We suggest now a quick tour by helicopter round the Mediterranean basin and even further afield, for a bird's-eye view of the monasteries. Before we start off, let us look at a map and some plans.


You will find in Book 2 a map of the Mediterranean basin showing the patristic and monastic world as it was known then and also two chronological tables: TABLES 1 to 3.

Table 2 covers the first to the thirteenth century and relates the Fathers of the Church (above the middle line) to the monks (below the middle line). The monks are in bold italic type (there are some among the Fathers of the Church).

There appeared suddenly from nowhere a burst of monastic life in the fourth century; before that there were the Fathers of the Church, in what we have called "the prehistory of monasticism", but nobody talked about famous monks. In the fourth century they made their appearance like some strange oddity suddenly known to everyone. The rich resources of this century can be seen on both sides of the line in the Table, Fathers of the Church and monks. It was a time when many favourable circumstances enabled the breath of the Holy Spirit to be particularly manifest in the Church. This century is followed by a period of decline, more rapid among the Fathers, slower among the monks. The period of the Fathers stops in the seventh century. Notice on the other side of the line the monastic renewal of Benedict of Aniane at the time of Charlemagne; he collected and edited all the known rules. Then comes the splendid Cluniac period with five abbots who each governed the Order for half a century; and that of Cîteaux with Bernard and the other great writers of the Order.

Table 3 shows in greater detail the monks of the first centuries, the period we shall study. The names of the most important monks are given, classified according to the 8 principal geographical areas. The places where they lived are in italic. A star indicates those who wrote a rule. Cassian, who played an outstanding role, has his own sign. He did not write a rule, but all the Rules drew on his Institutes and Conferences in which he given the characteristics of Egyptian cenobitism. He exercised a great influence. sign.

So, with our plans, we set out from Alexandria, where Athanasius was bishop, and we go south towards the desert in the footsteps of Antony.


We are in Lower Egypt. 60 km south of Alexandria, at the edge of the desert, we are flying over a deep valley, hills rising on each side dotted with caves. No sign of a monastery, but in each cave you can imagine a monk. This is NITRIA (A word that comes from nitrum, the old word for saltpetre, nitrate of potassium; salt and soda were extracted here.). But this place was relatively near Alexandria, and there were many visitors. It is said that when Amoun the founder of Nitria, told Antony of this annoyance, they both went south, after the meal at the ninth hour, and founded a second monastic centre at the place where they arrived as the sun was settin

So, half a day's journey, about 18km, we find the next monastic centre called: THE CELLS because it consisted of small houses built next to each other. Each monk had a rough dwelling. Often one could build a cell in a day. They were made of mud and reeds, but they did have a bolted door. Sometimes, as in Nitria, they used a hole in the rock; the houses then had two rooms. Excavations here have shown that an anchorite's cell was in a courtyard surrounded by a wall where he could walk about. In this courtyard a well provided water to drink and to water the garden. The space between the cells was large enough so that one could be neither seen nor heard. But the desert was vast. When Palladius went there, he found 600 monks. That means a town 6 km in diameter. The church was in the centre.

About 40 km further south, we find SCETE another monastic centre of the same kind for those who wanted even greater solitude; it was 30 km from the Nile and even further from any town.

Fairly soon, some more permanent buildings were put up in these places; the church where the monks gathered to celebrate Sunday, and a guest house. But the monks continued to live as hermits, apart.

So we have three successive monastic centres in Lower Egypt.


We will continue our flight, veering slightly to the right to find the valley of the Nile and we will fly over Upper Egypt and it's capital Thebes. Antony said he wanted to live in the Upper Thebaïd; that is where we are. Surprisingly, here it is the opposite to Lower Egypt, there are very few hermits, but we are flying over entire villages surrounded by a wall. Here is one, let us get out of the helicopter.

We are at the foot of a wall about eight or ten metres high. We go to the right to find a door, but no luck, we have gone the wrong way and have to go nearly all the way round the wall to find the door, for there is only one door in the whole wall.

At this one door, there is a porter who is very good at his job; he asks a lot of questions: " Are you men, or women? Are you catholics, are you unbelievers? Are you priests, monks, laypeople? etc... This is because everyone will be made welcome, but not in the same way: the ladies here, the tourists there, the poor somewhere else, the catholics in one place, the monks in another.

