Monasticism began in the Coptic Orthodox Church towards the end of the third century, and flourished in the fourth. There were hundreds of monasteries and thousands of caves in the mountains of Egypt. Saint John Cassian said that the traveller from Alexandria in the North to Luxor in the South, would have, in his ears along the whole journey, the sounds of prayers and hymns of the monks scattered in the desert, from the monasteries and from the caves; from monks, hermits and anchorites. For the monks, monasticism was the life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship and purity of heart. They had nothing in their minds, hearts and feelings except God alone. They lived the calm and quiet life, abiding in the Lord, detaching themselves from everything and everyone, to be attached to Him alone.
Forms of Monasticism
Monasticism took three main forms, all of which are still to be found in the Church today.
The anchorites or hermits lived in complete seclusion, only visiting the abbot when they needed counsel. Each hermit organized his own prayer, clothing, food and work. The first anchorite in the world was Saint Paul. He lived for eighty years in the Egyptian desert without seeing a single person. Some hermits entered into the inner deserts and settled there for tens of years, seeing no one. Saint Mary of Egypt was one of these, and is also considered as one of those hermits who are called ‘Pilgrims’, who had no specific cell but lived homeless, wandering in the wilderness.
(b) The Coenobitic System
Under this system, founded by Saint Pachomius in Upper Egypt, the monks lived in a community inside the walls of the monastery, in association with each other, governed by an abbot and by rules. Even through this system Christian monasticism never lost its yearning for monarchism.
(c) The Communal System or Semi-eremitic Life
This form of monasticism is mid-way between monarchism and the coenobitic system. The mode of Saint Anthony’s life as described by Saint Athanasius was actually semi-eremitic in essence, for the monks lived in separate caves or cells and assembled occasionally for the Divine Liturgy or spiritual meetings. Thus Saint Anthony prepared the way for the communal order. In the wildernesses of Nitria and Scetis the communal order was established by Saint Amoun and Saint Macarius the Great. There, the ascetics lived, not in absolute isolation, but in cells built at such a distance that they could neither see nor hear one another. They gathered for communal prayer on Saturdays and Sundays.
Monasticism’s Famous Personalities
Saint Paul, of the lower Thebaid in Egypt, was the first hermit. In 250 AD, upon the death of his parents when he was 16 years old, he inherited great wealth. He fled to the desert where he lived over ninety years. Each day a raven would bring him half a loaf of bread. His biography was written by Saint Jerome in 374AD.
Saint Anthony , (251-356AD) was born in Middle Egypt. He was eighteen years old when he entered the church and heard the words of the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all you have and give to the poor; and come, follow Me ” (Matthew 19:21). He sold his land, entrusted his sister with a community of virgins, and lived in a hut under the guidance of a recluse. He visited Alexandria in 316 AD to assist the martyrs and in 352 AD to help Saint Athanasius in his fight against Arianism.
Saint Pachomius (290-), was born in Upper Egypt. He was converted to Christianity in Upper Egypt, when he witnessed the generosity of Christians and their love even of their enemies. He left the army and was baptised in 307 AD, becoming a disciple of Palamon the Hermit. He established the Ceonobetic System. He founded two monasteries in Egypt, and two nunneries under the guidance of his sister. He laid the ceonobetic laws which were later translated into Greek and Latin and used by Saint Basil the Great.
Saint Macarius the Great, (300-390 AD) founded the communal order in the desert of Scetis, and visited Saint Anthony at least twice.
Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite (‘Head of the Anchorites’) was the Abbott of the White Monastery of Atribe in the desert of Thebes for more than 65 years (in the 4th and 5th centuries), leading 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns. In 431 AD he accompanied Saint Cyril the Great to the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus.
Saint Sarah the Abbess, lived in Pelusium, and was endowed with the grace of true leadership and spiritual discernment. Her sayings were treasured by the desert fathers.
Saint Syncletica founded the first monastic community for women in the world in Alexandria. Her biography and teachings were preserved by Pope Athanasius.
Effects of Coptic Monasticism on the World
Coptic Monasticism is considered the most profound spiritual revival in the history of the Church. The news of the spiritual life of the monks spread everywhere. They did not write about themselves as there is no Coptic history about the Coptic monks. People came from everywhere in order to hear a word from one of the monks, and to take it as a word of spiritual guidance and benefit throughout their life. Saint Palladius visited many monks and wrote his famous book, the `Paradise of the Fathers’, from which we learn about these holy fathers, who neither spoke nor wrote, but kept silent. They were not preachers but they were living sermons, examples of the true life and the image of God on earth.
Here is a short list of how these saints influenced the world:
1. Pope Athanasius was greatly responsible for the introduction of the monastic movement to the Roman religious life, during his exile in Treve and his flight to Rome in 339 AD. He also wrote “The Life of Anthony”, read the world over.
2. The Pachomian rules were translated into Greek by Palladius, and into Latin by Saint Jerome.
3. The rules of Benedict of Nursia (480 – 550) were based on the Pachomian ones.
4. Saint John Cassian (360 -435 AD) dwelt in Egypt for seven years, and wrote his two famous books, “Institutes” and “Conferences”.
5. Evagrius Ponticus, who occupied a central role in the history of Christian spirituality, lived as a monk for two years in Nitria and then fourteen years in the “Cells”.
6. Saint Jerome and Saint Rufinus visited Egypt.
7. Saint Hilarious of Palestine became a disciple of Saint Anthony and returned to his own land to practice ascetiscm.
8. Etheria (Egaria), a Spanish abbess in the fourth century, visited Egypt.
9. Saint Melania the elder, a Roman lady, visited the desert of Egypt.
10. Saint John Chrysostom stayed in one of the Pachomian monasteries for 8 years.
11. Orphenus came to Egypt and wrote `The Desert Fathers’.
12. Saint Epiphanius (315 -403 AD), Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, was instructed in Coptic monastic thought.
Mission in the Church
Organised groups, individuals, monks, clergymen, merchants, soldiers and devout women from Egypt went out to almost every part of world and spread the Gospel. The School of Alexandria sent out missionaries to pagan tribes in Libya, Phrygia, Sinai, Arabia Felix, the Thebaid and Upper Egypt. Pantaenus especially is well-known for his work in India. Christianity was first introduced into Ethiopia by Egyptian merchants through their commercial and maritime relations, and into the Sudan in the 6th century.
In Europe, Saint Athanasius founded a church in Belgia during one of his exiles. In Switzerland, the Theban Legion, led by Saint Maurice, watered the land with the blood of their martyrdom when they refused to sacrifice to the gods; hence the place was named Saint Moritz. Felix, his sister and their friend spread the Gospel in Zurich, and the official seal of the country of Zurich still bears the picture of these three Coptic evangelists. In Ireland, seven Coptic monks were among the pioneers of the Faith, and left many traces in the life and art of the people; three manuscripts in the Royal Academy of Dublin confirm this.