Leaving the “Christened Empire”

“Monasticism was, to a great extent, an attempt to evade the Imperial problem. The period of the bitter struggle between the Church and the Empire, under the Arianizing Caesars of the fourth century, was also the period of Monastic expansion. It was a kind of a new and impressive “Exodus.” And the Empire always regarded this “Exodus,” the flight into Desert, as a threat to its claims and to its very existence, from the times of St. Athanasius to the cruel persecution of monks by the Iconoclastic Emperors. It is often suggested that people were leaving “the world” simply to escape the burden of social life, with its duties and labors. It is difficult to see in what sense life in the wilderness could be “easy” and “leisurely.” It was, indeed, a strenuous life, with its own burdens and dangers. It is true that in the West at that time the Roman order was falling to pieces, was sorely endangered, and partly destroyed by barbarian invasions, and apocalyptic fears and apprehensions might have crept into many hearts, an expectation of an imminent end of history.
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Yet, we do not find many traces of this apocalyptic dread in the writings of the Desert Fathers. Their motives for desertion were quite different. In the East, where the Monastic Movement originated, the Christian Empire was in the process of growth. In spite of all its ambiguities and shortcomings, it was still an impressive sight. After so many decades of suffering and persecution, “this World” seemed to have been opened for the Christian conquest. The prospect of success was rather bright. Those who fled into the wilderness did not share these expectations. They had no trust in the “christened Empire.” They rather distrusted the whole scheme altogether. They were leaving the earthly Kingdom, as much as it might have been actually “christened,” in order to build the true Kingdom of Christ in the new land of promise, “outside the gates,” in the Desert. They fled not so much from the world’s disasters, as from the “worldly cares,” from the involvement with the world, even under the banner of Christ, from the prosperity and wrong security of the world.
Nor was the Monastic endeavor a search for “extraordinary” or “superrogatory” deeds and exploits. The main ascetical emphasis, at least at the early stage of development, was not on taking “special” or “exceptional” vows, but rather on accomplishing those common and essential vows, which every Christian had to take at his baptism. Monasticism meant first of all a “renunciation,” a total renunciation of “this world,” with all its lust and pomp. And all Christians were bound to renounce “the world” and to pledge an undivided loyalty to the only Lord, Christ Jesus. Indeed, every Christian was actually taking this oath of undivided allegiance at his Christian initiation. It is highly significant that the rite of Monastic profession, when it was finally established, was made precisely on the pattern of the baptismal rite, and the Monastic profession came to be regarded as a kind of “second baptism.” If there was a search for “perfection” in the Monastic endeavor, “perfection” itself was not regarded as something “peculiar” and optional, but rather as a normal and obligatory way of life. If it was a “rigorism,” this rigorism could claim for itself the authority of the Gospel.
It is also significant that, from the very beginning, the main emphasis in the Monastic oath was placed precisely on “social” renunciation. The novice had to disown the world, to become a stranger and pilgrim, a foreigner in the world, in all earthly cities, just as the Church herself was but a “stranger” in the earthly City, paroikousa on earth. Obviously, this was but a confirmation of the common baptismal vows. Indeed, ail Christians were supposed to disown the world, and to dwell in this world as strangers. This did not necessarily imply a contempt for the world. The precept could also be construed as a call to its reform and salvation.
St. Basil the Great, the first legislator of Eastern Monasticism, was desperately concerned with the problem of social reconstruction. He watched with grave apprehension the process of social disintegration, which was so conspicuously advanced in his time. His call to the formation of monastic communities was, in effect, an attempt to rekindle the spirit of mutuality in a world which seemed to have lost any force of cohesion and any sense of social responsibility. Now, Christians had to set a model of the new society, in order to counterbalance the disruptive tendencies of the age. St. Basil was strong in his conviction that man was essentially a social or “political” being, not a solitary one — zoon koinonikon. He could have learned this both from the Scripture and from Aristotle. But the present society was built on a wrong foundation. Consequently, one had first of all to retire or withdraw from it. According to St. Basil, a monk had to be “home-less” in the world, aoikos, his only home being the Church. He had to go out, or to be taken out, of all existing social structures — family, city, Empire. He had to disown all orders of the world, to sever all social ties and commitments. He had to start afresh. The later custom or rule to change the name in taking the habit was a spectacular symbol of this radical break with the previous life. But monks leave the society of this world in order to join another society, or rather to actualize in full their membership in another community, which is the Church. The prevailing form of Monasticism was “coenobitical,” the life in common. The solitary life might be praised as an exception for a few peculiar persons, but it was firmly discouraged as a common rule. The main emphasis was on obedience, on the submission of will. “Community” was always regarded as a normal and more adequate manner of ascetical life. A monastery was a corporation, “a body,” a small Church. Even hermits did dwell usually together, in special colonies, under the direction of a common spiritual leader or guide.
