Snippets from Wandering Begging Monks

by Daniel Caner

By placing as much emphasis on distributing wealth as renouncing it, by promoting moderation in ascetic behavior, by practising manual labor instead of “idleness” (argia), and by striving to live in isolation so as to preserve the “dignity” (semnotëta) befitting a monk, Athanasius’ Antony epitomized strict monastic discipline (akribeia) for this fifth-century reader. Thus Athanasius’ narrative established Antony as the model Christian holy man.

The practices associated with Antony and other Egyptian monks were idealized, schematized and promoted by western authors reporting to readers back home. Jerome (ca. 347-420) relates there were three kinds (genera) of monks. Coenobites lived together and regulated their prayer, fasting, and manual labor in obedience to superiors in their communities. Anchorites were those who had withdrawn far from society and lived alone in deserted regions after training in coenobia; their way of life could be traced back to John the Baptist. The third kind of monk Jerome labels remnuoth and John Cassian (ca. 360-435) sarabaites; these live together in twos or threes, hasten to be called monks, but fail to observe coenobitic discipline or submit to the will of a superior; they make renunciations only for show and work only to provide themselves with luxuries.

Early in the sixth century (ca. 500-530) an anonymous writer used Cassian’s distinctions of good and bad monks in his Rule of the Master. He describes a fourth kind: gyrovagi (those who wander in circles): they spend their entire life in different provinces visiting different cells or monasteries for three or four days… demanding that their hosts perform the precept of the Apostle which says “Give generously to strangers” [Ro. 12:13]. Benedict of Nursia (writing ca. 530-560) referred to this Rule of the Master at the beginning of his own more famous sixth-century Rule.

At the turn of the fifth century, Augustine complained that so many “hypocrites in the garb of monks” could be found everywhere seeking alms for their “pretended piety”.

A fourth-century Syriac homily warns:

Xeniteia (voluntary exile, homelessness) is a difficult and extremely harsh way of life… [Whoever adopts it] trades honor for insult… The ground will be his bed, a rock his pillow, and in winter he will knock on every door… Although he may perish from hunger, he will still be mocked as a glutton and assailed everywhere. He will be called a thief and wicked slave, vagrant or vagabond, imposter or traitor, spy or housebreaker, a lunatic or fool. These insults and more await all who practice xeniteia.

 

 

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