OF MONKS AND MEN 

Two questions always puzzled believers, does Christianity encompass only the tough or does it include those who backslide? No one ever satisfactorily settled this question . A dualistic approach resulted. Those who stood firm during persecution received special honor. At the same time, the church attempted to reintegrate backsliders into the Christian community.

The second question is similar. Can Christians live in a predominantly non-Christian culture without compromise, or should they withdraw into their own societies?

In other words, should the church be aggressive or maintain a fortress mentality? The church demonstrated both views throughout its history. On this page,   I survey  those who advocate retreat -- the early monastic movement.

Let's note first some of the factors contributing to monasticism. First, there were those who chose to withdraw from unspiritual practices. Many "nominal" believers joined the church during the third and fourth centuries. They carried with them worldly practices and concepts. "Spiritual" Christians saw this as a threat to the church's purity and they preferred to withdraw from such careless congregations. Second, Greek thinking contributed to the monastic spirit. Christians accepted the Greek idea that flesh was evil and withdrew in an effort to subdue the body and avoid worldly pursuits. Finally, Christians took seriously the admonitions, "Love not the world...." You can escape attachment to the world by withdrawing. As a result, we find monasticism beginning about mid-third century. Early monasticism offered opportunities to "buffet the body," develop personal spirituality and demonstrate "hatred" toward evil.

Early church leaders generally looked down on monasticism. Monks were usually "laymen" rather than churchmen although many monks became famous spiritual leaders. Clerics linked monastic impulses to non-Christian roots. Some astute clergymen feared that tendencies towards Platonic dualism and Gnostic denial of the material world would lead to heresy.

We usually identify Anthony (251-356) of Egypt as the first monk. The son of wealthy parents, Anthony heard Christ's words to the rich young ruler and took them seriously. At age 20 he sold his substantial inherited possessions and retreated into the desert. Once in the desert, he sought out an old hermit to learn the secrets of desert survival.

Anthony represents monasticism's first stage, the eremitic or anchorite monk. Living outside the village, he worked with his hands spending only small portions for food. The rest he gave away. Athanasius reports he lived on bread, water and salt taken once a day. He purposely slept on bare ground to allow the elements to harden his body. Egyptians customarily applied emollients to the body to keep skin soft and pliable but Anthony avoided such luxury. In spite of this austere lifestyle, Anthony lived to the ripe old age of 105.

About 285, Anthony moved deeper into the desert. In his seclusion Athanasius reported he had numerous "bouts with the devil." Travelers often heard shrieks and screams as Anthony wrestled with these evil entities. The monk also spent hours in prayer and contemplation. I'm sure he had many mystical experiences, but one has to wonder if the old boy was really in touch with reality.

Anthony's reputation grew and he became widely known as a holy man. Christians sought him out for spiritual guidance and counsel. About 305 Anthony organized some of these disciples into a community of hermits. This community, known as a laura, is simply a street with huts down both sides. Each hermit lived in his own hut but had nothing to do with anyone else. They truly "lived alone together." They become known as monochas (those who live alone), or monks.

Pachomius (290-346) represents monasticism's second stage. Another Egyptian, Pachomius came from pagan backgrounds. Impressed with Christian kindness when he served in the Roman Army, Pachomius became a Christian.

Pachomius discovered that everyone can't adjust to the hermit life. He started out seeking spiritual growth as a hermit monk. He learned desert survival but lasted just about a year before leaving in 320 to set up the first true monastery. In his monastery, men lived together and emphasized the common life. Pachomius' arrangement becomes known as koinos bias (common life) or cenobitic monasticism. Communities require organization because of interaction. Organization implies rules and Pachomius sets up a primitive rule of faith. He divided his community into 24 classes denominating them with letters of the Greek alphabet. The Latin word for rule is regula and, in time, these monks are designated regular clergy since they live together according to a common set of rules. In the strictest sense monks are not clergy, but they are not laymen either. Churchmen, the genuine clergy comprised of bishops, priests, presbyters and deacons, become known as secular clergy because they live "out in the world."

