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The Holy Desert Fathers and Monasticism

St. Anthony the Great from a 14th c. Armenian Manuscript produced in Kaffa

Abba Alonius said, “If I had not destroyed myself completely, I should not have been able to rebuild and shape myself again.”

Often enigmatic, “The Holy Desert Fathers of Egypt,” the large and eclectic group of saints the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates on Thursday stands out from the other sources we have explored over the past months. Other Patristic sources—early post-Biblical sources of Christian thought—are more systematic. Even when they are difficult or mired in debates we might consider esoteric, universal Church Fathers like St. Cyril of Alexandria or early Armenian writers like Agathangelos leave us a with a sense of clarity that is often lacking in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Yet these profound early monastics and their often-cryptic teachings (like the one above) remain a crucial source in two important ways: first through those difficult but inspirational teachings and second, in the foundations they laid for monastic life.

Monastics (Arm. վանական) live a life set apart from the world to devote themselves to spiritual pursuits and disciplines. Monasticism, the life of monastic monks and nuns, takes several different forms, and is not unique to Christianity. Outside of the Christian tradition, Buddhism has perhaps the most developed and well-known monastic tradition. Within Christianity, monastic life emerges in the third to fifth centuries. The reasons for this emergence are varied and complex, but as Christianity became a more socially acceptable practice, especially after the Edict of Milan in 313, monastic life offered a renewal of spiritual life and a renewal of Christianity itself.

Different forms of monasticism developed in different places, with Egypt as a major center for many of them. Perhaps the most famous of all the Holy Desert Fathers of Egypt is St. Anthony the Great, the ultimate example of the life of a hermit (Arm. Ճգնաւոր). Later, St. Athanasius, a great defender of the divinity of Christ against Arianism, would write The Life of St. Anthony, solidifying the reputation of St. Anthony as the father of hermit monastic life. Already at his death in 356 he had many disciples and many others who would recede from society and practice the prayerful solitude of the hermit.

Two other forms of monasticism also developed in Egypt. In Upper Egypt, further south from St. Anthony and in the heart of the area that would eventually develop into the Coptic Church, St. Pachomius was one of the first leaders of a form of organized monastic life known as cenobitic monasticism. In this form of monastic life, rather than individual hermits who attracted followers, an organized brotherhood was formed from the outset. These cenobitic monasteries, in addition to the slightly differently organized monasteries at Nitria and Scetis, where Greek-influenced learning shaped monasteries known as a skete or lavra were founded, had a major influence on the development of later monasteries, especially in the West. These three forms of monastic life all developed and flourished in Egypt, and the wise men who flocked to the desert are those the Armenian Church commemorates this Thursday as the “Holy Desert Fathers of Egypt.”

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The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

While many collections of the “sayings of the desert fathers” were compiled over the years, this alphabetical collection was arranged sometime in the sixth century and is one of the most influential collections of the sayings of the desert fathers.

Harantsʿ Vark

A facsimile of a 1720 Armenian printing of The Lives of the Desert Fathers. This text provides even more context than the sayings in the collection above.

The Kaffa Lives of the Desert Fathers: A Study in Armenian Manuscript Illumination

A study by Nira Stone of an illuminated manuscript of The Lives of the Desert Fathers, from Kaffa in the Crimea, copied in 1430.

In addition to the Holy Desert Fathers of Egypt there were simultaneous experiments in monasticism in other parts of the Christian world. Most important among these were the region around Edessa and Antioch, where an incredibly strict form of ascetism was practiced (the most extreme among them the stylites such as Simeon Stylite who lived for decades on top of a pillar near Antioch); Palestine, in the desert of Gaza, where a variation on Egyptian monasticism developed; and near the city of Caesaria (modern-day Kayseri in Turkey, where St. Gregory the Illuminator was brought up as a Christian) in Cappadocia, where St. Basil the Great authored one of the earliest rules of monastic order, a kind of charter for collective monastic life.

This Rule of St. Basil was formative for the later development of Armenian monasticism. Armenian monasteries and convents had a long and important life as sources of spiritual inspiration and nourishment for the Armenian Church and for the Armenian people. According to the PhD dissertation of V. Rev. Fr. Terenig Poladian, “the monastic movement in Armenia dates from the fourth century.” The Buzandaran mentions early advocates of monastic ideals, though it is probably St. Nersess the Great, Catholicos from 353 until his death in 373, that Armenian monasteries first flourished. St. Nersess the Great established monasteries according to the rule of St. Basil. After the invention of the Armenian alphabet by St. Mesrob, these early Armenian monasteries became important centers of prayer and Christian devotion as well as intellectual centers for the development and spread of the new Christian literature in the Armenian language.

A thorough discussion of the long and illustrious history of the crucial institution of the Armenian monastery is well beyond the scope of such a short introduction. Monasteries, throughout Armenian history, have been absolutely central to the spiritual and intellectual life of Armenian Christians. They are the source of almost every edifying Armenian Christian text we have. As such, outside of the Church itself as the Body of Christ, the Love of God the Father, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit that directs orthodox tradition, there is no more important source in the life of Armenian Christians than the monasteries.

Over time, a highly-developed system of monastic prayer and education developed. The Daily Offices of prayer, the services such as the Night and Morning Service often conducted in our parishes before Badarak on Sunday, developed largely in monastic settings. While all Christians are called to pray ceaselessly, it is in the monasteries where ceaseless angelic prayer is enacted here on earth. Similarly, today, we retain a small portion of the monastic educational order in the three ranks of celibate priests: apegha, vartabed, and tsayrakuyn vartabed. The apegha is a monk, a member of a monastic order, while the other two ranks are educational and “academic” ranks bestowed on monks who have been given the duty of teaching. Armenian monasteries of the Middle Ages, such as the Monastery of Datev, still standing in southern Armenia, or the famous “University” of Gladzor, were major centers of prayer, teaching, and manuscript production.

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Worship Traditions in Armenia and the Neighboring Christian East

A collection of papers from the symposium celebrating the 40th anniversary of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary. In St. Nersess’ Avant series, the papers introduce many aspects of the Armenian intellectual and spiritual tradition that flourished in the medieval monasteries.

The Educational Role of the Armenian Church

The PhD dissertation of Terenig Vartabed Poladian, detailing the way the Armenian Church has bolstered education through the centuries. It includes a wonderful introduction to Armenian monasticism.

Emergence of Monasticism

A comprehensive history of the emergence of Christian monasticism beginning with the Desert Fathers. With an emphasis on Western Christian monasticism.

Eventually, these magnificent monasteries, these spiritual and intellectual sources, declined. Mkhitar of Sebastia, mentioned last week, revived Armenian monasticism under the auspices of the Catholic Church, and the monastery on the island of San Lazzaro still follows the Rule of St. Benedict. In the nineteenth century, there was a brief but important monastic revival at the Monastery of Armash, near the Sea of Marmara. The revival of Armenian spiritual and intellectual life there was a source for monks and teachers who would transform the curriculum at the Monastery of St. James in Jerusalem after the Genocide. While there are today several Armenian monastic orders and centers of Armenian Christian learning, the full and robust medieval Armenian monastic tradition awaits another revival. While St. Nersess Armenian Seminary has been nourished by the sources of Armash and Jerusalem (among others), in America today there are no Armenian monasteries. An Armenian monastery in America, in the rich tradition of Armenian monasticism which harkens all the way back to the Rule of St. Basil in Cappadocia and the Holy Desert Fathers of Egypt we commemorate on Thursday, would be a profound source of spiritual and intellectual nourishment for Armenian Christians in America today.

Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter to see other artistic depictions of St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers, as well as some of the great Armenian monasteries.