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The One, the Many-As-One: Concerning Monks, Society, and the Meaning of Life

Daniel LaVenture

Almost every civilization in history has had its ascetics – those dissenters of society who protest social norms by invoking self-denying behavior that challenges conventional understandings of the good and proper life. The pervasiveness of asceticism seems to suggest that there is something inherently deceptive about society itself that lures us into false understandings of the good. How then are Christians to grapple with the fact that so often our neighbors cause us to stumble, when we are commanded to love them as we would ourselves? This is the struggle that the Christian monastic tradition embodies. A consideration of three of the earliest monastic groups––the anchorites of St. Antony, the cenobites of St. Pachomius, and the Augustinians––reveals varied responses to this struggle. However, a particular examination of the last of those groups shows that one may embrace a rich theological understanding of human society in a truly ascetic way, without embracing radical self-mortification.

Augustine’s perspective marks one end of the monastic spectrum: due to his understanding of man as equally theological and political, he holds that the good life is intrinsically social. Happiness, in the Augustinian paradigm, is found in the “City of God,” the union of all the saints with God in the eschaton. Because man realizes his desire for union with God by becoming a member of Christ’s body, the Church, that union inherently knits him to every other member of the divine community. For this reason Augustine asks: “For how could the City of God … either take a beginning or be developed, or attain its proper destiny, if the life of the saints were not a social life?”[1] In Augustine’ system, every act that helps to realize our theological end depends on a fundamentally social understanding of the work of charity.

Therefore, individual worship of God becomes a communal act that subsumes each entire life, because by joining together to offer bodies and lives to one another in mercy for God’s sake, the community participates in the happiness that awaits in the future union to Christ.[2] This understanding of worship was the foundation of Augustine’s monastic order. His Rule begins by echoing the twofold command of Christ: “Before all else, dear brothers, love God and then your neighbor, because these are the chief commandments given to us.”[3] The result of such a foundation is a deeply social understanding of monasticism where the essence of holy living is coming together “to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.”[4]

However, Augustine’s communal theology was not normative within early Christian monastic groups. The founder of Christian monasticism was St. Antony the Great, who ventured into the Egyptian desert to practice spiritual discipline about one hundred years before Augustine began his academic career in Rome. After his parents died when he was eighteen, Antony decided to travel to the various “zealous persons” in the nearby regions, in order to learn from them how to embody Christian virtue.[5] After this, he retreated into the Egyptian desert to put what he had learned into practice; in solitude he fought demons, conquered lusts, and made himself worthy to receive the promises of Christ in heaven.

Antony quickly attracted a crowd of followers. These quirky fellows were called ‘monachoi,’ the Greek word meaning “lonely ones,” from which English gets its word “monk.” But more specifically, these monks were anchorites, a term which derives from the Greek ‘anachoresis,’ meaning “retirement” or “retreat.”[6] As their name implies, the anchorites would withdraw from society altogether, forsaking both marriage and property to move into the desert to practice rigorous self-denial in seclusion, without distraction. The anchoritic tradition de-emphasizes the monk’s interaction with other members of a society and instead expresses concern for personal discipline in preparation for “the promises of heaven.”[7]

This is not to say that the anchoritic practices of Antony and his followers were anti-social, but that social involvement was not considered inherent to the good life as it was for Augustine. In a speech given to a great crowd of monks, Antony remarked, “it is good for us to encourage each other in the faith.”[8] However, this encouragement was not the means to attain the happy life itself as it was for Augustine; it was merely the reassurance one occasionally needs to achieve a state of goodness and virtue, and therefore, a foretaste of divine happiness. The monks Antony addressed took shelter in the mountains nearby, close enough to support one another when necessary, but each with his own individual cell.[9]

The degree to which the anchoritic life was solitary largely depended on the strength of the individual ascetic. A monk could be self-sufficient, but most often, he would report to a spiritual father. If this father was a hermit like Antony, the journey to see his mentor could take days; the journey to Antony’s cave took three days for the monks of the outer mountain.[10] Once, two brothers ran out of water on their way to see Antony due to the length of the journey, and one of them died.[11] Only the most disciplined monks considered Antony to be their direct spiritual father, and the greatest monks became independent themselves, no longer in need of the guidance of a mentor. Thus, the monastic ideal represented by Antony is one of drastic self-sufficiency.

However, this does not mean that such monastic independence neglects the Christian love of neighbor. Antony’s asceticism aimed at great magnanimity and love. For those who could make the journey, Antony entertained many guests in his mountain cave, even planting a garden so that he might have fresh food to give them.[12] For those who could not, he traveled about Egypt, sharing his wisdom and healing the sick.[13] Scholar Peter Brown remarks that “the greatest sign of Antony’s recovery of the state of Adam was not his taut body. In his very last years, this state was revealed ever more frequently in the quintessentially fourth-century gift of sociability.”[14] No monk, anchorite or otherwise, would deny that the life sought by asceticism is marked by charity. However, for Antony, this love was the result of self-discipline and ascetic fortitude; it was a personal achievement, not a communal one.

