Orthodox Monasticism

Orthodox Monasticism

“And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him… And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
The previous chapter demonstrated that no good evidence exists that the Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons has any connection to the beginnings of Christianity. Such lack of evidence undermines the Orthodox argument for justifying its teachings on icons. In fact, only in the early fourth century did the unbiblical issue of icons arise in the Eastern Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) Church. In a similar vein, the Orthodox practices of monasticism, an organized and special form of celibacy, also arose. Further study will reveal that Orthodox monasticism is an inauthentic form of Christianity not justified by the Bible. Furthermore, monasticism contradicts the model for family life established by God in the beginning of human history.
The beginning of this chapter will introduce readers to how Eastern Orthodoxy explains the phenomenon of monasticism, its meaning, and its impact on Christianity. The chapter will contrast Orthodoxy’s teachings on monasticism with the Holy Scriptures, which will illuminate the reader’s perspective on monasticism, particularly the effect that monasticism leaves upon those who are seduced by this method of unbiblical expression of religious fervor.

Origins and Organization of the Monastic Movement

The first forms of monasticism arose originally in Egyptian Christianity in the third and fourth centuries A.D. This ascetic movement spread relatively rapidly to Syria and Palestine. Without doubt, the Egyptian “desert fathers” laid the foundations of the monastic movement. Monasticism in Orthodoxy is revered and looked upon highly as a sublime way of life. An excerpt from an Orthodox Church journal demonstrates this reverence:

“Monasticism in the Church of God was and has remained through the centuries (from the very beginning of Christianity until today) the most mature and best fruit of the Christian life. Monks have achieved the highest summits of Christian perfection. Monasticism for the Church throughout the centuries has been of invaluable importance. The number and quality of monks has dictated the strength of the church and the sanctity of the nation… A Church without monasticism would be as barren and unfruitful as weeds on the side of the road.
The monks were the best guardians and zealots not only of the greatness and purity of the Christian life, but also the most courageous fighters for the purity and integrity of the Orthodox faith. The blood of monks in most cases sealed and delivered every victory by the Eastern Orthodox faith over damnable heresies. Today monasticism has lost none of its significance for the Orthodox Church or its reputation in the church of God.”

There are at least two main theories about the origin of monasticism. Eastern Orthodoxy rejects both of these theories and claims that the monastic movement is rooted in
the teachings of Jesus Christ and His apostles. Indeed, one theory suggests that
monasticism in the Christian Church came under the influence of Eastern religions that at their core fostered various forms of asceticism, e.g. religious asceticism. The second theory is that the monastic life (i.e., the withdrawal into solitude) appeared as an expression of resistance to the closer relationship between church and state during and after the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. This closer relationship resulted in the mass conversion of pagans into the Church and the consequential decline of Christian morality.

“[Eastern Orthodoxy believes] that monastic life as a system formed spontaneously in the Church, bone of her bones and flesh of her flesh. Monastic life appears officially in the fourth century, though its roots extend from the apostolic era. The Christian life as described in the sacred writings of the New Testament is the first ascetic type, both in terms of organization and methods. ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Mt. 5:48); ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ (Mt. 10:37); ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’ (Mt. 16:24). The Apostles themselves fulfilled the monastic vows in their own lives, albeit the official vows were formulated much later. This also includes John, the holy Herald of the Lord, and the Virgin Mary, which has been and remains the supreme example of obedience and virginity that the world has ever known… Also, during the time of the Apostles, there lived young ladies devoted to God, though they lived at home with their parents, who shared in the beginnings of monastic life. (See 1 Corinthians 7:36-8.)”

There is no evidence in the Bible that neither the apostles nor the Virgin Mary supposedly fulfilled monastic vows, and thus laid the foundations for the later monastic movement. We examined the issue of Mary in the previous chapter “Blessed Mary or the Queen of Heaven?” A little later we will examine the verses used above by the Eastern Church to defend the existence of monasticism under its auspices. Before addressing in further detail the background and the emergence of Christian asceticism, it would be appropriate to define more precisely the term “monk”. Ernst Benz explains this concept:

“The primary definition of the word monk – monachos – does not mean ‘hermit, loner’ as is generally believed. Rather, its primary definition is ‘unique’. When we consider the oldest symbol for Syrian monks – ihidaya – even clearer, it also connotes the ideas of ‘unique’ and ‘perfect’. Therefore, the Christian community recognized the monk originally as ‘perfect’, one who seeks to fulfill the Gospel commandment: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ (Mt. 5:48). The Syrian word also means ‘only begotten’, ‘Only One’. The Messianic title of Christ as the only Son (John 1:14) is transferred to the perfect Christian, a monk. He is the image of Jesus Christ and because of these exemplary similarities to Him, the monk will be elevated to the rank of the only begotten Son of God.”

