by George Valsamis
The issue of the origins of organised monasticism has caused much talk. In St. John Cassian’s 18th Collatio abbot Piamoun uses the exemplar of the first apostolic community in Jerusalem (a common connection in ascetic writings), saying that even bishops (ecclesiae principes) ignored that model, by taking advantage of the leniency of the apostles towards the nations, they abolished the principle of poverty. Those who wished to keep a strict Christian life, left the cities in the course of time, they separated themselves from the lukewarm multitude of Christians. They did not get married and they did not keep any contact with their relatives in the world. This is how coenobitic monasticism was founded. For the austerity of their life and the abandonment of the world they were called μοναχοί (monachoi) and μονάζοντες (monazontes), while for their common life with each other they were called κοινοβιάτες (coenobiates).
Abbot Piamoun’s explanation differs from the one in Cassian’s second book of the Instituta, in that it seems to impute the supposed decline of the Christian spirit to the Apostles’ policy towards the nations. Besides this, in the second book of the Instituta ascetic life, as it was developed later, in the patristic period, is considered superior even to the exemplary community of Jerusalem.
Cassian’s theory resembles certain modern views, according to which the founding of monasticism should be ascribed to the increasing secularisation of the Church when persecutions ended. Yet, in Cassian’s explanation, monastic is the Christian life at its height, and as such it would be impossible to appear suddenly three centuries after the Christian message appeared, and as a phenomenon of a negative course, at that. In Cassian too, the appearance of monasticism has in part a negative character, yet this is secondary; primarily and positively it is founded on the life of the ancient Church. The case of Eusebius of Caesaria is even more characteristic. He didn’t see anything strange in the appearance of a Christian coenobium in the 1st c. A.D., when he was describing as such the jewish community of the ‘therapists’, mentioned by Philo. Most likely Eusebius was not trying to establish a connection between monasticism of his times and the older history of the Church, because when he was commenting on Philo’s testimony, the coenobitic structure of Pachomius did not exist.
It is known that from Paul’s time already, there was an oath of virgins and widows, which, in the third century (at least), was being given before a bishop. The emphasis of the Fathers on continence and virginity is also known. Jerome too, in his famous ascetic epistle 22 to the virgin Eustochium, stresses the importance of Tertullian, Cyprian, Damasus and Ambrosius to the development of monasticism, concentrating, obviously, in the western tradition. In the epistle of St. Ignatius Theophorus to Polycarp, we find traces of the formation of a distinct monastic class inside the Christian Church, and, moreover, we see that those who had chosen the way of celibacy, considered themselves offen superior to the bishop. St. Irenaeus describes the apostles as ascetics, who abandoned all worldy relationships for the Word of God. Irenaeus conjoins the priestly, the apostolic and the ascetic attributes. And we should also take into account the significance of the Martyrs in the formation of Christian monasticism. In St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans, death is seen as a way of freedom pointing to Christ. We find in Irenaeus, as an essential characteristic of a Christian, studying to die (μελετᾶν ἀποθνήσκειν). In the times of Ignatius already, and according to the exemplar of the discussion between Christ and the youth who searched for perfection, monasticism was a choice, it had to be by all means voluntary. When Christians were still being slaughtered by the governing power, it would be rather difficult to have devotion and the making of institutions out of such a devotion to the war against invisible demons. It was a time of patience in faith and in the confession before visible demons, and yet, already in Origen there is the distinction between seeable (ἐν φανερῷ) and secret (ἐν κρυπτῷ) martyrdom.
In the Epistle 127 (about Marcella), Jerome’ note about how important was for the formation of western monasticism, the sojourns of Easterners to the West and of Westerners to the East due to the arian conflicts, presupposes an already existing western ascetical tradition, independent from the eastern one, at that.
In the first Christian centuries ascesis in both East and West was being practised by a Christian individually, in personal virginity, prayer, charity and fast, without going away from one’s city or even family. At about the middle of the 3rd c., it was common for such a person to withdraw a little out of the boundaries of the city or village. St. Anthony the Great, according to the Life of St. Athanasius the Great, went through both those steps. It seems that in the West ascesis continued in such a way for a little longer than in some areas of the East. Yet even in the East, if we recall e.g. Pontus, private ascesis was not a rare phenomenon. St. Basil the Great, although having visited Egypt, chose by himself the place of his ascesis, he did not entered a coenobium, he longed for the company of his friend Gregory the Theologian, he composed himself his ascetical plan.
