A Gospel motivation for the monastic life
Revised edition. The original version of this text was first published on Monachos.net in February, 2001. It has since been updated and revised by the author in July 2008.
But one thread alone can give our story [of the development
of monasticism] its true meaning—the search for personal
holiness, the following of the Lord Jesus, whether in the solitary
cell or on the abbot’s seat, or in all the menial works of
— Derwas J. Chitty
The great question of the ‘why?’ behind the monastic venture is one that has, in its course, provoked a wide variety of different responses.
Douglas Burton-Christie, in the introduction to his work The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism, lists several -- some more practical than inspirational: the quest for knowledge (gnosis), a flight from taxation, a refuge from the law, a new form of martyrdom, a revival of earlier ascetical movements, etc.1 Others have had their lists also, both positive and negative in their perceptions of the early monastic movement. W.H. Mackean explored the contours of a longstanding ascetic ‘atmosphere’ in Egypt, and laid great weight on the formative influence this would have had on the development of a Christian spirituality in the region—presenting overall a quite positive perception of monasticism. At the other end of the spectrum was E. Gibbon, who, in a text that Chadwick would later call ‘one of the most strident specimens of sustained invective and cold hatred to be found in English prose’,2 attributes the early monks’ eagerness to adopt the strict ascetic life of the desert to wild delusion and cold disregard for the teachings of the Church.3
A more balanced view has emerged in the modern scholarship, by and large. There is among scholars today a basic agreement that the rise of the ascetic life in the early Church cannot be attributed to any single cause, positive or negative, but rather to a mixture and commingling of several elements at play in the Egyptian and Palestinian worlds of the age.4 The forces that drove the monastic venture to become a central structure of the Church are, like the circumstances of its origins, many and diverse.
Yet if there has arisen a better sense of nuance to the complexities of monastic origins, studies into the rise of monasticism still tend to suffer from a certain imbalance. In the large majority, such studies deal with monasticism principally as an institution—as a body or collective of Christian society, with its own drives, leaders, histories, politics, and historical progressions. Studies that emerge from this context of approach regularly imitate it, and the ‘why’ behind monasticism is over and again explored from the perpective of its social aspects.
However, a close reading of certain texts—principally the Apothegmata Patrum and Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, but also the modern works of scholars such as Burton-Christie, Ward, Bloom, and others—reveal another equally (and indeed more) important aspect. Early monasticism was the eager living-out of the scripturally-enjoined quest for personal holiness and the pursuit of Jesus’ model of life, and this perception of living the Gospel was then -- and remains today -- a key aspect of monastic culture.
Background: Holy scripture as a principal inspiration for the monastic life.
Douglas Burton-Christie writes, in what might be taken as the thesis of his work:
I suggest that, given what we know of the social tensions in Roman Egypt, the presence of an emerging culture of asceticism, and the growth of a church in which Scripture figured prominently, the impact of Scripture on early monastic acts of renunciation should not be underestimated.5
This comment is revealing of a trend in scholarship. The very fact that he feels the need to make explicit mention of something seemingly so foundational to monasticism as scripture, bespeaks a noticeable lack of scriptural discussion in the discipline of monastic history. Burton-Christie rightly reacts to a path this field of study has traditionally taken: the continual drive to explore the motivations for monastic renunciation in almost every area except creative, ascetical scriptural application. But this trend to see the scriptures as a lone element, perhaps even a side-element used to give 'holy cover' to more practical, worldly motivations for leaving the cities for the deserts, reads modern-day biases into the evidence of history. As Burton-Christie notes,
all the motivations that [the desert fathers] themselves revealed to us in their writings came from Scripture. Do we have a right to pretend we know their secret motivations better than they did?6
This observation is certainly borne out in the texts passed down from those early monastics. To take the most famous collection of early monastic sayings, the Apothegmata Patrum ('Sayings of the Desert Fathers'): an open reading, made without the encumbrances of too many theories on oriental influences, 'gnostic' tendencies, political and economic fears and the like, discoversa remarkably consistent witness to lives lived of and in the testimony of the scritpures. Behind the diverse examples and teachings of these Egyptian ascetics lies a central, simple call to action, expressed nowhere better than in the experience of St Anthony the Great in his hometown church. ‘If you would be perfect,’ he heard the Gospel proclaimed, as if it were spoken directly to him, ‘go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and come and follow me.’7 It was this call, this scriptural invitation to personal perfection through renunciation, that inspired Anthony's remarkable departure from the world and ascent in holiness—a journey which, recorded in St Athanasius' Life of St Anthony, has remained a foundational testimony to monastic life ever since. It was this same call, born of the Gospel itself, to which the individual monks of the fifth century attributed their adoption of the ascetic life. These men and women did not join the monastic ranks as an ‘experiment’ into a new kind of society, culture, or commune, but as a life-consuming and life-creating journey toward the perfection offered in the Gospel proclamation.
