Christian Monasticism in Fourth-Century Egypt

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  • Topic: Monasticism, Asceticism, Anthony the Great
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  • Published : March 15, 2007
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Christian Monasticism in Fourth-Century Egypt
In the study of Christian history, the institution of monasticism seems to present one of the most interesting cases for examination. From its beginnings, other Christians have revered monasticism as a particularly demanding lifestyle, one that is emblematic of the highest level of devotion to God. The sacrifices that monks make are undertaken with the specific intent of achieving closer communion with God through a rejection of the outer, human world. Yet, from its beginnings, monasticism has been noted to contain certain paradoxes, most notably that of the contrast between community and solitude. Indeed, monks are noted for their devotion to solitude and inner contemplation, yet at the same time they are often gathered together during daily life in communities known as monasteries. In addition, they seek to achieve the highest levels of communion with God, yet some of the virtues that will allow them to reach this level are charity and humility, attributes that require the presence of others in order to be practiced. Hence, one of the most provocative and interesting topics that can be studied about monasticism is the question: if Christian monks were supposed to flee from the "world", why did they inevitably end up reflecting and supporting it? In order to best address the question, it is first necessary to limit the range and scope of the topic under examination. The institution of monasticism in the Christian religion has been in existence for over 1500 years, in many different forms, yet all forms have wrestled with the paradox of community versus solitude. Therefore, perhaps it is best to turn to an examination of the origins of the monastic tradition, both in its solitary and communal traditions. The origins of both traditions can be traced back to fourth-century Egypt under Roman rule, to the two key figures of St. Antony and St. Pachomius. Antony is credited with establishing and bringing recognition to the Christian ascetic tradition of monasticism, while Pachomius is acknowledged as the founder of the first monastic community. These two characters were separate, in different locations, and had no contact with one another. Therefore, from the beginning, it is necessary to examine the circumstances under which these two traditions were born and to find commonalities in their influences that may help in the examination of the question at hand. Before going into detail, it is also necessary to clarify more specifically the terms of the question being posed. In the premise that "Christian monks were supposed to flee from ‘the world'," the world is to be interpreted as the secular world in which they lived; specifically the Coptic Egyptian world under the rule of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. In removing themselves, it was to facilitate their commune with God by eliminating the distraction caused by others human beings. Hence, ‘the world' can be generalized under the circumstances to mean Egyptian society or community. The phrase "reflecting and supporting [the world]" should not be taken to imply full-fledged reentry into secular society. Rather, it is to imply interaction with, or on behalf of, that secular world. Also, it can be taken to mean the acceptance of or support for the idea of community, and a willingness to live within a community, though not necessarily the secular community. The circumstances being evaluated are long distant in the past; hence the sources being used are a key aspect that must be examined. Specifically, they must be questioned with respect to their accuracy and validity. In this early period in Egypt, the majority of the monks were Coptic-speaking peasants, for the most part illiterate, although there were notable exceptions to this rule. As a result, there is no first hand evidence from the monks themselves. However, as the monastic movement began to garner attention amongst the majority of the populace, people came to see them and...
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