We are monks, and so we can visit everywhere, but in the company of a monk. We begin by finding there are a great many inhabited houses with between 20 and 40 brothers in each house. We go into the first house, and ask the first monk we meet: "What do you do?". He replies: "I am a baker." Then the second: he too says: "I am a baker", and the third likewise. Is everyone a baker in this place? Then we go into another house and ask: "What do you do?". He answers: "I am a scribe". In another house the answer is: "I am a shoe maker". We begin to understand; in these houses the monks are grouped according to their crafts. There is organization!

Then we meet a monk and make a bit of conversation. But the bell goes: "Excuse me" he says "but I must go!" So then, there is a rule too. Then we see the brother we visited make a small bow as another brother passes by. We ask him why. He answers: "That is the head of the house." There is a minor offical. A moment later he makes a deep bow, we are meeting the head of the monastery. A little further on he falls on his knees and prostrates. It is Pachomius himself, the Father of the whole Order.

We are among the Pacomians, there is both an Order and order!

There are 9 monasteries like this one, and everything is done the same way in each. It is very different from what we saw in Lower Egypt. These monk are not hermits, they are cenobites.

Now we can see two kinds of life, on the one hand the anchoritic and on the other the cenobitic; for the one there is no written rule nor any organization, the other is organized down to the last detail.


 Now we will fly north to Palestine. Only ten years later Latin monasticism is to be found in this Greek-speaking country. Jerome came from Rome where he had had much trouble as we shall see later. He loved the Scriptures and he loved Jesus, so he settled in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. There, with a rich lady from Rome, he founded a double monastery, one of nuns for Paula and her companions, and one of monks for Jerome and his companions. Nearby, in Jerusalem, a friend of Jerome, (at least he was a friend then, later the two became enemies), called Rufinus also founded a double monastery with Melania known as the Elder to distinguish her from another Melania called the Younger.

 Still in Palestine, but in the deserts of Jordan and round the Dead Sea, we find the system of the Laura which lasted for some time in the East.

It is a combination of the two kinds of monasticism found in Lower and Upper Egypt. The novice entered a monastery, a cenobium where he made a apprenticeship for seven or eight years. Thus he began in a community, as in Upper Egypt. Then he went into solitude, in the Laura, where he lived as an anchorite, the same system as in Lower Egypt but institutionalised; although they lived in solitude, some kilometres from the monastery, they did not do what they felt like. They had a spiritual father, and every Saturday, whether they liked it or not, they went to see him and to live in community with six or seven others who had the same spiritual father. They gave him an account of the week, talked things over, had a meal, settled material matters, celebrated the office of vigils and then the Resurrection of the Lord, and on Sunday afternoon returned to complete solitude until the following Saturday. This was the pattern, until death.

For these people the anchoritic life was the culminating point which must be prepared for by the cenobitic life. St Benedict has an echo of this, no doubt indirect, in the beginning of his Rule. It has something in common with the systems of Upper and Lower Egypt and yet is different; the anchorites of Lower Egypt had no cenobitic apprenticeship, and the Pachomians did not live the solitary life.


Now we will go further north, to Syria. Here too there is a real attraction to the desert, but it is not thought of in the same way, nor lived in the same manner. For us today, the way of life of these monks is very difficult to understand; the more spectacular, the more excessive it was, the better! To us they seem to be truly fools for God!

 There are the hypaitrae, from the Greek: hypaithros which means: "in the open air". These men marked out a space in a field with stones or perhaps tied their feet to a chain so that they could not go outside a certain radius, and they lived there like a cow in a meadow, whether in the rain, the sun or the cold, open to the gaze of all the passers-by. It must have been very penitential!

 There were also the dendritae, from the Greek: dendron, tree. They hollowed out the trunk of a tree and lived inside. Others were in hanging cages, so small that they could not stand upright. Others tied themselves to a rock. And in Syria the sun beats down mercilessly!

 Then there were the stylites who lived their whole life long on a pillar.

Were all these people really mad? We cannot be sure! Certainly they should not be imitated, but in order to understand them, they must be considered in their own times. It was a time when people's temperaments, and therefore passions and temptations, were much more violent than ours. People led very dissolute lives. Above all the monks wanted to escape from sin in a world where sin was widespread, and they were hot-blooded, which explains their preoccupation with taming the flesh by any means.

Moreover, another aspect in which their asceticism was not entirely senseless was that to be a hypaitrtie or dendrite was to be in contact with nature. For them a person completely given to God has restored the bonds with nature, which is itself the work of God.

 A word about the most well-known of these eccentrics, the STYLITES who occupied an important place in the monasticism of Syria and some of whom were celebrities and saints.

