Antony and the Desert Fathers: The Gallery — Getting Their Act Together

John Cassian (c.365–c.435) 

John Cassian was only a teenager when he, with his friend Germanus, left his home in Scythia Minor (present-day Romania) and joined a monastic community in Bethlehem. One day, an Egyptian monk named Pinufius sought lodging in their monastery. Pinufius filled the young men’s imaginations with stories of the asceticism of the Egyptian desert, making their Bethlehem community seem tepid in comparison.

Soon Pinufius was discovered by a posse of Egyptian monks who had been hot on his trail. He was their abbot, they said, and they wanted him back. It turned out that Pinufius had a tendency to run away from home in search of anonymity, hoping to preserve his humility.

John Cassian and Germanus were dazzled by such spiritual discipline. “After our first infancy in the faith, we had begun to long for some greater grace of perfection,” wrote Cassian in hisConferences, “and we were determined to go to Egypt.”

Cassian and Germanus settled in the famous center of Scetis and spent the next dozen or so years in monastic paradise. What Cassian experienced there provided the template for his later monastic teachings.

At the very end of the fourth century, Cassian, Germanus, and many famous Egyptian monks were driven from the region because of the Origenist controversy (see “Ascetic Agitators"). Cassian went first to Constantinople and worked closely for a few years with John Chrysostom, the famous bishop and theologian, until Chrysostom’s fall from imperial favor in 404.

After several years, Cassian found his way to Marseilles, then as now, a busy port. His monastic experiences in Palestine, Egypt, and Asia Minor (and perhaps other places) soon made him a recognized authority in the region. He put down his insights in his Institutes, and later his Conferences, which laid out a comprehensive program for the monks of Gaul (today’s France), as well as the bishops eager to support and guide them. Cassian professed to give his readers “a perfect recollection” of Egyptian monastic wisdom; in fact, he brilliantly synthesized and adapted traditional monastic teaching. For example, though he praised the solitary Egyptian hermits, he shaped their insights for the community-dwelling monks of Gaul.

In the Institutes, Cassian spoke of “eight principal faults” he had learned in Egypt from his teacher Evagrius (354–399). This menu was the basis for the later western list of seven deadly sins. In the Conferences, he described a method of unceasing prayer based on a one-verse formula taken from the Psalms. By praying in that simple, scriptural way, Cassian taught, “whatever we breathe, whatever we know, whatever we speak, is God.”

While many details of his life remain obscure (the monastic call of humility kept him from sharing much autobiographical information), his teachings have been preserved and are still used by monks East and West.

Macrina and Basil

"Think of our brother Naucratius," she continued. "One day he went out to fish, and that afternoon was brought home dead. Death took him without warning, like a bolt of lightning. Basil, consider and act!"

Macrina had already given some consideration to how she was going to shape her life-and the lives of others. She was drawn to monasticism, but in contrast to the prominent patterns of her day (the solitary life of a hermit or the circle of followers gathered around a spiritual athlete), Macrina envisioned something more stable and serene: a community of women living in mutual submission, dedicated to prayer, and supporting themselves by the work of their hands. She founded the first such community at her grandmother’s estate in Annesi, a town on the Iris River in Cappadocia (part of present-day Turkey).

Macrina is a standout, even in a family bursting with saints. Not only her grandmother and namesake, Macrina the Elder, but both her parents and three of her brothers earned the title of saint (some lists include as well a fourth brother, Naucratius).

Macrina, the eldest, was a natural leader who showed her fortitude in early youth. She was betrothed to a young man who died before their wedding, and she determined never to take another husband. Her betrothed was not dead, she said, but alive in Christ and waiting for her, and she would likewise wait to join him. “It is a sin and a shame if the spouse does not keep faith when the partner goes to distant climes,” she said.

Her brother, Gregory of Nyssa, described how she cared for the family when their mother was widowed soon after the birth of her tenth child. Macrina became to the infant Peter “father, teacher, guide, mother, giver of good advice,” and to her mother she ministered as a servant, preparing her bread with her own hands.

Her brother Basil did not immediately enter the monastic life but instead embarked on something of a fact-finding tour. Down he went through Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, visiting hermits and secluded communities of prayer. “I was amazed by their persistence in prayer and their capacity to triumph over sleep,” he wrote. “They showed how a man can sojourn for a while in this life, while having his true citizenship and home in heaven.”

Returning home, Basil immediately appealed to the close friend of his college years, Gregory of Nazianzus, to join him in monastic life. (These two men, with Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa, comprise the “Cappadocian Fathers.”) Basil sang the praises of a patch of land across the river from his sister’s monastery: a high mountain watered by cool streams, thick with trees, thronged with singing birds, “more beautiful than the island of Calypso.”

Gregory was not so charmed by the place; he found the mountain shrouded in heavy shadow, crossed with steep and treacherous paths, and cut by fierce wind. Yet Basil’s forceful personality overruled, and the two began a monastery there that was to become the most organized yet seen.

Basil, a firm believer in the necessity of community, was skeptical about the benefits of a hermit’s life. To those who wished to retire to the desert alone, he recalled Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. “Whom, therefore, will you wash? To whom will you minister? In comparison with whom will you be lowest, if you live alone?”

