Antony the Great

[adapted from Chadwick, ch. 8-9. The Ascetic Movement.]

[9.1] The Ascetic Movement; [9.2] Egyptian, Byzantine, and Palestinian Monasticism; [9.3] Evagrius, Cassian, and Benedict;






By the end of the fourth century the Church had virtually captured society. In worldly terms of status and social influence, the episcopate of even moderately important cities had become an established career to which a man might aspire for reasons not exclusively religious. Many local churches had become substantial landowners, supporting numerous poor folk. A bishop was expected by his people to be the advocate of their secular interests as well as their spiritual pastor.

In ancient society success depended much on possessing a patron whose word to the right official could[:]

obtain for one a well paid post,

or secure one’s liberty when there was trouble with the police or the tax authorities,

or even influence the courts if one was a litigant.

The development, from the third century onwards, of the veneration of the saints as ‘patrons’ whose ‘suffrage’ would be influential in heaven, was a natural transfer to the celestial sphere of the social situation on earth. The intercessions that bishops were expected to make for accused persons sometimes passed into interference with justice if the magistrate was weak and the bishop strong. A substantial part of the surviving correspondence of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and their pagan contemporary Libanius, consists of recommendations and requests to powerful officials on behalf of some individual in need. When in Libya in 410 the Neoplatonic poet and orator Synesius of Cyrene was elected metropolitan of Ptolemais, his election was in part the consequence of his success eleven years earlier in obtaining tax remissions for his province at a time of economic depression; and he hesitated for six months before accepting an office that meant the abandonment of learned reflection and gentlemanly pursuits because of the endless burden (of which Augustine constantly complained) of arbitrations and letters of intercession. Admittedly, Synesius’ reluctance was reinforced by other reasons : he did not desire the separation from his wife which church custom by 400 had come to expect of bishops (though not, in the Greek East, of inferior clergy), and he had hesitations about the doctrine of the resurrection which to him was a valuable symbol but impossible as plain prose.

From the third century the question was being put with steadily increasing pressure whether the Church could occupy a position of influence in high society without losing something of its moral power and independence. Several circumstances contributed to the growing prominence of this issue.

The primitive Church had imposed high demands and strict discipline – so strict that in the second century it had to face painful controversy about the very possibility of repentance for sins committed after baptism. The debates about the holiness of the Church as an empirical society ended in the defeat of rigorism when Novatian was rejected at Rome in 251 (above, p. 119). But the old ideal was never lost, and could be reasserted without creating a schism.




[1] Detachment from vanity fair was easier to those who expected the end of the world in the imminent future than to those who expected the historical process to roll on and who possessed some modest property to pass on to their children. St Paul had opposed at Corinth any rejection of marriage on the ground of a Gnostic dualism of spirit and matter, but had freely allowed that because the time was short those who had wives should be as though they had not.

[2] When it became apparent that the time would not be as short as the apostle supposed, the precariousness of life under the persecutions kept vividly alive the martyr’s sense that true values did not consist in this world’s goods.

[3] During the second century there were individual Christians in local communities who renounced marriage and all but the minimum of possessions. They held before themselves and the local congregation the ideal of renunciation with devotion to prayer and to works of mercy. These ascetics were not organized in communities under rule with special clothing or a common purse — though there would have been good precedent for property-sharing in the communities on the edge of Judaism like the Essenes or the group at Qumran from which the Dead Sea Scrolls come, or the Therapeutae of Egypt described by Philo of Alexandria. The rapidity of church expansion in the third century greatly accelerated the acceptance of a double ethical standard:

ordinary Christians living in the world might not keep the counsels of perfection, but would at least observe the precepts of Christ,

and might hope to aspire to higher reward hereafter if they did more than the minimum that was actually commanded.

Acute theological problems were raised by this doctrine of two types of Christian life and ethic. It long remained obscure[1] whether the distinction was merely a way of expressing the idea that there are at least two stages in a progress of moral and spiritual understanding and practice open to all, or whether the distinction meant that married people, living an active life in this world, constitute an inherently inferior type of Christian excluded as such from the highest reaches of prayer and from aspiring to the vision of God. In Origen, for example, passages suggesting the former interpretation are very common, but there are other places where the latter view seems to be dangerously implied. In one sermon he speaks of Christ’s army as having a small élite of combatant troops and a multitude of camp-followers who assist the soldiers fighting against evil but do not actually fight themselves.

