saved the situation at the critical moment when the Church was in danger of being confused with the world, a river suddenly let loose from its confining banks to spread in swamps and marshes over society and finally lose itself in the sands of secularity.

The specific form of monasticism which emerged in separation from the world, and in a measure even from the Church as a society, first appeared in Egypt. It is doubtful whether floating traditions of Indian customs had anything directly to do with its rise, although there are remarkable coincidences of habit. The Therapeutæ—if Mr. Conybeare's vindication of Philo's description of them[12] is accepted as satisfactory—were singularly similar forerunners of the Christian monks. But it is more likely that similar causes led to similar effects than that in either case there was direct imitation. Alexandria was a centre of highly artificial civilisation; the desert was close at hand for those who desired to escape from the corrupting influences of city life. The country that had Therapeutæ before the Church appeared, and later dervishes under the Mohammedan régime, might naturally invite to similar practices in Christian times. We need not always assign the most strenuous motives to this movement. Doubtless there have always been men and women drawn to solitude by its own fascination, like Thoreau in his Walden; there have always been lovers of nature who preferred the country to the town.

Fresh light has been recently thrown on the lives and manners of the early Christian ascetics, especially in Egypt, by the publication of The Lausiac History of Palladius, a series of biographical sketches of monks, many of whom the writer had known personally, with some of whom he had shared their cells for a time, while he obtained information about others from reports of their disciples. Palladius was born in Galatia in the year 367; he visited the Egyptian ascetics in 388, spending three years among them. All this was in his youth. Subsequently he visited ascetics in other parts, and he wrote his book in the year 420.[13]

The earliest fugitives to the Egyptian desert simply retired before persecution without any ascetic design.[14] The first of the actual hermits is said to have been Paul, who lived in a cave near the Red Sea and was visited a short time before his death by St. Anthony.[15] Jerome calls him "the founder of the monastic life";[16] hut he is rather a shadowy personality, although we really have no reason to deny his existence. Much more important is the great Anthony himself. Keen controversy has raged as to the genuineness of the famous life of Anthony ascribed to Athanasius. It has been urged that the extravagances, the puerilities, the absurd miracles of this story are utterly unworthy of the champion of the Nicene faith, and could not have issued from the pen that wrote the well-known treatises contained in his acknowledged works. But now we have equally extravagant and seemingly impossible things said of other anchorites by Palladius, and he vouches for some of his most marvellous stories as a personal friend who in some cases had shared for months the cells of the men concerning whom he narrates them.[17] Athanasius calls Anthony "the founder of asceticism." There were anchorites when he took up a similar life, but living in huts[18] which they had built themselves near the towns. Born in the year 250, he received his call at the age of eighteen in the words of Christ to the young-ruler which he once heard in church. He spent fifteen years in a hut near his native village; after which he shut himself up in one of those rock tombs that are so abundant in Egypt.[19] After this he lived in close seclusion in a ruined castle, and blocked up the entrance with a huge stone. His final place of abode was at a still more remote spot by the Dead Sea, where he died at the age of 105, ministered to in his extreme old age by his faithful disciples Amathas and Macarius. During this long life of asceticism Anthony had won a fame which made his example a model for multitudes who now entered on the life of anchorites. At times of critical importance he would leave his retreat and appear in the city of Alexandria to preach to the people with immense effect, being received as a most venerated counsellor. He practised the exorcism of his times, fully believing in it. In the Arian controversy he was a staunch supporter of the Nicene position, and he did Athanasius good service by bringing the weight of his saintly reputation to bear on that side of the question. Altogether he is described as a man gifted with brain power and able to persuade men with forcible arguments. When dying he bequeathed his sheepskin to Athanasius, who received it as the most precious legacy.