If we consider Augustine and Antony to be located on opposite ends of the spectrum of early monastic sociability, the other great Desert Father, Pachomius, falls in the middle. Pachomius founded the first monastery proper, which is distinguished from the groups of monks that followed Antony by its implementation of a rule. Thus, they produced a more formal and orderly community, rather than a loosely-associated group of individual ascetics. This type of monasticism earned the title cenobitic, from the Greek word κοινωνίᾳ, “common-life,” the name given to Pachomius’ communion of monks. The resulting communities were widely successful, and cenobitism became the norm for monasticism in both the East and West.

Though Pachomius’ paradigm of monasticism is between Augustine’s and Antony’s with regard to social involvement, Pachomius certainly falls closer to Antony with respect to rigor. His personal fasts were notably extreme, making him seem both “awesome and sad” in comparison to other monastic leaders of his day.[15] In general, however, the Pachomian monasteries tended to be less stringent in their strictures regarding fasting and penance than typical anchoritic practice, as the monks were expected to maintain the strength to do their work and remain active members of the community.[16] Fasting was monitored, for the point was not to be the most relentless ascetic, but to be a healthy member of the monastic community. Scholar Richard Finn attributes the success of the Pachomian monastery to its organized government and the resulting formation of a single monastic economy.[17]

Pachomius developed a more communal model of monasticism for two reasons. First, his primary encounter with Christianity was one of extreme hospitality. As a young man, he was said to be captured and imprisoned by Persian soldiers. While in the prison, Christians came and brought bread to him and his cellmates.[18] This act of mercy profoundly impacted the young man, leading to his conversion and eventually to his belief that the monastic life demanded extreme Christian charity.[19] Second, his foundation of the cenobite order had to do with his failure as a young abbot. Shortly after forming a group of anchoritic followers, he was forced to turn some away after discovering that they had a “carnal mind” inappropriate for the monastic life.[20] The editor of the modern Pachomian Koinonia writes that “this unsuccessful attempt demonstrated that Pachomius was not called to be a spiritual father in the anchoritic sense, that is, through simple moral authority and personal influence.”[21] He needed the rigor and order of a society, not merely the combined willpower of a handful of desert ascetics.

This then raises the question of the human need for a structured society, as opposed to mere camaraderie. It is clear that each of these monastic traditions have varying degrees of internal organization, but what is the relationship between the monks and the society they left behind? Is the maintenance of ties to the outside world necessary, or does the monastic community replace the old society in its entirety? And is that a healthy option?

Naturally, the anchorites’ retreat was disconnected from the outside world. However, this does not mean that the anchorites were hostile to the world. They were not bound to their cells by iron chains. Antony himself traveled about Egypt, supposedly once going to the great city of Alexandria.[22] Brown indicates that the sharp distinction between desert and settled land in Egypt forced the desert monks to keep ties to the settled world. “To survive at all in the hostile environment of such a desert,” he writes, “the Egyptians had to transplant into it the tenacious and all absorbing routines of the villages.”[23] Elsewhere he writes: “The most terrible temptation of all that pressed in continuously upon men perched … on the edge of the desert, was to betray their humanity. It was to break out of the confines of their cell and expunge the regular alterations of vigil and prayer, eating and fasting.”[24] Without routine, work, and structure, the hallmarks of the settled world, man was reduced to a beast among the dunes.

This need for civilized activity also drove the cenobitic formation of desert communions. The cenobites brought civilization to the desert in ways previously unimagined. Pachomius’ monastery itself was a city and was commonly referred to as“the Village.”[25] It was distinct and self-contained, complete with porter and bakery.[26] The Rule was its constitution, and the hierarchy of elders its government. As the lack of order caused Pachomius’ original efforts to fail, the organized structure of the cenobitic monastery allowed it to flourish.

However, despite the general cultural success of cenobite monasteries, embracing such a comprehensive system led to insulating effects within the monastic communities. Because the monastery had adopted an “economic” lifestyle, it became less dependent on the culture from which it diverged. Over time, monastic culture was forced to distinguish itself from the lay society in a substantial way. A rigorous sexual ethic became that means of differentiation. Not only were monks required to be celibate, as had been the case since Antony, but they slowly began to be trained to believe that women were a “source of perpetual temptation to which the male body could be expected to respond instantly.”[27] There are even reports of monks who, upon seeing a nun on the road into town, attempted rape in the middle of the road.[28] The aim of monasteries ceased to be to create men who could control their temptation, but to isolate them from their temptation altogether. This insularity, in turn, produced rather weak monks.

Isolation did not necessarily benefit the relations between monks either. The fear of homosexual acts among the sex-deprived monks––particularly pederasty––produced strict codes of conduct to be held between monks, not merely between them and outsiders. Brothers were expected to maintain one cubit’s distance from each other.[29] All of this created a milieu in which “young monks had to learn to become strangers to one another.”[30] With this in mind, it makes one wonder whether the Koinonia was as communal as its name suggested.

