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 ยง 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.