The founder was Simon the Great. He began by living for three years in a hut, then he became a hypaitrite. He installed
himself on a slab with a 10 metre chain tied to his foot and a huge stone the other end. He refused to sit or lie down. But a crowd of people came to see him. To escape, instead of fleeing horizontally, like the monks of Scete who went out into the desert as far away from people as they could, he fled vertically and had the idea of putting his stone slab on a pillar. First he set himself up on a pillar of 3m, then 6, then 11, then 18 metres.

 How were these dwellings of the stylites made?

First there was a base from 2- 21/2 metres in diameter. On this was fixed a shaft with an iron bar. About 1m. in diameter, it was composed of several cylinders held together by the bar (often there were three in honour of the Holy Trinity). The total height was not more than 20 metres, first because there had to be a ladder to get up, and also because, as the stylite spoke to the crowd he could not be too high for them to hear.

At the top of the shaft there was a platform 1.3 or 1.8 each side, with a parapet to prevent the stylite falling off in his sleep. A pipe ran down the shaft for refuse. The whole structure was surrounded by a small enclosure, the mandra, a courtyard enclosed by a stone wall. Inside there was a small cabin for the stylite's servant

 What did he do up there?

He stood the whole day long, praying with many prostrations and genuflections. He ate only once a day. At night he normally slept sitting. During the day he exercised an apostolate by speaking to the crowd. The elevated position of the stylites expressed their desire to meet God and to be intermediaries between God and the people. That is in fact what they were. Their direct apostolate was considerable; they brought peace to individual consciences and reconciled people to each other. People came from everywhere to the foot of the pillar to tell them their problems.

This life was terribly austere; they were never able to lie down, but stood upright most of the time exposed to every kind of weather. The dreadful asceticism gave rise to many illnesses most of which the stylite refused to attend to, considering illness a grace of God. However this did not prevent most of the stylites dying at a great age.

So here we have men fleeing vertically to meet God, while the anchorites of Lower Egypt fled horizontally to meet the devil!


In Pontus, we meet other eccentrics, not in their way of life but in their ideas. These are rather strange ascetics, unstable, generous people certainly, but they had no notion of authority. One can see that this exaggerated asceticism known as encratism could be dangerous. Saint Basil went to meet them to try to put them right, gradually he created another kind of cenobitic monasticism, different from Pachomian cenobitism.

The Basilian communities were smaller than the Pachomian koinonia. They were called fraternities, as for Basil the word 'monk' meant anchorite, and Basil - who thought cenobites were the only proper kind of monk - did not use this word; he wanted a cenobitism where one lived among brothers, but under the authority of a superior. Moreover, while the Pachomian communities exemplified the heavenly kingdom, those of Basil wanted to show Jesus both retiring from the crowds and doing good to all the people. They were not surrounded by a large wall or out in the desert, but on the outskirts of the towns exercising charity. Thus Basil built a large hospital where his brothers served. Here, the fraternities were between the desert and the city.

 A little further north and to the west, at Constantinople, with John Chrysostom it is different again. The monasteries were no longer on the outskirts but right in the city. John, as bishop of Constantinople, thought that monks ought to be useful. They were to have a charitable role: hospitals like the Basilians, and also pastoral tasks to help the bishop in his work. They tried to stop the Christians from becoming drowsy, their role was to bring them back to the Gospel.


Going across the Mediterranean, we are now in present day Algeria and Tunisia. In the last years of the fourth century, after his conversion in Milan in Italy, Augustine went back to his native land with a great longing to love Jesus and he founded a small monastic community with his friends. Augustine was a great man, very intelligent; he had a immense desire for happiness and, for him, friendship was already a source of happiness on earth. Here we have, then, gathered round a richly gifted person such as Augustine, a small community of friends who helped each other in the common life.. They prayed, they discussed philosophy, they studied holy Scripture and theology. It was a monasticism which was both intellectual and lay.

But three years later Augustine was ordained priest for the Chuch in Hippo, and helped the bishop with preaching. He left his monastery in the hands of Alypius, one of his friends, and asked to be able to continue his monastic life. He was given a house at the bottom of a garden, on a property belonging to the Church, and there he founded a community. Four years later, when he became the bishop's coadjutor, he had to leave this garden monastery. Many brothers from among the fervent monks of this monastery would be chosen as bishops in other dioceses in Africa. Augustine himself asked the priests of Hippo to come and live the common life with him in the bishop's house. It is this which gave rise to the idea, long current, that Augustine had founded monasteries of priests; and which influenced later centuries, giving rise to the confusion between monks and priests, the problem of the identification of priests with religious, the obligation of celibacy and the renunciation of all personal property. Later, in Rome, Gregory the Great had a monastery of priests living with him when he became Pope.


