The Gospel and the Origin of Christian Monasticism | The Introduction to The Desert Fathers: Saint Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism | Peter H. Görg
"They build houses as though they were going to live forever, and they eat as though they were going to die tomorrow!" This description of his fellow citizens goes back to one of the Greek philosophers of antiquity, but it could just as well have originated in our day. At the same time it expresses something of the general human endeavor to settle down in this world and not to miss anything. What matters, supposedly, is not the number of years but rather the intensity of one's life, by which is generally meant in turn the greatest possible potential for experiencing pleasure. Since this attitude can be found in all ages and in all places, the very existence of the Christian monk represents a protest. This protest is directed against a hedonistic society that sees its sole purpose for existence in maximizing pleasure and in fun, and likewise against a form of narrow-minded bourgeois existence that is satisfied with managing a pleasant life in this world. From this perspective the monk is countercultural, someone who is striving precisely for another sort of life.
The very term "monk" can be interpreted in several ways, which at the same time reflect the living reality. Whereas the translation "alone" (in Greek mónos) reminds us more of the hermit, we can also speak—as John Cassian, for example, does—about someone who leads a "singular" or "uncommon life". The Christian monk knows only one goal: the absolute submission of his whole being to God by imitating Christ. This imitation assumes its concrete form chiefly in following the so-called evangelical counsels of obedience, poverty, and celibacy [Ehelosigkeit]. So as to be able to live out this imitation of Christ radically and totally, the monk leaves the "world". He renounces all natural ties and at the same time frees himself from those temptations that accompany material possession.
The origin of Christian monasticism can be seen in the Gospel itself, in Christ's invitations to leave everything for his name's sake (cf. Mt 19:29), and likewise in the example of the Redeemer, of the God-man who in his earthy life modeled the aforementioned counsels. And already in the Acts of the Apostles we encounter monastic elements, when it is reported about the early Christian community that they were united in personal poverty, in fellowship, and in the praise of God (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32). Here we find also the beginnings of a special virginal state of life (Acts 21:9) and the first indications of asceticism. The ascetical way of life was realized in the first two Christian centuries chiefly in two forms. First there was itinerant asceticism, which was based primarily on the Scripture passages about the sending forth of the first disciples (see Lk 10:1-12) who roamed the world on missionary journeys. These ascetics are said to have been influential well into the early medieval period, although they were not always regarded favorably by the Church because of their sometimes disorderly way of life. The other and most common form was exemplified by those ascetics who lived in the family and the Christian community and formed, so to speak, their inner circle and spiritual center. They led an unmarried life, ready to give to the poor and to the community everything beyond what they needed to support themselves. Abstinence from wine and meat can be found in this early phase also, and among the ascetical women, who probably originated with the enrolled widows, one can discern a special vow of continence. As time went on, this asceticism, which consisted in renouncing food, sleep, and other amenities of life, naturally required reflection and correction again and again to keep it from falling short of its actual goal of perfection and becoming an exercise in hostility to the body.
In the year 2006 the Church observed the 1650th anniversary of the death of the saintly hermit and abbot Anthony. Because of his greatness and importance he exemplifies the beginning of monastic life. This book is meant to contribute in some small way toward making Anthony the Great better known again to twenty-first-century Christians as well. Hence the focus of this presentation is the life and work of the saint. Incidentally from time to time there will be explanatory remarks to make it easier for the reader to understand the unfamiliar world of the ascetic. Moreover, in presenting the life of Anthony it will be necessary to call to mind again truths of the faith that have almost been buried in the sands of time, for instance, with regard to the possibility of miracles or the existence of purely spiritual beings. In order to corroborate the credibility of miraculous events we will refer in the appropriate places to similar incidents in the lives of modern saints. This presentation thereby clearly sets itself apart from many publications in recent decades that either completely deny the possibility and factuality of God's miraculous intervention in our world (in other words, the irruption of transcendence into immanence), or interpret it in purely symbolic terms, or else relegate it to the realm of psychology.
Scarcely any other saint has fascinated and inspired the artists of all ages as much as the Egyptian hermit. Painters such as Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Griinewald, Pieter Brueghel, Lukas Cranach, or even Salvador Dali and Max Ernst repeatedly dealt with motifs from the life of the Abbot, and in literature there are numerous references and allusions to this great man, who was the bedrock of asceticism. Being an important saint of the Church he can help the faithfuldespite or precisely because of the strangeness of his foreign extraction, his way of life, and his thought-as a model along the path to sanctity. His experiences in the spiritual life and the ideas derived from it have a timeless beauty and validity.
For many centuries, furthermore, Christians in the East and the West have confidently turned to this saint and have experienced the help of his intercession. This book is meant to encourage all its readers to do so also, especially those, of course, who honor the hermit as their patron saint (Anthony, Antoinette, Anton, Toni, and so forth) or the patron of their parish.
The second part of this book presents other great figures who either were themselves among the Desert Fathers or were inspired by them. We will hear about the primordial hermit, Paul of Thebes, who is said to have sought seclusion in the desert many years even before Anthony. We will learn how real monasteries developed under the direction of Pachomius and how the monks discovered life in community as cenobites. The story of Syrian monasticism and of its particular exponents, like the pillar dweller Simeon, will be related, as well as the history of the monks in Asia Minor, headed by the great theologian and bishop Basil.
Although we then turn also to the further development of monasticism and thus leave the desert behind, it always remains in the background, because the entire monastic movement relied again and again on its sources in the desert. Indeed, the great promoters of monasticism and asceticism in the West often had one thing in common: in their early years they visited the monks in Egypt and Palestine. They set out on the arduous journey to visit the Desert Fathers and their disciples. And we too want to set out now on that journey.
More about the book:
The Desert Fathers: Saint Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism
by Peter H. Görg
• Also available in electronic book format
In the late third century, more and more people withdrew to the radical seclusion of the desert so as to live entirely for God under the direction of a spiritual father. Among these "Desert Fathers" one figure is especially preeminent: Saint Anthony the Hermit.
This book takes the reader back to the hour when monasticism was born and describes the life of those revolutionary Christians who sought God in the Egyptian desert. The focus of the book is the life and work of Saint Anthony, whose experiences of the spiritual life have a timeless beauty and validity, even for those not called to live as a monk.
The second half of the book presents other Desert Fathers, such as Paul of Thebes, Pachomius, and Simeon Stylites, as well as the great founders of the monastic communities in Western Europe who were inspired by them: John Cassian, Columban, and Benedict, for example.
"The monk's self-denial begins radically in precisely those departments of life which have perennially seemed to be the most important: ownership, self-determination and sexuality. At the same time those who admonish so uncomfortably become the salt that lends Christianity its original flavor. . . . Just as the saints are God's specific answer to the needs of a given time, so too are the religious orders that have been founded over the course of the centuries."
- Peter Görg
"These are the men who taught the world to pray - really pray. They fled to the desert to avoid the crowds, yet drew disciples from everywhere. They still do. They're drawing you and me, right now, to join them in the greatest adventure. Our desert begins in these beautiful pages by Peter Görg."
- Mike Aquilina, Author, The Fathers of the Church
Peter H. Görg studied philosophy and theology in the German universities of Vallendar, Fulda and Augsburg, where he received his doctorate in dogmatic theology in 2007. Dr. Görg is an assistant professor of systematic theology at the University of Koblenz. He has written numerous articles and reviews for theological journals.