Women as well as men were caught by the fascination of the ascetic life. In some cases they had personal reasons for adopting it. Thus Palladius tells the story of the maiden Alexandria, who shut herself up for ten years in such complete seclusion that even her attendant could not see her face. She told this attendant that she was never idle, for she spent her time in prayer, reciting the psalms, and weaving linen. Asked why she chose to live in this way, she said that it was in order to escape from the importunities of a lover. Among the most curious anchorites were the Stylites, men who lived on the summits of pillars. The practice originated in the fifth century with Simeon, who was born at Sisan, a village on the borders of Syria and Cilicia. He went through a succession of self-imposed austerities, living for a summer buried up to his neck in a garden; then in a dark cave with a spiked girdle round his waist; later on in a cell near Antioch where a number of admirers gathered about him. In the year 423 he built a low pillar, lived on that for a time, then on a higher pillar, and so on till he was raised 40 cubits above the earth, either in a hut, or, as seems more probable, merely on a railed platform. There he spent thirty years—the wonder of the world. Crowds of Arabians and Armenians, and even pilgrims from as far as Spain and Britain, flocked thither to see the holy man and obtain his blessing. Simeon preached to them from his lofty pulpit, and thus became one of the most potent religious influences of his age. Others followed his example, especially in Syria and Greece. The eccentricity was not adopted in Egypt and it was disapproved of in the Western Church.

4. Meanwhile the fourth stage of the ascetic life was well advanced. This is known as the cœnobite. It is the common life, the life of a community. The contrast with the hermit life is very marked. The ancient anchorite sought absolute solitude, chose his own course, lived as he thought fit a very self-contained life. The monk in a convent was to sink self in the common life, pursue no self-willed aims, obey the authority under which he was put. Of the three monastic vows that dominated monasticism throughout the Middle Ages—poverty, chastity, obedience—the first two only were observed by the primitive anchorites; the third came in with the cœnobite life. A movement in this direction was originated by the gathering of admiring disciples round the cell of some famous anchorite. When these men had their own cells they were set well apart out of earshot of one another. Still, here we see an approach to the idea of a grouping of monks together. Sometimes a group of hermits would meet for the communion in an ordinary church if such a place happened to be within reach. But the definite founding of the cœnobite system is ascribed to Pachomius, who established his first monastery at Tabenniti near Denderah, about the year 305. The idea spread rapidly, and by the time of the death of Pachomius in or near the year 345 there were eight monasteries and several hundreds of monks. It was a fully organised system from the first, with a superior, a system of visitation, and general chapters. A monastery consisted of a number of houses each containing some thirty or forty monks. The rules were rigorous on the principles of a military system. Still there was room for variations of habit. Describing the monastery at Panopolis (Akhmīm), Palladius tells us that the tables were laid and that a meal was prepared at midday and at every successive hour till late in the evening, to suit the convenience of monks who fasted up to various times in the day. Yet some, he says, ate only every second day, some only every third day, some only every fifth day.

Palladius is full of strange stories of the Egyptian anchorites and monks, some of them too fantastic to be better than childish fables, yet most of them significant of some trait in the ascetic life. The fidelity with which he records the faults he discovered in his visits to the desert retreats must be set down to his credit for good faith. Macarius punished himself for killing a gnat in a moment of irritation by retiring to the Scetic marshes, and there spending six months in a state of nudity among the insects, till on his return he was only recognised by his voice, his skin being like an elephant's hide. To Valens of Palestine the devil once came in the appearance of Christ, with such flattery of speech that the poor man's head was turned, and he told his brethren the next day that he had no need to partake of the communion. "For," said he, "I have seen Christ Himself." He was put in irons for a twelvemonth, and thus effectually humbled and cured of his delusion—if such it was; but Sir Walter Scott's famous story of Colonel Gardiner reminds us that the incident is capable of a very different interpretation. Another story of a similar character does not look quite so innocent. One night, as Palladius tells us, the devil came to Eucarpus, who had spent fifteen years in the ascetic life, speaking to nobody, and said, "I am Christ." The monk believed, and fell down and worshipped his vision. The intoxication of this scene encouraged the poor man to insubordination, so that he called Macarius "a painted image" and Evagrius "a mere hewer of words." He too was put in irons for a year, after which he only lived thirteen months, ministering to the sick and washing the feet of strangers. Stephen lost all desire for meat and treated with contempt those who when out of health took milk or cooked flesh. His pride had a terrible fall. Resenting the authority of Macarius, he ran off to Alexandria, and there plunged into gluttony, drunkenness, and debauchery.

