The Origins of Monasticism

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  • Topic: Anthony the Great, Desert Fathers, Asceticism
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The Origins of Monasticism

Through each of the texts, stemming from John the Dwarf, Cassian’s, Conference XVIII, The Rule of Benedict, and The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, the prominent underlying themes are centered around individuals’ ability to improve themselves by implementing a life of asceticism and humility. Each author attempts to preach the importance of adopting the Psalms or word of God and stripping away any comforts in life. The authors, for example, in Athanasius’s, the Letter to Marcellinus, is known to be the first of its kind in providing a guide for reaching the divine through personal, devotional meditation and signing of the Psalms. While John Cassian mentions the idea of a person’s turn to flight when faced with his “enemies,” more or less temptations, I found that he also created the presumption of cowardice, in some respects. The concept of flight is also utilized in John the Dwarf, the desert abbas, or fathers, who create a community of monks inhabiting their cells in the desert. This idea of finding solitude in a cell where a person, devoted to God, can find divinity and is free to worship as he so chooses, while an attractive appeal, the question is in which lifestyle is the most favorable. To worship God and meditate on his teachings by leading a life of example in solitude or immersing yourself in society and devoting yourself instead to social welfare through the divine intervention granted you by God. There is a passage in John Cassian’s Conference Eighteen which references fake humility by Abba Sarapion, one of the desert fathers, who scorns a young man who claims to be wallowing in sin and so visits Sarapion. The passage continues as Sarapion urges the young man not to come to him simply to achieve a form of free sanctity and food, but instead to take advantage of his strength and “support himself by his own efforts rather than through the generosity of someone else.” (John Cassian, Conference Eighteen, 192) However, again, the readers must find themselves attempting to make sense of Serapion’s insistence on a young strong man’s toiling away in his “cell” in the desert and “laboring as he did for the sake of the gospel…” (192) Surely, it is not my intention to suggest he live off the generosity of others, but instead that yes, he labor, but perhaps not for himself or for the sake of the gospel, but in the name of the gospel for others. As a Christian myself, I found it difficult to grasp the logic of the desert fathers in that young sinners should somewhat waste away in their solitude, to reach a personal salvation. It is my belief that as a Christian, perhaps, given life alone would be enough to become grateful and to create a better world for ourselves and others, particularly if one has sinned and finds himself/herself in need of repentance. Although, the concept of reaching ultimate humility by living a quiet life away from others certainly provides ample time to meditate on God’s teachings, I find this both admirable, yet selfish. In my experience, I would think that the ultimate humility is living to assist others and instead devote oneself in helping those who cannot look after themselves.

The most fascinating text assigned this week and perhaps the most enveloping on a personal level was Athanasius’ documentation of The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus. Asceticism to Athanasius is the vehicle to reaching the divine. Athanasius closely documents Antony’s life as a hermit who cuts off all family bonds and ties to the desert fathers, choosing instead to devote his entire life to reaching the ultimate form of humility and in doing so becomes saintly. Antony goes to the extremes of asceticism even leaving all human life behind and enveloping himself in the holiness of the mountain he inhabits alone. Perhaps it is the forward description of Athanasius, as, “Born to an age of controversy, Athanasius thrived in it, a nemesis to his adversaries within the...
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