Jan 14 2012

Part6: Historical Development: 4-The Early Monastic Element p.1


Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed

Part Six


Historical Development of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)


The Main Elements of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality (contd.)


4- The Early Monastic element:

The early monastic element means monastic life that initially started in Egypt then Syria and Palestine in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Anyone who reads history of the Orthodox Churches and researches the spiritual life in Orthodox nations throughout previous era and the present era will definitely notice the clear effect of the early monastic life on the Orthodox spirituality in primeval times and even until now.

Fathers of the Desert:

The expression “Fathers of the Desert” sums up this aspect of early monasticism.  The Desert has spoken to the world through a series of writings of the fourth and following centuries.  The first of these writings are “The life of St. Anthony” (written by St. Athanasius the Apostolic in the middle of the fourth century) and the Letters by St. Anthony.  Also, there are “The Lausiac History” (written by Palladius about monastic life during his visit to Egypt in the fifth century) and “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers” (which includes a collection of the sayings, wisdom, and counsel of the monastic elders) and “Paradise of the Monks” (similar to “The Sayings”, initially written in Syrian language, and later found in Arabic manuscripts in the Egyptian monasteries), and the fifty homilies attributed to St. Macarius the Great (4th  century).  Also, “The Spiritual Meadow” by John Moschus, “The Scale of Paradise” by John Climacos, the treatises of St. Nilus, Isaac of Nineveh, and Evagrius of Pontus.  The “Colla­tiones” of John Cassian, in the early decades of the 5th century, form a link between Eastern Desert and Western monasticism, the author having received the Eastern traditions of the monastic fathers during many years of his life in the desert of Egypt and brought them to Southern Gaul).

“Desert spirituality” and the Monastic “Evangeli­cal” tradition of St. Basil:

St. Basil visited Egypt and Syria and got to know monastic life there, before being ordained as a bishop.  He established monasteries in Cappadocia where he combined in them the prayers, asceticism, and contemplation which he saw in Egyptian monasteries with the acts of mercy to the needy.  This kind of “evangelical” monasticism of St. Basil spread later to Constantinople and surrounding areas in the following centuries.

When we make a distinction between the spirituality of the desert and the “evangelical” monastic tradition of St. Basil, we certainly do not mean that the high holiness of the Desert has no roots in the Gospel.  It is well known that at the beginning of the early monastic desert life, the verses of the Gospel had a very powerful influence.  The young Antony, being in his twentieth year, once listened to the reading of the words: “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast, and give to the poor…..and come follow me.” (Matt. 19:21); and leaving the world, he gave an example which many followed.

But our Lord did not call the early monastic Fathers in order that they should follow Him in His missionary travels.  He called them in order that they should follow Him as “led up of the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matt 4:1).  And as Fr. Lev Gillet said in his book “Orthodox Spirituality”: [He spoke to their ears and hearts the same words which God had spoken to Hosea about his erring wife: I will bring her into the wilderness, and speak com­fortably unto her (Hos. 2:14).  Like Anna the prophetess, they “served God with fasting and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37), and they received the reward described in Isaiah (35:1), “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose”].1

The monasticism of the desert differs from Basilian (or Benedictine monasticism in the West) in obvious and somewhat marked ways.  Separation from the world is rigorous.  There is no “work for the world” such as land-clearing, education or social work; or, more truly, the only work for the world is prayer.  Monastic life is directed exclusively towards contemplation.  Although St. Anthony and St. Pachomius insist on discretion and measure, external austerities come into the foreground.  Fortitude, daring, generosity, became, if not the most important, at least the most apparent virtues. Notwithstanding the cenobitic (common life) organization of St. Pachomius, individual forms of monastic life (anchorites, stylites, dendrites, or forest monks etc) prevail.

Desert Fathers and their fight against evil spirits:

The desert fathers waged heroic fights against the powers of evil and darkness.  The development of demonology in Christian spirituality is to a great extent due to their influence.


The type of prayer called monologistos, i.e. prayer consisting of one or few words, was one of their favorite methods.  The repetition of psalm verse “Make haste, O God, to deliver me …” (Ps. 70:1), or calling the name of Jesus “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” and other similar short prayers all of which originated in the desert and spread to all pious people in the world.

Contemplative life:

It is also in the Desert that the doctrine of contemplative life was evolved.  We should observe that the Desert Fathers identify contemplative life with apostolic life.  By “apost­olic life” they do not mean a life dedicated to the preaching of the Gospel, but monastic life itself, for there only was the ideal of fervent and communal life held by the primitive church of Jerusalem kept up.


The Fathers of the Desert considered apatheia the extreme ideal.  This word has been the cause of serious misunderstanding.  It has often been translated by “apathy”, “impassibility”, “absence of passion”, with the Stoic meaning of “insensibility”.  But the apatheia of the Fathers means something quite different from a kind of anaesthesia of the feelings.  Their apatheia is the fruit of love or charity.  It is, in reality, the state of a soul in which love towards God and men is so ruling and burning as to leave no room for human (self centered)  passions.  Thus Diodorus of Photike was able to speak – at first sight paradoxically – of “the fire of apatheia”.

“Absence of passion” from the negative aspect is to put to death the worldly lusts and to cleanse life through obedience and self denial, but from the positive aspect it means resurrection of the soul and healing of the will from overwhelming passions.  So, denial of passions is the source of warm love that was revealed in the life of the great ascetics like Ava Antony, Ava Macarius, and others.

(To be contd.)


Saint Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship urges you to study the Bible and encourage others to do the same. Please feel free to make copies of these notes to distribute them. The Fellowship welcomes any questions, comments or additional references, whether for publication in these “Short Notes” or in private correspond­ence. Write to us:
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  1. Orthodox Spirituality, Lev Gillet, 2nd. Edition, p.14.

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