Crossing the Mediterranean again, we go to Italy. In Rome we find several kinds of monastic life. Rome is the imperial city, with an ancient tradition and a paganism linked with a high level of culture. The Christians, and particularly monks, were not viewed with favour, being often considered as rough and uncultured. There were, however some fervent communities of men and women ascetics in which charity was the whole inspiration of their rule of life; they were little known, but Augustine met them when he came back from Milan. They gave him a fine witness of the life of Christians.

There was also another feminine form of monastic life, a little surprising to our way of thinking, which can be explained by the context of Roman society. Women in high society, whether virgins or widows, led a life consecrated to prayer, asceticism and almsgiving in their own homes. Several of these great ladies gathered in the house of Marcella, forming a kind of monastery. They needed great conviction and faith to live in this way; rich widows were often sought in marriage because of their fortunes; young unmarried women did not have much standing in law; neither their families nor society approved their celibate state. What is more, these ladies studied the Scriptures, which educated people considered altogether barbaric. They had to endure the mockery of worldly people.

Then Jerome arrived in Rome in 381, an event which redoubled their fervour. Jerome worked hard on the Holy Scriptures and translated them from Hebrew into Latin. He had spent several years as a monk in the desert. He knew many of the noble families. He had great prestige in the eyes of these pious women, he both taught them exegesis and became their spiritual guide. One can see the rest of the story in Jerome's letters: these ladies increased their asceticism. Young Blesilla, daughter of another great Roman lady, Paula, who until then had been living in a very worldly fashion, was converted, led an austere life and died four months later. Everybody was upset and said it was because of too much asceticism and blamed that villain Jerome who made her lead such a harsh life that she died. There was a scandal in the city of Rome

At the same time a certain Helvidius wrote a short tract in which he tried to demonstrate that Mary was not a virgin, and then he said that if virginity had any value in the eyes of God, Mary would have observed it. Jerome responded with his usual vivacity in a book arguing vigorously against him. But he went too far and made an impassioned eulogy of continence, condemning the carnal union of man and woman. This was very badly received. For two reasons - the death of Blesilla and the dispute with Helvidius - Jerome and Paula had to leave Rome. It was then that they went to Bethlehem.

In the end, things settled down, but the row was rekindled by the writing of Jovinian, a monk who had married and who, to justify himself, explained that the normal outcome of continence was to marry. This writing was much read and many monks left. Jerome flew into a passion and joined the fray again; he wrote a tract "Against Jovinian" so outrageous, so scandalous, condemning all sexuality, that he had to retract.

So we can see that in Rome monasticism was not looked upon favourably. When a monk called Paulinus of Nola came to Rome in 394, we are told that Pope Siricius received him "cum superba discretione", that is: "with haughty reserve". People were mistrustful. But another pope, Anastasius, who was favourable towards monks, received him with honour and affection in 400. At the beginning of the fifth century monasticism put down new roots in Rome. This was a monasticism which would benefit others; the monks looked after pilgrims and occupied themselves with spiritual and pastoral care in the Roman basilicas.


From Italy we go up to Gaul. Martin who was born in Hungary, went to Poitiers after he was a soldier, and spent some time alone on an island. He knew that bishop Hilary had gathered together some men who wanted to live a life of poverty and prayer, and thought that it would be good to be near him. Hilary gave him a plot of land at Ligugé and there Martin attracted a great many disciples. Many in Gaul admired the 'Life of Antony' which had become widely known. Martin became bishop of Tours, and founded a new monastery at Marmoutiers, where the solitaries came to live together. On the death of St Martin in 397, Sulpicius Severus described the funeral where a large number of monks wept for their beloved father. But a few years later barbarian invasions swept everything away. This form of monasticism in northern Gaul did not attach much importance to institutions and a rule, so it was vulnerable in the face of internal difficulties or exterior problems.

In southern Gaul, at Marseille, under the protection of bishop Proclus, monasticism took firm root in the Church; above all at Lerins where the great spiritual master Honoratus founded a fervent community, many of whose monks were asked to become bishops, and founded further monasteries in their turn. John Cassian, who had spent many years learning from the example and teaching of the Fathers of Egypt and Palestine, had just arrived in Marseille. The bishops and abbots asked him to put the 'Institutes' of these great master into writing for the worthy desires of the Gallic monks would come to nothing without sound doctrine. Cassian so admired the great Egyptians that he often spoke in a condescending manner to the Westerners, he even behaved as if Augustine had never founded a monastery! But his writings were influential and successful as the ground was well prepared.