In the beginning of the 4th c. in Rome, a youth of aristocratic descent was depreciated to a great extent by becoming a monk, so that this had to be done as secretly as possible. After the information St. Athanasius gave about Anthony and Pachomius, the monks, which until then were being despised by aristocracy, gained strength and courage. When Athanasius was writing the Life of St. Anthony, about thirty years after the founding of the first coenobium by Pachomius, there had also started to appear in the West the first monasteries, and from Rome they extended to all Italy. Pope Sixtus the 3rd founded a monastery for men in St. Sebastian, ad catacumbas. The monastery of St. Agnes in Rome was founded at about the middle of the 4th c. We also know about two monasteries for women, one in Bologna and another in Verona. Eusebius of Vercelli contributed significantly by applying actively the theoretical connection St. Irenaeus had made between priesthood and ascesis. Eusebius gathered with him clerics to live ascetically, “ut esset in ipsis viris contemptus rerum et accuratio levitarum”. Eusebius was in exile in Scythopolis of Palestine and in Thebais of Egypt from 355 to 362, where he gained familiarity with Eastern ascesis. He slept in 370. The attitude of Eusebius of Vercelli is to be found also in St. Ambrose. He gave his property to the poor, he fasted and prayed in vigils. Ambrose was supporting a monastery for men in the gates of Milan and he showed a special interest in encouraging monasticism among women. He had such a great effect, that he was accused of decreasing the population of the empire! Jerome believed that Ambrose spoke about virginity better that any of the previous Fathers.
Another western bishop who combined the life of the ascetic with that of the priest was Paulinus. His descent was from an aristocratic family of Aquitaine and he was governor of Campania. At about 409 he was elected bishop of Nola in Italy. He called himself a monachus and his residence a monasterium. Paulinus stressed the importance of poverty.
Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, stayed in the East from 356 to 360. What is of interest here to us, is that Hilary was very much appreciated and known as a teacher and protector of St. Martin, the first great ascetic of the West and bishop of Tour. Martin was born in Pannonia but from an early age he left in Italy. According to his old biographer Sulpicius Severus, Martin was 10 years old when he entered voluntarily the class of catechumens, and at about 327, 12 years old, he wanted to follow the eremitical life, but an imperial edict forced him to serve in the Roman army. He was baptised at about 337. After two years roughly, Martin sought after Hilary’s help and he settled in Poitiers. Hilary tried to ordain him a deacon, but Martin refused and he agreed at last to receive only the office of the exorcist. After a while he left to Illyricum to work in a mission. His mother became a Christian but his compatriots drove him away. He went to a cell in Milan, where he faced the enmity of the arian bishop Auxentius, so that he withdrew as an hermit in Gallinaria island. About 360, when Hilary returned from exile, Martin went again to Galatia. He was living ascetically in the suburbs of Poitiers, in Ligugé, and soon many disciples gathered around him. In 371 Martin was ordained bishop of Tour under the pressure of the people, who admired him for his faith and the miracles that he did. Yet, even as a bishop he went on living ascetically, he kept his humble spirit and he was still wearing the same humble clothes, according to his biographer. Oftentimes he withdrew in a cell near the church, yet many disciples visited him and he was forced to found a new hermitage in Marmoutier, about two miles away from Tour. About eighty disciples gathered together with him, living in individual cells too. That system resembled the Eastern Lavra. All property was held in common and no commercial action was allowed. They did not exercise any craft except for copying manuscripts, which was assigned to the younger ones, while the elders were devoted exclusively to prayer. Just as was the case with monks in Egypt, no one left his cell, save only for the common prayer, but they ate together, in conformity with the coenobitic exemplar. Later on this community offered many bishops. Martin became very active in mission, mainly in the open country where paganism was still strong. He destroyed pagan temples and in their place he built churches and monasteries. According to Hamman, the influence that the Life of St. Martin exercised can be compared with that of the Life of St. Anthony, and it became the exemplar of medieval hagiographical texts. Martin became also known in the East. Sozomen already refers to him using the Life, while a translation of it in Greek is considered probable, upon which the Greek Life of St. Martin must have been based, a text of the 8th or 9th c. A.D.
