Christian Monasticism

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“Monks who leave their cells, or seek the company of others, lose their peace, like fish out of water loses its life.”

-St. Anthony

During the years prior to the Edict of Milan, when persecution was still rampant throughout the Roman Empire, followers of the Way were always aware of the possibility that one day they might be taken by the Roman authorities and be made to choose between death and apostasy. However, when the peace of the church seemed assured there are those who, unlike Eusebius of Caesarea, did not take Emperor Constantine’s peace positively with open arms. To them, imperial tolerance and even promotion of Christianity resulted in the widening of the narrow gate to salvation which Jesus had spoken about enabling multitudes to go right through it. Thus, people were lining up and demanding to be baptized without even fully understanding the Christian Faith. Furthermore, this situation likewise elevated the office of the bishop to one of prestige and power so much so that ministers competed against each other for the episcopate.

To this apparent dilemma, many found the answer in the monastic life. This is characterized by fleeing from human society and leaving everything behind in order to dominate the body and its passions which give way to temptation. Albeit monasticism had already been in existence before Constantine’s time, its practice only became widespread during the time of Constantine. It was the Egyptian desert that provided the most fertile soil for the growth of monasticism due to its inaccessibility. The word “monk” is derived from the Greek monachos, which means “solitary.”

Although it is impossible for us today to determine who really was the first monk or nun of the desert, the two that are usually given that honor are Paul and Anthony, about whom Jerome and Athanasius wrote respectively. Studying the lives of Paul and Anthony will enable us to learn about the earliest forms of monasticism, which is that of the “anchorite” or the solitary monk. As more and more people withdraw into the desert searching for and experienced teacher, a new form of monasticism arose and solitary monasticism gave way to a communal form of the monastic life. This form of monasticism is called “cenobitic,” a name derived from two Greek words which mean “communal life.” Despite not being its founder, Pachomius deserves credit as the organizer who most contributed to its final shape. Pachomius demanded that any who wished to join his community must give up all their goods and promise absolute obedience to their superiors. The basic rule was mutual service, so that even those in authority had to serve under them in spite of the vow of absolute obedience. The daily life of a Pachomian monk included both work and devotion, and Pachomius himself set an example by undertaking the most humble tasks. They prayed “without ceasing” as per the Apostle Paul’s instructions even while performing their respective trades. This most probably is the precursor to the Benedictine motto of “Ora et labora” or “Pray and work.”

We can now see from the discussion above how these monastic communities that are still present today came about. Knowing their history enables us to appreciate their various contributions to the Christian life. To know more, read The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez.

Eusebius of Caesarea

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“Looking westward or eastward, looking over the whole earth, and even looking at heaven, always and everywhere I see blessed Constantine leading the same Empire.” (Eusebius of Caesarea)

Eusebius of Caesarea was a Christian historian from whom we learn about half of what we know about the life of the early Christians up to the time of Constantine the Great. Although Eusebius has sometimes been depicted as a puppet of Constantine and compromiser of the Christian Faith, he is in fact one of the most learned Christians of his time. In fact, it was only after Constantine’s death in A.D. 337 that Eusebius wrote his lines of highest praise for the ruler who had brought peace to the church, thus belying any claim that Eusebius was merely a kiss-ass to the emperor.

A disciple of Pamphilius of Caesarea, who in turn studied the works of Origen while in Alexandria under Pierius, Eusebius and Pamphilius collaborated on a five volume Defense of Origen, to which Eusebius added a sixth book after his teacher’s martyrdom during the reign of Maximinus Daia.

Eusebius saw in Constantine a fulfillment of the promise of peace by Christ due to the latter’s abatement of hostilities towards the Christian religion. Eusebius met Constantine when the latter visited Palestine with Diocletian’s court. Then also at Nicea, at the time of the Council, he saw the emperor seeking the unity and well-being of the church. Since Eusebius was convinced that Constantine had been raised up by God, he did not hesitate to support the emperor. Eusebius is famous for his seminal work, Church History. This work, which he later revised, is, according to historian Justo Gonzalez, of great importance for later church historians for without it, a great deal of the story that we have been telling would have been lost.

The final draft of his Church History however did not simply seek to retell the various events in the earlier life of the church but was really an apology or defense that sought to show that Christianity was the ultimate goal of human history, particularly as seen within the context of the Roman Empire. In support of that thesis, Constantine’s conversion was the keystone. The new situation was living and convincing proof of the truth of the Gospel, to which all humanity pointed.

Constantine the Great

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Throughout history, there have been many questions regarding the genuineness and sincerity of Constantine’s so-called conversion to Christianity. However, what scholars and historians all agree about is the effect of this supposed conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. The most widely known story is that during the battle at Milvian Bridge against Maxentius, Constantine saw a vision of the “Chi-Rho”, the first two Greek letters of the name of Christ, along with the instruction “in this sign you shall conquer”. So, as the story goes, Constantine had the shields of his troops painted with this sign and thereafter indeed won the battle. Therefore, Constantine issued the historical Edict of Milan which put an end to the Christian persecution. As a shrewd and wise statesman, Constantine knew that outright persecution of the pagan religion would earn him disfavor among the leaders of society, majority of who were still pagans. As discussed in my earlier article, the Christian population was largely limited to the lower echelons of the Roman Empire, with a few exceptions of course.

Notwithstanding this, Constantine still continued thereafter to serve and offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Moreover, as emperor, he serves as the high priest of paganism, who later on after his death was even declared a god himself. In fact, throughout his entire life, he never placed himself under the direction of Christian teachers or bishops, although Christian leaders such as Lactantius formed part of his entourage and Hosius, bishop of Cordova, became for a time his liaison with other ecclesiastical leaders.

After he became the overall ruler of the Roman Empire, he moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople, then Byzantium and now Istanbul, Turkey. Hence it was also known as the Byzantine Empire. According to Justo Gonzalez, the impact of Constantine’s reforms can still be felt up to as late as the twentieth century. One of the most significant developments during his time was the adoption of an “official theology” as best exemplified by the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, which sought to unify Christendom with a common doctrine or creed against the teachings of Arius, a presbyter, who taught that Jesus was a created being and not God co-eternal with the Father. Furthermore, the official recognition of Christianity as a valid religion also brought some changes to Christian worship in that during its early years, Christians gathered to worship in private homes. However, with the construction of elaborate houses of worship, churches, basilicas and cathedrals, Christian worship soon came to be regarded with more pomp and majesty. The same can likewise be seen from the changes in the way officiating ministers dress, who until then had worn everyday clothes. From that time on and even until today, Catholic and Orthodox priests, and Protestant ministers now wear luxurious vestments with intricate designs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, certainly deserves majestic worship.

Finally, this era also marked the beginning of official commemoration of a martyr’s death, which then extended to the saints who have passed away. Thus, the impact of Constantine.