In the British Isles we find another kind of monasticism. It was born among the Celtic Christians who had been pushed westwards in what is now England by the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Two of the great names are Patrick, and Columban. One of the characteristics of this monasticism is a form of asceticism which entailed leaving home and leading a wandering life of voluntary exile. They took literally the word of God to Abraham: "Leave your country". There was a missionary character about it; Patrick went to evangelise Ireland and Columban founded monasteries in Gaul and even in Italy.

The desire for voluntary exile persuaded the Irish monks to venture far out to sea to build small monasteries in the most inaccessible places that they could reach with their fragile boats. It was on this back-drop that the fabulous adventures of the Navigation of Saint Brendan were painted. Some people claim that he reached America!



This quick bird's-eye view shows the diversity of monasticism at the beginning and its powerful momentum. It went from the solitary life to cenobitism, from the desert to the city, from the laity to the priesthood, from ignorance to knowledge, from integration in the life of society to challenging that society, from life in as confined a setting as possible to one of immense spaciousness!

Diversity in form, but unity in the things which constitute the basis on monastic life; the desire for the Absolute of which we spoke in the first chapter, an Absolute which has been shown to us in the person of the Beloved Christ.

Some of these monastic forms have disappeared, others have remained. Today, for those of us who can see what has lasted, it is easy to say that was good, the other was not. But in those days, one could not tell; the test of time has shown what was of worth.




Palladius, Lausiac History. trans. R.T. Meyer. Ancient Christian Writers series no. 34. London 1965

Rousseau, Philip. Ascetics, Authority and the Church in the Age of Jerome & Cassian. OUP 1978

Theodoret of Cyrrhus: A History of the Monks of Syria. Cistercian Studies 38.






 1) Which are the three monastic centres in Lower Egypt? Put them in a particular order and explain why you have done so.


2)What do we find in Upper Egypt? Is this different to what we have seen in Lower Egypt?


3)What is a laura? Where do we find this kind of monasticism?


4)Give the names of the three kinds of ascetic found in Syria? What is it that characterises

them? Which were the most important?


5)Which are the two greatest names in Celtic monasticism? What is original about Celtic monasticism?


6)In our survey, we have seen how varied monasticism was at the beginning. In the list below, which gives the different types of monasticism, write beside each the country where monks of this kind could be found.

Monasticism stretches:

From the anchorites = to the cenobites =

From the desert = to the city =

From the laity = to the priesthood =

From strict stability = to long journeys =

From ignorance = to knowledge =

Integrated in social life = Opposed to social life =



 1) Which are the three monastic centres in Lower Egypt? Put them in a particular order and explain why you have done so.

There are three centres: Nitria - The Cells - Scetis.

In the order of their greater distance from Alexandria.


2) What do we find in Upper Egypt? Is this different to what we have seen in Lower Egypt?

The cenobites were in Upper Egypt, while the anchorites were in Lower Egypt.

3) What is a laura? Where do we find this kind of monasticism?

The system of the laura is a combination of two kinds of monasticism found in Lower and Upper Egypt. It consists of a period of formation in a cenobium. Then the subject lives alone but under the direction of an elder, and each week he spends a day of common life with him and the others under his direction.

4) Give the names of the three kinds of ascetic found in Syria? What is it that characterises

them? Which were the most important?

In Syria, there were the hypaitrae who lived in the open air; the dendritae and others who lived inside a tree or tied themselves to a rock; the stylites who lived on a pillar. These are the most well-known and some of them were saints, such as Simon called the 'Great'.

5) Which are the two greatest names in Celtic monasticism? What is original about Celtic monasticism?

The two greatest names in Celtic monasticism are Patrick and Columban. The characteristic

of this monasticism was the practice of voluntary exile taken to extreme lengths.

(Every monk and nun who leaves their family and home practices this in some measure,

but usually they stay in their own country.)

6) In our survey, we have seen how varied monasticism was at the beginning. In the list below, which gives the different types of monasticism, write beside each the country where monks of this kind could be found.

Monasticism stretches:

From the anchorites = Lower Egypt; Syria to the cenobites = Pachomius, Basil, Augustine
From the desert = Upper & Lower to the city = John Chrysostom in Egypt, Syria etc.Constantinople
From the laity = All except to the priesthood = Augustine at Hippo
From strict stability = All except to long journeys = Irish monks
From ignorance = Egypt to knowledge = Jerome, Augustine.
Integrated in social life =   John Chrysostom Opposed to social life = Syria, Lower Egypt Basil,