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The History and Spirituality of Catholic Monasticism

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s institutions in the Body of Christ are concerned, the religious orders of the Catholic Church could well be considered to be His feet. It was through the growth of monasteries and the propagation the religious life that the true Church can smile upon as being the chief instrument that allowed her to realize the mission she received from the Lord to go forth “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”i Indeed, the early monastic movement in the Catholic Church is proof of the promise of Christ that He would always be with the Church in this mission He gave her.

In recounting the history of the Catholic monastic movement, often historians would begin their story in Egypt and with the Desert Fathers in the fourth and fifth centuries – after the age of the persecutions, but prior to the Islamic invasion. Beginning with Saint Paul of Thebes (d. c. 341) and Saint Anthony of Egypt (251-336), it is not rare to find historians continue from those great men to paint a picture of an original, spontaneous, and phenomenal movement towards the ascetic life in Catholic-Christianity. Perhaps a less romanticized picture is worthy to be sketched here that will give some structure and imagery of the world over which many would choose the desert.

In this paper I will recount the development of Catholic-Monasticism up to the fifth century A.D., in Egypt, but I will not begin this history there. Rather, I will consider the general history of monasticism and asceticism until Christianity emerged out of the age of persecution and naturally found itself in need of returning to its roots.

The Economy, Religions, and Demography of Roman Egypt

What may generate some interest about role of Egypt in Catholic-Christian monasticism is that it seems to demonstrate the consistent providence of God. How many more times will God use Egypt as medium; as a testing and proving ground of the faith? How many more fruit bearing seeds will be planted in Egypt that must first overcome the country’s indigenous pagan religions before it finds its way into the Promised Land?

The land of Egypt had become part of the Roman Empire in 32 B.C., and Alexandria, situated along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country, was a very large, populous, and metropolitan city. In fact, it was one of the great trading cities of the ancient world; having contact with Roman territories to the north and east, and with India, Malaysia and possibly even China to the south, by the way of the Red Sea. The population of Egypt around this time is unknown, but modern scholars tend to follow the figure given by Diodorus Siculus, which puts the population in the first century B.C. at three million.ii

While there were exotic stones and minerals quarried out of the Eastern Desert departing on ships from Alexandria, grain and corn were the major exports to Rome due to an annual consignment and tax. The labor-force used to produce these exports were a mix of full-time laborers, consisting of those who worked for accommodation, independent contractors, casual laborers, and slaves.

For centuries, Egyptian religion had been polytheism, with some polytheistic-monotheism leanings in regards to Ra, the sun god, who was the source of all things; Ptah being the ‘the heart and tongue of all the gods’, and Aten, decreed by Akhenaten to be the one god that should be worshipped by all. By the time of Paul the hermit and Anthony the monk went into the desert, the popular gods in Egypt were Serapis and Isis. To these deities and many others were erected many beautifully adorned temples throughout Egypt that many Alexandrian Christians would have seen on a daily basis.

Pre-Christian Monasticism

In all of the older religions we find adherents who decided to set themselves apart from mainstream society so that they might specialize in the practice of the way of faith and devotion to their deity. The life of the solitude that troubled Adam, these men and women found to be necessary to their spiritual ambitions. The consistency of this trajectory towards asceticism in the search for God that we find in religion seems to suggest that there is a natural and fundamental desire resting in the heart of all men to abandon the self completely so that he might be free and unencumbered to search for his creator – his true source of life. The expression of this embrace to abandon self to search of God is called monasticism.

Being that Alexandria had a long history of being a diverse city; a city interested, by evidenced by its Royal Library, of being knowledgeable of other cultures; a city influenced to a degree by its trading partners, perhaps it was possible that two rich young men like Paul and Anthony might have read or heard about monasticism in other religions not popular in Egypt. Evidence of Egyptian Christians’ knowledge of religious practices, even as far away as India can be found in two of the works of Saint Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 A.D.):

    “Among the Indians are those philosophers also who follow the precepts of Boutta, whom they honour as a god on account of his extraordinary sanctity.”iii

    “Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Sramanas among the Bactrians (“Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων”); and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour’s birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sramanas (“Σαρμάναι”), and others Brahmins (“Βραφμαναι”).”iv

In the first quote Saint Clement demonstrates some knowledge of Buddhism, and in the second quote he goes further to make careful note of the different classes of ascetics found in the forests of India; the Brahmins, the gymnosophist (Jains), and Sramanas (Buddhist). There is no certain proof that monasticism, as found in India, had any direct (intentionally mimicking or hand holding) influence on early Catholic monasticism, as the way in which the latter would influence the former centuries later, but knowledge of this way of life does at least hint to diminishing the notion of Catholic monasticism being a spontaneously original movement.