Once the camp-followers had become a flood, the combatants began to feel that they could not do their work effectively. It was a matter of time before the ascetics withdrew to live separately from the ordinary congregations, while still continuing to do works of mercy in caring for prisoners, sick, orphans, and widows. The ascetics badly needed order and discipline to concentrate on their objective without the pull of worldly distractions. But their withdrawal unquestionably weakened the ordinary congregations, and was regarded by many bishops with a misgiving that individual extravagances could do much to justify. Throughout the fourth century the monastic movement was straining to overcome the deep distrust of many of the bishops. Its spirit seemed too individualistic and separatist, critical of the town clergy.

Many of the ascetics may have been fairly simple folk, but it was not long before the movement possessed a coherent theological basis. In the writings of Clement of Alexandria and especially of Origen all the essential elements of an ascetical theology may already be found. It was a theology dominated by the ideal of the martyr who hoped for nothing in this world but sought for union with the Lord in his passion. Just as the cross was God’s triumph over the powers of evil, so the martyr shared in this triumph in his own death. The ascetics continued this spirit after the persecutions were past. They strove to achieve the same self-sacrificing detachment from the world. The evangelical demand for sacrifice, however, was fused with attitudes towards simplicity and frugality inherited from the classical past. The monastic movement had room not only for simple folk but also for men educated in the tradition of Plato and his ideal martyr Socrates, in the Cynic principle of self-sufficiency, and in the Stoic doctrine that happiness consists in suppressing the desire for anything one cannot both get and keep, and therefore demands the suppression of the passions for a life of right reason.

The classical Greek influences increased the tendency for the ascetic movement to be individualistic. In Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs the bride of Christ is primarily the church, as in St Paul; but there is a yet more intimate interpretation according to which the bride is the individual soul united to the divine Word in a sacred marriage. The imagery, which owed something to Plato’s Symposium, helped to foster the conception that the existence, or at least the presence, of other persons is an embarrassing distraction and hindrance to the soul’s elevation to the bliss of union with God. Neoplatonic ideals of the ‘flight of the alone to the alone’ encouraged renunciation not merely of unnecessary bodily indulgences but even of human society.

In popular estimation the hermit in his solitude was accorded intense respect. The desert fathers in Egypt in the second half of the fourth century were constantly visited by individuals who used to ask according to the regular formula : ‘Speak to me a word, father, that I may live.’ The records of their answers were collected in writing to form the Paradise or Apophthegms of the Fathers. It was axiomatic that the words of one who lived so close to God would be inspired.







Early in the fourth century the models for future development were provided by two Egyptian ascetics, Antony and Pachomius.

[a] Antony, made famous by Athanasius’ biography, renounced the property inherited from his parents and gradually moved farther from society until he finally retreated to inaccessible tombs to fight the devils out in the desert.

[b] Roughly contemporary with him, but far to the south in the Thebaid, Pachomius started a community of ascetics by the Nile at Tabennisi, where great numbers were set to strenuous manual labour under strict discipline; obedience in Pachomius’ organization was military and complete.

There was an ideological tension between[:]

[a] the hermit-ideal

[b] and the belief that the monastic life required a community under rule with obedience to a superior as an essential principle.

In practice, there long continued to be numerous ascetics who were neither solitaries nor incorporated in a community (coenobium), but wandered from place to place, and were regarded as an irresponsible, disturbing element.

Cappadocian Monasticism

The basic problem raised by the enthusiasm of the monks was the separatist and individualist character of the movement. Was the monk pursuing only his own salvation? Or had the movement a social purpose? Insistence on the primacy of the social purpose of the ascetic movement was the central feature of Basil of Caesarea’s organization in Asia Minor, and made his achievement epoch-making. Whether Basil had heard anything of Pachomius is very doubtful. He rejected the hermit-ideal as a private and personal quest, divorced from the Gospel demand of love and service to one’s neighbour. Basil was the first to give institutional form to the novitiate and the solemn profession, and to insist on obedience as a means of restraining the excess, the competitiveness, and the ostentation of histrionic individuals who were bringing the monastic movement into. disrepute. Before Basil monks had understood poverty and chastity better than obedience. Severe penalties were prescribed by Basil for monks who set themselves austere fasts without leave. In his continual emphasis on restraint Basil anticipated the spirit of the Benedictine Rule.