Of course, this very idea requires a widespread familiarity with that Gospel—with the Scripture of the Church. Whether or not such a familiarity was actually present in Egypt during the first centuries of the Christian era has been the subject of considerable debate, and it is in this discussion that Burton-Christie’s work is of great importance. His investigation into the presence of books and written texts in the desert, as well as the translation of the Scripture into the various Coptic and other Egyptian dialects, is both thorough and convincing.8
It is possible, though, to discover the extent of Scriptural familiarity in the Egyptian desert without the use of such detailed archaeological and anthropological evidence as Burton-Christie takes up: the very sayings of the Apothegmata, imbued as they are with a ‘Scriptural aura,’ betray the great extent to which the inhabitants of even the remotest areas of the desert knew and lived the Scripture of the Church. A short saying concerning Abba Sisoes is perhaps one of the most obvious examples:
A brother asked Abba Sisoes the Theban, ‘give me a word,’ and he said, ‘What shall I say to you? I read the New Testament, and I turn to the old.’9
And also from a saying concerning Antony:
Someone asked Abba Anthony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures.’10
In these two injunctions alone, we are able to discover both the relatively ready availability of Scripture in the desert (else how would Sisoes so often read it?), and an assumed familiarity with its teachings among the general population of monks. Yet our evidence for the deep influence of Scripture on the lives of the monks is not limited to those passages which mention it directly, or quote from its pages (though such passages abound). Even those sayings which give no direct mention to Scripture per se, often betray so strong a Scriptural influence that the connection is easily seen. Abba Agathon, by way of example, is remembered as saying, ‘If someone were very specially dear to me, but I realised that he was leading me to do something less good, I should put him from me’,11 and a connection to the thought of Mark 9.43-48 seems readily apparent. Isidore the Priest said, ‘It is impossible for a man to live according to God if he loves pleasures and money’,12 and again we hear the strong and unmistakable echoes of Scripture—this time of Luke 16.13.
And so the writings of the Desert Fathers themselves, evidence the extent to which Scripture was present and prevalent in the desert: not only was it read, but it was absorbed and infused into the lives and teachings of the monks so deeply that they could ‘speak a word’ to their disciples and have it be so in-line with Scripture that it almost seemed a paraphrase.
The Gospel Call of Christ: Repentance that Leads to Perfection.
The above will hopefully provide us with the groundwork to investigate the inner calling of the early monastics, from their own perspective. For at its deepest, simplest, and most basic level, these men and women saw their adoption of the ascetic life, with its often violent and always dramatic renunciation of the world, as their own sacrificial attempt at heeding the call of the Gospel. ‘Take up your Cross and follow me,’ Christ spoke, and the whole monastic life might be seen as a response to this fundamental command. It is a personal injunction: Christ does not speak it to some collective or whole, but to the individual—to the person. Monasticism, however it has traditionally been seen by outside observers and scholars, has always been for the monastic, not an institution of the far-off ‘they’, but of the personal ‘he’ or ‘she’, or more properly, ‘I’. I hear the call of Christ; I must respond; I must take whatever steps necessary, no matter how austere or severe, to live the life of personal holiness and growth commanded of Christ, as my own response to the gracious outpouring of His love.