Pachomius's set up a simple organizational structure. Since he served in the military, he set up a military organizational structure. In his monastery, the abbot (from abba, father) sat at the top of the "chain of command." The abbot served as father figure and all monks obeyed him. Pachomian monks took two vows, the vow of poverty and the vow of chastity.

Both Anthony and Pachomius kept things simple. In time extremes began creeping in. We see obvious excesses by the fourth century. One monk lived in a cistern and sustained his life with just five figs a day. Other monks trained themselves to sleep standing up in the middle of a room. Still others stood chin deep in water all night. Most excesses occurred in Egypt where nights were warm, but as monasticism spread monks found such practices difficult to duplicate in the cold Gallic winters. One Egyptian monk rejected royal court finery to the point he made "perfume" of stagnant water as penance for the perfume he earlier enjoyed in court. Others made cages so small they could only sleep in uncomfortable positions. One monk hung in a tub between two poles and sat in it with chin on knees.

Basil of Caesarea (330-379) established a monastery in Cappadocia seeking to deal with some of the excesses. This monastery became the foundation for all eastern monasticism. Basil tried to temper the excesses without destroying monasticism's spirit. He reworked Pachomius's rules, borrowed from other monastic rules and established the "Rule of Basil." He targeted asceticism for elimination but emphasized the common life. Basil's rule has four points. First, he hoped to suppress the anchorites, or hermit monks, leading them to "complete monasticism." Second, he tried removing the monasteries from the desert into the cities where monks could practice Christian service. Third, he restricted austerity and self-inflicted sufferings. One major change can be seen in the reduction of prayer times. Eastern Orthodox monastic systems still rigidly observe Basil's schedule. Roman Catholicism does too, to a degree. His schedule is as follows:

Matins - 2 a.m.
Lauds - daybreak
Prime - 6 a.m.
Tierce - 9 a.m.
Sept - 12 noon
None - 3 p.m.
Vespers - sundown
Compline - darkness

Fourth, Basil attempted to upgrade the monks' intellectual level.

Anthony started the monastic ball rolling, Pachomius develops the concept of the common life and Basil reorganizes and tranquilizes monasticism. There are still monks out on the "lunatic fringe." Simeon Stylites (390-459) stereotypes such monks. Simeon is the most famous of the "pillar saints."

Simeon began as an anchorite monk at age 23. As his first spiritual development project, he chained himself to a huge rock in a cave for 40 days. He covered his leg with a piece of leather to protect it. Upon removing the leather he discovered 20 fat bugs feeding on him. As a further spiritual growth project, he persuaded friends to bury him up to his neck each night. At age 33 Simeon found his best spiritual growth method. He built a pillar with a platform just six feet off the ground. He lived on this platform the rest of his life. He occasionally raised this pillar until it stood sixty feet off the ground. At that height, he found life difficult. He could not bathe and vermin infested him. According to the stories about him, his faithful cherished each worm falling from his body. Simeon constantly cut himself reopening wounds. It is said that one day a worm fell off Simeon and he retrieved it placing it back on one of his many open sores saying, "Eat what God has given you." Observers tell us that Simeon bowed town and touched his head to his toes as he prayed. One man counted to 1,000 before he lost count. Others tell us Simeon ate so little and drank such small quantities that he had negligible bodily eliminations.

During the late Roman Empire we see virtually every sort of monastic development imaginable. Many monks became obsessed with sexuality. Monks were often advised to avoid bathing so the naked body would not excite lust. Monks often bragged (or complained) how long it had been since they saw a woman. Some monasteries refused to allow anything female inside -- even hens. Monks saw women as the symbol of sexuality and they believed that Eve stood responsible for all sin.

We'll look at other monastic efforts later on. At this point, you must understand that almost every type of monasticism existed. Subsequent monastic movements represented revisions or reformations.

                    | Home | Where to Go |

1