This communal character of Monasticism was strongly re-emphasized by St. Theodore of Studium, the great reformer of Byzantine Monasticism (759-826). St. Theodore insisted that there was no commandment of solitary life in the Gospel. Our Lord Himself lived in a “community” with His disciples. Christians are not independent individuals, but brethren, members of the Body of Christ. Moreover, only in community could Christian virtues of charity and obedience be properly developed and exercised. Thus, monks were leaving the world in order to build, on the virginal soil of the Desert, a New Society, to organize there, on the Evangelical pattern, the true Christian Community. Early Monasticism was not an ecclesiastical institution. It was precisely a spontaneous movement, a drive. And it was distinctively a lay movement. The taking of Holy Orders was definitely discouraged, except by order of the superiors, and even abbots were often laymen. In early times, secular priests from the vicinity were invited to conduct services for the community, or else the neighboring Church was attended on Sundays. The monastic state was clearly distinguished from the clerical. “Priesthood” was a dignity and an authority, and as such was regarded as hardly compatible with the life of obedience and penitence, which was the core and the heart of monastic existence. Certain concessions were made, however, time and again, but rather reluctantly. On the whole, in the East Monasticism has preserved its lay character till the present day. In the communities of Mount Athos, this last remnant of the old monastic regime, only a few are in the Holy Orders, and most do not seek them, as a rule. This is highly significant. Monasticism cut across the basic distinction between clergy and laity in the Church. It was a peculiar order in its own right-Monasteries were at once worshipping communities and working teams.
Monasticism created a special “theology of labor,” even of manual labor in particular. Labor was by no means a secondary or subsidiary element of monastic life. It belonged to its very essence. “Idleness” was regarded as a primary and grievous vice, spiritually destructive. Man was created for work. But work should not be selfish. One had to work for common purpose and benefit, and especially to be able to help the needy. As St. Basil stated it, “in labor the purpose set before everyone, is the support of the needy, not one’s own necessity” (Regulae Justus tractatae, 42). Labor was to be, as it were, an expression of social solidarity, as well as a basis of social service and charity. From St. Basil this principle was taken over by St. Benedict. But already St. Pachomius, the first promoter of coenobitical Monasticism in Egypt, was preaching “the Gospel of continued work” (to use the able phrase of the late Bishop Kenneth Kirk).
His coenobium at Tabennisi was at once a settlement, a college, and a working camp. On the other hand, this working community was, in principle, a “non-acquisitive society.” One of the main monastic vows was the complete denial of all possessions, not only a promise of poverty. There was no room whatsoever for any kind of “private property” in the life of a coenobitical monk. And this rule was sometimes enforced with rigidity. Monks should not have even private desires. The spirit of “ownership” was strongly repudiated as an ultimate seed of corruption in human life. St. John Chrysostom regarded “private property” as the root of all social ills. The cold distinction between “mine” and “thine” was, in his opinion, quite incompatible with the pattern of loving brotherhood, set forth in the Gospel. He could have added at this point also the authority of Cicero: “nulla autem privata natura”. Indeed, for St. John, “property” was man’s wicked invention, not of God’s’ design. He was prepared to force upon the whole world the rigid monastic discipline of “non-possession” and obedience, for the sake of the world’s relief. In his opinion, separate monasteries should exist now, in order that one day the whole world might become like a monastery.
As it has been well said recently, “Monasticism was an instinctive reaction of the Christian spirit against that fallacious reconciliation with the present age which the conversion of the Empire might seem to have justified” (Pere Louis Bouyer). It was a vigorous reminder of the radical “otherworldliness” of the Christian Church. It was also a mighty challenge to the Christian Empire, then in the process of construction. This challenge could not go without a rejoinder. The Emperors, and especially Justinian, made a desperate effort to integrate the Monastic Movement into the general structure of their Christian Empire. Considerable concessions had to be made. Monasteries, as a rule, were exempt from taxation and granted various immunities. In practice, these privileges only led ultimately to an acute secularization of Monasticism. But originally they meant a recognition, quite unwillingly granted, of a certain Monastic “extra-territoriality.” On the other hand, many monasteries were canonically exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishops. During the Iconoclastic controversy, the independence of Monasticism was conspicuously manifested in Byzantium. Up to the end of Byzantium, Monasticism continued as a peculiar social order, in perpetual tension and competition with the Empire.

Obviously, actual Monasticism was never up to its own principles and claims. But its historical significance lies precisely in its principles. As in the pagan Empire the Church herself was a kind of “Resistance Movement,” Aionasticism was a permanent “Resistance Movement” in the Christian Society.”

From “Christianity and Culture” by Fr. Georges Florovsky
“Protopresbyter Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (August 23, 1893 – August 11, 1979) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, and writer, active in the ecumenical movement. His writing is known for its clear, profound style, covering subjects on nearly every aspect of Church life.” http://orthodoxwiki.org/Georges_Florovsky


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