Writing in 197 AD, Tertullian said the following:
We are accused of being useless in the affairs of life. How in all the world can that be the case with people who are living among you, eating the same food, wearing the same attire, having the same habits, under the same necessities of existence? We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods and exile themselves from ordinary human life.
Within 50 years or so, this was no longer true for a significant chunk of the Christian population. The Christian ascetics and later the monastics sought to deny themselves and die to the world by cutting themselves off from it. Today we are going to learn about two of the most famous monastics. St Anthony, who served as the inspiration for millions more to go into the desert seeking God, and Pachomius, who brought the Christian hermits back together into their own form of community.
Anthony the Great, Father of Monasticism (251-356 AD)
Anthony was an Egyptian, born to wealthy, Christian parents. They died when he was around 20. Not long afterward, he was walking along thinking about how the apostles forsook everything and sold all they had to follow Jesus, and he happened to wander into church right as Matt 19:21 was being read: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Anthony took this as a clear message from God to him. He sold off his family’s more than 200 acres and most of their possession, giving it to the townspeople and the poor. He kept just a small amount for himself and his sister.
The next time he walked into church, Matt 6:34 was read: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” Immediately he left and gave his remaining possessions to the needy. He gave his sister over to the care of a proto-convent, and “apprenticed” himself to a local hermit. He then left there and traveled about seeking out other ascetics to learn from, most of whom lived somewhat isolated lives on the outskirts of cities.
Finally, he had a friend seal him in a tomb, where he had his first great confrontation with Satan and his demons:
And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Anthony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. … But the enemy, who hates good, marveling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, ‘Ye see,’ said he, ‘that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion.’ But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature.
The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Anthony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord has made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ And again with boldness he said, ‘If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.’ So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth at him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.
Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Anthony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear at the beginning to make my pains end?” And a voice came to him, “Anthony, I was here, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you have persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere.” Having heard this, Anthony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly.
Anthony set out from there to the desert, one of the first ascetics to do so. Eventually he came to deserted fortress, and shut himself inside with enough food for 6 months. He spent the next twenty years there, and though he had visitors, he did not allow anybody in or ever venture outside. Those who did visit reported that they heard what sounded like mobs inside crying out, “Get away from what is ours! What do you have to do with the desert? You cannot endure our treachery!” When they peeked in and saw nobody there, they realized that it was demons they were hearing.
This, by the way, is a recurring theme with the desert monks. They saw themselves as very directly confronting and being confronted by the demons. Though they did not physically fight them off, this war was very real and very literal for them. One of Anthony’s later speeches to his fellow monks consists largely of practical advice for how to deal with the demons when they troubled them by either appearing in strange shapes or even whispering future events to them.
Finally, so many people had gathered outside the fortress wanting to follow him in asceticism that they tore open the door, and he finally ventured forth. “From then on,” Athanasius tells us, “there were monasteries in the mountains and the desert was made a city by monks, who left their own people and registered themselves for citizenship in the heavens.”
The following is from a speech given by Anthony to his fellow monks:
Nor let us think, as we look at the world, that we have renounced anything of much consequence, for the whole earth is very small compared with all the heaven. Wherefore if it even chanced that we were lords of all the earth and gave it all up, it would be nought worthy of comparison with the kingdom of heaven. For as if a man should despise a copper drachma to gain a hundred drachmas of gold; so if a man were lord of all the earth and were to renounce it, that which he gives up is little, and he receives a hundredfold. But if not even the whole earth is equal in value to the heavens, then he who has given up a few acres leaves as it were nothing; and even if he have given up a house or much gold he ought not to boast nor be low-spirited. Further, we should consider that even if we do not relinquish them for virtue’s sake, still afterwards when we die we shall leave them behind.
Therefore, children, let us hold fast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow-worker, as it is written, “to all that choose the good, God worketh with them for good.” But to avoid being heedless, it is good to consider the word of the Apostle, “I die daily.” For if we too live as though dying daily, we shall not sin. And the meaning of that saying is, that as we rise day by day we should think that we shall not abide till evening; and again, when about to lie down to sleep, we should think that we shall not rise up. For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall.
Pachomius (290-347 AD)
“How can a person test his humility when he has no one to whom he can show himself the inferior? How will he give evidence of his compassion, if he has cut himself off from association with other persons? And how will he exercise himself in long-suffering, if no one contradicts his wishes? If the Lord washed the feet of the disciples, whose feet will you wash?” – St Basil (330-379)
“To save souls, you must bring them together.”-Pachomius
Born in Egypt to pagan parents, he was drafted into the army at 20. On the way to the front, he and his fellow soldiers stopped at Thebes, where they were housed in a prison. Local Christians came to visit the inmates and bring them food, which greatly impressed Pachomius. He vowed to investigate Christianity when he got out of the army, which was soon afterward. He became a pupil of the hermit Palamon for seven years, after which he set out on his own to follow the discipline of St. Anthony.
One day, God led him out about 10 miles to a deserted village by the Nile called Tabennesi, and commanded him, “Build a monastery; for many will come to you to become monks with you.” He built a cell there in 320, where his brother joined him as his first follower. Before long the community grew to 100, and by the time of his death it contained 3,000 monks. They shared everything in common, prayed and worked together, and followed the rules Pachomius laid out. These rules regulated the entire day, dictating when they would wake, when they would pray, what work they would do, and even how they would greet visitors to the monastery.
This system became known as “coenobitic monasticism” from the Greek words “koinos bios” (common life). It formed the basis for the rules that would organize all future monasteries, most notably the Benedictine monasteries.
Simeon the Stylite (390 – 459)
Simeon entered a monastery before the age of 16, and subjected himself to ever-increasing bodily austerities, from severe fasting to standing upright as long as he could possibly bear it. Eventually, he confined himself to living on a small platform on the side of a mountain. However, he was so overwhelmed by pilgrims seeking his advice that he finally decided to try escape the world vertically. He set up a platform on top of a 12 foot pillar and lived on it. Followers provided him with taller and taller pillars as time went by, the final one being over 45 feet tall, and there he lived for 37 years until his death. People continued to flock to him, and he preached to them and wrote letters. He converted thousands to Christianity, and inspired imitators all the way through to the 1400s.