The word "monk" properly means one who leads a "lonely" life; and the name was given to persons who professed to withdraw from the world and its business that they might give themselves up to serve God in religious thoughts and exercises. Among the Jews there had been whole classes of people who practised this sort of retirement: some, called "Essenes", lived near the Red Sea; and others, called "Therapeutae," in Egypt, where a great number of Jews had settled. Among the heathens of the East, too, a like manner of living had been common for ages, as it still continues to be; and many of them carry it to an excessive strictness, as we are told by travellers who have visited India, Thibet, and other countries of Asia.
Nothing of the kind, however, is commanded for Christians in the New Testament; and when Scripture warrant for the monkish life was sought for, the great patterns who were produced were Elijah and St John the Baptist -- the one of them an Old Testament prophet; the other, a holy man who lived, indeed, in the days when our Lord Himself was on the earth, but who was not allowed to enter into His Church, or to see it fully established by the coming of the Holy Ghost at the day of Pentecost. But still it was very natural that the notion of a life of strict poverty, retirement from the world, and employment in spiritual things, should find favour with Christians, as a means of fulfilling the duties of their holy calling, and so it seems that some of them took to this way of life very early. But the first who is named as a "hermit" (that is to say, a dweller in the wilderness) was Paul, a young man of Alexandria, who, in the year 251, fled from the persecution of Decius into the Egyptian desert, where he is said to have lived ninety years. Paul, although he afterwards became very famous, spent his days without being known, until, just before his death, he was visited by another great hermit, St. Antony. But Antony himself was a person of great note and importance in his own lifetime.
He was born in the district of Thebes, in Egypt, in the very same year that Paul withdrew from the world. While a boy, he was thoughtful and serious. His parents died before he had reached the age of twenty, and left him considerable wealth. One day, when in church, he was struck by hearing the story of the rich young man who was charged to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow our Lord (St. Luke xviii.18-22). At another time he was moved by hearing the charge to "take no thought for the morrow" (St. Matt. vi.34). And in order to obey these commands (as he thought), Antony parted with all that belonged to him, bade farewell to his only sister, and left his home, with the intention of living in loneliness and devotion. He carried on this life for many years, and several times changed his abode, that he might seek out some place still wilder and more remote than the last. But he grew so famous that people flocked even into the depths of the wilderness to see him. A number of disciples gathered around him, and hermits or monks began to copy his way of life in other parts of Egypt. Antony's influence became very great; he made peace between enemies, comforted mourners, and gave advice to all who asked him as to spiritual concerns; and when he took the part of any oppressed person who applied to him, his interference was always successful. Affairs of this kind sometimes obliged him to leave his cell (as the dwellings of the monks were called); but he always returned as soon as possible, for he used to say that "a monk out of his solitude is like a fish out of water." Even the emperors, Constantine and his sons, wrote to him with great respect, and asked him to visit their courts. He thanked them, but did not accept their invitation, and he wrote more than once to them in favour of St. Athanasius, whom he steadily supported in his troubles on account of the faith. On two great occasions he visited Alexandria, for the purpose of strengthening his brethren in their sufferings for the truth. The first of these visits was while the last heathen persecution, under Maximin, was raging (see page 36). Antony stood by the martyrs at their trials and in their death, and took all opportunities of declaring himself a Christian; but the persecutors did not venture to touch him: and, after waiting till the heat of the danger was past, he again withdrew to the wilderness. The second visit was in the time of the Arian disturbances, when his appearance had even a greater effect than before. The Catholics were encouraged by his exhortations, and a great number of conversions took place in consequence. Antony died, at the age of a hundred and five, in the year 356, a few days before the great bishop of Alexandria was driven to seek a refuge in the desert. (see page 54)
Antony, as we have seen, was a hermit, living in the wilderness by himself. But by-and-by other kinds of monks were established, who lived in companies together. Sometimes they were lodged in clusters of little cells, each of them having his separate cell, or two or three living together; sometimes the cells were all in one large building, called a monastery. The head of each monastery, or of each cluster of cells, was called "abbot", which means "father". And in some cases there were many monasteries belonging to one "order", so that they were all considered as one society, and there was one chief abbot over all. Thus the order founded by Pachomius, on an island in the Nile, soon spread, so that before his death it had eight monasteries, with three thousand monks among them; and about fifty years later, it had no fewer than fifty thousand monks.
