Cornerstone: Origins of Monasticism: What About Us?

St. Anthony the Great
St. Anthony the Great

by Mina Ghaly

 

We all know who monks are—ascetics who have left the material world to delve into lives of seclusion, prayer, and fasting in the name of Jesus Christ. The Desert Fathers instituted this life of eternal devotion to Christ, which is still practiced by many sects throughout the world 16 centuries later.

St. Anthony the Great is very much to thank for his painstaking contribution towards this heaven-on-earth lifestyle, as he formed the foundation of what is known as contemplative monasticism and pure isolation. Chastity, obedience, poverty, and service were the four fundamental characteristics of the true monastic life.

 

St. Pachomius, an ascetic who lived around the same time as Anthony, established “cenobitic” monasticism—the style by which monks consolidate their own individual experiences into a larger, communal one. As each person who chose to adopt this kind of life has done so for a common purpose, so too, St. Pachomius says, they should consolidate each of their own unique experiences into one that is shared. Prior to Saint Pachomius’ conception of cenobitic monasticism, St. Anthony’s solitary, eremitic version was the primary way for many to escape the temptations of the world, looking to Christ as the sole end, the only goal in life.

 

Cenobitic history has held its place in the monastic life for several millennia. Monasticism in the eastern hemisphere today is dominated by this very idea of shared community; together, monks bear a certain head covering, which indicates their chosen lives of solitude and incessant battle against sin. The Kolonsowa, as it is called, is embroidered with twelve small crosses (six on each half, symbolizing the twelve apostles) along with a large, singular cross in its center (representing Christ). It is said that an angel had appeared to St. Anthony with this covering, which resembles an infant’s bonnet, so as to remind the monk to have a conscience as pure as that of a child.

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In fact, the monk is to exemplify what Christ had said about children: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14)—a simple, yet beautiful message we should all take to heart. Behind this covering is also a reminder of St. Anthony’s physical confrontation with Satan—the garment had been torn in half when a demon had attempted to take the covering off of St. Anthony. Today, many orthodox monks bear the covering with a distinctive embroidery that connects the two halves, both as a symbol of St. Anthony’s struggle so many centuries ago, as well as a never-ending, daily conflict.

 

We can talk about how the Desert Fathers have guided thousands to live a pious life, but what is our part in all this? We certainly cannot drop everything today and become monks. Living a life of sacrifice, humility, and self-denial against the pleasures of the world is easier said than done. By 372 A.D., St. Anthony had many monks under his wing in Egypt, since the monastic life was, by then, well-grounded in the Christian religion—but what can we do? How can we take as many as we can to the kingdom of God with us?

 

For one thing, all that we do communally, as St. Pachomius had instituted, should be in the name of Christ: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). It is a good exercise to imagine Christ wherever we are. Would He approve of this action that I am doing? This word I am saying? If the answer is “no,” then it certainly should not be done.

 

First, let us contemplate the great strides St. Anthony took to develop the monastic life—along with thousands of witnesses who will proclaim his name in Heaven before Christ’s throne. Additionally, we should remember St. Pachomius’ sense of community in Christianity as we work to become witnesses to Christ, and a beacon of light for all around us. What a sight it would be if we had these sorts of witnesses—“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16).

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