The Augustinians, on the other hand, would scoff at such fear of woman and friend. While they took sexual temptation quite seriously––the longest section of their Rule is entitled “Safeguarding Chastity and Fraternal Correction”––they took essentially the opposite approach of the cenobites. The Rule assumes that the monk will leave the monastery at times,[31] and it specifically mentions that looking at women while out is not a sin.[32] While advising its followers to be both prudent and temperate in their societal interactions, the Rule expects monks to communicate with the world, and therefore, with women. Being unable to interact with them for fear of temptation would have been thought absurd.

Likewise, when temptation to sin in thought or act arose, an Augustinian monk was expected to confide in his brother, for “by mutual vigilance over one another will God who dwells in you, grant his protection.”[33] If the monks saw each other as strangers, according to the Augustinian paradigm, they would be doomed to fail. Augustine’s Rule intentionally forced monks into close communion, as this was seen as the remedy to the sinful heart.

This of course, had to do with the openness of the Augustinian monastery. Out of all the examined forms of monasticism, it remained the closest to society. The Pachomians saw themselves as distinct from society, to the point that most refused to be ordained for fear of being taken out of the monastery.[34] The Augustinians freely welcomed clergy, as well as anyone from any social class to join their communion.[35] While maintaining a distinctive character through the rejection of property and private households,[36] Augustine charged his followers to engage society and criticized other monastics, imagining Christ knocking on their cell doors, crying out, “Open to me, preach about me…. How will they be able to listen without a preacher?”[37]

Of all these systems, it is evident that the Augustinian order was the most intentional in seeking a social good, because it so strongly associated the theological with the social. This is not to say that the other, more prominent ascetic groups were anti-social, but that their practices were not formed by a sense of the inherent value of society. This lack of emphasis on embracing society caused trouble for such groups. Anchoritism was possible only for the most rigorous and disciplined monks who could tolerate extreme solitude. Even Pachomius required the structure of a rule in order to thrive as an ascetic father. However, the development of a self-reliant desert community produced an insularity that was not healthy for the monks living there, and neither did this insularity foster their desire for community.

While the Augustinians are not above critique, they capture a genuine sense of the deeply personal nature of Christian theology. Their diminished sense of austerity and their closeness to “the world” makes them seem somewhat un-ascetic when contrasted with the rigor of Antony and Pachomius, but we must not be quick to equate mortifying fasts and penance with asceticism. The Augustinians exhibited an extreme commitment to God and neighbor that manifested itself in a countercultural understanding of Christian piety and economic life. Thus, rather than fleeing from society, or creating an alternative one, the Augustinian tradition redeems society in an ascetic mode that chiefly values not austerity, but Christian brotherly love.



[1] Augustine, City of God, trans. Marcus Dodds. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Ed. Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) §19.5.

[2] Ibid. §10.6.

[3] Augustine, Rule of St. Augustine, trans. Robert Russell OSA. (Brothers of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine, 1996). §1.

[4] Ibid. 1.2.

[5] Ibid. §§3-4.

[6] ἀναχώρησις. Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897).

[7] Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of St. Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg. (London: SPCK, 1980). §16.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. §44.

[10] Ibid. §49.

[11] Ibid. §59.

[12] Ibid. §50.

[13] Ibid. §71.

[14] Brown, Peter, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, 2nd Ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008).

[15] Pachomian Koinonia, trans. Armand Veilleux OCSO, forward by Adalbert de Vogue OSB. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1980). xviii.

[16] Finn, Asceticism. 136.

[17] Ibid. 134.

[18] Pachomian Koinonia; The Boharic Life, §7

[19] Elm, Susanna, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 1994). 287.

[20] Pachomian Koinonia; The Boharic Life, §24

[21] Pachomian Koinonia, Foreword. xx.

[22] [22] Life of St, Antony, §69. Scholars dispute whether Antony actually made the trip to Alexandria, or if this was an invention of Athanasius. Nonetheless, the historicity of this point is indifferent to the argument at hand, which is that in early monastic circles, it was never seen as mandatory that the anchorite stay locked within his cell.

[23] Peter Brown. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.” The Journal of Roman Studies 80-101, Vol. 61 (1971). 83.

[24] Brown. Body and Society. 220.

[25] Brown. “Rise and Function” 83.

[26] Finn, Asceticism. 135. Pachomian Koinonia; The Boharic Life. §26.

[27] Ibid. 242.

[28] Ibid. 247.

[29] Pachomian Koinonia II; Precepts 93-97, quoted in Body and Society 246.

[30] Sheute of Atripe, Letter 33, quoted in Ibid.

[31] Augustine, Rule. 4.2.

[32] Ibid. 4.4.

[33] Ibid. 4.6.

[34] Finn. Asceticism. 152.

[35] Ibid. 147.

[36] Rule of St. Augustine, 1.4-6

[37] Augustine, “Tractates on John” 57.4, quoted in Ibid. 148.