Monasticism began one Sunday morning in 270 A.D. in an Egyptian village. The Gospel reading was, "If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Matt. 19:21).
In the congregation sat a young man called Anthony, who, upon hearing these words, sought a life not merely of relative poverty but of radical solitude.
Anthony's step into the uninhabited desert was little noticed outside, or even inside, his village at the time. But when he died in 356 A.D. at age 106, his friend and biographer Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that the desert "had become a city," meaning thousands had regularly flocked to Anthony to be taught by him.
Monasticism has been an essential feature of Eastern Orthodoxy ever since, and one cannot understand Orthodox Christianity without understanding its monastic tradition.
3 types: In Egypt, three main types of monasticism developed, roughly corresponding to three geographical locations:
1: The hermit life, found in lower Egypt, where Anthony was the model. Here monks lived an isolated and austere life of prayer.
2: The communal form, found in upper Egypt, where Pachomius formed a community of monks who prayed and worked together.
3. The middle way, in Nitria and Scetis west of the mouth of the Nile, started by Ammon. Here a loosely knit settlement of two to six monks looked to a common spiritual elder, or "abba."
The center of Eastern Monasticism moved from Egypt to Asia Minor in the late 300's, to Palestine in the 400's, to Sinai in the 500's, to Mount Athos, Greece, and to the United States in the 1900's, where the three types still exist.
In general, monasticism in the East has been more flexible than in the West. The East never had an Augustine or a Benedict who wrote strict regulations for monks.
The "rules" of Basil of Caesarea, by contrast, are not as systematic. His Longer Rules is a series of sermons, while his Shorter Rules answers questions raised by monks Basil visited in his diocese.
There has been no generally accepted rule or order in the East. One simply becomes attached to a specific monastery with its own tradition.
There were also monasteries for women, which may have risen earlier than those for men. Before retiring to the desert, Anthony had placed his sister in a "home for virgins," a fact that reveals that women were already organized into Christian communities in Egypt.
In general in the East, there was less emphasis on "stability," or monks and nuns living in one monastery their whole lives. In the East, monks and nuns often changed monasteries.
Importance of cell: Stability may not have been a main feature of Eastern Monasticism, but "sitting in one's cell" was. In the 5th Century "Sayings of the Desert Fathers," Abba Moses reveals, "The cell teaches us everything."
The cell was foremost a place of prayer, and prayer was the primary service of Orthodox monks and nuns.
Most eastern monasteries were in remote areas conducive to prayer: St. Saba's monastery in the Holy Land, St. Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai, the monastic republic of Mount Athos, the towering rocks of Meteora in Greece, and St. Anthony's monastery in Florence, Ariz.
Some Orthodox monks and nuns engaged in education, evangelism, and charitable work, but these works were secondary to the monastic's main vocation-- prayer. Monastery visitors expected to find people and places of prayer and encounter people with spiritual direction.
The goal of prayer, and of all monastic life, was union with God. Such union was possible only through a life of spiritual purification and total renunication -- a self-stripping of material possessions and intellectual projections.
Differences: In the West, monasteries often became nurseries of scholarship, but in the East, they were always centers of spirituality. The most precious service of Eastern monasticism was its ever-burning flame of prayer and spirituality. It is common today to find Orthodox monasteries where prayer is ongoing 24 hours a day.
In a sense, then, Orthodox monastic life has been an experience of Charismatic enthusiasm, a Pentecostal reality. The monk or nun bears witness to the abiding presence of the Spirit in the church.
Experience an Orthodox Monastery in our area: Men: St. John's, in Hiram, Ohio, or St. Gregory's in Haysville, Ohio. Women: Holy Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pa., and Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Saxonburg, Pa.
XThe Rev. Daniel Rohan is the pastor of St. Mark Orthodox Church in Liberty.