CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: EASTERN MONASTICISM BEFORE CHALCEDON
Eastern Monasticism Before Chalcedon (A.D. 451)
Egypt was the Motherland of Christian monasticism. It sprang into existence there at
the beginning of the fourth century and in a very few years spread over the whole
Christian world. The rapidity of the movement was only equaled by the durability of
its results. Within the lifetime of St. Anthony the religious state had become what it has
been ever since, one of the characteristics of the Catholic Church, with its ideals, and
what may be termed the groundwork of its organization, determined. But this was not
all. The simple teaching of the first Egyptian monks and hermits fixed once and
forever the broad outlines of the science of the spiritual life, or, in other words, of
ascetic theology. The study, therefore, of early monasticism possess a great deal more
than a merely antiquarian interest. It is concerned with a movement the force of which
is in no way spent and which has had a very large share in creating the conditions
which obtain at the present day.
The first chapter in the history of monasticism is the life of St. Anthony which has
already been described (see ANTHONY, SAINT). The inauguration of the monastic
movement may be dated either about 285, when St. Anthony, no longer content with
the life of the ordinary ascetic, went into the wilderness, or about 305, when he
organized a kind of monastic life for his disciples. Ascetic is the term usually
employed by writers on monasticism for those who in pre-monastic days forsook the
world so far as they were able. Of the three Evangelical counsels, chastity alone can be
practised independently of external circumstances. Naturally, therefore (beginning
with the sub-Apostolic age), we hear first of men and women leading the virgin life (cf.
I Clem., xxxviii; Ignat., "ad Polucarp.", c.v.; Hermas, "Sim.", IX,30).
The Apologists pointed triumphantly to such (Justin, "Apol.", I,xv; Athenagoras,
"Legat.", xxxiii; Minucius Felix, "Octav.", xxxi). Voluntary poverty, in the complete
renunciation of all worldly possessions, would be difficult till there were monasteries,
for persons with wealth to renounce would not, generally speaking, have been brought
up so as to be capable of earning their own livelihood. Still we have the examples of
Origen, St. Cyprian, and Pamphilus to show that the thing was done. A full practice of
the last Evangelical counsel (obedience) could only be realized after the monastic ideal
had taken root and passed beyond the purely eremitical stage. The ante-Nicene ascetic
would be a man who led a single life, practised long and frequent fasts, abstained from
flesh and wine, and supported himself, if he were able, by some small handicraft,
keeping of what he earned only so much as was absolutely necessary for his own
sustenance, and giving the rest to the poor. If he were an educated man, he might be
employed by the Church in some such capacity as that of catechist. Very often he
would don the kind of dress which marked the wearer off as a philosopher of an
In Egypt, at the time when St. Anthony first embraced the ascetic life, there were
numbers of ascetics living in huts in the neighbourhood of the towns and villages.
When St. Anthony died (356 or 357), two types of monasticism flourished in Egypt.
There were villages or colonies of hermits - the eremitical type; and monasteries in
which a community life was led - the cenobitic type. A brief survey of the opening
chapters of Palladius' "Lausiac History" will serve as a description of the former type.
Palladius was a monk from Palestine who, in 388, went to Egypt to drink in the spirit
of monasticism at the fountainhead. On landing at Alexandria he put himself in the
hands of a priest named Isidore, who in early life had been a hermit at Nitria and now
apparently presided over a hospice at Alexandria without in any way abating the
austerity of his life. By the advice of Isidore, Palladius placed himself under the
direction of a hermit named Dorotheus who lived six miles outside Alexandria, with
whom he was to pass three years learning to subdue his passions and then to return to
Isidore to receive higher spiritual knowledge. This Dorotheus spent the whole day
collecting stones to build cells for other hermits, and the whole night weaving ropes out
of palm leaves. He never lay down to sleep, though slumber sometimes overtook him
while working or eating. Palladius who seems to have lived in his cell, ascertained
from other solitaries that this had been his custom from his youth upwards. Palladius'
health broke down before he completed his time with Dorotheus, but he spent three
years in Alexandria and its neighbourhood visiting the hermitages and becoming
acquainted with about 2000 monks. From Alexandria he went to Nitria, where there
was a monastic village containing about 5000 solitaries. There was no kind of monastic
rule. Some of the solitaries lived alone, sometimes two or more lived together. They
assembled at the church on Saturdays and Sundays. The church was served by eight
priests of whom the oldest always celebrated, preached, and judged, the others only
assisting. All worked at weaving flax. There were bakeries where bread was made,
not only for the village itself, but for the solitaries who lived in the desert beyond.
