Monday, October 8, 2012

The Sources of Eastern Monasticism

Requested by a reader.

It does not take one long in studying Eastern Christian spirituality to realize that the influence of monasticism is immense.  A common view is that, in the Eastern Church, monasticism is the basis of all spirituality and that the spirituality of a Christian in the world should only differ from a monastic's in degree, not in essence.  Having a knowledge of monastic spirituality is thus a necessity to understanding Eastern Christian spirituality in general.

My approach to this introduction will be to first, in this post, outline the major saints and writings that are basic to monasticism and then, in a later post, to outline some of the major themes of monastic spirituality.  Since this will be so brief, there will be much left out, and I am sorry for any misinformation and glaring omissions, but I encourage you to read deeper if you are interested.


The traditional founder of Eastern Christian monasticism is St. Anthony of the Desert (251-356), also known as St. Anthony the Great and Αββας Αντωνιος (Abba Antonios).  After hearing the words of the Gospel read, he was struck to the heart by them and decided to live evangelically (St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi had similar experiences).  His encounter with the Gospel drove him to live alone in the desert where he could dedicate all of his time and effort to the Lord through prayer and asceticism.  Occasionally he would visit a nearby town when called upon in order to preach, debate (for instance, against the Arians), and heal the sick.  Other Christians, inspired by his example, would come to visit him in the desert and learn from him.  Among these were St. Serapion, St. Makarios (Macarius) of Egypt, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.  This last disciple is the biggest reason for St. Anthony's fame: St. Athanasius' Life of Saint Anthony the Great is the only written source for St. Anthony's teachings (he himself leaving no writings), and it was immensely spread, both in its original Greek and in Latin translations.

St. Makarios (Macarius) of Egypt (295-392), or St. Makarios the Great, a disciple of St. Anthony, is prominent in the monastic tradition, not so much for his actions and example as for his extraordinary Homilies.  They are considered one of the basic texts of monastic spirituality, and they were often (and quite possibly are still) read by monastic novices as part of their preparation.  They are even included, in a paraphrase by St. Symeon Metaphrastes, in the Philokalia, a famous 18th-century Greek collection of Eastern Christian spiritual texts.

Around the same time as these two saints was St. Pachomios (Pachomius) the Great (292-348).  While St. Anthony practiced eremitic monasticism (living as a hermit), St. Pachomius began the practice of cenobitic monasticism, where monks or nuns live in community and share their possessions (this is the main style of monasticism in the West).  To help guide the monastic communities he started, he wrote a Rule that still survives, though it is not generally used as the basis of a community any longer.  The other large contribution of St. Pachomius is the introduction of the prayer rope (chotki, kombostkini) into Eastern Christian spirituality.  This rope, usually consisting of 33, 50, or 100 knots, uses a knot involving seven overlapping crosses which was supernaturally taught to St. Anthony as a knot the devil could not untie.  The traditional way to use the rope is to pray the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") on each knot.  This is a traditional prayer style in the Eastern Church, especially among monastics and those practicing hesychasm, a later-developed prayer technique based on the Jesus Prayer.

 St. Basil the Great (1405) by Theophanes the Greek, teacher of Andrei Rublev

The last great figure in monasticism was St. Basil the Great (329/330-379), brother of St. Gregory of Nyssa and friend of St. Gregory of Nazianzus.  Although he ended up becoming a bishop and working in the world, he began his spiritual journey in the monastic life, where he wrote two rules building off of the teachings of St. Pachomius, the Shorter Rule and the Longer Rule, which are the basis of most Eastern Christian monastic communities to this day.  Not only that, but these rules were extremely in the West due to all that St. Benedict of Nursia took from them in making his famous Rule.

 Icon of the Holy Fathers of Mount Athos, the most famous contemporary representative of sketic monasticism

Besides the eremitic style of monasticism begun by St. Anthony and the cenobitic style founded by St. Pachomius and developed by St. Basil, there is also the monastic skete.  This style of monasticism is a mix of the other two, with monks having their own private hermitages but joining together regularly for public prayer, especially the Divine Liturgy.  There is no exact founder of the skete style of monasticism, but it takes its name from the Scetis region of Egypt where it was most prevalent.  This style was much practiced in the early days of monasticism, and there are still some sketes today throughout the world.

Icon of three Desert Fathers

Icon of eight Desert Mothers

The final necessary source of monasticism is the Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).  This collection of sayings from Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers is important for monastic spirituality.  The various sayings influenced countless Christians and saints throughout the ages.  Though other collections of tales and spiritual advice (the Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus, the Letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John) have been popular, none have been as popular and influential as the Apophthegmata.

If you wish to read some of these texts on-line, the Rule of St. Pachomius and about half of the Homilies of St. Makarios can be found here, while selections from the Apophthegmata Patrum can be found here.  The entirety of St. Makarios' Homilies can be found, scanned from a 1921 edition, at Internet Archive, and St. Athanasius' The Life of St. Anthony can be found at New Advent.

A later post will discuss monastic spirituality itself, drawing from these sources and others.  I hope this post was helpful.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Αββας Αντωνιος, πρεσβευε υπερ ημων!
Abba Antonios, intercede for us!

Nota Bene: I apologize if the Greek intercession at the end of the post is incorrect.  I do not fully know Greek yet, so I found that phrase described as meaning "pray for us" or, more specifically, "intercede for us" on this forum thread.  If the phrase is incorrect, I welcome corrections.

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