The Emergence of the Monastic Movement

The typical explanation for the emergence of monasticism is that some devout Christians chose to move away from their homes and communities where they lived out of a desire to live godly lives. These “separated ones” first lived nearby their villages, not in the desert as monasticism later developed.

According to Milan Vukomanović, “The concept of ‘anachoresis’ meant separation from society. It originated from early Christian times and is connected with efforts to avoid huge levies and taxes. Entire groups of people often abandoned their homes to settle in Tebaida and Upper Egypt. Such “escapes” often occurred particularly in times of great persecution, such as, for example, the one under Decius, around 250 A.D.”

The early church father Jerome testifies that Paul of Thebes was the first hermit who retreated to the desert because of persecution against Christians by the Roman emperor Decius. Dionysius of Alexandria, a writer whose works became a source for the church historian Eusebius, also argued that many Christians fled into the wilderness from Roman persecutors. The implication is that these believers did not flee to the desert and live there out of a voluntary decision to deepen their spirituality. Such an implication contradicts the allegation by Eastern Orthodoxy that the early Christians assumed the monastic life in imitation of the most holy apostles and Mother of God. Rather, these Christians on the run were forced by circumstance to live in the desert.

In defending the early origins of monasticism, the same Orthodox author presumes that the first Christian ascetics emerged at the beginning of the second century during the persecution of Egyptian Jews by the Emperor Trajan. Among those who were persecuted were Christians. This is what he says:

“Even persecution by the Roman emperors contributed to the development and progress of the monastic life, as many Christians fled into the desert in order to avoid unprecedented torture and the risk of denial of their faith. Since these waves of persecution often lasted a long time, these Christians were forced to live in the wilderness for a long time. Thus, many adapted to this way of life. Even after the end of persecution, they did not return to their former communities. Instead, they remained in the desert.”

The first known ascetic hermit was Paul of Thebes (Paul the First Hermit) who lived in Upper Egypt. However, the first “desert father” and the father of monasticism was Anthony the Great (251-357 A.D.). According to Eusebius Popovic, Anthony lived in the wilderness from 286 to 311. Afterwards he left the wilderness and came to Alexandria where he stood amongst those who fought for the faith during the time of Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians. After Anthony encouraged many people, yet he did not receive a martyr’s crown, he returned to the desert and a crowd followed him who wanted to imitate his lifestyle. These followers of Anthony lived separately from each other and settled in two colonies. One colony was located near the river Nile in the Fayyum and the other at Tivaidus on the banks of the Red Sea. Pakhomius, one of Anthony’s disciples, later became the founder, or “father”, of a different vision for the monastic life. Monks would live together in the monastery:

“These ascetics lived under strict discipline by practicing work, prayer and self-control in all aspects of life. Anthony became the father of monasticism and established the monastic colonies, though its monks still lived separately and independently, and were to be ruled jointly by their spiritual guide. Pakhomius, one of his disciples, in either 330 or 340 A.D. founded a separate monastic settlement on the island of Tabenissi on the Nile River in Egypt. At first, monks lived in one place but with total solitude in the monastic community, that is, a home for individual monks. Then his settlement assumed the name of monastery (home of solitude, house of monks) and later cloister (enclosed house). Thus, Pachomius, who died in 348 A.D., became the father of communal monks living in a monastery, even before Anthony had died.”

Forms of Monastic Living

(1) Anachoresis is defined as the harshness of life as viewed through the wilderness vision of monastic life. Anchorites were people who leave their homes and settle in a deserted place. Such persons are also called hermits or ascetics. During Anthony’s time, according to tradition, in the Egyptian wilderness lived nearly 5,000 hermits who lived austere lives the best they could before God and their own conscience. Occasionally, the hermit would visit known spiritual elders to receive spiritual advice.

(2) Another form of monastic practice is found in the “lavra” (Greek for “path”, also called laura). The lavra was one of the original forms of organization for Byzantine monks. The Venerable Hilarion, a student of St. Anthony, adapted the concept of anachoresis to monks in Palestine, where they formed the first monastic colonies called lavra. In Judea, the lavra were first established around 330 A.D. by St. Chariton in the Desert of Paran. The distinguishing characteristic of the Lavra is that individual monks live in the wilderness more or less independently of one another. Unlike the traditional monastery, the monks in lavra are surrounded by one common wall, even though they live distant from one another, and they share a common temple in which to worship. In contrast, monastic communities share all their possessions and live together. Monks in the lavra live independent of one another. Later on, lavra were also referred to as “monasteries”, due to the fact that a large number of monks live in them, even though the monks live not as a community but in anachoresis.