There were doctors. Wine also was sold.
Strangers were entertained in a guest-house. If able to read, they were lent a book.
They might stay as long as they liked, but after a week they were set to some kind of
work. If at the ninth hour a man stood and listened to the sound of psalmody issuing
from the different cells, he would imagine, says Palladius, that he was caught up into
paradise. But, though there was no monastic rule at Nitria, there was municipal law,
the outward symbol of which was three whips suspended from three palm trees, one
for monks who might be guilty of some fault, one for thieves who might be caught
prowling about, and the third for strangers who misbehaved. Further into the desert
was a place called Cells, or Cellia, whither the more perfect withdrew. This is
described by the author of the "Historia monachorum in Aegypto". Here the solitaries
lived in cells so far apart that that they were out of sight and out of hearing from one
another. Like those of Nitria, they met only on Saturdays and Sundays at church,
whither some of them had to travel a distance of three or four miles. Often their death
was only discovered by their absence from church.
In strong contrast with the individualism of the eremitical life was the rigid discipline
which prevailed in the cenobitical monasteries founded by St. Pachomius. When, in
313, Constantine was at war with Maxentius, Pachomius, still a heathen, was forcibly
enlisted together with a number of other young men, and placed on board a ship to be
carried down the Nile to Alexandria. At some town at which the ship touched, the
recruits were overwhelmed with the kindness of the Christians. Pachomius at once
resolved to be a Christian and carried out his resolution as soon as he was dismissed
from military service. He began as an ascetic in a small village, taking up his abode in
a deserted temple of Serapis and cultivating a garden on the produce of which he lived
and gave alms. The fact that Pachomius made an old temple of Serapis his abode was
enough for an ingenious theory that he was originally a pagan monk. This view is now
Pachomius next embraced the eremitical life and prevailed upon an old hermit named
Palemon to take him as his disciple and share his cell with him. It may be noted that
this kind of discipleship, which, as we have already seen, was attempted by Palladius,
was a recognized thing among the Egyptian hermits. Afterwards he left Palemon and
founded his first monastery at Tabennisi near Denderah. Before he died, in 346, he had
under him eight or nine large monasteries of men, and two of women. From a secular
point of view, a Pachomian monastery was an industrial community in which almost
every kind of trade was practised. This, of course, involved much buying and selling,
so the monks had ships of their own on the Nile, which conveyed their agricultural
produce and manufactured goods to the market and brought back what the
monasteries required. From the spiritual point of view, the Pachomian monk was a
religious living under a rule more severe, even when allowance has been made for
differences of climate and race, than that of the Trappists.
A Pachomian monastery was a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall. The
monks were distributed in houses, each house containing about forty monks. Three or
four houses constituted a tribe. There would be thirty to forty houses in a monastery.
There was an abbot over each monastery, and provosts with subordinate officials over
each house. The monks were divided into houses according to the work they were
employed in: thus there would be a house for carpenters, a house for agriculturists,
and so forth. But other principles of division seem to have been employed, e.g., we
hear of a house for the Greeks. On Saturdays and Sundays all the monks assembled in
the church for Mass; on other days the Office and other spiritual exercises were
celebrated in the houses.
"The fundamental idea of St. Pachomius' rule", writes Abbot Butler, "was to establish a
moderate level of observance (moderate in comparison with the life led by the hermits)
which might be obligatory on all; and then to leave it open to each - and to indeed
encourage each - to go beyond the fixed minimum, according as he was prompted by
his strength, his courage, and his zeal" ("Lausiac History", I,p. 236). This is strikingly
illustrated in the rules concerning food. According to St. Jerome, in the preface to his
translation of the "Rule of Pachomius", the tables were laid twice a day except on
Wednesdays and Fridays, which, outside the seasons of Easter and Pentecost were fast
days. Some only took very little at the second meal; some at one or other of the meals
confined themselves to a single food; others took just a morsel of bread. Some abstained
altogether from the community meal; for these bread, water, and salt were placed in
Pachomius appointed his successor a monk named Petronius, who died within a few
months, having likewise named his successor, Horsiesi. In Horsiesi's time the order
was threatened with a schism. The abbot of one of the houses, instead of forwarding
the produce of the work of his monks to the head house of the order, where it would be
sold and the price distributed to the different houses according to their need, wished to
have the disposal of it for the sole benefit of his own monastery. Horsiesi, finding
himself unable to cope with the situation, appointed Theodore, a favourite disciple of
Pachomius, his coadjutor.
