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Objections to Monasticism

In the middle of the fourth century, primarily male Egyptian peasants were leaving their village homes to settle in the desert where they began leading a life of asceticism and constant prayer (though traditionally Egypt has been seen as the birthplace of monasticism, there is reason to believe that a similar movement was taking place independently and at the same time in parts of Syria; cf. D.J. Chitty, The Desert a City, pp. 13-16).

As the wider Church started becoming aware of the sincerity of their asceticism, the seriousness of their acts of penance, and the consistency of the miracles around and through them, believers from all over the Christian world began to flock to Egypt to try to live this "new" Christian lifestyle known as monasticism. While some stayed for a short time, others stayed for years. Of those who did stay for a long period of time, some eventually returned home to begin building monastic communities of their own.

To the Orthodox, these Christian desert dwellers are, at the very least, prototypical monks; at most, they are examples of Christian perfection. Unfortunately, this particular historical, theological, and spiritual judgment about those monks, and seemingly about monasticism in general, is lost on many Protestant and secular modern scholars. In fact, some of the criticism of monks is so harsh, that it tries to show that monasticism is not Christian at all.

There are two primary factors for this rejection. First, there is a Protestant bias against what was perceived as an undue veneration of virginity and celibacy in the ancient and medieval Church, especially lived on the basis of a vow. In other words, Protestants considered this unbiblical. Second, secular scholars have often viewed the behavior of the desert monks as bizarre. The extreme commitment of the monks to ascetical practices, as well as their use of theological language stressing demonology and a basic contempt for the world, has generated malice on behalf of this group too.

Edward Gibbon is certainly a good example of a historian who had words full of malice for the desert monks (and much of the Christian East). But William Lecky, quoted by Helen Waddell, seems to best represent the early modern and modern contempt for desert monasticism generally and asceticism specifically.

"There is perhaps no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, spending his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato" (Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p. 7).

Early in the twentieth century, Herbert Workman, a devout Protestant himself, writes that monasticism, especially in its Egyptian form was "an experiment that ought never to have been made" (Herbert Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal, p. 323). And Adolf Harnack has this to say about the Life of Antony by Athanasius: “I should not hesitate to say that no book has had a more stultifying effect on Egypt, Western Asia, and Europe than the Vita S. Antonii" (quoted in Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p. 7).

Building on this assumption that monasticism was alien to the teachings of the New Testament and the practices of the early Church, many scholars desired to look for non-Christian, or even non-religious sources of such a 'strange movement'. As a result, several possibilities were proposed: Pythagorean schools, Essenes, an alleged college of celibate priests of Serapion in Egypt, even Buddhist monks. Of course, none of these theories has withstood critical investigation. Why?

While some form of monasticism is found in many religious of the world, civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean basin are a notable exception to this rule. Even if some quasi-monastic groups can be found in that region and time, it would be quite difficult to show how any of them could influence the original Coptic desert monks. In other words, how would they imitate an ideal professed by a Greek philosophical school, or that of the Essenes who, by the third century, were almost forgotten by Christians and Jews alike? Furthermore, it is also hard to imagine that the Desert Fathers would use as their model an idolatrous priesthood.

As a result of the difficulty of proving that any of these groups were a serious influence on the Desert Fathers, further attempts were made to find the source of desert monasticism in some social or political developments of the fourth century. Thus, scholars attempted to explain desert monasticism as a reaction to the "invasion" of the Church by the world (e.g., the Christianization of the Roman Empire). This situation, scholars explained, would prompt some devout Christians to leave the human "secular" community. Such a meaning is often given to the famous story told about Arsenius. When he asked God, "Lord lead me to the path of salvation", he heard the answer, "Arsenius, flee men and you shall be saved" (Arsenius 1, Alphabetikon, 39; cf. Vitae Patrum, bk. 2, n. 3. Quoted in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection [Cistercian Studies]).

It is possible that some of the men and women who left their cities and went to the Egyptian desert, especially in the later half of the century, were indeed motivated by such a disappointment. This, however, is unlikely to be the original motive of desert monasticism. If for no other reason, because it dates from before the time of the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Empire.

If The Life of Antony by Athanasius (written soon after the monk's death in 365, from first hand knowledge) is to be trusted, and there is no reason not to do so, Antony, born c. 250, adopted ascetical life c. 270, by 286 he was living in total isolation in the desert; before 305 he already had a group of disciples who settled round his own hermitage. Thus, according to this book, anchorite life, even colonies of anchorites, existed in the Egyptian desert not only before the Edict of Milan, but also prior to the persecutions of Diolectian. In fact, it began during the period of the "little peace" of the Church, between 258 and 304.

Recognizing this date, some historians advanced two other "secular" reasons for the flight to the desert. Some claim that this exodus represented an attempt to escape the persecutions of either Decius (250) or Valerian (258). It is not impossible that some people, perhaps many, would flee into the wilderness at the time of a persecution. But what never seems to get explained is why these people didn't leave once the danger passed. Others propose a different reason.

Namely, Egyptian peasants fled to the desert to escape the burdens of servitude, taxation, and other forms of oppression. While it is certainly possible that some escaped village life, the life of the ascetics in the desert was so harsh and their voluntary penances so difficult that it is unbelievable that they were embraced by those who had merely wanted to escape the difficulties of peasant life (Colombas, Il monachesimo delle origini, p. 72).

Besides, not all anchorites were poor peasants. The best example of this is St. Antony. Athanasius says that he came "from a good and rather affluent family;" we are also told that his property amounted to 300 aruras (which comes to between 60 and 83 hectares, or 150 to 207 acres -- to possess that much land in ancient Egypt, meant affluence (Athanasius, Life of Antony, 1 & 2 respectively).

What we seem to be left with, then, is a truly Christian motive for this movement.


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