While Hinduism in India is generally considered to be the birthplace of the ascetic life and monasticism, the concept of it was really built on something much older and primitive that we still see today in tribal cultures and in fraternity rituals. This idea that seems to be intrinsically human has been called the Hero’s Journey amongst other things. In short, there is a journey from boyhood to manhood in which the boy must be trained by a master (someone greater than him), and then be set apart in isolation for a period of time to discover who he is through the tests and trials that the environs permit.

Both Christians and followers of the Vedas call that period of training ‘discipleship’. Early on Hindus took from the Law of Manu that after a man develops wrinkles and his hair turns grey, and looks at the son of his son, he should retire into the forest . . . entrusting his wife to his son, or taking her with him.v This idea would eventually evolve to Hindu hermits living in the forest, and then living in the forest with their disciples, then a development of a new group of people in the Indian caste system called Upanishads (wandering ascetics). Later, formal communities of monks would develop in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

While monasticism as a permanent lifestyle never fully developed in the Egyptian cults, various religious texts do show a strong call to both interior and exterior silence. Even though we do not find any monks in the Egyptian cults, we do find devotees who temporarily lived in the temples of their god, as with those who lived in the temple of the god Serapis in Memphis, who devoted themselves to a life of poverty, silence, and worship for a specified period of time.

In Palestine, around two centuries before the birth of Christ, the growing influence of foreign rule had created a laxity in obedience to the law. In response, numbers of pious Jews began grouping themselves together in small companies to stand together in scrupulous practice of the law. The two companies that a great deal have been penned about are the Essenes and the community of Qumran.

For the latter there were stages of progressive toward purity. To become pure among the pure, two years of preparation was required that involved withdrawing to the desert where the practitioner would be isolated with YHWH, and where their life would then evolve into becoming a true Halakhah.

Father Mayeul Francis De Dreuille OSB notes that the community of Qumran had much in common with the Hindu social system, dominated by the priestly Brahmin caste. These similarities include cooking done by members of the highest caste and not using the left hand for noble works. “This helps to account for the fact that among the first converts of the Judeo-Christian missionaries in India, the majority were Brahmins.”vii

A common element between the asceticism we find in India and that in Palestine was the philosophy of dualism professed through a detachment from the material world; particularly with the Jains and the Essenes. In monasticism post-Christianity, we will recognize traces this philosophy also being practiced with the Encratites and in Manicheism in the second century.

The Trajectory of Catholic-Christian Monasticism

We have seen thus far that the call to an eremitical and communal ascetic or monachal expression of the faith was the likely, even natural, trajectory of many religions. There seems to be a desire to master or specialize in the faith; to set oneself apart from casual adherents and group with other likeminded serious practitioners of the religion.

This desire of self-mastery; of being a ninja in something and grouping with others based upon common interest is not something exclusive to religion, but it is something we see other professions and advocations as well.

“What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.” viii Perhaps Qoheleth’s statement can be applied to Catholic-Christian monasticism as well. It was nothing new to find followers of Christ Jesus becoming hermits and monks. There is evidence to suggest that there was some degree of knowledge in Syria and Egypt about this way of life in the older religions. Yet, while the ninja aspect of Christianity was nothing new, what does seem to be new was the trajectory to get there.

If the common trajectory to the hermitical and monastic life was from the casual observer of the faith to professional/very serious observer, then we have to question whether that was ever the sustained case in early Christianity. Being that Christianity was a persecuted religion for first two centuries of its existence, there was never much room in it for less than serious adherents. Being a Christian was a life or death (likely death under some Roman Emperors) proposition. Nor, did the very lengthy process to become a member of the Catholic Church allow those with lukewarm or selfish motives to progress very far. Until Constantine’s Edictum Mediolanense in February of 313 A.D., which allowed Christians to pray and worship their God in peace, there was really no social advantage to be a Christian in the Roman Empire.