These monks of Pachomius lived in cells, each of which contained three. Each cluster of cells had its abbot; the head of the order, who was called the "archimandrite" (which means chief of a sheepfold), went round occasionally to visit all the societies which were under him, and the whole order met every year at the chief monastery for the festival of Easter, and a second time in the month of August. The monks of St. Pachomius prayed many times a day. They fasted every Wednesday and Friday, and communicated every Sunday and Saturday. They took their meals together and sang psalms before each. They were not allowed to talk at table, but sat with their hoods drawn over their faces, so that no one could see his neighbours, or anything but the food before him. Their dress was coarse and plain; the chief article of it was a rough goat-skin, in imitation of the prophet Elijah. They slept with their clothes on, not in beds, but in chairs, which were of such a shape as to keep them almost standing. They spent their time not only in prayers and other religious exercises, but in various kinds of simple work, such as labouring in the fields, weaving baskets, ropes, and nets, or making shoes. They had boats in which they sent the produce of their labour down the Nile to Alexandria; and the money which they got by selling it was not only enough to keep them, but enabled them to redeem captives, and to do such other acts of charity.
This account of the monks of St. Pachomius will give some notion of the monkish life in general, although one order differed from another in various ways. All that the monks had was considered to belong to them in common, after the pattern of the first Christians, as was supposed (Acts ii.34; iv.32); and no one was allowed to have anything of his own. Thus we are told that when a monk was found at his death to have left a hundred pieces of silver, which he had earned by weaving flax, his brethren, who were about three thousand in number, met to consider what should be done with the money. Some were for giving it to the Church; some, to the poor. But the fathers of the society quoted St. Peter's words to Simon the sorcerer, "Thy money perish with thee" (Acts viii.20), and on the strength of this text (which in truth had not much to do with the matter), they ordered that it should be buried with its late owner. St. Jerome, who tells the story, says that this was not done out of any wish to condemn the dead monk, but in order that others might be deterred from hoarding.
These different kinds of monks were first established in various parts of Egypt; but their way of life was soon taken up in other countries; and societies of women, who were called "nuns" (that is to say "mothers"), were formed under the same kind of rules.
One thing which had much to do with making monkish life so common was, that when persecution by the heathen was at an end, many Christians felt the want of something which might assure them that they were separate from the world, as Christ's true people ought to be. It was no longer enough that they should call themselves Christians; for the world had come to call itself Christian too. Perhaps we may think that it would have been better if those who wished to live religiously had tried to go on doing their duty in the world, and to improve it by the example and the influence of holy and charitable lives, instead of running away from it. And they were certainly much mistaken if they fancied that by hiding themselves in the desert they were likely to escape temptations. For temptations followed them into their retreats, and we have only too many proofs, in the accounts of famous monks, that the effect of this mistake was often very sad indeed. And we may be sure that if the good men who in those days were active in recommending the life of monks had been able to foresee how things would turn out, they would have been much more cautious in what they said of it.
It was not every one who was fit for such a life, and many took it up without rightly considering whether they were fit for it. The kind of work which was provided for them was not enough to occupy them thoroughly, and many of them suffered grievously from temptations to which their idleness laid them open. It was supposed, indeed, that they might find the thoughts of heavenly things enough to fill their minds; and, when a philosopher asked Antony how he could live without books, he answered that for him the whole creation was a book, always at hand, in which he could read God's word whenever he pleased. But it was not every one who could find such delight in that great book, and many of the monks, for want of employment, were tormented by all sorts of evil thoughts, nay, some of them were even driven into madness by their way of life.