St. Athanasius’ and St. Martin’s activity made the ascetics more popular to the aristocratic classes of the West. There begin now systematic visits of the Westerners to the Eastern ascetic loci and as the fourth century was reaching to its end, two Western monasteries were founded in Jerusalem, the one for men and the other for women. According to Jerome, “there exist now learned, powerful and noble people not only among Christians, but mainly among monks”. Petronius came from the famous family of Anicii, with roots in the days of the old Roman democracy, being son of Anicius Petronius Prompus, eparch of the praetorium. He was an ascetic before he was elected bishop of Bologna. From the same family came also St. Benedict and Gregory the Great. There were noblemen among the disciples of St. Martin, Jerome addresses many epistles with spiritual directions to noble widows and virgins who followed the ascetic life. His compatriots Bonosos, Rufin and Chromatius belonged to the circle of Jerome, too. Chromatius presided in a monastery for men in Aquileia. Rufin also belonged to the same ascetical circle in Aquileia, from 368 to 373, when he left to the East.
In 373 Jerome follows Evagrius of Antioch to the East. He was an ascetic for about two years (375-7) in the desert of Chalce, northwest of Antioch, and then he was ordained presbyter. In about 382, returning to Rome, Jerome instructs Marcella to convert her house into a coenobium. Together with Paula in the summer of 385 Jerome returns to the East, where he visits the Holy Lands, then Egypt and finally he settles in Bethlehem. With the financial support of Paula there were founded then the two western monasteries where she and Jerome stayed to the end of their life.
At about 370 the Life of St. Anthony is translated for the second time in Latin by Evagrius of Antioch, the same Evagrius who had lived for many years in Italy and attracted Jerome to the East. Already in his first ascetical period (375-7) Jerome writes the Life of Paul, the supposed first anchorite. The Life of Hilarion, spiritual father of Epiphanius of Salamis, is written between 386-390. At about 390 Jerome writes the Life of Malchus. The three Lives Jerome wrote, as well as his epistle to Eustochium, were translated in Greek already while Jerome lived. After Paula died, in 404, Jerome translates into Latin the Rule of Pachomius, epistles and other texts of the Pachomian circle. Eustochius, daughter of Paula, slept in 419. Jerome in 420. He had asked to be buried beside the two ascetical women.
Rufin stayed in Egypt from 373 to 380 and then he settled at the Mount of Olives until 397, near Melany the elder, a Roman of noble origin who had lost her husband when she was 22 years old. Melany had visited also Nitria and she had met with Rufin there for the first time. Rufin returned to Rome in 397 and in Aquileia in 399. At about 403 he translated chapters of Evagrius of Pontus’ works To the monks and To a virgin, and besides these, the History of the monks in Egypt. Yet before these, and before his devotion to translations of Origen, Rufin offered to the western monasticism the Rules of St. Basil the Great (397).
The text that he used saved an early version of Basil’s work, which contained almost half of the rules now included in the vulgata (203 of 368). It was previously believed that Rufin modified Basil’s work, but Gribomont’s research, comparing the so called small-asceticon with a similar Syrian translation, showed that Rufin’s edition saves the Rules in the form they had before Basil became a bishop. St. Benedict knew St. Basil’s Rules in Rufin’s version.
Melany the younger, grand daughter of Rufin’s friend, and her husband Pinian founded in Tagaste, where Augustine was born, two monasteries, the one with 80 men and the other with 130 women. Melany copied manuscripts with a marked dexterity and speed – as Augustine writes. Her husband became a gardener. They ended in Jerusalem where they separated. In Lausiac history we read that Pinian entered a community of thirty ascetics and went on being a gardener. Melany, who still was below thirty, stayed for 14 years in a cell in the Mount of Olives, and then he built a church and a coenobium with 90 women. The Greek Life of Melany is considered older than the Latin one.
Augustine was baptised by St. Ambrose in 387. In the summer of 388 he went to Tagaste, where he gave his property to the poor and he withdrew with his friends and son in the estate he had from his father. There they devoted themselves to ascetic life.
The way of life of Augustine at that time resembles that of the common exercise of Basil and Gregory in Pontus. It was then that Augustine wrote De vera religione, where he distinguishes between otium desidiae and otium cogitationis, that is, between spiritual calmness and inactivity, and also De moribus ecclesiae Catholicae et de moribus Manichaeorum. De vera religione was translated in Greek by Prochorus Kydonis. In 391 Augustine was ordained presbyter under the pressure of the people and also urged by Valerius of Hippo. With the financial support of the later he founded a second coenobium. After the return to Tagaste and before he became a bishop, Augustine wrote De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus, a work with answers to issues raised by ascetics. In 396 he was ordained bishop of Hippo and he was to remain in this office for the next 34 years, until he slept in 430. At about 397 he wrote his ascetical Rule, although himself did not use this term for any of his ascetical texts. The so called Rule of St. Augustine is the older western rule and, as Lawless notes, it is not only a lifeless text of late antiquity, but it inspires every day more than 150 Christian communities today.