When Theodore died, in the year 368, Horsiesi was able to resume the government of
the order. This threatened schism brings prominently before us a feature connected
with Pachomius' foundation which is never again met with in the East, and in the West
only many centuries later. "Like Citeaux in a later age", writes Abbot Butler, "it almost
at once assumed the shape of a fully organized congregation or order, with a superior
general and a system of visitation and general chapters - in short, all the machinery of a
centralized government, such as does not appear again in the monastic world until the
Cistercian and the Mendicant Orders arose in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries" (op.
A word must be said about Schenoudi, or Schnoudi, or Senuti. Shortly after the
middle of the fourth century, two monks, Pgol and Pschais, changed their eremitical
monasteries into cenobitical ones. Of the latter we know scarcely anything. Schenoudi,
when a boy of about nine years old, came under the care of his uncle Pgol. Both Pgol
and Schenoudi were reformers - the Pachomian Rule was not strict enough for them.
Schenoudi succeeded his uncle Pgol as head of the White Monastery of Athribis, and,
till his death (about 453), was not only the greatest monastic leader, but one of the most
important men, in Egypt. He waged war against heretics; he took a prominent part in
the rooting out of paganism; he championed the cause of the poor against the rich. He
once went in person to Constantinople to complain of the tyranny of government
officials. On one occasion 20,000 men, women, and children took refuge in the White
Monastery during an invasion of the savage Blemmyes of Ethiopia, and Schenoudi
maintained all the fugitives for three months, providing them with food and medical
aid. On another occasion he ransomed a hundred captives and sent them home with
food, clothing, and money for their journey. Schenoudi's importance for the history of
monasticism is small, for his influence, great as it was in his own country, did not make
itself felt elsewhere. There were two barriers: Upper Egypt was a difficult and
dangerous country for travellers, and such as did penetrate there would not be likely to
visit a monastery where hardly anything but Coptic was spoken. According to Abbot
Butler, "Schenoudi is never named by any Greek or Latin writer" (op. cit., II,204). He
has been rediscovered in our own time in Coptic manuscripts.
In part II of Butler's "Lausiac History" is a map of Monastic Egypt. A glance at this
map and the notes accompanying it brings forcibly before the mind an important fact in
monastic history. With the exception of a single Pachomian monastery at Canopus,
near Alexandria, the cenobitic monasteries are in the South, and confined to a relatively
small area. The eremitical monasteries, on the contrary, are everywhere, and especially
in the North. These latter were thus far more accessible to pilgrims visiting Egypt and
so became the patterns or models for the rest of the Christian world. It was the
eremitical, not the cenobitical, type of monasticism which went forth from Egypt.
Monasticism at a very early date spread along the route of the Exodus and the desert
of the Forty Years' Wandering. The solitaries had a special predilection for Scriptural
sites. At every place hallowed by tradition, which Syria visited (A.D.385), she found
monks. The attraction of Mt. Sinai for the solitaries was irresistible, in spite of the
danger of captivity or death at the hands of the Saracens. In 373 a number of solitaries
inhabited this mountain, living on dates and other fruit, such bread as they had being
reserved for the Sacred Mysteries. All the week they lived apart in their cells; they
gathered together in the church on Saturday evening and, after spending the night in
prayer, received communion on Sunday morning. Forty of them were massacred in
373, and on the same day another group of solitaries at Raithe (supposed to be Elim)
were killed by a second band of barbarians. These events were described by eye-
witnesses (Tillemont, "H.E.", VII, 573-80). The same kind of life was being led at Mt.
Sinai, and a similar experience was undergone some twenty years later when St. Nilus
St. Hilarion, who for a time had been a disciple of St. Anthony, propagated
monasticism of the eremitical type first in the neighbourhood of his native city Gaza
and then in Cyprus. His friend, St. Epiphanius, after practising the monastic life in
Egypt, founded a monastery near Eleutheropolis in Palestine somewhere about 330 or
perhaps a little later.
