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Panayiotis Christou

The monastic life in the eastern orthodox Church

Reprinted from "The Orthodox Ethos", Studies in Orthodoxy vol. 1, Ed. by A.J.Philippou

The development of the monastic life.

During the middle of the third century, persecution of Christians became so severe that many of them were forced to withdraw from the cities. This occurred on a still larger scale at the beginning of the fourth century, when the duration of the persecutions was greater, so that those who had withdrawn remained in the open country for a longer period. They became so accustomed to living there that they established a permanent abode there, far from the society of the world which was torn by hatred. The persecutions ceased, but the centuries persecution had become an inseparable element in the life of Christians, and many of them found life undisturbed by persecutors inconceivable. So they became persecutors of themselves: they went away to the mountains, and subjected themselves to privation and suffering. Instead of the “blood of martyrdrom”, which had terminated a struggle with ferocious men, they submitted themselves to the “martyrdrom of conscience”, which consisted in the struggle against demons.

Henceforth the mountains became abodes of hermits, and gradually of organized communities of monks also. With the passage of time more and more remote places were sought as ascetic refuges, such as Athos and Meteora. The father away the ascetics lived, the more reverence and admiration they evoked in the common people.

The first known hermit was Paul of Thebaid, but the first real leader of the desert life was Antony the Great (d. 356), whose life was written with insight and love by Athanasius the Great. He lived in the wilderness for more than seventy years, and went to Alexandria only when occasion demanded; that is, when he heard of persecutions, in order to encourage those who were suffering. His fame eared him the esteem of Constantine the Great, who frequently sought his advice by letter. But especially he aroused the zeal of many simple men, who imitated his example. Five thousand anchorites occupied the desert of Nitria and the surrounding regions. They lived in complete isolation, and only when they needed counsel did they visit Antony or some other elderly monk, an abba. It sometimes happened that one of them died and days passed before the order ascetics knew about it. Each anchorite organized his own prayer, shelter, clothing, food and work. Their work consisted chiefly of making straw artifacts, which they sold at country market-places. On Sundays alone they went to the nearest church, in order to pray together and receive Holy Communion. In this form, hermit life was not under the full control of the Church.

It was evident that absolute isolation could lead to arbitrary actions and did not embrace all the demands of the Christian Gospel. There was an absence, in the first place, of spiritual supervision of the hermits, and secondly of the directing of their activity towards serving their fellow men. This was early perceived by some of the great ascetic personalities, who undertook the appropriate reform: Hilarion in the region of Gaza, Palestine; Ammonius at Nitria, and Macarius at Sketis, in Egypt. All three lived during the fourth century. These men made the chief country market-place , where the hermits sold their products, their center of action. As such market-places were called lavras, the monastic establishments near them received the same name. The hermits lived in numerous cells built around the lavras, at such a distance that they could neither see nor hear one another. In this communal life, independence was curbed to some extent; and moreover, an element of flexibility became possible in ascesis. The leader of the lavra examined the cells from time to time and exercised a certain degree of authority over the hermits. Further, the latter gathered together for common prayer on Saturdays and Sundays. Beyond this, everything else: shelter, dress, food and work, was regulated by each individual for himself.

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