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Christian Monasticism in Fourth-Century Egypt

In the study of Christian history, the institution of monasticism seems to present one of the most interesting cases for examination. From its beginnings, other Christians have revered monasticism as a particularly demanding lifestyle, one that is emblematic of the highest level of devotion to God. The sacrifices that monks make are undertaken with the specific intent of achieving closer communion with God through a rejection of the outer, human world. Yet, from its beginnings, monasticism has been noted to contain certain paradoxes, most notably that of the contrast between community and solitude. Indeed, monks are noted for their devotion to solitude and inner contemplation, yet at the same time they are often gathered together during daily life in communities known as monasteries. In addition, they seek to achieve the highest levels of communion with God, yet some of the virtues that will allow them to reach this level are charity and humility, attributes that require the presence of others in order to be practiced. Hence, one of the most provocative and interesting topics that can be studied about monasticism is the question: if Christian monks were supposed to flee from the "world", why did they inevitably end up reflecting and supporting it?

In order to best address the question, it is first necessary to limit the range and scope of the topic under examination. The institution of monasticism in the Christian religion has been in existence for over 1500 years, in many different forms, yet all forms have wrestled with the paradox of community versus solitude. Therefore, perhaps it is best to turn to an examination of the origins of the monastic tradition, both in its solitary and communal traditions. The origins of both traditions can be traced back to fourth-century Egypt under Roman rule, to the two key figures of St. Antony and St. Pachomius.

Antony is credited with establishing and bringing recognition to the Christian ascetic tradition of monasticism, while Pachomius is acknowledged as the founder of the first monastic community. These two characters were separate, in different locations, and had no contact with one another. Therefore, from the beginning, it is necessary to examine the circumstances under which these two traditions were born and to find commonalities in their influences that may help in the examination of the question at hand.

Before going into detail, it is also necessary to clarify more specifically the terms of the question being posed. In the premise that "Christian monks were supposed to flee from 'the world'," the world is to be interpreted as the secular world in which they lived; specifically the Coptic Egyptian world under the rule of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. In removing themselves, it was to facilitate their commune with God by eliminating the distraction caused by others human beings. Hence, 'the world' can be generalized under the circumstances to mean Egyptian society or community. The phrase "reflecting and supporting [the world]" should not be taken to imply full-fledged reentry into secular society. Rather, it is to imply interaction with, or on behalf of, that secular world. Also, it can be taken to mean the acceptance of or support for the idea of community, and a willingness to live within a community, though not necessarily the secular community.

The circumstances being evaluated are long distant in the past; hence the sources being used are a key aspect that must be examined. Specifically, they must be questioned with respect to their accuracy and validity. In this early period in Egypt, the majority of the monks were Coptic-speaking peasants, for the most part illiterate, although there were notable exceptions to this rule. As a result, there is no first hand evidence from the monks themselves. However, as the monastic movement began to garner attention amongst the majority of the populace, people came to see them and a literary tradition arose around them, due to their viryuous exploits. The key primary sources from this time period are semi-biographical works about the monks by Athanasius, Cassian, Palladius and a few others. These works have come into question, particularly as most were written in Greek or Latin, not Coptic, which would add authenticity, but also because most of these works were instructional in nature.

These authors held up the monks they portrayed as extreme examples of the monastic life, and hence the works were prone to exaggeration and the biases of the author. However, the works hold value with respect to their descriptions of the basic elements of the monastic lifestyle, as well as chronologies of events, as this evidence can be corroborated by the similarities between the respective works and others. All the secondary sources used to construct the arguments to follow rely on this same-limited amount of primary documents, in various translations. All the secondary sources take note and are vigilant of the possibility of inaccuracy.

Now that the background to the question being posed has been enumerated and defined, one can now turn to an actual evaluation of the question. Before turning to deeper analysis however, it is necessary to define two key terms that will be used in the discussion. The first, anchorite, is used to describe one who has shunned the world for one of a variety of reasons. In the context of this argument, it will be used to signify those monks who led solitary lives, alone in their desert practicing their asceticism. The second term, cenobite, is used to describe people who lived together in community. In the context here, it is used to signify those monks who joined together in monastic communities, or monasteries, and practiced their asceticism together.

With these terms defined, it is possible to finally seek an answer to the

question posed, that is: why did monks, symbolized by their solitude, sometimes embrace community, be it that of the secular world or communities of their own formation? What this paper seeks to show is that the two examples above of monks interacting with two different interpretations of community are two distinct ideas, yet neither is necessarily a paradox to their ideal of solitude. It will be seen that monks sought escape from the secular world in order to facilitate entry into the world of God. The secular world offered too many distractions to the contemplation that would lead to enlightenment and commune with God. Hence, the monks turned to the isolation of the desert, for both symbolic and practical reasons. There, they could test the strength of their faith and purify their souls from the corruption of their flesh, through the practice of asceticism.

Meanwhile, as they removed themselves

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