Revista Studii Teologice


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Originile monahismului egiptean (sec. III-IV). Status quaestionis

Origins of Egyptian monasticism (IIIrd-IVth centuries): Status Quaestionis

Autor(i): Daniel LEMENI

Specialized literature holds stereotypical views on the origins of Egyptian monasticism: 1) St. Antony was the founder of eremitic monasticism, 2) St. Pachomius was the founder of coenobitic monasticism, and 3) Egypt was its birthplace. In our opinion these textbook-like assertions are inaccurate. Is there, however, any truth in them? Although there is indeed, juxtaposing the three standard answers mentioned above suggests that the origins of monasticism are well ascertained, that they lie with one or two persons and, finally, that they can be confined to one geographic area. Such “big-bang theory” on the origins of Egyptian monasticism must be taken with a grain of salt. Certainly, St. Antony, St. Pachomius and Egypt are extremely important landmarks, but the matter of Egyptian monasticism’s origins is much more complex. Admittedly, the available evidence is rather partial and fragmentary. It is so precisely because monasticism emerged and developed in a very complex way, and thus the intricacy of the ascetical movement that started in the fourth century should not be underestimated. Textbooks describing St. Antony as the founder of eremitic monasticism echo the Life of Antony, written by St. Athanasius. However, the saints’ biography is strongly influenced by the political and theological problems of the Alexandrian bishop. It would be childish to read the Life of Antony as a historical narrative, which however is not to say that it has no historical value whatsoever. Moreover, not even St. Athanasius deems abbas Antony to be the first ascetic. He states that young Antony started his discipleship under an Elder who led and ascetical life in the vicinity of the village, and the Alexandrian bishop adds an important detail, namely that “this elder had been struggling in solitude since his youth”. Naturally, we wonder: who was this anonymous Elder living on the village outskirts? St. Athanasius speaks of such ascetics as a phenomenon already present in the context of rural Christianity at the time. Also St. Macarius of Egypt, according to the Paterikon, started his ascetical life following the same path: he practiced ascesis on the outskirts of his village, and only after an unfortunate incident did he move to the desert. Who taught abbas Macarius this lifestyle? There is no evidence that St. Antony might have influenced him either in his decision to become an ascetic on the outskirts of the village, or concerning his move to the desert. Later on, when pilgrims such as Palladius or John Cassian reached Egypt, they found there ascetics not only in the desert but also across the Nile Valley delta. Could there exist an older tradition, extremely widespread during the third century, namely that of the ascetics living on village outskirts? Scholars call these ascetics apotaktikoi (“renouncers”). Thus these apotaktikoi place St. Antony in a new light, as he is now seen not as the founder but the innovator of Egyptian monasticism. In other words, the renewal brought about by abbas Antony lay not in the ascetical lifestyle, but rather in practicing it in the desert. In what respect is St. Antony original? If the information provided by St. Athanasius in his biography is accurate, then St. Antony is the first ascetic to withdraw into the desert. Therefore we consider it is more correct to deem St. Antony as the innovator of Egyptian monasticism rather than its founder, because he was the one to transpose the ascetical life, already practiced in Egypt since the third century, into the remote desert (Paneremos). In conclusion, we may state that the IIIrd-IVth centuries mark the transition from urban and rural asceticism to that practiced in the desert.

Pagini: 223-234