The monks ran into very strange mistakes as to their duty towards their kindred. Even Antony himself, although he was free from many of the faults of spiritual pride and the like, which became too common among his followers, thought himself bound to overcome his love for his young sister. And, as another sample of the way in which monks were expected to deaden their natural affections, I may tell you how his disciple Pior behaved. Pior, when a youth, left his father's house, and vowed that he would never again look on any of his relations -- which was surely a very rash and foolish and wrong vow. He went into the desert, and had lived there fifty years, when his sister heard that he was still alive. She was too infirm to go in search of him, but she contrived that the abbot, under whose authority he was, should order him to pay her a visit. Pior went accordingly, and, when he had reached her house, he stood in front of it, and sent to tell her that he was there. The poor old woman made all haste to get to him; her heart was full of love and delight at the thoughts of seeing her brother again after so long a separation. But as soon as Pior heard the door opening, he shut his eyes, and he kept them shut all through the meeting. He refused to go into his sister's house, and when he had let her see him for a short time in this way, without showing her any token of kindness, he hurried back to the desert.
In later times monks were usually ordained as clergy of the Church. But at first it was not intended that they should be so, and in each monastery there were only so many clergy as were needed for the performance of Divine Service and other works of the ministry. And in those early days, many monks had a great fear of being ordained clergymen or bishops, because they thought that the active business in which bishops and other clergy were obliged to engage, would hinder their reaching to the higher degrees of holiness. Thus a famous monk, named Ammonius, on being chosen for a bishopric, cut off one of his ears, thinking that this blemish would prevent his being made a priest, as it would have done under the law of Moses (Lev. xxi.17-23), and when he was told that it was not so in the Christian Church, he threatened to cut out his tongue.
It was not long before the sight of the great respect which was paid to the monks led many worthless people to call themselves monks for the sake of what they might get by doing so. These fellows used to go about, wearing heavy chains, uncouthly dressed, and behaving roughly, and they told outrageous stories of visions and of fights with devils which they pretended to have had. By such tricks they got large sums of money from people who were foolish enough to encourage them; and they spent it in the most shameful ways.
But besides these vile hypocrites, many monks who seem to have been sincere enough ran into very strange extravagances. There was one kind of them called "Grazers", who used to live among mountains, without any roof to shelter them, browsing, like beasts, on grass and herbs, and by degrees growing much more like beasts than men. And in the beginning of the fifth century, one Symeon founded a new sort of monks, who were called "Stylites" (that is to say, pillar saints), from a Greek word, which means a pillar. Symeon was a Syrian, and lived on the top of one pillar after another for seven-and-thirty years. Each pillar was higher than the one before it; the height of the last of them was forty cubits (or seventy feet), and the top of it was only a yard across. There Symeon was to be seen, with a heavy iron chain round his neck, and great numbers of people flocked to visit him; some of them even went all the way from our own country. And when he was dead, a monk named Daniel got the old cowl which he had worn, and built himself a pillar near Constantinople, where he lived three-and-thirty years. The high winds sometimes almost blew him from his place, and sometimes he was covered for days with snow and ice, until the emperor Leo made him submit to let a shed be built round the top of his pillar. The fame and influence which these monks gained were immense. They were supposed to have the power of prophecy and of miracles; they were consulted even by emperors and kings, in the most important matters; and sometimes, on great occasions, when a stylite descended from his pillar, or some famous hermit left his cell, and appeared among the crowds of a city, he was able to make everything bend to his will.
We must not be blind to the serious errors of monkery; but we are bound also to own that God was pleased to make it the means of great good. The monks did much for the conversion of the heathen, and when the ages of darkness came on, after the overthrow of the Roman empire in the West, they rendered inestimable service in preserving the knowledge of learning and religion, which, but for them, might have utterly perished from the earth.