A painful practical problem was to keep the ascetics from passing wholly outside the local church under its bishop. A prominent motive underlying Athanasius’ Life of Antony was to show how devoted the saint was to orthodoxy. A synod at Gangra in Asia Minor about 340-41 expressed strong disapproval of monks who entirely abandoned church attendance. In some forms of the ascetic movement the sacraments were regarded as secondary or even indifferent. One pietistic mendicant sect, the Messalians or Euchites, who spread from Mesopotamia into Asia Minor in the middle of the fourth century, held that in each man there is an in-dwelling devil who can be ejected not by any sacramental grace but exclusively by intense prayer and ascetic contemplation sufficient to produce palpable inward feelings. It was easy for even the most orthodox monks to become indifferent not merely to the calls of secular society and civilization but also to the normal worshipping life of the Church.

Basil of Caesarea sought to check this by instituting monastic communities with a Rule under which the authority of the local bishop was safeguarded. His principle of episcopal control worked admirably as long as the bishop was good.

But within thirty years of Basil’s death the bishop of Caesarea was using his monks to terrorize the city militia when it was protecting the exiled John Chrysostom. In Egypt the successors of Athanasius did not take long to discover that a force of peasant monks was an ideal instrument for destroying pagan temples and for conflicts with heresy. To the second and third generation of the monastic movement it was clear that the ascetic life had special problems of its own. It might easily provide a home for people wanting to contract out of responsibilities in civil society, for those bankrupted by oppressive taxation, sometimes for criminals on the run, sometimes for homosexuals, rather more often for people with compulsions to make some striking gesture and urges to be self-assertive in their mortifications. It was always likely, even at its best, to be a movement dependent upon striking leaders and personalities.

Sometimes monks were tempted to claim that they were entitled to do no work and to live on alms. Augustine in 401 had to write On the Work of Monks to explode this error.

Palestinian Monasticism

The Lavra of St. Sabas in the Judean Desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea

In the fifth century the Judean desert became a favoured locality for a new type of organization, the ‘Lavra’, where a number of individual monks would have their cells in proximity to an outstanding leader, and would meet for common prayers and common meals, but would still preserve more solitariness than was common in a coenobium. In the sixth century under Justinian the lavras of Palestine became divided by doctrinal controversy about the orthodoxy of Origen.

 Syrian Monasticism

In Syria and Mesopotamia asceticism occasionally took bizarre forms. The majority of the monks were very simple Syriac-speaking people, ignorant of Greek. Their recorded mortifications make alarming reading.

A heavy iron chain as a belt was a frequent austerity.

A few adopted the life of animals and fed on grass, living in the open air without shade from the sun and with the minimum of clothing, and justifying their method of defying society by claiming to be ‘fools for Christ’s sake’.

At the monastery of Telanissos (Deir Sem’an) in Syria, Symeon the Stylite (c. 390-459) practised his idiosyncratic austerity of living on top of a column. Attacked at the time as mere vainglory, Symeon’s austerity was real enough, and won the deep reverence of the country people. He attracted many disciples to the monastery and inspired later imitators like Daniel (409—93) who spent thirty-three years on a column near Constantinople (at the modern Rumeli-Hisar). Symeon’s prestige was so great that the assent of the illiterate stylite was required by the government to the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).







 Evagrius Ponticus

At the opposite end of the intellectual scale from Symeon stood the ascetics influenced by Origen, among whom Basil of Caesarea was distinguished, though he did not accept the speculative propositions that had made Origen’s theology suspected of heresy. In Egypt, on the other hand, there were those who continued to think well even of the more speculative side of Origen’s thought. It was expounded at Alexandria by Didymus the blind (at whose feet Jerome sat for a while) and at Constantinople by the archdeacon Evagrius, a close friend of Gregory of Nazianzus. A love affair led Evagrius to leave the capital for Jerusalem and finally the Egyptian desert where he became one of the most influential writers on the spiritual life. Evagrius introduced order and method not merely into the institutional organization but into the innermost processes of contemplation. He classified the principal or root sins as being eight in number, his list being gluttony, fornication, avarice, dejection (or ‘lack of pleasure’), anger, weariness (accidie), vainglory, and pride.[2] He divided them among the different parts of the soul as distinguished by Plato. He differentiated types of contemplation arranged in a scale of advancing apprehension, from corporeal to incorporeal and so upward to the Holy Trinity. At the highest level, he taught, prayer was a wordless, mental act, and must be free of any physical pictures of God that the imagination, prompted by evil powers, might form. Evagrius loved sharp, pregnant, obscure maxims. Much in his language about the mystery of prayer entered permanently into the stream of Greek ascetical theology and, through John Cassian, passed to the West.