As a bishop Augustine continued to live ascetically and he also ordered his clergy to sell their property and give the money to the poor or to the Church. The bishop’s residence-and-coenobium in which he presided, became a school of bishops and abbots. This was also the case with Eusebius Vercelli and Ambrose, as we have seen, but Augustine was more aware, as is obvious even by the expression monasterium clericorum, which is to be found in one of his late works. The support of monasticism by Fathers as Ambrose or Augustine is even more significant, if we think of the mistrust, if not enmity, of the clergy at large against monasticism, because of the heretical austere trends of the priscillianists.
As a bishop Augustine will found also a monastery for women, the first in north Africa, in which his sister presided. After her death, due to conflicts that happened between the ascetics, Augustine wrote the famous ascetical epistle 211. In the time of Augustine there were founded two monasteries for men, the one under presbyter Leporius and the other under presbyter Eleusinus.
As Basil did, Augustine wanted to connect the unity of soul with poverty, the two elements that characterised the apostolic community in Jerusalem, and this he wanted for the whole Church and not only in the ascetic communities. Yet, while the ascetic writings of Basil’s condemn explicitly and absolutely anchoritic monasticism, Augustine, in spite of the orientation of his thinking towards community life, apologises by answering to certain accusations against anchoritic asceticism. For example, to the assertion, which Basil also made, that anchoritic life is fruitless, Augustine answers that anchorites help us by means of their prayers and their exemplary life. By this remark, Augustine defends the anchoritic exemplar, and yet it wouldn’t be wrong for one to say that in the same time he restrains its position in the Church – contrary to Athanasius, for example. St. Anthony’s Life by Athanasius presents, besides all else, the anchorite as a defender of Orthodoxy, he recognises in him a prophetic and apostolic role. Did Athanasius gave attributes non-existing in Anthony’s life, or, perhaps, anchoritism rejected these elements in order to achieve the greater possible commitment to theory (contemplation)? It’s a fact, that the attitude of anchoritism in Egypt tended to the command, “avoid the bishop as you avoid women”. Even talk about demons, intense in Anthony’s Life, decreases. It is characteristic that the expression “discernment of spirits” (διάκρισις πνευμάτων), since already the 5th c. is being replaced in the ascetic writings by mere discernment (διάκρισις), which regards all matters of ascetic life. The direction that the West, and the East too, was going to follow, is seen in the prevalence of the coenobitic exemplar, its close relationship with the whole life of the Church and even in the (de facto, but also synodically expressed) devaluation of anchoritism.
In the beginnings of the 5th c., the island of Lérins, north of Corsica, near the gulf of Provingia, was empty and, as St. Hilary of Arles writes, inaccessible due to the presence of many snakes. Another young man of noble origin, St. Honoratus, followed the ascetic life and in between 400 and 410, the year Rome fell to the barbarians, came to Lérins with some disciples of his. There were soon more of them gathered around him, especially from Gall, but even from Britain. According to his biographer, Honoratus’ coenobium stressed hospitality and all forms of charity.
It has been wrongly assumed that Lerin’s coenobium followed the Rule of St. Basil, yet there is indeed a kinship between the ascetical teaching of St. Basil and the life in Honoratus’ community, not a great kinship, if we think that in the later there was a combination of coenobitic and anchoritic ascesis, in a central coenobium and nearby cells. Research tends to the view that in Honoratus’ coenobium there was written and applied the so-called Rule of the Four Fathers, and later on the Second Rule of the Fathers. Near the end of 426 Honoratus became bishop of Arles and served in this office for two years until he slept in 429. Lérins’ coenobium gave to the Church many saints, hierarchs and writers. Besides St. Honoratus, the name of whom is the name of the island today, we can also recall Hilary – disciple and biographer of Honoratus who succeeded him in the seat of Arles – St. Caesarius of Arles, St. Eucherius bishop of Lyon and writer of two ascetical works, Salvianus, Vincent of Lérins, etc. St. Patrick, the apostle of Irland, and St. John Cassian, lived for a while in the coenobium of Lérins.