(3) The third form of the organization of monastic life is communal or “coenobitic”. Its founder was Saint Pachomius in the fourth century. A distinguishing characteristic of this way of life is the unity and common property ownership of all inhabitants of the monastery. The communal system eventually developed to become the most advanced form of monastic life.

(4) The fourth form of the monastic life is called “idiorhythmic”:

“The residents of idiorhythmic monasteries observed communal living, prayer, and observation of the great holidays and holy weeks. However, they would work only in small groups by washing clothes and cooking. Consequently, this led to a collapse in discipline. Great abuses occurred in this regard. Until recently, a large number of Athos monasteries, including the Serbian monastery Hilandar, were organized under this system. However, the idiorhythmic system caused the decline of monasticism in terms of numbers and quality.”

“The observation is made that the weakening of monastic life and discipline led to the creation of a new (yet actually also decadent) monastic system: idiorhytmism (Russian “special living”). In reality, this system was not the response to the decline of monasticism, but rather a symptom of its decline.”

After having examined the various forms of monastic living, we will move on to an even more interesting topic: the impact of various pagan concepts on monasticism as practiced in various “Christian” religions. We will also consider the meaning of various texts
from the New Testament that Orthodox proponents of monasticism use to support their positions.

The Influence of Pagan Thinking on the Origin and Development of Monasticism

Regardless of whether or not Christians practiced the monastic life in the wilderness as a consequence of fleeing cruel persecution and saving their lives, a critical question remains. Did religious and philosophical doctrines outside of Biblical Christianity shape today’s Orthodox monasticism? Historians and scholars researching the issue give an affirmative answer. As we saw in the previous chapter, the theory that justified the painting of divine frescoes on Orthodox temples derived from “Christians before Christ” – namely the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and others. Greek philosophy in large part became the “Old Testament” for Orthodox theology. Consequently, we should not be surprised at all to recognize the influence of pagan Greek philosophy on Orthodox monasticism. Church historian Ernst Benz elaborates:

“Already at an early age, the practice of ascetics living outside the community emerged. They settled outside urban communities and moved to a secluded place in an enclosed area. Only the label of “monk” could incorporate this emphasis on physical separation. The lifestyle of these monks bears the stamp of past later Judaic and Hellenistic models of religious community. Similar groups of monks copied the Pythagoreans and later Judaic communities the Essenes.”

According to researchers, such as the German Walter Bauer in the first half of the twentieth century, the development of monasticism was influenced by teachings described in various apocryphal, Gnostic Gospels, as well as other Gnostic works written by Egyptians, such as the Basilidian and Valentinian works. Orthodox author Vukomanović concedes that, if we were to reject these documents as heretical (which church teachers indeed have rejected for centuries) “then the objective judge must admit that the history of early Christianity in Egypt developed under the dominant influence of Gnosticism.”

It is noteworthy that the church father Origen tells us that people in Egypt in the second century widely read and used the apocryphal (Gnostic) Gospel of Thomas. Consequently, concludes Vukomanovic, “the fact that the Gospel Thomas was so readily accepted in the specific religious and ideological framework of the time explains why Egyptian Christians welcomed these Gnostic works.” The author, who is an expert on the apocryphal gospels, states that the Gospel of Thomas emphasized “Jesus’s” command to asceticism and the hermit life (which, of course, is nowhere to be found in any of the canonical Gospels):

“The very myth of revival being transmitted through the ritual of baptism as well as celibacy became dominant characteristics of asceticism. Abstaining from intercourse, the glorification of ‘solitude’, and a general negative attitude towards procreation represented the most distinctive features of the ascetic’s attitude toward life and the world.”

“Asceticism was a dominant theme in the Gospel of Thomas… For example, we have seen that the character of Jesus portrayed in Thomas commanded his disciples literally and symbolically to ‘fast in relation to this world’ (verse 27) and to live a life of celibacy, solitude, and the renunciation of wealth and private property. These distinctive characteristics of ascetic and monastic attitudes toward life lead us to believe that the Thomasine community in Egypt could have represented some kind of ‘proto-monasticism’ as an ideological position that was peculiar to the Christian preachers in Egypt even before St. Anthony.”

Based on years of research on this subject, Vukomanović finally concludes:

“Christian asceticism in Egypt represents the result of a gradual and natural process in which a large role was played not only by the ideology of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Platonist, but also the experience of many nameless (e.g., non-Christian) philosophical and ascetic communities that lived in the vicinity of Alexandria and transferred their teachings to other cultural centers along the banks of the Nile.”

