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Monastic Tendencies Before Monasticism


Monastic Tendencies Before Monasticism

Monasticism was unknown in Christianity until the end of the third century. Most of the early Christians continued to own private property after their conversion, and marriage was not condemned. St. Paul expressed a personal preference for celibacy, but admitted there was no "command from the Lord" on the matter. Widows were treated with special respect, but those under the age of 60 were enjoined to remarry and bear children. Missionary and charity work were emphasized over personal meditation and spiritual development.

However, there were strands within Christianity dating back to the time of the apostles that emphasized asceticism, celibacy, poverty or moral perfection. Fasting was an accepted discipline in the early church. It became customary for older widows to remain single and devote themselves to prayer and church work. Celibacy was lauded as a higher calling by not only St. Paul, but also The Shepherd of Hermas and the Marcionites. In 305, a synod in Spain required celibacy of bishops. By then, the custom had already been established that members of the clergy should not marry or (if widowed) remarry after ordination.

In ancient Egypt and Syria, the distinction between the tilled and irrigated fields of the villages and the surrounding wilderness was very clear. Beyond the fields was "the desert," rocky and dry land, with a sparse vegetation of brambles, nettles, and thornbushes, and incapable of supporting human habitation. It was the site of caves and small springs of brackish or salty water, abounding in poisonous snakes, lizards of all sorts, and watched over by vultures. But believe or not, these conditions favored the life of a monk. The moderate temperatures and sparse rain meant that he could live alone with little shelter, and the solitude and stark landscape aided in meditation and prayer.

From time immemorial, however, men and women had left their villages to live nearby in these badlands and to seek -- with the aid of solitude, exposure to the weather, and in hunger and thirst -- a deeper knowledge of the universe and the role of human beings in it, and perhaps to experience a mystic ecstacy in which they felt themselves united with the universe and its god. Associated with this custom was the popular custom of going out into the desert to seek enlightenment, particularly when confronted with some important decision or when dissatisfied with life in general. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Muhammad, as well as the entire Israelite people, among many others, retreated into the desert and found their life's mission there.

Such people, hermits [a word that comes from eremus, or "desert," and meaning "desert dwellers"], were regarded by the local villagers as holy men. They would take offerings of food to the hermits near their village, and the hermits would give them wise advise. Some hermits subjected themselves to rather extreme forms of self punishment to drive out cravings for worldly things, and the villagers, admiring such conduct, would sometimes travel long distances to see and offer sustenance.

Anthony of Egypt (251-356)

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Публикувано от: Dimitar Danielov

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