In Jerusalem and its neighbourhood there were numerous monasteries at a very early
date. To name only a few, there was the monastery on the Mount of Olives, from
which Palladius went forth on his tour of the Egyptian monasteries; there were two
monasteries for women in Jerusalem, built by the older and younger Melania
respectively. At Bethlehem St. Paula founded three monasteries for women and one for
men about A.D.387. There was, besides, in Bethlehem the monastery where Cassian
some years before began his religious life. The Lauras, which were very numerous,
formed a conspicuous feature in Palestinian monasticism. The first seems to have been
founded before 334 by St. Chariton at Pharan, a few miles from Jerusalem; later on two
more were founded by the same saint at Jericho and at Suca.
St. Euthymius (473) founded another celebrated one in the valley of Cedron. Near
Jericho was the laura ruled over by St. Gerasimus (475). Some details concerning the
rules of this laura have fortunately been preserved in a very ancient Life of St.
Euthymius. It consisted of a cenobium where the cenobitic life was practised by
novices and others less proficient. There were also seventy cells for solitaries. Five
days in the week these latter lived and worked alone in their cells. On Saturday they
brought their work to the cenobium, where, after receiving Holy Communion on
Sundays, they partook of some cooked food and a little wine. The rest of the week their
fare was bread, dates and water. When some of them asked to be allowed to heat some
water, that they might cook some food and to have a lamp to read by, they were told
that if they wished to live thus they had better take up their abode in the cenobium
(Acta SS., March 1, 386,87).
Antioch, when St. John Chrysostom was a young man, was full of ascetics and the
neighbouring mountains were peopled with hermits. So great was the impulse driving
men to the solitary life that at one time there was an outcry, amounting almost to a
persecution, among Christians as well as pagans against those who embraced it. This
was the occasion of St. Chrysostom's treatise against the opponents of monasticism: in
the first book he dwelt upon the guilt incurred by them; the second and third were
addressed respectively to a pagan and a Christian father who were opposing the wish
of their sons to embrace the monastic state. The pathetic scene between the saint and
his mother, which he describes in the beginning of the "De Sacertio", must be typical of
what took place in many Christian homes. He himself so far yielded to his mother's
entreaties that he contented himself with the ascetic life at home till her death.
Palestine and Antioch must suffice as examples of the rapid spread of monasticism
outside of Egypt. There is abundant evidence of the phenomenon in all the countries
between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia; and Mesopotamia, according to St.
Jerome, whose testimony is amply borne out by other writers, rivalled Egypt itself in
the number and holiness of its monks (Comm. in Isaiam, V,xix).
We now come to a name second only in importance to St. Anthony's for the history of
eastern monasticism. St. Basil the Great before embracing the monastic state made a
careful study of monasticism in Egypt, Palestine, Coelesyria, and Mesopotamia. The
result was a decided preference for the cenobitic life. He founded several monasteries
in Pontus, over one of which he himself for a time presided, and very soon monasteries,
modelled after his, spread over the East. His monks assembled together for
"psalmody" and "genuflexions" seven times a day, in accordance with the Psalmist's
"Septies in die laudem dixi tibi" (Ps. cxviii,164): at midnight ("Media nocte surgebam" -
Ibid.,62), at evening, morning and midday (Ps. lv,18), at the third hour, the hour of
Pentecost, and at the ninth, the sacred hour of the Passion. To complete the tale of
seven, the midday prayer was divided into two parts separated by the community meal
(Sermo "Asceticus", Benedictine edition, II,321). St. Basil's monastic ideal is set forth in
a collection of his writings known as the "Asceticon", or "Ascetica", the most important
of which are the "Regulae fusius tractatae", a series of answers to questions, fifty-five in
number, and the "Regulae brevius tractatae", in which three hundred and thirteen
questions are briefly replied to. It must not be supposed that the "Regulae" form a rule,
though it would be possible to go a good way towards constituting one out of them.
They are answers to questions which would naturally arise among persons already in
possession of a framework of customs or traditions. Sometimes they treat of practical
questions, but as often as not they deal with matters concerning the spiritual life.
