A Lifetime in Solitary
“The tradition of Coptic monasticism draws a more or less straight line from the early fathers of monasticism to the present day. Egypt has numerous monasteries and several of them are named after founding fathers, such as saints Anthony, Macarius and Pachomius.
But how much does modern monasticism have in common with the ideals and ways of life existent in the fourth century? An investigation into this question, using written sources and archaeological evidence, shows that things have changed quite a bit over the past 1,700 years.
Nowadays, Christian monasteries, not only in Egypt but all over the world, belong to an ecclesiastical denomination and are part of the organization of a church; this implies that the members of a monastic community obey the rules and follow agreed-upon theological conventions. Today, a monk is someone living in a monastic community, but the etymological origin of the word is “monachos”, meaning “solitary” in Creek; this is a clear indication that the solitary life of the first hermits was the foundation of the Iater organized communities. But the transition from an early monastic way of life – a Iay movement – to an institutionalized existence in organized communities was perhaps not as smooth as one might think.
It is difficult to say when exactly the first hermits withdrew from society, but it must have already happened by the third century. The reasons for withdrawal were probably not the same for all hermits; some may have tried to escape from the persecutions of Decius and Diocletian, while others may have simply desired to lead a Iife of complete abstinence and dedication to God, regardless of events in wider society. It seems that for many it was a step that marked a radical break from their past life, a one-way ticket to a world of isolation from which the only exit was death and the expectation of an eternal life to follow; in such an extreme situation, the hermit himself set his own goals and his own ways of achieving them’ lsolation from the world implied isolation from the Church and its sacraments, unless the hermit made his way back to the civilized world at certain intervals to visit a priest.
Reasons for a Iife of asceticism were diverse. Some may have been looking for a way to repent for a serious crime while at the same time escaping legal persecution in society. Others were simply seeking salvation for their souls and choosing a form of self-imposed martyrdom in a time when the persecution of Christians had ceased. The degree of a hermit’s isolation and asceticism was a matter of personal choice. Some simply led a life of poverty at the edge of a village, being looked upon either as a village fool, a wise man or a mixture of both. Others retreated further into the desert and gradually increased their degree of asceticism. At a certain point, all contacts with the world would be severed and the hermit would consider himself “dead to the world.” This had multiple meanings: the hermit gave up all his possessions and said farewell to his friends and family; physically he was still alive, but his spirit was already halfway between heaven and earth; and his bodily functions and emotional reactions were reduced to a minimum….
ln many ways, certain monks can be considered nonconformists. ln the hagiographies mentioned above, we have seen how nakedness could be considered an ultimate form of asceticism, freeing oneself of all possession and protection from the heat and cold. There was even one category of ascetics, the so-called holy fools, who pretended to be completely insane so as to avoid the “risk” of being revered by the “world.” They would circulate in rags or half naked, uttering nonsense or behaving in an outright indecent way. One of the best-known examples was Symeon the Fool, a Syrian saint Iiving in the sixth century.
It is not surprising, therefore, that certain ecclesiastical authorities grew concerned about what was happening far away in the desert and in places where wandering ascetics preached or behaved in questionable ways. ln the first half of the fifth century, there was a growing tendency to involve and incorporate monastic communities and anchorites in the organization of the Church, either on a voluntary basis or by force of rules. Eventually, at the Council of Chalcedon a canon (regulation) was issued by which hermits and monastic communities were placed under the supervision of bishops. Gradually, anarchistic theocracy disappeared in favour of regulated communities, a move towards what Coptic monasticism would eventually become.”
From: Karel C Innemée “A lifetime in solitary, early hermits of the Egyptian deserts” in “Al Rawi” 6(2014)
Full text available on-line at: https://www.academia.edu/10858468/A_lifetime_in_solitary_early_hermits_of_the_Egyptian_deserts_in_Al_Rawi_6_2014_