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The Monastic Fathers (AD 325-381)

  • Rise of Monasticism

      For the devout Christians of the first centuries the persecutions were opportunities for sacrificing themselves holy and acceptable to Lord. But in the changed circumstances of freedom, the earnest Christians embraced a new way of life, Monasticism. There were two factors that influenced them to adopt this new way. First, at the time of persecution many Christians fled to the deserts of Egypt and many of them remained there as hermits even after the restoration of peace. Next due to freedom worldliness increased in the Church. The earnest Christians found the way of the hermits appropriate to keep up quality of Christian life and as a good substitute to gain the glory martyrdom.

  • St. Antony (A.D. 251-356)

      St. Antony was the first important Christian hermit mentioned in history. He was born in A.D. 251. At the age of twenty he lost parents. On one Sunday when he was participating in the Holy Eucharist as usual, the day's Gospel lesson attracted him. The words of Jesus to the rich man "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (Mt. 19:21), inspired him. He gave away his possessions and became a monk. We may sum up here the important stages in his life.

      1. Antony shifted his residence to a humble cottage. He earned money for himself and for the needy, by making ropes, mats, baskets and sandals. This job suited his life to practice unceasing prayer. He attended Church worship persistently and heard the readings of Scriptures carefully. Though he was illiterate he learned the principles of Christian living through participation in the full cycle of Church worship.

      2. He visited the older Christian devotees. He gathered from those many examples the diverse ingredients of Christian perfection.

      3. The earnest prayer of young Antony was for purity of heart. He found the evil and its temptations powerful in his thoughts and imaginations. Through constant prayer and discipline he could cast out the temptations from his heart.

      4. The demons thus cast out from within began to attack from outside. The next stage of his life was fighting against the demons. He went to the tombs of his village, entered into one of them and shut himself in and started praying. At last he emerged victorious over the demons.

      5. At the age of thirty five he crossed Nile and reached the desert. He shut himself there in a deserted fort and lived in solitude for twenty years. Twice a year he was supplied with bread. After twenty years when his friends broke down the gate of the fort he came out "on from some inmost shrine, initiate into the mysteries and God-borne" (Life of Antony chapter 14). Despite his combat with demons and severe fasting, physically and indisposition of soul he was "all balanced, as governed by reason and standing in his natural condition" Life of Antony Ch. 14).

      6. Antony then entered into another stage possessing spiritual powers. He began to heal the sick, cast out demons and to comfort the sorrowful. At the time of persecution of Diocletian and Maximian he came out of the monastery and visited Alexandria several times to strengthen the suffering Church. He exposed himself for arrest but authorities feared to touch him.

      7. As the persecution was ended he lost his quietness due to visitors and disciples. So he withdrew to an inaccessible place called "InnerMountain" where he lived for the rest of his life. During this period too he came to Alexandria to comfort Athanasius and the Church when they suffered at the hands of the Arians. He died at the age of 105.

  • St. Basil

      St. Basil was born in Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia in Asia (present day Turkey). His was a remarkable family. His father the elder Basil had five sons and five daughters. Three of the sons became bishops, Mar Baselius in Caesarea, Mar Gregorios in Nyssa and Mar Pathrose in Sebaste. The eldest sister of Mar Baselius, St. Makrina was a saint and scholar, the founder of monastic communities for women. She was also the teacher of her brothers. Mar Baselius had his education in his native Caesarea, then in Constantinople and finally in Athens. In Athens he renewed his companionship with Mar Gregorios of Nazianzus who was also a native of Cappadocia. On his return from Athens he was found vane and proud. But Makrina taught him wisdom and turned him to Christian piety. He then traveled in Egypt, Syria, Palestine Mesopotamia to learn from the many monks who lived in those parts. When he returned, he distributed his wealth among the poor and went to solitude for prayer and fasting. The community grew and it became a great spiritual center of Christianity in Asia. In a short time he founded other monasteries. His sister Makrina started a convent for women. They established hospitals for the sick, nursing homes for lepers, homes for the poor, hostels for travelers and strangers. The monasteries became spiritual centers where the poor and the destitute praised God for His wonderful ways. In AD 368 there was a great famine. He organized relief work, raised large subscriptions, fed the poor himself and washed their feet. And his services during the period can never be forgotten.

      St. Basil was a great monk. Pachomius, another great monk of fourth century had already introduced community life for monks in Egypt. But St. Basil could integrate monastic community life into Church life. He laid down the basic principles of community monasticism, a balance between prayer, study and work and the need to serve one’s fellow men by working with one's own hands. He lived in simplicity and poverty. He died at the age of fifty on Jan 1, 379.

  • St. Ephrem the Syrian (Ca. 306-378)

      He was born to Gentile parents in Nisibis in Mesopotamia and his father was a heathen priest. His father expelled the boy Ephrem from home for talking to a Christian. The boy met Bishop Jacob of Nisibis. The Bishop took him and admitted him as a Catechumen. Ephrem proved himself a diligent disciple, in fasting and prayer and in daily attendance at the teaching of the Scriptures. Ephrem got an opportunity to attend the Holy Synod of Nicea (325) with bishop Jacob of Nisibis.

      At the time of persecution he moved to Edessa. There he lived solitary in one of the caves of the Mount of Edessa, a rocky range of hills. There he spent his time in prayer, fasting and study of the Scriptures. During this time he wrote a commentary of the book of Genesis which showed his exegetical power. Impressed by the book the teachers and priests of the city invited him to join the School of Edessa as a teacher. But he fled from their access. Then directed by a divine vision he returned and joined the School. He again had to withdraw to the Mount. There many joined him as disciples and he taught them.

      Ephrem decided to visit the famous teacher and monk Mar Baselius. He made his way to Caesarea through Egypt. He stayed with Basil for a fortnight Basil, during the time ordained him deacon. After that he returned to Edessa.

      St. Ephrem became famous for the austerity and sanctity of his life as well as for his learning. He was a voluminous writer and he wrote most of his works in verse. His literary works include the cycles of hymns of the great feasts of the Church and about Mary, the Mother of God. The Syrian Liturgy uses his poems to a considerable extent.

  • Questions and Activities:

      1. Read the biography of St. Antony written by St. Athanasius.

      2. Note the particular circumstances in history which gave rise to the monastic movement. Do you find any parallel in the life of the Church today? Discuss the relevance of monasticism today.

      3. Learn the day to day life of monasteries by visiting some of them.