(Part 2) (Part 3)
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hadst, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me (Matt. 19:21)
From the beginning these words of Christ have been a clear call to all Christian monks that they have felt impelled to obey to the letter.
Although Christ lived and worked among men, participated in the functions of His day, counted women among His friends, and although He instituted no monastic order, monasticism may well be considered the sum and substance of His teaching. Once He had entered upon His mission, He had no family life--in fact, He denied blood relationships (Matt. 12:48-50). He spent many hours in the wilderness in solitary communion with His Father. He said: If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:26)
The advice of Jesus to the young man who sought a greater perfection, beyond that of following the ten commandments, was to sell all he had and to follow Him (Matt. 19:21). Another man He challenged to follow Him without delay, without even taking time to attend to his father's funeral (Luke 9:60). These are hard sayings for people in the world, but admirably suited to monks and nuns.
Let us here explain what we mean by "the world". St. Isaac the Syrian defines it as: "...the extension of a common name to distinct passions ... passions are a part of the current of the world. Where they have ceased, the world's current has ceased." In other words, people in the world are held by the pull of their emotion s into a vortex of preoccupations; they disperse and scatter abroad, as it were, their soul's integrity, diversifying its primal simplicity."
The ideal of a life entirely given over to God can be found on many pages of the New Testament. St. Paul held virginity in high esteem and advocated it for those who could bear it (I Cor. 7:l, 7, 37, 40). We find many examples in Holy Scripture of men and women giving their lives unreservedly to God and to the service of the Church. In the first instance there were the Apostles and the Seventy. and the women who followed and ministered unto Jesus; then there were the deacons and men like St. Luke and St. Barnabas, and women such as Dorcas and Phoebe, who worked with St. Paul. Nevertheless, it was only toward the beginning of the fourth century that Christian monasticism appeared as a definite institution.
Christian monasticism originated in the East in the
Egyptian desert. Following the official recognition of Christianity in 313 AD by
the Roman Emperor St. Constantine, there arose the danger--which has not
lessened with the passage of time--that men might confuse the earthly kingdom
with the Heavenly Kingdom. Then, as now, it was the monks who kept alive the
concept that the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Men, and women too,
fearing that the lure of comfort and security would divert them from their
search for unity with God, left all behind and made their way into the desert,
at first singly, then in loosely formed groups. By the mid-fourth century there
could already be distinguished the three forms of monastic life still found in
the Orthodox Church today.
The life of a hermit, who lives alone in a cell difficult of access, is entirely devoted to prayer and severe asceticism. The hermit's prototype is St. Paul of Thebes, whose life was written by St. Jerome. St. Paul settled in the desert several years before St. Anthony (251-356) who is generally regarded as the father of monasticism. The story of the encounter of these two holy men after long years of solitude, is one of the most touching in the history of the Desert Fathers. It is clear from St. Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony that monasticism was already well known when St. Anthony, having previously entrusted the care of his orphaned sister to a group of virgins near Alexandria, entered the desert.
The cenobitic or community life, was first established by
St. Pachomius of Tabennisi (c. 315-320), where men lived together under a common
rule in a regularly constituted monastery. There were also communities of women
following this same rule. It is this rule which was used to a great extent by
St. Benedict in forming his monastic rule upon which all other Western monastic
rules are based. St. Basil the Great (329-379) was a strong advocate of the
community life. Because of his two books, the Shorter and the Longer Rules, his
influence in Orthodox monasticism is profound, although he did not found an
order as such. Separate monastic "orders" or "congregations"
as found in the Roman monastic tradition, are unknown in the Orthodox Church.
Quite simply, all those who live in the monastic life are accepted as members of
the great Brotherhood of Ascetics, and the same rule is used and the same habit
is worn by both men and women, forming an integral and inseparable part of the
Church's Body. Very close to St. Basil stood his sister, St. Macrina, who
founded a community for women in Cappadocia before her more illustrious brother
founded his on the banks of the Iris.