On the other hand, according to Benz, monasticism as a movement suddenly began to strengthen in the fourth century. The reason was not “the weariness of life in the world and the decadence of the late ancient world,” but rather the popularity of many ideas of asceticism and asceticism in isolation. According to Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, after the end of Roman persecution and the “conversion” of Emperor Constantine, some Christians felt obligated to prove their dedication in order to compensate for the lack of opportunities for martyrdom under persecution that no longer existed. Namely, in the past, one’s loyalty to Christ was proven by submitting to degrees of physical suffering inflicted by persecutors:

“By the fourth century, the days of testing one’s loyalty to Christ by submitting to physical suffering imposed by the pagan authorities were finished. Christians now searched for some other form of holiness and perfection. They found it in asceticism. The Christian ascetic, like the martyrs, proved his heroic fidelity to Christ by the acceptance of pain, rejection of the comfort of family life and struggle with the full commitment to a spiritual life. Following the end of the period of persecution, asceticism became the highest goal. Asceticism made sense as a powerful solution for the main problem of religion: how to bridge the gap between the human and the divine. By participation both in this world (through the physical body) and in the Kingdom of God (under the direction of celibate purity), the ascetic provided the missing link.”

As for the development of monasticism in the West, the most influential Church Fathers
included St. Jerome, the historian Rufus, St. Ambrose of Milan, Martin of Tours, St. John Cassian, and St. Augustine. In the case of Augustine, it can be reliably established that his asceticism originated and was formed under the strong influence of neoplatonistic philosophy. In fact, Augustine first became acquainted with it through Manicheanism, which pointed out the evil nature of matter and body:

“Manicheanism considered everything physical to be sinful, and the worst sin in their view culminated in sexual intercourse. Thus began the story of Augustine’s struggles resolved only after more than a decade when he became a priest in the celibate orders not of a Manichaean sect, but of the Catholic Church.”

After his conversion to Christianity, which occurred due to the fervent prayer of his mother Monica, Augustine abandoned a life full of physical pleasures and reached for the fulfillment of a higher goal – a spiritual union with God. This saint derived this concept of spiritual union with the divine not through any teaching of the Holy Scriptures, which teach the concept of spiritual rebirth in God through the Holy Spirit, but rather with the help of non-Christian philosophical ideas:

“This philosophy [Platonism] was adopted by a number of Christian intellectuals who considered the Greek-speaking world as the most sophisticated culture of its time. Augustine and many of his contemporaries greatly respected the work of Plotinus (205-70), a Neoplatonist who in his later years served as court philosopher for the Roman Emperor Gallienus. Plotinus fervently taught that one should retreat from the world and adopt an ascetic way of life… The teaching which [Augustine] finally adopted was a mixture of Platonism and Christianity… Along with mysticism, Augustine adopted an ascetic lifestyle as recommended by Neoplatonism and later firmly established in monasticism… Although he acknowledged the virtues of married life, Augustine advocated there was definite advantage in living a celibate life. One can clearly see the spirit of Plotinus in this teaching. Plotinus’ influence was also evident in Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible… Ascetic Christians have not only rejected the remnants of pagan culture, but they also viewed the material world in general with suspicion. They believed that the world served as a domain, if not the creation, of the devil. This dualistic approach that emphasized the value of the spiritual over the physical reflects similar thinking in Gnosticism and Neoplatonism.”

So the previous text explains that the philosophy of asceticism, e.g. monasticism, is actually based on the neglect and rejection of the physical world and material and the apprehension of the spiritual world, but not in accordance with New Testament theology. Rather, it is based on the theory that Orthodox theological thought serves as a kind of
“Old Testament”. Ernst Benz confirms this statement:

“From within Orthodox monasticism has emerged the most important spiritual force for Eastern Orthodox piety and spirituality – the mystic. The mystic is developed on the model of a radical ascetic. The Old Church traditions of asceticism, in which both evangelical and Neoplatonistic spiritual traditions intertwine with each other, are practiced by Orthodox monks to this day almost unchanged. Original Christian asceticism was strongly influenced by the expectation of the sudden and impending end of the world and the coming kingdom of God, against which the power of this present and transient world struggled. Later in history, monastic asceticism placed much less emphasis on waiting for the coming of Christ and much more on Neoplatonic dualism.”

We have demonstrated through various historical arguments that the roots of asceticism and monasticism in the later part of Christian history are not based on the Holy Scriptures. Rather, monasticism is based on Greek philosophical thought. The next section will provide an overview of the biblical texts abused by Orthodox theologians to defend monasticism, as well as the true meaning of the texts.


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