Table of Contents
The Development of Coptic Monasticism:
There are three stages in the development of Coptic monasticism:
a) Antonian Monasticism: This is the first stage whereby a pious Christian lives in seclusion, a life of asceticism and austerity, disciplining the body to elevate the soul.
There must have lived many hermits in the deserts of Egypt before St. Antony. However, the one that is well known is St. Paul of Thebes (Lurer) who entered the desert in about 218 AD. In a miraculous way, God fed him by means of a raven which brought him half a loaf of bread daily. St. Paul the hermit died a natural death at the age of 113 shortly after St. Antony met with him. This is a well-known story in monastic history. Nevertheless, the most defined monasticism is that of St. Antony whose biography St. Athanasius wrote himself. While still a young man of 19 years of age, Antony took to heart the words of our Lord to the rich young man: "If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow Me." (Matthew 19:21). He sold all his inheritance giving some to his sister and the rest to the poor. He then went to the eastern desert to attain perfection through a life of asceticism in complete seclusion. He kept pushing further and further into the desert with greater austerity and longer fasting. According to St. Athanasius, Antony's combat with demons grew more spectacular. All through his life in the desert, he descended to the Nile Valley only twice. The first time was in 311 AD. It was enough for him to appear with his long beard and illuminated face among the tortured Christians during the time of Maximinus' persecution to strengthen their faith and vanquish their fear. The second time was in 338 AD, to fight the remnants of the Arian heresy. St. Antony's fame spread far and wide. This brought him many disciples who sought his spiritual guidance, and it led to the second stage of development of the monastic life.
b) Collective Hermitism or Semi-Anchoritism: St. Antony's disciples continued to lead solitary lives in the neighborhood of his cave. As their number grew larger, there was a great necessity to have many settlements of anchorites in that area of the desert. Each settlement congregated around one of those great and rare holy masters for reasons of security both spiritual and physical. These settlements multiplied not only to cover a large area in the eastern desert toward the Red Sea, but they also spread westward and southward. However, the largest of them was the one around the cave of St. Antony who had attained the summits of personal holiness. In this development, the solitary and communal lives balanced one another. During the week, each monk lived alone in his cave or cell. On Saturdays and Sundays, they all congregated in the church for common prayers, vespers, Eucharistic liturgy, agape and lessons in spiritual life. This type of monasticism allowed for personal prayers, meditations and exercises in austerity, as well as corporate prayers and worship.
c) Pachomian Koinonia or Cenobitism: The third stage of development was not a natural evolvement from the second. While the second stage was progressing, and the number of settlements was being multiplied, a new chapter in the history of monasticism was being written by St. Pachomius (290-346). His life story is a most fascinating one. He was born a pagan and as a young man, he served in the army of Constantine. During his combats, he was deeply touched by the communities of Christians. They, in dedication and love, served the soldiers, washed their feet and gave them food in spite of the harshness with which they were treated by them. The goodness of those Christians won Pachomius to Christianity. He himself became an anchorite, a disciple of the famous hermit Palamon. This abbot trained Pachomius vigorously in the art of self-inflicted torture of the body to attain the purity of heart. The combination of his training in army discipline and in spiritual austerity, coupled with his belief that the aim of a monk is continual prayer, were the factors which collectively led him to inaugurate the third and last stage in the development of Coptic monasticism, namely, the Pachomian Cenobitism.
By the time St. Pachomius died (346 AD), a large number of monasteries had been established accommodating communities of monks spreading to all other monastic centers and following the Pachomian rule. Hardy the historian estimates conservatively the number of monks in the Egyptian deserts at the end of the fourth century to be between 100,000 and 200,000 out of a population not exceeding 7.5 million inhabitants. The rule of St. Pachomius is indeed a landmark in the history of Christian monasticism. Professor Atiya, a distinguished historian writes in his book "History of Eastern Christianity" :
"The general trend of the Pachomian system showed the soldier and the holy man combined in one person. Every detail of the monk's activity by day or night was prescribed by the legislator: the brother's dress, his food, the hours and manner of his sleep, his travels, his hours of worship and a penal code to be rigorously enforced against the defaulters. Yet Pachomius was no inhuman giant who imposed a merciless regime on his followers. A monk must curb the body, but it was unnecessary for him to destroy it in pursuit of heaven."
Coptic monasticism became known all over the world mainly because of the biography that St. Athanasius wrote about St. Antony. As a result, pious men from many parts of the world flocked to these cenobite monasteries to sit at the feet of those great spiritual giants and learn from them the art of monasticism. Among those were Greeks, Romans, Cappadocians, Libyans, Nubians, Ethiopians and many others. Each nationality was designated a special quarter in each monastery with a fellow citizen as an abbot guide. There were no barriers based on race, culture, color or language. The vastness of the Egyptian desert became but one school of Coptic spirituality and mysticism for the entire world. Some of the greatest personalities of that era were attracted to the Egyptian deserts to see these terrestrial saints and to follow in their footsteps. Among these were St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, Sts. Jerome and Rufinus the Italians, the Cappadocian father St. Basil the Great who introduced monasticism into Byzantia, St. John Cassian who carried Coptic Monasticism in France, and many others.
Someone said that monasticism for the Church is like the foundation for the building. The deeper and stronger the foundation is, the more the building can rise high and solid. Ecclesiastical history attests to this reality when it tells us that at times of monastic strength in Egypt, the Church was strong. Through their continual prayers, devotions and mediations, the monks make of their monasteries the powerhouse of the Church. It is a fact that the Coptic Church has suffered a great deal throughout its long history at the hands of Greeks, Romans, Muslims and western missionaries, but through God's grace, the strength of Coptic monasticism has kept the Church still standing as a monument to original Apostolic Orthodox Christianity.