St. John Cassian became first an ascetic in Bethlehem. He was there in about 380, and he stayed till 382. Then he continued his ascesis in Egypt. He was ordained deacon without wanting it by Chrysostom in about 400, and he left Constantinople in 404 or 405, carrying to Rome an epistle of the clergy of the Capital for the exiled Chrysostom. In about 415, already a presbyter, Cassian founded in Marseilles two monasteries, one for men (under the protection of saints Peter and Victor, and the other for women (under the protection St. Soter). That was a period when Provingia had just been free from attacks by Visigoths, attacks, however, that people had not forgotten and in which ascetics suffered too. Matters of theodicy prevailed under such circumstances, yet not so much with the intention for God’s will to be approached, as for monasticism to be condemned. Under fierce political conditions and into an environment full of suspicion against monasticism, Cassian offered Gall for the first time a theory of monasticism.
Cassian didn’t begin to write when he founded the two monasteries in Marseilles. It was about 420 when Castor, the bishop of Apte, asked him to help in organising the coenobium which he was going to found in his bishopric. Cassian corresponded by writing 12 books De institutis coenobiorum et de octo principalium vitiorum remediis. It is obvious that the four books of the Instituta are distinguished from the rest eight books (on the principal sins), as also Cassian himself says: “Nam post quattuor libellos, qui super institutis monasteriorum digesti sunt, nunc arripere conluctationem adversus octo principalia vitia”. Those four books exercised major influence in the old western ascetic Rules, and probably in the 7th c. in Spain they were arranged to form a text known as Cassian’s Rule. Their influence in the East was significant too. Instituta were translated in the 5th c. in Greek and with that translation as a base there was formed a summary in two books, known to Photius, having the name of Athanasius the Great as its author. Another summary is saved under the name of St. Neilus.
The composition of De Institutis was followed by Collationes, a series of talks Cassian and his friend Germanus had with ascetics in Egypt. The arabic translation of the Collationes, saved in a manuscript of the 9th c., was made from a Greek prototype.
Cassian called the ascetics that he met in Egypt, Fathers and Saints. He valued highly the ascesis in Egypt and saw it as an organic part of the Eastern tradition, a tradition which, in his opinion, western monasticism should adopt in order to avoid anarchy. He distinguished the anchoritic exemplar, but he saw in it such a danger, that he ended by seeing it as an inferior way compared with coenobitic monasticism. The exemplar of the coenobitic ascesis which Cassian recommended to the West, was the (quasi military) coenobium of Pachomius and not the coenobium of St. Basil. Moreover, Cassian keeps many anchoritic elements even when he seems to promote coenobitic ascesis.
St. Patrick was from Britain. 16 years old he was kidnapped and sold as a slave in Ireland, but 6 years after he managed to escape. He owes his religious education to St. Martin of Tours, St. Honoratus and most of all to Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, whom he also escorted in his mission to Britain. After a recommendation by Germanus, Pope Celestin I tasked Patrick with converting Ireland. Patrick arrived in Ireland in 433 and stayed to his death in 461. There is no mention of his founding monasteries, but he cared to create and organise clergy. According to his biographer, Patrick ordained in Ireland 350 bishops. Even if this is an exaggeration, it reveals at least the orientation of Patrick’s work. Himself was living as an ascetic and this is the kind of organisation that he gave to the Church in Ireland. In his Confession Patrick expresses to God his admiration, how it happened and in Ireland, those who never knew God and always adored the idols, have now become a people of God and they are named sons of God. How happened, and the sons and the daughters of the kings of Ireland have been transformed to monks and virgins of Christ. Finally, we have to note that monasticism in Ireland is characterised until today by excessive austerity.
The sixth century of western asceticism will be the age of Caesarius of Arles, Aurelius, Eugippius, St. Columba, St. Columbanus, Cassiodorus, the Rule of the Master and mainly the Rule of St. Benedict, the only western Rule, besides Cassian’s Instituta, that seems to have exercised some influence in the East too, since it was used by St. Athanasius the Athonite in the 10th century. From the 5th to the 6th c., that is, from Augustine to the Rule of Paul and Stephen, we have in the West 15 coenobitic Rules. If we separate the Ordo monasterii from Praeceptum, the Instituta from Collationes, the Rules to men from the Rules to women of Caesarius and Aurelius, then we have 19 western Rules – without the Latin editions of Basilian and Pachomian texts. In spite of its influence, even Regula Benedicti never brought the oneness that both Cassian and Rufin desired when they transferred to the West the ascetical traditions of the East. Differentiation increases with the founding of monastic Orders. This variety, until today, of the western monasticism, explains the (hyperbolic of course) assertion of some scholars, that in the East, after St. Basil, we can’t really talk about a history of monasticism, but only about historical circumstances under which the various monasteries were being founded.