It would not be easy to exaggerate St. Basil's influence upon early monasticism: he
furnished the type which ultimately prevailed. But two points of the utmost
importance, as marking the difference between Eastern and Western monasteries, must
be kept in mind. (1) He did not draw up a rule, but gave, what is far more an elastic
thing, a model or pattern. (2) He was not the founder of a religious order. No Eastern,
except St. Pachomius, ever was. An order, as we understand the term, is a purely
Western product. "It is not enough", says a writer who certainly does not underrate St.
Basil's influence, "to affirm that the Basilian Order is a myth. One must go farther and
give up calling the Byzantine monks Basilians. Those most concerned have never taken
this title, and no Eastern writer that I know of has ever bestowed it upon them"
(Pargoire in "Dict. d'Archeologie chretienne", s.v. "Basile"). In a word, every monastery
is an order of its own. With St. Basil Eastern monasticism reached its final stage -
communities of monks leading the contemplative life and devoting themselves wholly
to prayer and work. The cenobitical life steadily became the normal form of the
religious calling, and the eremitical one the exceptional form, requiring a long previous
We must now speak of the grounds upon which St. Basil based his decision - a decision
so momentous for the future history of monasticism - in favour of the cenobitical life.
Life with others is more expedient because, in the first place, even for the supply of
their bodily needs, men depend upon one another. Further, there is the law of charity.
The solitary has only himself to regard; yet, "charity seeks not itself".
Again, the solitary will not equally discover his faults, there being no one to correct
him with meekness and mercy. There are precepts of charity which can only be
fulfilled in the cenobitical life. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not all given to all men,
but one is given to one man and another to another. We cannot be partakers in the
gifts not bestowed on ourselves if we live by ourselves. The great danger to the solitary
is self-complacency; he is not put to the test, so that he is unable to learn his faults or his
progress. How can he learn humility when there is no one to prefer before himself? Or
patience when there is no one to yield to? Whose feet shall he wash? To whom shall he
be as a servant? (Reg. fus. tract., Q.vii.) This condemnation of the eremitical life is
interesting because of what might almost be called its tameness. One would expect at
least a lurid picture of the dangers which the solitary ran, delusions, melancholy
culminating in despair, terrible moral and spiritual falls, the abandonment of the
religious calling for the life of vice, and so forth. But instead of such things we have
little more than what amounts to disadvantages and the risk of somewhat flat and
commonplace kinds of failure, against which the common life afforded the best
protection. Clearly St. Basil found little that was tragic during the two years he was
investigating monasticism in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere.
It might be supposed that so uncompromising a verdict against the eremitical life
would stir up a fierce conflict. As a matter of fact, it did nothing of the kind. Palestine,
at the end of the fourth century, began to supersede Egypt as the centre of monasticism,
and in Palestine the laura and the cenobium were in perfect harmony. That of St.
Gerasimus, with its cenobium already referred to, may be taken as a typical example.
St. Basil's authority was equal to St. Anthony's among the leaders of Palestinian
monasticism; yet they took it as a matter of course that life in the laura was the most
perfect, though under ordinary circumstances it should not be entered upon before an
apprenticeship had been served in a cenobium. The paradox is not so great as it may at
first sight appear. The dweller in the laura was under an archimandrite or abbot and
so was not exposed to the dangers of the purely eremitical state.
At the Council of Chalcedon, monasticism had so become part of the life of the Church
that it was specially legislated for. Monasteries were not to be erected without the
leave of the bishop; monks were to receive due honour, but were not to mix themselves
up with the affairs of Church or State. The were to be subject to the bishop, etc.
(can.iv). Clerics and monks were not to serve in war or embrace a secular life (can.vii).
Monasteries were not to be secularized (can.xxiv).
Solitary spots, according to St. Basil, should be chosen as sites for monasteries.
Nevertheless, they soon found their way into cities. According to one scholar, at least
fifteen monasteries were founded at Constantinople in the time of Constantine the
Great; but others affirm that the three most ancient ones only dated back to the time of
Theodosius (375-95). In 518 there were at least fifty-four monasteries in Constantinople.
Their names and those of their rulers are given in a petition addressed by the monks of
Constantinople to Pope Hormisdas in 518.
FRANCIS JOSEPH BACCHUS
Transcribed by Marie Jutras
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