Before beginning this lecture you may want to

Read Marylin Dunn's The Emergence of Monasticism.

At first glance, Christianity might not seem a likely religion to embrace a monastic ideology.

Christ had commanded his followers to serve others. However, Christ had spent forty days in the desert and had also enjoined his followers to give up all they had to follow him.

In its first three centuries, Christianity was difficult, made doubly so by persecutions. The end of the persecutions and embracing of Christianity by most Romans meant that opportunities for martyrdom or other acts of Christian heroism were severely limited.

Christian monasticism began in Egypt with holy men who sought solitude separating themselves from a sinful world in order to come closer to God. They would go into the desert, living in caves or other makeshift dwellings.

Their reputation for holiness attracted many visitors, who sought out their wisdom or knowledge of God's will. It was taken for granted that the words of these holy men were divinely inspired, and so they were collected into books.

Antony is the most famous of these holy men, although he was not the first. Born in the mid-third century into a well-off family, Antony later took on the discipline of a hermit.

Christ in the Desert by Ivan Nikolaevic Kramskoj, 1872

Christ in the Desert by Ivan Nikolaevic Kramskoj, 1872

Christian Monasticism

Christian Monasticism

He lived in a tomb, not far from his hometown. Pestered by visitors, he moved to an abandoned fort, where he remained for several decades. He crafted an eremitical form of monasticism—a community of hermits.

Pachomius instituted the coenobitical form of monasticism in a community near the Nile around 318. Monks in these communities lived in common, sharing everything, engaging in manual labor and prayer.

They were engaged, above all, in an enterprise to save their souls. The community was organized along military lines with barracks and a superior to whom all owed obedience. Pachomius founded eight such monasteries during his life.

Basil attempted to reconcile the monastic life with Christ's commandments by insisting that the monks work and pray as a service to God's church and people and not simply for the salvation of their own souls.

All monks owed unquestioned obedience to their superior. No one was allowed to fast or mortify themselves without approval of their superior.

In order to serve, Basil's communities were obedient to the local bishop. This avoided problems that existed elsewhere. Because hermits often taught without regard to the local church authorities, they could easily fall into heresy.

Monasticism in Syria and Mesopotamia tended to draw disproportionately from simple, rural people with little formal education.

Here asceticism could be extreme. Symeon Stylite (390 - 459) lived in Syria, where he quickly gained a reputation as a holy man. Crowds flocked to his various caves and huts.

To remove himself from the crowds, he built a column on which he lived. Subsequent columns became larger, until he was living fifty feet above the crowds. Column dwelling became a popular devotion in the East for centuries.

Greek Orthodox Icon of St. Symeon Stylite

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