Marilyn Dunn

The beginnings ofWestern monasticism

Writing after the sack of Rome and the death of his friend, the Roman aristocrat and ascetic Marcella, in 410, Jerome attempted to describe the beginnings of Christian monasticism in the city over fifty years earlier:

In those days, no highborn lady at Rome had made profession of the monastic life or had ventured - so strange and ignominious and degrading did it then seem - to call herself a nun. It was from some priests of Alexandria and from pope Athanasius and subsequently from Peter [sc., his successor as bishop of Alexandria] who to escape the persecution of the Arian heretics, had all fled for refuge to Rome . .. that Marcella heard of the life of the blessed Anthony, then still alive, and of the monasteries in the Thebaid founded by Pachomius and of the discipline laid down for virgins and for widows . . /

While ascetic groups had existed in the West in the second and third centuries, the arrival of monasticism can be dated to the 340s when Bishop Eusebius of Vercelli, who had returned from exile in the East, imposed chastity and communal life on his clergy. From the 350s onwards, the Life of Anthony began to make an impression on Western readers. St Augustine recalls, in his Confessions, how his friend Ponticianus converted to the religious life when he came across an ascetic group at Trier and there read the Life. By the 370s, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, had introduced monastic life to his diocese as well as presiding over the public veiling of women who had dedicated themselves to a life of virginity. Knowledge of monasticism had already reached Gaul, when Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, returned from exile in the East.

The first male converts to the monastic life such as Ponticianus, Augustine himself and their influential contemporaries Jerome and Rufinus were intellectuals or civil servants rather than members of the highest social strata. The

0 0

Post a comment