Analyzing the early monastic traditions

Since the early years of the Christian era, Christians have been called by Christ Himself to life in the world without being of the world (John 17:13-16). They are distinct from the world, because of their special conduct and their exemplary ethical life. When, toward the middle of the second century of the Christian era, Christian life reached a low ebb, some Christians, both men and women, reacted to this by raising their own personal standards of austere Christian life. They practiced chastity, celibacy, poverty, prayer and fasting (Justin, I Apology 15:6; Athenagoras, Apology 33; and Galenus, De Sententiis Politiae Platonicae).

These people considered themselves Christians selected to live the life of angels (Matt. 22:30). They lived by themselves or in special houses as a community. At about the middle of the third century, they began fleeing the world and going to the desert, where they established permanent habitations, whether by themselves or in small groups. They are known as the "anchorites" (from anachoresis: departure, flight); the hermits (from eremos: desert); and the monastics (from monos: alone, for a monastic "lives in the presence of God alone").

A good example of an anchorite monk is Saint Anthony the Great, who fled the world [c. 285] and established himself in the desert of Middle Egypt. Many people imitated his example; they went and lived close to him, thus "populating the desert" (Troparion of St. Anthony). These monks lived by themselves in huts and small houses to form a village called "lavra" (later the concept of "lavra" develops, as we will see). St. Anthony is considered the Father of Orthodox monasticism, for his kind of monasticism, that of "living alone with God as his only companion" remained the most cherished monastic ideal for the monks of the Eastern Orthodox Church throughout the ages.

The establishment of Christianity as a legal religion of the roman Empire by Constantine the Great, with the edict of Milan (313), led to a new decline in the ethical life of Christians. In reaction to this decline, many refused to accept any compromises and fled the world to become monastics. Monasticism thrived, especially in Egypt, with two important monastic centers, one in the desert of Nitria, by the Western Bank of the Nile, with Abba Ammoun (d. 356) as its founder, and one in the desert of Skete, south of Nitria, with Saint Makarios of Egypt (d. ca. Egypt 330) as its founder. These monks were anchorites, following the monastic ideal of St. Anthony. They lived by themselves, gathering together for common worship on Saturdays and Sundays only.

Whereas Saint Anthony the Great is the founder of anchorite monasticism, Saint Pachomios of Egypt (d. 346) is the founder of the so-called "cenobitic" (from Koinos bios: communal life) monasticism. Pachomios started as an anchorite himself in the Thebaid, Upper Egypt. Later in that same place, he founded the first "monastery" in the modern sense of the term. St. Anthony's lavra was a village of anchorites who lived by themselves in their own huts and had a life in common, practiced common daily prayer evening and morning, worked in common, had common revenues and expenditures, and common meals, and wore the same identical monastic garb. This garb consisted of a linen tunic or robe and belt, a white goat skin or sheep skin coat and belt, a cone-shaped head-cover or hood (koukoulion) and a linen scarf (maforion or pallium). At this stage, monks were identified with lay people seeking Christian perfection. No religious ceremony was required, and no monastic vows. Monks were prohibited from becoming clergy.

Anchorite monasticism existed in other places besides Egypt. However, "organized monasticism," that is, of the "cenobitic" type, spread to Sinai, Palestine and Syria from Egypt. Two monks from Egypt, St. Ilarion (d. 371) and St. Epiphanios, later bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (d. 403), brought organized monasticism to Palestine.

Monasticism at this time was identified with the "charismatics" of the ancient church. This identification of monasticism with the "enthusiastic element" in the church led to some abuses, of which those around Eustathios of Sebastia (d. 380) are good example. Eustathios introduced monasticism into Asia Minor from Egypt. His followers became overzealous; they taught that marriage and meat-eating made salvation impossible; they were, in fact, advocating monasticism for all Christians. The Council of Gangra (343) condemned these over-enthusiastic practices. Another heresy that affected monasticism during this same time was "Messalianism," which appeared in Mesopotamia (c. 350 A.D.). Messalians were ascetics who practiced poverty, celibacy and fasting. They rejected the sacramental life of the church and pretended to see God with their physical eyes. They spread in Syria and Asia Minor; they finally were anathematized by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus [431]. Under the influence of the Messalians, the non-sleepers or Vigilant (Akoimetoi) type of monasticism was developed in the area of Constantinople (mid-fifth century). The most famous instance was the Studion monastery, renowned for its polemic against the Iconoclasts. St. Symeon of Antioch [ca. 460] also developed the Stylite type of monasticism, living himself on a pole (stylos) for over 36 years.

Monasticism became a strong movement in the life of the church. The church not only condemned anti-church groups and tendencies within monasticism, but also guided and directed the monastic movement to meet its own needs. One of the ways through which this occurred was through a convergence of monasticism and clergy: monks were now ordained in a special religious service at which they subscribed to special monastic vows, thus becoming a special class of Christians standing between the clergy and the laity. This development was mostly due to the efforts of Saint Basil, Archbishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia.

Source: http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7103

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