Abba Arsenius discovered this while living the royal life in Rome:
While still living in the palace, Abba Aresenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved’.13
This is not the story of a man who entered the ranks of the monks as one engaging in some symbolic, renunciative act, but of one who yearned for his own salvation, despaired of it in his current setting, and was willing to make whatever sacrifice was required to obtain it. To once again quote Abba Isidore the Priest, ‘If you desire salvation, do everything that leads you to it’.14
That this everything would require a renunciation of the world seemed only appropriate to the early Fathers of the desert, for practical rather than symbolic reasons. Abba Poemen is recorded as saying that one who lives among the sensual pleasures of the world is as one who stands on the edge of a lake, easily pushed in by the demons; whereas one who stands afar off from the water’s edge, is protected from falling in.15 Why might one flee the comforts of life to adopt such as harsh life as that of the early monks and nuns? we often ask, probing for some deep, psychological motivation. But the Fathers’ response is as simple as it is practical: we flee, for in fleeing, we abandon the many distractions that surround us in the world. Worldly renunciation is a tool to compensate for personal weakness, as Abba Matoes clearly states: ‘It is not through virtue that I live in solitude, but through weakness; those who live in the midst of men are the strong ones’.16
But the renunciation of the true monastic life was more than just renunciation of the world, it was equally a renunciation of self. The Apothegmata is filled with references to the great lengths to which the Fathers would go, to control their wills and inclinations; as well as the great physical labours in which they would engage, in order to tame the passions and habituations of the body. The modern reader is posed again with driving question of ‘why?’ Perhaps the answer is best given by the experience of Abba Alonius:
If I had not destroyed myself completely, I should not have been able to rebuild and shape myself again.17
Again we see the characteristic, common-sense practicality of the Fathers’ approach to the ascetic life. Its austerities are not ‘sacred rituals’ or prized gems of the religious culture, but useful aids in the struggle for that great goal of the Christian faith: perfection in Christ through a rebirth into the new life given by God. In this deeply Scriptural light, we are able to better understand the various experiences and teachings of the Apothegmata from their intended perspective.
‘The soul prospers in the measure in which the body is weakened’—a ‘word’ spoken by Abba Daniel18—is not an injunction to physical asceticism for its own sake, but as a tool for improving the spiritual health of the individual. Even Abba Poemen’s teaching that one purposefully seeks out affliction in the desert19 possesses this core of utility: it is in affliction that the body is tamed and the will of man is transformed into the will of Christ, and it is for this reason—and not for some underlying self-hatred—that the monks sought it out.
There are, of course, cases in which the motivations for taking up the monastic life varied or expanded upon this central ideal of following Christ and the injunctions of Scripture. The story of Abba Apollo comes to mind, with its terrible gore and his personal motivation in compunction and repentance. Yet it is interesting that even here, it is upon hearing the Scripture (the monks chanting Ps 90.10) that he is eventually driven to the depths of self-inspection that lead him to take up the monastic life as a means of growth and purification.20 Repentance, one of the great calls to personal action and a motivation for many early monks, is not extrinsic to, but a refinement of the Gospel ideal that we have discussed above. Indeed, as so many of the Fathers are remembered for saying, it lies at the very heart of the Christian life itself.
In the final analysis, D. Chitty’s words in the Epilogue to his great work come again to mind. There are many factors for, many reasons behind the eager flight of thousands into the Egyptian deserts; yet if we are to discover the truest and most fundamental answer to the question of ‘why?’, we must seek for it in ‘the search for personal holiness, the following of the Lord Jesus’ in the life of the individual Christian.21 Perhaps the most succinct statement to this effect comes from Paul the Great:
Abba Paul said, ‘Keep close to Jesus.’22
This is the goal of the monastic, both of ancient Egypt and of the modern day.
In closing, a short story from my own experience. I met with an old monk and spiritual mentor some years ago, and our conversation quickly turned to the monastic life. I said to him, ‘Father I don’t know if I am ready to become a monk; I don’t know if I can so easily run away from the world.’ He replied, ‘No, indeed you are not ready. No one is ready for the tonsure until they stop seeing it as running away from the world, and start seeing it as running toward Jesus Christ.’
Burton-Christie, D., The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Chitty, D.J., The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire, 3rd printing (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999 [originally 1966]).
Mackean, W.H., Christian Monasticism in Egypt—to the Close of the Fourth Century (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1920).
Binns, J., Ascetics and Ambassadors of Christ: the Monasteries of Palestine, 314-631 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).
Guillaumont, A., Aux origines du monachisme Chrétien: pour une phénoménologie du monachisme (Abbaye de Bellefontaine: Collection SPIRITUALITE ORIENTALE ET VIE MONASTIQUE, 1979).
Knowles, D., Christian Monasticism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969).
Scott-Moncrieff, P.D., Paganism and Christianity in Egypt (Cambridge: The University Press, 1913).
Workman, H.B., The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1918).
Ward, B., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers – the Alphabetical Collection, revised edn. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1984).
Ward, B. (introduction) & Russell, N. (trans.), The Lives of the Desert Fathers: the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1980).
Ward, B., The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers: Systematic Sayings from the Anonymous Series of the Apothegmata Patrum (Oxford: SLG Press, 1975, 1986, 1995).