In his pursuit of an orderly communal life, Basil composed nearly 200 pages of instructions and advice, regulating monks’ behavior down to the number of covers each could have on his bed. His “Broad Rule” discusses 55 topics in depth, and his “Brief Rule” another 313 more concisely. Both rules are written in question-and-answer format, heavily referenced to Scripture:

Q. “When a man has abandoned all more expensive clothing, does he sin, and, if so, how, if he wishes his cheap upper garment or shoes to be becoming to him?”

A. “If he so wishes in order to gratify men, he is obviously guilty of the sin of man—pleasing. He is alienated from God and is guilty of vain glory even in these cheap belongings.”

Q. “If a man is generally in the right and falls into one sin, how are we to treat him?”

A. “As the Lord treated Peter.”

"There is only one way out,” Basil wrote, “complete renunciation of the world!” And yet Basil’s monastic life lasted but five years, after which he was compelled to return to Caesarea and serve the bishop as a priest. Basil found himself in the front lines of the battle against the Arian heresy, preaching twice daily to congregations so large he described them as a sea.

The rest of his day he spent wearing an apron, doling out soup to victims of famine. The poor remained his particular concern, and he thundered at the rich who waved away beggars with a hand studded with rings. He accomplished an astonishing civil works project: a self-contained village occupied by the poor and ill, who were offered food and medical care and assisted in finding appropriate work. A remarkable success, this “Basiliad” was famous long after the founder’s death.

Once called to public service, Basil never returned to the monastery. He nevertheless kept himself to a strict ascetic life, which was compounded with a painful chronic illness to bring him to early death at the age of 49. At his death, the streets of Caesarea were crowded with noisy mourners, and even Jews, pagans, and strangers joined in grieving the bishop called Basil the Great.

Macrina, for her part, never left the monastery. Nine months after Basil’s death, their brother Gregory of Nyssa visited to find her lying on two boards, at the edge of death, radiant and peaceful. As the evening lamps were lit, Macrina prayed, “You, O Lord, give rest to our bodies in the sleep of death for a little time. . . . Forgive me, and grant that, when my soul is parted from my body, it may be presented before you stainless and without sin, and that it may be as incense before you.” She made the sign of the cross, then surrendered her last breath.

Her brother looked about for a cloth to cover her body, but no such superfluities as extra linen were part of monastic life. The only shroud he could find was the length of coarse peasant fabric that had been her veil.

Pachomius (c.290–347) 

One day Pachomius and his brother John were throwing reeds in the water when suddenly a crocodile rose up right beside them. John ran off to a safe distance, but Pachomius filled his hand with water and hurled it in the crocodile’s face saying, “May the Lord condemn you never again to come back here.” With that, the crocodile submerged.

John, overwhelmed at this display of holiness, decided that, even though he was the elder of two, he would call Pachomius “father.” In time, many more monks came to call him “father” as well, for Pachomius had a vision from God that changed the face of monastic life forever.

Pachomius was born of pagan parents in Seneset, Egypt (now Kasr—es—Sayad). At age 20, he was drafted into the army of the Egyptian emperor, Maximinus Daia. On the way to the front, Pachomius and his fellow conscripts had to stop in Thebes, where they were housed in a prison. Here Pachomius was greatly impressed by Christians who brought food to the conscripts. He decided that if God delivered him from prison, he too would give himself to Christ and serve humankind. The war ended soon after, and the conscripts were discharged. Pachomius immediately went home to be baptized.

He spent the next three years serving the communities surrounding his home by growing food, distributing firewood, and encouraging his neighbors. He began feeling “much inconvenienced” by being surrounded by many people, and he found himself yearning for the more solitary life of monasticism. He spent the next seven years learning the monastic disciplines under the guidance of Abba Palamon, a monk who lived alone outside Seneset.

Four years into his training with Palamon, Pachomius experienced a vision: “He saw the dew of heaven descend on his head, then condense in his right hand and turn into a honeycomb.” The honeycomb “dropped onto the earth and spread out over the face of all the earth.” Pachomius didn’t understand his vision until one day God led him out about ten miles upstream from Seneset to a deserted village on the banks of the Nile called Tabennesi. Here, as Pachomius prayed, he heard the voice of God speaking to him, “Build a monastery; for many will come to you to become monks with you.”

Palamon, just before he died, helped his disciple build a cell at Tabennesi around A.D. 320. Pachomius’s first follower was his brother John, then three more men came. Before long the community had grown to 100. The men shared everything in common, worked together, prayed together, and followed the rules and ascetic practices that Pachomius instituted.

This doesn’t seem extraordinary until we remember that up to this time, monasticism (from the Greek, monachos, meaning, “alone") had been a solitary affair; at best, hermits gathered weekly for fellowship and prayer. Pachomius had succeeded in establishing the first “communal monastery” (and maybe the first oxymoron) in Christian History.

For more information on this topic, see:

Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Nyssa: Life of Macrina 
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/macrina.html

Gregory of Nyssa Texts and Introductions 
http://www.sp.uconn.edu/~salomon/nyssa/texts.html

A Eulogy for Basil the Great 
http://www.osb.org/lectio/cassian/inst/index.html

St. Pachomius 
http://saints.catholic.org/saints/pachomius.html

By Columba Stewart; John Cassian; Frederica Mathews-Green; Macrina Basil; Marci Rae Johnson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #64 in 1999]

Frederica Mathewes—Green, author of At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999); Marci Rae Johnson, a freelance writer, earned her master’s degree in theological studies from Wheaton College (Illinois); Columba Stewart, associate professor of theology at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, and author of Cassian the Monk (Oxford, 1998).
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