In the early years of the fourth century, a renowned ‘solitary’, St. Anthony (c. 251–356), introduced a model of spiritual communal life when he undertook the spiritual direction and organisation of the many followers who had gathered around him. At roughly the same time, in the far south of Egypt, St. Pachomius (c. 292–348) founded at a place called Tabenna, what may be considered the first conventional monastery. Both of these communal models or systems spread rapidly and in a relatively short time were firmly established throughout the Levant.
In due course these systems merged and it became the custom for those seeking the life of a solitary or hermit to enter a monastery to receive spiritual direction and guidance before undertaking the spiritual discipline of a solitary. By the middle of the fourth century the term ‘monk’ or Monakhos (Grk, meaning ‘alone’ or ‘solitary’) was commonly applied to men and women who were known to have dedicated their life to God, be they solitaries (following the rule of Anthony), or monastics living in a monastery, (following the rule of Pachomius).
During these embryonic years of monasticism, increasing numbers of aspiring ascetics, following in the footsteps of Anthony and Pachomius, entered into the desert wilderness of Egypt to engage in a solitary life of spiritual discipline. Their extraordinary lifestyle spread far and wide, reaching as far north as Britain in the 5th century where monastic settlements were established in isolated areas of western and northern Britain such as Bardsey Island and Llangadfan.
In principle little has changed over the course of time. The predator in man still stalks the land, only today we live in a world wherein the incessant demands to satisfy the cravings of human appetite, is fuelled by a powerful and sophisticated mass-media that has stimulated an unprecedented growth in world Consumerism, a term that refers to the economic philosophy that emphasises the acquisition of material goods and services as a social imperative that is good for society and social progress. On these terms we asset-strip the world. It matter little whether we believe in an after-life or not, the key point is to rob the future for today’s pleasure.
Why this great movement of monaticism took place and why so many took to the life of the monastic, are questions as vital today as they were in the fourth century. One obvious reason was the frequent and increasingly violent persecution of Christians by the Roman Administration during the late third century, which saw growing numbers of people withdraw into the wilderness, away from centres of population, to avoid persecution and to find the peace and solitude necessary to live the spiritual life.
The State oppression culminated in the Great Persecution instituted by the Emperor Diocletian in the year 303, which finally came to an end when Constantine became emperor in the year 312. Another factor, which is just as pertinent today, was the need to get away from the perceived madness of an increasingly materialistic society full of political intrigues and conspiracies (welcome to the 21st century).
Consumerism, along with many developments in science and technology, has been the cause of a vast array of cultural changes in the intellectual and emotional life of our civilization. One change in particular concerns the political landscape of our world, which over time has become increasingly dominated by the materialistic philosophy lying at the heart of consumerism. Thus, the political ideologies held dear to the hearts of politicians the world over, not only reject but are frequently hostile to religion, the spiritual life, and all spiritual thinking.
As a consequence, unrestrained Consumerism has become the driving force shaping our civilisation. More people are engaged in the design, production and marketing of ‘stuff’ than in sustainable essential services such as food production, Health care or nurturing the Eco-system. It appears to be the case that if we are not creating ‘stuff’ we are consuming ‘stuff’.
It is, then, not difficult to understand how growing numbers of people are seeking to redress the balance with values derived from living a spiritual life, which is the only real antidote to consumerism. However, the social constraints of our civilisation mean that for legal or economic reasons many of us are not free to enter into the wilderness and follow the solitary way of life. Also, some of us have family responsibilities requiring our presence, our time, and our attention to manage domestic affairs, which need funding, so we must work. However, the work-place is very demanding as employers expect more and more of an employees’ time; furthermore, spiralling costs force many into maintaining two or more jobs. Thus, we are being turned into consumers responding to the demands of market forces, which are many, leaving us little time to take stock of our lives and get to know who we really are.
With all of this in mind, the ‘new model’ of monasticism is not something new, nor is it a radical departure from what we already know; but it is revolutionary – indeed it always has been – because it offers everyone without exception an alternative to the perpetual merry-go-round of a secular culture driven by consumerism. It applies equally to men and women, to young and old, to rich or poor, to those who are either pursuing a busy secular career or running a household. There is no qualification other than a willingness to engage with the ‘interior life’, because the monastic ideal embodied from its beginning more than seventeen hundred years ago, and continues to embody today, the principle of ‘spiritualising’ one’s life, which is achievable whether we live in the wilderness or in an urban environment.
Thus, Spiritualising our life requires more than sitting in the silence contemplating our navel, it also requires of us that we nurture the Eco-system that we live in; to hand it on in good repair to our children and grandchildren, rather than turning it into a waste-land asset stripped merely for profit. This requires planning and education if we are to pass on a legacy of hope and expectation. Today we educate our children to want and expect more, but this is a future that can change. Engagement with the world does not have to mean destruction! When we Spiritualise’ our thoughts and aspirations we consider what we do and why we do it from a spiritual perspective and when we engage in evolving our soul we also engage in evolving our society and our environment.
Both entail entering into the interior ‘wilderness’ of the soul – a solitary endeavour that is the very essence of monasticism – and engage in the daily observance of Prayer and Meditation, which simply means communing with Nature; through which we may learn about our own spiritual nature and come to see the divine not only within ourselves but within all living things. Such a way of life enables us to accept the challenges we encounter as opportunities to transform our own unruly nature (the wilderness), and ‘make a difference’ every single day of our life. A difference that includes shaping the world according to our spiritual needs and values rather than our material needs and values alone.
It is this change of focus that constitutes the new model of monasticism, which unites the secular and the spiritual dimensions of our life, and empowers us to bring meaning and purpose into our lives and the lives of our families and friends, and links us with a growing community of people living the contemplative life – the greatest of all undertakings.
To learn more about the formative days of monasticism, see Paradise of the Fathers by Wallis Budge: http://bit.ly/36BCgZu
or visit: https://www.facebook.com/odporatio/