Therefore, from the beginning, even with the persecution and crucifixion of their God, Christianity was endued with a material ethos of persecution, sufferance, and hardship. Christianity required community; that is, a spirit of sticking together so that they make it through. Being that Christianity was naturally communal and naturally suffering from the beginning, the period of peace, freedom, and protection that Constantine’s, and later Theodosius’ I, edicts brought to it were a foreign idea that was not in keeping with what had become known to be the spiritual life of Christianity. It was Tertullian’s argument in his 197 A.D. Apology that the early Christian material ethos was the true fruit of the faith:

    “Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this. When recently you condemned a Christian maiden to a panderer rather than to a panther, you realized and confessed openly that with us a stain on our purity is regarded as more dreadful than any punishment and worse than death. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

Therefore, the notion that the monastic movement in Catholic-Christianity at the end of the age of persecution was original and spontaneous can be rejected on the double grounds that have been delineated above. Again, while the ninja aspect of Christianity was nothing new, what does seem to be new was the trajectory to get there. Christianity did not evolve into ascetic sects and hermits as we saw with the older religions. The intrinsic call to discipleship and rejecting the world is there in the beginning of Christianity.ix Catholic-Christian monasticism was not a new development; rather, it was simply a return to its original charism. It was a return to the rigor, sufferance, and hardship it has always known. In a sense they were saying, ‘If the world will no longer persecute me for the sake of Christ, I will persecute myself.’ ‘If the world will no longer ostracize and separate me from its trappings, I will ostracize and separate myself.’

Three Figures from Early Catholic-Christian Monasticism

Many great figures emerge from the early years of monasticism in Christianity, but space only allows me here to write very briefly about the three I find to be particularly cohesive to the current narrative.

Having made the point throughout of the Indian influence on the history of monasticism, we might first look at the Syriac Christian ascetics who were greatly influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist monks. While their penances might seem extreme to those we’ll soon discover in the West, things like carrying chains, living under a tree, or on top of a pillar were quite in harmony with the type of life that the Indians expected to see holy men and women exhibit.

A couple early notable figures that emerge from Syria are Saint Ephrem (306 – 373) and Simeon Stylites (390 – 459). The latter is best known for retreating from the world vertically, having failed to do so horizontally. Living on a pillar seemed to fail him as well, as it attracted even more attention to him. Saint Ephrem was a deacon, theologian, poet, and liturgist. He was born into a Christian family in Nisibis and educated and grew up besides James, Bishop of Nisibis (303 – 338). In his November 28, 2007 General Audience Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called Saint Ephrem (a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church) Christianity’s most important Syriac-speaking representative, who succeeded in reconciling the vocations of theologian and poet. We don’t know for certain whether Ephrem was a monk. It is more likely that he belonged to a community that followed a rule of service and sexual purity.

It would be impossible to successfully talk about Catholic-Christian monasticism without some mention of Saint Anthony (ca. 251 – 356), who stands in the deserts of Egypt as a John the Baptist type of figure; calling thousands of people to him to imitate his way of following Christ Jesus. He is considered to be the first mover of the Desert Fathers and a type of father of Catholic-Christian monasticism. Much of what we know about Saint Anthony comes from the biography written by him his close friend Saint Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. In writing about the global influence of his dear friend, Saint Athanasius had this to say:

    “For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who dwelt hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes his own known everywhere, who also promised this to Anthony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.”x



    i Mt. 28:19-20.

    ii Josephus, writing the first century A.D. gives a figure of 7.5 million exclusive of Alexandria.

    iii Clement of Alexandria. Stomata (Miscellanies), Book I, Chapter XV.

    iv Ibid.

    v Cf. Law of Manu VI 8.

    vi Cf. Pap, Cairo IV, 1-2; in Hermes No. 4, P. 17; Amenope. Teaching; ch. 4; Amour de la Vie, p. 125.

    vii De Dreuille, Mayeul. From East to West: A History of Monasticism. Herder & Herder Book. New York.1999. p.68.

    viii Eccl. 1:9.

    ix Cf. Mt. 8:19-22, 19:16-30; Lk. 9:57-62, 14:25-33, 18:24-30.

    x Saint Athanasius. Life of Anthony. P 93, 5-6.



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      Dreuille, Mayeul De. From East to West: History of Monasticism. New York. The Crossroad Publishing Company. 1999.

      Laux, John. Church History: A History of the Catholic Church to 1940. Charlotte, NC. Tan Books. 1989.

      The New American Bible. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002.

      Shaw, Will. , Ian, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford. University Press. 2000.

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