(This is the first of a series of talks I am giving on the desert monasticism, aiming toward a focus on Evagrius, and Anselm Gruen's book, "Heaven Begins Within")
THE DESERT MONKS
The roots of the Christian mystical tradition and the roots of the Christian monastic tradition are virtually the same
• Before we read Evagrius, I want to trace his lineage: Antony the Great, father of monasticism (c. 251-356); Origen (185-254), in some ways the first Christian mystical writer; Evagrius (c. 345-399), himself a desert monk and a student of the writings of Origen; John Cassian.
• Antony is the father of the desert tradition; Origen, though not a monastic, is a great thinker who is going to have an strong influence on Evagrius, but Origen will be condemned. So both Origen and Evagrius’ thought go underground and it surfaces among other places in a man named John Cassian whose Conferences and Institutes will carry the theology of these two in a hidden way,
• Also have a major influence on St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism: Benedict requests that John Cassian be read to the community each night. But notice that neither is John Cassian ever made a saint––same suspicion, of Origenist tendencies.
• I want to bring up one salient point from each of these traditions, Antony, Origen and John Cassian as we dig into Evagrius.
We’re going to mainly be talking about desert monasticism, which many consider to be the first Christian monks but to be fair…
• there was another strand of monasticism developing at this time, more urban in character:
• from the earliest days of Christianity there were some members of the church who were more committed than the majority, who wished to live a life of particular asceticism and commitment, even to the extent of renouncing marriage and family ties: the order of virgins and celibates; quite often living as solitaries, recluses, hermits even in cities––“urban hermits”
• these came to be known by various names especially such as devoti, the devout; the Greek word monachos is not used for them
• by the 3/4 century such devoti, although continuing to celebrate in the local church, also began to live in community rather than as individuals, and had begun to evolve strong liturgical characteristics of their own, especially in Syria
But now to the desert… Adelbert de Vogue:
"When the threat of bloody death ceased to hang over every christian head, the monk tried to give his whole life here blow the value of martyrdom. The break with the world no longer consisted in defying the law and confronting torture, but in leaving society and living for God alone far from [people]… Christ's appeal for continual prayer resounded with more force than ever. Thereafter, to pray without ceasing was no longer to be one of the Lord’s directives among others; it was to be the raison d'etre of lives freed from every temporal preoccupation…"
"In the fourth century, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia were the forcing ground for monasticism in its Christian expression; every form of monastic life was tied, every kind of experiment, every kind of extreme. Monasticism is of course older than Christianity, but this was the flowering of it in its Christian expression and in many ways it has never been surpassed… The great center was Egypt. By AD 400 Egypt was a land of hermits and monks." (ref., In the Heart of the Desert)
In Egypt in the 4th century there were three great monastic centers located south of Alexandria in the Libyan desert
• remember that lower Egypt is actually north of upper Egypt because the Nile flows north!
1. Middle Egypt was the land of hermits, strict literal solitaries, of whom Antony the Great, about whom we shall speak is the prototypical example.
2. Lower Egypt: Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis: groups of ascetics
• the most important is Scetis, located about 65 miles northwest of modern day Cairo
• this is the lavra or skete form of monasticism where several monks lived together, often as disciples of an abba
• It was a meeting place between the desert and the world where visitors could make contact with the traditions of the desert
• Douglas-Burton Christie (A Word in the Desert) was surprised to find out actually how close they were to the towns
• A more learned, Greek influenced type of monasticism grew up here.
• Evagrius of Pontus is the most famous son of this lineage
3. Upper Egypt/coenobites:
• These men lived in a less remote part of Egypt.
• main center was Tabennisi in the Thebaid.
• main figure here is Pachomius (290-347), who is credited with being the creator of organized monasticism
• was a young pagan that was led to Christ by the charity of some villagers giving food to destitute prisoners
• he also lived as a hermit under the authority of a master but then went on to …
• found cenobitic foundations around 320 at Tabennesi in the Nile Valley of the Thebaid, the area north of Thebes.
• not hermits grouped around a spiritual father, but communities of brothers united in work and prayer: cenobites as opposed to hermits
All chronicled most extensively in the Apophthegmata––the sayings of the desert Fathers and Mothers (though one must admit there were fewer mothers, at least fewer mothers recorded).
As I said, the eccentric flight of hermits into the desert is going to have its influence on these urban monks:
• Guiver: “considerably sharpened the whole picture, raising the business of commitment to a more dramatic and aggressively challenging plane."
• besides leaving behind an incredible wisdom tradition, the desert monks brought a new and surprisingly radical commitment to prayer, taking very literally St Paul's admonition to pray constantly
• the Egyptian type of monasticism (the desert fathers) will spread to Europe, finding particularly sympathetic soil among the British and the Irish Celts (who tended to be rather dour and very disciplinarian), but in the end will fade out without any direct heirs
• it is the devoti who would become the model for western monks in the future, even though heavily impregnated with ideals and to some extent practices of the Egyptian monks, because as soon as these devoti (what we are calling “urban monasticism”) began to distance themselves from their parish base, they came to discover some of the virtues of the Egyptian way of prayer
• it is then in this type of monasticism¬¬––the urban devoti influenced by the desert monks of Egypt––that a hybrid develops, with a mixture of "cathedral" style (because they are originally attached to cathedrals and participating in cathedral "offices" with their accompanying practices) with monastic style, and it's going to set the parameters for the future of monastic worship and lifestyle
• Mainly this is going to happen through John Cassian
I think we can safely say that the wisdom of the desert monks was one of those things that got buried, forgotten like so many other elements of our wisdom tradition, for centuries. Happily, with the revival of so many other things in the past few generation, the recovery of sources and fonts, there has been a great revival in the study of the desert fathers.
• Buried except for in at least one place where it was incarnated at least, if not talked about much: the Camaldolese reform: Romuald was heavily influenced by eastern monasticism and the hermit tradition that was burgeoning again all over Italy and when he started founding houses they were imitations of the lavra, communities of hermits around a main church
• But also you see, in his Brief Rule, the mention of watching your thoughts––watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watches for fish–¬– which we will see is a direct lineage of the desert tradition.