A historical outline of the Athonite Monasticism – Τhe Βeginnings

10 February 2016

Monasticism appeared early in the history of the organised Christian church. The moral laxity of the churqh in the later Roman and early Byzantine period, the dibilitation of the spiritual life of the urban Christian communities, the turmoil in the life of the church brought about by heresies and schisms, and even the existence of various forms of eremitical life in other religions, all contributed to the evolution of the ascetic ideal among Christians as a means of attaining spiritual perfection. This ideal was put into practice in a variety of forms of communal and personal spirituality.

Although monasticism developed separately in various places, its spiritual homeland was Egypt, due to her famous ascetics and the legendary image of the “great desert” of Egypt as a place of absolute solitude and fierce asceticism.

The earliest form of monasticism was withdrawal into the desert, first practised by Saint Antony the Great (died 356), and about the same time Saint Pachomios (died 346) instituted the communal or cenobitic form of the monastic life. Both the Antonine anchoretical life and the Pachomian Rule stressed personal ascetic struggle and the autonomy of individual spirituality. However, monasticism flourished at the same time in Cappadocia in Asia Minor, profoundly influenced by the Rule of saint Basil. Here it seems that good works in society at large were encouraged along with the contemplative life.

Besides Egypt and Cappadocia, monasticism also flourished in Antioch, Koile in Syria (famous for its pillar hermits, or stylites), Mesopotamia and Palestine.

This Eastern monastic movement soon spread to the capital of the Byzantine empire. The first recorded monastery in Constantinople, the Monastery of Dalmatos, is mentioned in 382, and by the end of the 6th century there were 92.

In the following centuries monasticism flourished in the rich and powerful province of Asia Minor. Important communities rose at Olymbos in Bithynia and Latros in Miletus, and took an active part in the struggle against the iconoclasts.

The spiritual climate of Bithynia in particular nourished the great reformer of Byzantine monasticism, Theodore the Studite, between the 8th and 9th centuries.

The principles of monastic life, as laid down by Theodore in his Catechism and the Typikon or Charter of his monastery, aim to impose absolute order on both the worship and daily life of the monks. His measures were soon after to have a profound effect on the organisation of communal monasticism on Mount Athos.

In the 9th century the resurgent church under the Patriarch Photius took on a new leading role, and the monks were called upon to undertake work of wider scope.

Two brothers, the Thessalonikians Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, both monks, were chosen to Christianize Byzantium’s northern neighbours. Systematic missionary work by monks led to the conversion of the southern Balkan Slavs.

In Greece itself, where until the 9th century there is little evidence of organised monastic life (though archeological evidence hints at early Christian monasteries on the islands of Thasos, Delos and Crete), missionary work went hand in hand with the foundation of monasteries, especially in Thessaloniki, Larisa and Patras. In the Peloponnese the brothers Symeon and Theodore founded the Monastery of the Great Cave, and in Macedonia in the 9th century the Byzantine church established large monastic centres in Halkidiki (the monasteries of Saint Euthymius and John Kolovos).

The activities of the missionary and eremitical monks in Greece peaked in the 10th century, foremost among them being Saint Nikon the Repenter, Saint Lukas Steiriotes and Saint Athanasius the Athonite.

The monks’ systematic efforts were directly linked to the imperial drive for the secular and ecclesiastical reorganisation of the Balkans, in order to strengthen the defence of the empire, extend Byzantine influence to the neighbouring Christian peoples and neutralise Rome’s efforts to infiltrate areas of vital importance to Byzantium.

This spiritual endeavour included the foundation of the first monastery on Mount Athos, the Monastery of the Great Lavra in 963. Its founder was Saint Athanasius the Athonite, an unusually active and gifted monk, a member of the upper class of courtiers and officials in Constantinople and a personal friend of | the Byzantine emperor Nicephoros Phocas. The appearance of a large cenobitic monastery not only signalled the beginning of a new stage in the ascetic life on Mount Athos, but also established Greece as a very extencive centre of spiritual outreach in the Balkans and the Christian East.

[To Be Continued]