The development of the monastic life

During the middle of the third century, persecution of Christians became so severe that many of them were forced to withdraw from the cities. This occurred on a still larger scale at the beginning of the fourth century, when the duration of the persecutions was greater, so that those who had withdrawn remained in the open country for a longer period. They became so accustomed to living there that they established a permanent abode there, far from the society of the world which was torn by hatred. The persecutions ceased, but the centuries persecution had become an inseparable element in the life of Christians, and many of them found life undisturbed by persecutors inconceivable. So they became persecutors of themselves: they went away to the mountains, and subjected themselves to privation and suffering. Instead of the “blood of martyrdrom”, which had terminated a struggle with ferocious men, they submitted themselves to the “martyrdrom of conscience”, which consisted in the struggle against demons.

Henceforth the mountains became abodes of hermits, and gradually of organized communities of monks also. With the passage of time more and more remote places were sought as ascetic refuges, such as Athos and Meteora. The father away the ascetics lived, the more reverence and admiration they evoked in the common people.

The first known hermit was Paul of Thebaid, but the first real leader of the desert life was Antony the Great (d. 356), whose life was written with insight and love by Athanasius the Great. He lived in the wilderness for more than seventy years, and went to Alexandria only when occasion demanded; that is, when he heard of persecutions, in order to encourage those who were suffering. His fame eared him the esteem of Constantine the Great, who frequently sought his advice by letter. But especially he aroused the zeal of many simple men, who imitated his example. Five thousand anchorites occupied the desert of Nitria and the surrounding regions. They lived in complete isolation, and only when they needed counsel did they visit Antony or some other elderly monk, an abba. It sometimes happened that one of them died and days passed before the order ascetics knew about it. Each anchorite organized his own prayer, shelter, clothing, food and work. Their work consisted chiefly of making straw artifacts, which they sold at country market-places. On Sundays alone they went to the nearest church, in order to pray together and receive Holy Communion. In this form, hermit life was not under the full control of the Church.

It was evident that absolute isolation could lead to arbitrary actions and did not embrace all the demands of the Christian Gospel. There was an absence, in the first place, of spiritual supervision of the hermits, and secondly of the directing of their activity towards serving their fellow men. This was early perceived by some of the great ascetic personalities, who undertook the appropriate reform: Hilarion in the region of Gaza, Palestine; Ammonius at Nitria, and Macarius at Sketis, in Egypt. All three lived during the fourth century. These men made the chief country market-place , where the hermits sold their products, their center of action. As such market-places were called lavras, the monastic establishments near them received the same name. The hermits lived in numerous cells built around the lavras, at such a distance that they could neither see nor hear one another. In this communal life, independence was curbed to some extent; and moreover, an element of flexibility became possible in ascesis. The leader of the lavra examined the cells from time to time and exercised a certain degree of authority over the hermits. Further, the latter gathered together for common prayer on Saturdays and Sundays. Beyond this, everything else: shelter, dress, food and work, was regulated by each individual for himself.

The coenobitic system

A further step was taken in Egypt by Pachomius (d. 346). As well as administration and prayer, he placed the shelter, dress, diet and work of the monks under supervision. Usually they lived in groups in spacious dormitories. It could be said that under this system monasticism became easier through the monks living together and associating with one another. A communal form of life made it possible for women to devote themselves to ascesis in seclusion: it is dangerous for them to live in complete isolation. But the main advantage of this system was that monasticism could now play a part in philanthropic activity.

The turning of monasticism in this direction was the chief work of Basil the Great the (d. 378), bishop of Caesarea. He lived in solitude for some time at his estate at Pontus, with members of his family. There be composed his famous work, Ascetica, which was to become the basis for the organization of monasticism during the subsequent period. He recommended the gathering of monks together in organized groups, in accordance with the social nature of men: “Man is a tame and social being, not a wild and solitary one. For there is nothing so characteristic of our nature as to associate with one another and to need one another and to need one to love our kind’ (Extensive Rules 3, I-P.G. xxxi, 947). According to this teaching, monks should return from the deserts to cities, and establish there philanthropic coenobia. Basil himself returned to Caesarea and organized a whole group of socially beneficial institutions, which later received, in his honour, the name of Basileias. From the very beginning, the direction of these was in the hands of monks, who were called “fathers of orphans”.

The coenobium could be regarded as the final form of monasticism, but is not. Although at first it eased the yoke of the ascetics, later it rendered it much harder to bear. For this reason a tendency towards a less strict mode of life became apparent during the Middle Ages, and this resulted in the constitution of the idiorrythmic life. The “contemplatives”, that is, those dedicated to the contemplation of God, sought release from practical and social work, in order to be unfettered for their spiritual work; and at the same time the weaker monks sought a relaxation of discipline. At the idiorrhythmic monasteries administration, dress, prayer, and to some extent living quarters remained communal. Diet and to some extent work were released from control. Thus monks were allowed to acquire private property, which could not, however, exceed certain limits. From one point of view, the idiorrythmic life may be regarded as a return to the communal system of the lavra, while from another standpoint it is a combination of the eremitic and the communal patterns of monasticism.

These four kinds of monasticism henceforth run parallel to one another throughout the centuries. Within the eremitical tradition there appeared strange and interesting variations, sometimes taking extreme forms. The confirmed shut themselves up for many years in their cells, communicating with the outer world only by letter, and to receive their meager allowance of food. The stylites dwelt on half-destroyed pillars. Those who became “fools” for Christ’s sake traveled about displaying their assumed madness for the sake of humility.

All four survive to the present day. Hermits are to be found almost exclusively on the furthest points of the peninsula of Mount Athos; the communal system is represented by the sketes of Athos; and the other two systems, the coenobitic and the idiorrhythmic, by monasteries in all Orthodox regions.