Cassian was a monk of Scythian origin who had undergone a long ascetic training in Palestine and Egypt before undertaking his pioneer work in the West. His sympathies were with Evagrius and his Origenist friends, so that he could not stay after 400 in the Egypt of Theophilus of Alexandria (below, p. 186). He moved to Constantinople where John Chrysostom made him deacon, then to Rome after John’s fall in 404, and finally about 4t5 to Marseilles where he organized monastic communities of men and women after Eastern models. In his Institutes he described the external order: the correct kind of habit, the proper liturgical offices, and the eight principal sins of Evagrius’ catalogue. In his Conferences he expounded the inwardness of the desert tradition in the form of a series of discourses put into the mouths of famous Egyptian ascetics. Cassian’s criticism of Augustine’s doctrine of grace in the thirteenth Conference drew a counter-attack from the hyper-Augustinian Prosper of Aquitaine (below, p. 234), and the polemic threw lasting doubt on Cassian’s orthodoxy. Nevertheless, it would be hard to exaggerate how much later Western monasticism owed to Cassian’s moderation and insight. He arrived on the Western scene at a critical moment. Western Christians, moved by Latin translations of Athanasius’ Life of Antony and Rufinus’ account of the desert fathers in Egypt, wanted to have saints of their own. A zealous publicist from Aquitaine, Sulpicius Severus, writing about 403, achieved popular success with a largely fictitious biography of the ascetic bishop Martin of Tours, designed to show that Gaul could produce a saint superior even to the Egyptian ascetics. Martin was credited with extraordinary miracles and prodigies, and thanks to Sulpicius’ historical novel became one of the most popular saints in the barbarian West, principally as a soldier-saint and patron of military virtues. But Cassian regarded this type of miracle-mongering with distaste, and repeatedly deplored the popular demand for it. It was not, he thought, the authentic ascetic tradition, of which the true end was simply prayer out of a pure heart.

By his moderation and restraint Cassian did for the West much that Basil had done for the Greek East, though without ever questioning the ultimate superiority of the solitary life to membership of a coenobium. Cassian’s achievement is evident in the sixth century Rule of St Benedict and the closely related ‘Rule of the Master’, an anonymous abbot writing perhaps a few years before Benedict,[3] some of whose work was freely incorporated in the Benedictine Rule. Benedict directed that Cassian’s Conferences (collations) were to be read before compline. Later a light meal was taken during the reading; whence modern Italian derives its everyday word for luncheon (colazione) and English the term ‘collation’ for a light meal at an unusual hour.


By the accidents of history the name Benedictine has become associated with austerity and learning. Benedict himself had no special interest in either matter. His rule was one of simplicity and self-discipline, not of penitential austerity and self-inflicted mortification. There is not the least hint that he expected his monks to be recruited from those who had failed in the world or who, having soiled their conscience, came to make reparation. He did not think of founding monasteries to perform a special service to the Church or to Society. His monks were not clergy, but simple people, Italian peasants and rustic Goths. They needed to learn letters for their duty of devotional reading (nothing is said of learned study) and for the daily offices, ‘the work of God’ (opus Dei), which Benedict regarded as central to the life of the community. They were to be a family with the abbot as their father, to whom each was an equal care. Above all, they must stay in their monastery and not move from house to house. Although the Rule was intended for more than one monastery, it is clear that Benedict had no notion of founding a religious Order. When he prescribed that a substantial number of hours each day were to be devoted to work, he did not foresee the astonishing achievements of medieval and modern Benedictine scholars in the field of education and research. He wished rather to preserve his monks from the corrosion of character that results from idleness. He had no end in view other than that his monks should live in the presence of God and should get to heaven.




See Owen Chadwick, John Cassian (2nd ed. 1968), Western Asceticism (1958); Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (1936); W. K. Lowther Clarke, St Basil the Great (1913); K. E. Kirk, The Vision of God (1931); D. J. Chitty, The Desert a City (1966). P. Rousseau, Pachomius (1985); Elizabeth Clark, Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith (1986); P. Brown, The Body and Society (1988).

[1] Late in the fourth century it became controversial when Jovinian vehemently denied the superiority of the celibate life.

[2] Gregory the Great added envy to the list and amalgamated dejection and accidie.

[3] [Chadwick here hints at the following largely-discredited theory, discounted now by the overwhelming majority of monastic historians:] Perhaps the Master is Benedict himself. Before the founding of Cassino he founded twelve monastic houses near Subiaco, and it is possible that the two related Rules correspond to these two stages in Benedict’s development.

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