The Christian Church is heavily indebted for the creation of monasticism which influenced her organization and philosophy48. Although St. Paul the Theban (died c. 340) is considered the first hermit, the origins are ascribed to St. Anthony (c. 251-356) whose fame was spread by his famous biography written by St. Athanasius49.

The first definable stage of Coptic monastic life is described as "Anthonian Monachism." At the age of twenty, St. Anthony (251-356), an orphan of wealthy Christian parentage from the village of Coma50, renounced the world. He sold his estate, distributed the proceeds to the poor, and entrusted his younger sister to a community of virgins. For about eighty-five years, he led a solitary life and went further and further into the desert; his fasts got longer, and his combats with the demons became more spectacular.

His fame spread far and Athanasius himself came to sit at his feet, while the Emperor Constantine wrote asking for his spiritual support. Many disciples sought his spiritual guidance, while they continued to lead solitary lives in the neighborhood of his cave. During Anthony's lifetime, there developed a second stage of monasticism, which may be called, "collective erimitism"51. The oldest settlement grew around Anthony in the district of Pispir and spreading eastward into the mountain where the monastery of St. Anthony stands to the present day. Another community arose at Chenoboskion (modern-day Nag Hammadi) in the Thebiad, where the Gnostic papyri was discovered. Moreover, there were three settlements in the Western Desert, namely, Nitrea, founded by St. Amoun; Cellia, the home of St. Macarius the Alexandrian; and Scetis, where St. Macarius the Great founded another monastery about 33052.

A new chapter in the development of monasticism was associated by St. Pachomius (c. 290-346)53. Born a pagan and serving in the armies of Constantine and Licinius, Pachomius and his companions were encamping outside the city of Esnah, in Upper Egypt. The goodness of the Christians, who came to was the soldiers' feet and offered them food, impressed him. On his return, he was converted to Christianity and followed an aged monk called Palamon. Later on, he lived in a cave in solitude. He perceived that the life of solitude is not possible for everyone; so he thought to inaugurate a combination of asceticism and cenobitic, or communal life. Thus was born the rule of St. Pachomius54, surnamed the Great. This was the third and last stage of the monastic ideal. Perhaps the most revolutionary features in the system were the introduction of manual labor and a considerable measure of education55. The Fathers of the Church from numerous parts of the world came to Egypt for training in the way of monasticism. St. Athanasius the Great has already been mentioned. St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) stayed under the Pachomian rule in Thebiad from 373 to 381. St. Jerome (c. 342-420) and Rufinus (c. 345-410), the ecclesiastical historians, spent time in Egypt.

St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379) introduced monasticism to Byzantium on the basis of Pachomian rule56. St. John Cassian (c. 360-435) spent seven years in the Thebiad and the Nitrean Desert and collected the material from personal experiences with the Desert Fathers for his two famous works: the Institute and the Conferences. He founded a monastery and a nunnery on the model which he had witnessed in Egypt57. Palladius (c. 365-425), Bishop of Hellenopolis in Bithynia, wrote his Lausiac History58, sometimes described as the "Paradise of the Fathers"59. Women too, came; such as Etherea, the fourth-century Spanish abbess, and Melania (c. 345-410), the aristocratic Roman widow60. Monasticism has survived in Egypt and has given the Coptic Church an unbroken line of 117 Popes beginning with St. Mark. Although most of the monasteries have disappeared, there is a revival in the surviving ones.

Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Church
Auckland New Zealand

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