Thursday, September 25, 2014

Early Monastics (Today in Class)

Today in Patrology class, we discussed monasticism in the early centuries of the Church, focusing on St. Anthony the Great and St. Ammon.

St. Anthony (ca. 251 – 356) was born in Egypt, and he and St. Ammon are considered the fathers of Egyptian monasticism. Although ascetic practice is as old as the Church, St. Anthony is regarded as the first prominent monk. His life was written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, also known for the work On the Incarnation.

As a young person, St. Anthony loved attending church services and hearing the Scriptures; although he could not read or write, he knew the Scriptures by heart. While in church, he heard the words, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). He left his sister in the care of a group of Virgins (like proto-nuns) and became an ascetic.

At first he was under the tutelage of a hermit, but around 285, he moved to the banks of the Nile, and found a tower half in ruins, where he took up cloistered residence for twenty years. Soon enough, people sought him out for spiritual counsel. At the end of twenty years, he finally left his enclosure. They expected to see some kind of emaciated mummy, but amazingly enough, his physical appearance was perfectly healthy, neither fat nor thin. He passed through the crowds as if no one was there, focused completely on God.

While cloistered, St. Anthony faced great temptations, including being actually physically accosted by demons. After this attack, the saint saw a vision of heaven, and asked God, “Where were You?” and the answer came: “I was here but I would see and abide to see thy battle, and because thou hast manly fought and well maintained thy battle, I shall make thy name to be spread through all the world.” This incident has been famously depicted in numerous scary-looking paintings which I don’t feel like posting on this blog; you can Google them yourselves!

In 311, St. Anthony left the desert and went to Alexandria, one of two times when he left seclusion. He visited the Christians (still being persecuted) in prison, and himself sought martyrdom, but he did not receive the crown of martyrdom, and returned to the desert.

He did not organize a monastery, but there he had many, many disciples who lived around him. He and his disciples engaged in both manual work and prayer, “Ora et Labora,” so to speak. The most common form of manual labor was weaving baskets, mats and the like out of rushes.

In 338, he went again, this time to a Christian Alexandria, in order to confront the menace of Arianism. Despite his lack of formal education he was able through his spiritual authority and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures to refute the Arians and confirm the Orthodox in their faith. When the local governor sought him to stay in the city longer, St. Anthony answered, “Fish die if they are taken from the water; so does a monk wither away if he forsakes his solitude.”

He died around 356, at the age of 105. His many disciples contributed to the flourishing of monasticism in the Egyptian desert and the world.

The words of St. Anthony are full of practical wisdom. As Christians we need to strive to know ourselves; from there we will be able to know the virtues, which are the kingdom of God inside our hearts. Love for God comes from keeping ourselves from unclean thoughts, which come through constant inner vigilance. The main goal in life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The characteristics of his teachings are asceticism (forming the soul), morality, and some dogma (against Arianism). Compared to other Fathers, St. Anthony is quite easy to read. He did not make up a monastic rule like St. Benedict, but he did speak much about the monastic spirit. For an example of his teaching, please see his Thirty-Eight Sayings, found in the most popular collection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers.

St. Ammon (or Ammoun) was a contemporary/disciple of St. Anthony. When he married his wife (out of pressure from his uncle), they lived as brother and sister, and later separated to each life the monastic life. He lived in the desert of Nitria, where he established a monastery known as Kellia (The Cells). It was not like modern cenobitic monasteries, but the cells were placed far apart from each other, and the monks only gathered for common meals on Saturday and Sunday, as well as the common prayer, known as the Synaxis.

We have fourteen surviving letters of Abba* Ammon, which focused on moral asceticism. He stressed the importance of obtaining and maintaining the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to share with the people around you. By the gifts of the Holy Spirit he did not mean what televangelists mean today, but as St. Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23). These gifts of the Holy Spirit are obtained by giving yourself entirely over to God. We also need to love our neighbor, which begins with not holding evil in our hearts, but letting it go. Asceticism is not crushing the body, but making the body work for God.

*Abba, from the Aramaic אבא, meaning father, is commonly applied to the Desert Fathers, eg. Abba Anthony, Abba Moses, etc.

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