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The Beginnings Of Monasticism

Asceticism in some form is common to almost all religions. It was
practised extensively in early Christianity and ascetics of both sexes
were numerous. This asceticism, in addition to a life largely devoted to
prayer and fasting, was marked by refraining from marriage. But these
ascetics lived in close relations with those who were non-ascetics.
Monasticism is an advance upon this earlier asceticism in that it attempts
to create, apart from non-ascetics, a social order composed only of
ascetics in which the ascetic ideals may be more successfully realized.
The transition was made by the hermit life in which the ascetic lived
alone in deserts and other solitudes. This became monasticism by the union
of ascetics for mutual spiritual aid. This advance is associated with St.
Anthony. See also Pachomius, in 77.

Additional source material: Pseudo-Clement. De Virginitate (ANF,
VIII, 53); Methodius, Symposium (ANF, VI, 309); the Lausiac
History of Palladius, E. C. Butler, Texts and Studies,
Cambridge, 1898; Paradise, or Garden of the Holy Fathers, trans.
by E. A. W. Budge, London, 1907.

Athanasius, Vita S. Antonii, 2-4, 44. (MSG, 26:844, 908.)

Anthony, although not the first hermit, gave such an impetus to
the ascetic life and did so much to bring about some union of
ascetics that he has been popularly regarded as the founder of
monasticism. He died 356, at the age of one hundred and five. His
Life, by St. Athanasius, although formerly attacked, is a
genuine, and, on the whole, trustworthy account of this remarkable
man. It was written either 357 or 365, and was translated into
Latin by Evagrius of Antioch (died 393). Everywhere it roused the
greatest enthusiasm for monasticism. The Life of St. Paul of
Thebes, by St. Jerome, is of very different character, and of no
historical value.

Ch. 2. After the death of his parents, Anthony was left alone with one
little sister. He was about eighteen or twenty years old, and on him
rested the care of both the home and his sister. Now it happened not six
months after the death of his parents, and when he was going, according to
custom, into the Lord's house, and was communing with himself, that he
reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour,
and how, in the Acts, men sold their possessions and brought and laid them
at the Apostles' feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how
great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. While he was reflecting on
these things he entered the church, and it happened that at that time the
Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord say to the rich man: "If thou
wouldest be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and
come and follow me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven." Anthony, as
though God had put him in mind of the saints and the passage had been read
on his account, went out straightway from the Lord's house, and gave the
possessions which he had from his forefathers to the villagers--they were
three hundred acres, productive and very fair--that they should be no more
a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he
sold, and, having got together much money, he gave it to the poor,
reserving a little, however, for his sister's sake.

Ch. 3. And again as he went into the Lord's house, and hearing the Lord
say in the Gospel, "Be not anxious for the morrow," he could stay no
longer, but went and gave also those things to the poor. He then committed
his sister to known and faithful virgins, putting her in a convent
[parthenon], to be brought up, and henceforth he devoted himself outside
his house to ascetic discipline, taking heed to himself and training
himself patiently. For there were not yet many monasteries in Egypt, and
no monk at all knew of the distant desert; but every one of those who
wished to give heed to themselves practised the ascetic discipline in
solitude near his own village. Now there was in the next village an old
man who had lived from his youth the life of a hermit. Anthony, after he
had seen this man, imitated him in piety. And at first he began to abide
in places outside the village. Then, if he heard of any good man anywhere,
like the prudent bee, he went forth and sought him, nor did he turn back
to his own place until he had seen him; and he returned, having got from
the good man supplies, as it were, for his journey in the way of virtue.
So dwelling there at first, he steadfastly held to his purpose not to
return to the abode of his parents or to the remembrance of his kinsfolk;
but to keep all his desire and energy for the perfecting of his
discipline. He worked, however, with his hands, having heard that "he who
is idle, let him not eat," and part he spent on bread and part he gave to
the needy. And he prayed constantly, because he had learned that a man
ought to pray in secret unceasingly. For he had given such heed to what
was read that none of those things that were written fell from him to the
ground; for he remembered all, and afterward his memory served him for

Ch. 4. Thus conducting himself, Anthony was beloved by all. He subjected
himself in sincerity to the good men he visited, and learned thoroughly
wherein each surpassed him in zeal and discipline. He observed the
graciousness of one, the unceasing prayer of another; he took knowledge of
one's freedom from anger, and another's kindliness; he gave heed to one as
he watched, to another as he studied; one he admired for his endurance,
another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; he watched the
meekness of one, and the long-suffering of another; and at the same time
he noted the piety toward Christ and the mutual love which animated all.

Athanasius describes Anthony's removal to the desert and the
coming of disciples to him, and weaves into his narrative, in the
form of a speech, a long account of the discipline laid down,
probably by Anthony himself, chs. 16-43. It is to this long speech
that the opening words of the following section refers.

Ch. 44. While Anthony was thus speaking all rejoiced; in some the love of
virtue increased, in others carelessness was thrown aside, the
self-conceit of others was stopped; and all were persuaded to despise the
assaults of the Evil One, and marvelled at the grace given Anthony from
the Lord for the discerning of spirits. So their cells were in the
mountains, like tabernacles filled with holy bands of men who sang psalms,
loved reading, fasted, prayed, rejoiced in the hope of things to come,
labored in almsgiving, and maintained love and harmony with one another.
And truly it was possible to behold a land, as it were, set by itself,
filled with piety and justice. For then there was neither the evil-doer
nor the injured, nor the reproaches of the tax-gatherer; but instead a
multitude of ascetics, and the one purpose of all was to aim at virtue. So
that one beholding the cells again and seeing such good order among the
monks would lift up his voice and say: "How goodly are thy dwellings, O
Jacob, and thy tents, O Israel; as shady glens and as a garden by a river;
as tents which the Lord has pitched, and like cedars near the waters"
[Num. 24:5, 6].

Ch. 45. Anthony, however, returned, according to his custom, alone to his
cell, increased his discipline, and sighed daily as he thought of the
mansions of heaven, having his desire fixed on them and pondering over the
shortness of man's life.

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