5. The last stage in the development of Eastern monasticism is due to the statesmanlike wisdom and energy of the great Basil, who may be regarded as the Benedict of the Oriental Church. The arrangements made by Pachomius applied only to his own monks. By far the larger number of the ascetics were living according to their private lights, and even where there were monasteries these were very variously administered. Basil travelled widely, visiting many of these institutions and discovering their objectionable features. Two practices in particular he held to be very mischievous. The first was the hermit habit. Solitude he thought dangerous to humility and charity. "Whose feet wilt thou wash?" he asks; "whom wilt thou serve? bow canst thou be last of all—if thou art alone?" The second of these evils was idleness. Basil's rule insists on industry. At the same time he puts restraint on the wild extravagances of asceticism. A man of ascetic habits himself—with his one daily meal of beans—he writes, "If fasting hinders you from labour, it is better to eat like the workman of Christ that you are." The monk can possess no private property, meet no woman, drink no wine, read only canonical books. The true ascetic uses the dry and least nourishing food and eats but once a day.[20] There is to be reading during the meals.[21] Basil's pride and masterfulness should not be allowed to blind us to his careful, considerate kindness. He studied the welfare of the monks, relaxed their more severe exercises, but braced them for regular, wholesome work. Lofty-minded himself, he seeks to kindle a fine flame of enthusiasm in others. Thus he exclaims, "Athletes, workmen of Jesus Christ, you have engaged yourselves to fight for Him all the day, to bear all its heat. Seek not repose before the end; wait for the evening, that is to say, the end of life, the hour at which the householder shall come to reckon with you and pay your wages."

  1. The word "fasting," νηστεία, in Mark ix. 29, of A.V. and T.R., is not critically authorised; nor does it appear in the parallels of Matthew and Luke.
  2. Mark ii. 18, 19.
  3. Ibid., ver. 20.
  4. Matt. vi. 16–18.
  5. e.g. Acts xiii. 3.
  6. Didaché, 8.
  7. e.g. 1 Cor. vii. 1, 7, 8.
  8. e.g. Sim. 9, 10.
  9. 1 Apol. 15.
  10. e.g. de Habitu Virg. 23.
  11. Const. Apost. iv. 14.
  12. De Vita Cont. 6.
  13. It was dedicated to Lausus, a chamberlain at the court of Theodosius ii. Hence the name by which it is now known. Its amazing stories have led to its being regarded by some—especially Weingarten and Lucius—as a pure fabrication. But Dom Cuthbert Butler has vindicated its genuineness. The whole question of monkish marvels must be determined with regard to many considerations of hypnotism, telepathy, the sub-conscious ego, inaccuracy of observation, curious ideas as to the obligation of truth. We cannot doubt the genuineness of the life of St. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus; yet that book offers us miracles galore.
  14. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. vi. 42.
  15. Jerome, Vita Pauli; Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. i. 13.
  16. Auctor vitæ monasticæ; princeps vitæ monasticæ.
  17. The genuineness of Athanasius' Vita Antonii is defended by Preuschen, Stülcken, Bardenhewer, Holl, Völter, Leipoldt, Grützmacher, Dom Butler, Text and Studies, vol. vi. No. 2; Texte v. Unterschungen, N.F. iv. 4, 79.
  18. Called μοναστηρία.
  19. The present writer was invited by a friend who was conducting exploration work in Egypt to "spend a night with him in his tomb; there would be plllety of sand." Such a retreat is not altogether devoid of comfort, being warm at night and cool during the day.
  20. Const. Monast. cap. vi.
  21. Reg. bref. tract. Interr. 186.