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Christian hermits: 3rd - 4th century AD

The traditional account of Christian monasticism begins with St Paul of Thebes retreating to a cave in the Egyptian desert in AD 250 to avoid the persecution initiated by Decius. St Paul himself is probably a mythical figure, but there may well have been Egyptian hermits at this time. At the other end of the north African coast the bishop of Carthage, St Cyprian, goes into hiding in the same year and for the same reason.

Certainly there are Christian hermits in Egypt by the early 4th century. The best known of them is St Anthony, whose Famous temptations take lurid and often sexual forms which later prove irresistible to generations of painters.

Early in the 4th century, perhaps in response to the new favour shown to Christianity by Constantine, Anthony organizes other hermits, living nearby in the desert, into a partly shared existence. For most of the week they maintain their solitary life. But on Sundays they come together for worship and a communal meal.

In this there is the beginning of a monastic community. One of the world's oldest monasteries, named after St Anthony and established soon after his death, still survives in the desert near the Red Sea - below the mountain cave in which the saint spent his last years.

The coenobitic life: 4th century AD

The move to fully communal monasticism also takes place in Egypt. Pachomius, a Christian hermit living beside the Nile at Dandara from about AD 320, persuades others to join him in what is effectively a village of anchorites. Each man lives in his own hut, but they eat their meals in common - usually in the open air. Pachomius establishes ten more communities of the same kind, two of them for women.

Pachomius writes a 'rule' by which each community must live and worship, thus forming the basis for coenobitic monasticism (from Greek koinos 'common' and 'bios' life). The rule of St Pachomius is now lost, but it is known to St Benedict when he establishes the pattern of western monasticism.

Eastern monasticism: from the 4th century AD

The monastic tradition of eastern Christianity remains true to its ascetic origins, with the discomfort of the hermitage carried to extremes in the strange tradition of the Stylites. Even today the monasteries of the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopia, together with the Greek Orthodox communities of Mount Athos and Meteora in Greece and of St Catherine's below Mount Sinai, give the impression of subsisting at the furthest possible remove from the everyday life of fertile valleys.

Celtic monasticism in the west has the same quality. But the much more influential Benedictines will be closely involved in the world. Meanwhile the unusual experiment of St Jerome, a westerner in the east, deserves a mention.

St Jerome, translator and monk: 4th - 5th century AD

Jerome acquires a firm commitment to the monastic life during his travels in the Middle East as a young man. These include two years living as a hermit in the desert. Like St Anthony before him, he suffers vivid sexual hallucinations. His description of beating his breast to drive them away becomes a favourite theme for artists (painterly tradition provides him with the large stone which he uses for the purpose).

Jerome is not entirely suited to the desert life. In Rome, in AD 382, he experiments with a different sort of monasticism, living with a group of rich Roman widows and virgins. He teaches them Hebrew and they look after him, while he begins his translation of the Bible into Latin.

In 385 Jerome and his virgins go on pilgrimage together to Palestine and to the monasteries of Egypt. In 386 they settle in Bethlehem. Here Paula, a widow leading the group of women, organizes the building of a monastery with Jerome at its head, an adjacent convent under her own supervision, and a hostel for pilgrims.

Bethlehem remains Jerome's home for the remaining thirty-four years of his life. Here he writes a large number of religious and literary works, including several biographies. But his greatest achievement is his translation of the Bible (the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek) into the version which becomes the standard Latin text, known as the Vulgate.

Western monasticism: from the 4th century AD

The first people in western Europe to adopt the life of hermits are Celtic Christians in Gaul in the early 4th century. And the first monastery in the west is founded there, at Ligugé near Poitiers in AD 360, by St Martin. He later creates a much larger monastic complex at Marmoutier, near Tours, where he becomes the bishop in 372. By the end of the century a monastery of this kind is founded on Lérins, an offshore island in the bay of Cannes.

It is no doubt the Celtic link which carries this tradition to Ireland, where monasticism - at first of the rocky-island variety - makes a major contribution to the spread of Christianity.

Christianity in Ireland: 5th - 6th century AD

The most telling images of early Christianity in Ireland are the beehive cells on the inhospitable rock of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Kerry. In these, from the 5th century, Celtic monks live in an ascetic tradition which relates back to the first desert fathers in Egypt. Cold, rather than heat, is here their local penance.

Missionary efforts in Ireland during the 5th century - including those of St Patrick - give the Christian religion a firmer footing. By the 6th century the time is ripe for the founding of the great Irish monasteries (powerful establishments, as opposed to the cluster of hermits' cells on Skellig Michael) from which Celtic Christianity exerts its far-flung influence.

Charismatic leaders, founding monasteries and being remembered as saints, are a feature of 6th-century Ireland. The first is St Finnian, who establishes the monastery of Clonard in Meath. Then there is St Ciaran, the father-figure of Clonmacnois on the Shannon, and St Brendan, the founder of Clonfert in Galway. Pre-eminent among them is St Columba, responsible for two foundations on the mainland - at Derry and Durrow - before setting sail (Christ-like with twelve companions) to take the faith to Scotland.

In 563 he and his party make their base on the island of Iona, from which offshoots are later established as far afield as Lindisfarne (known for this reason as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland.

By the end of the 6th century Irish monks are carrying their Celtic version of Christianity even further afield. In 590 St Columban sets sail for France (again with twelve companions), where he founds a monastery at Luxeuil. But by now Celtic Christianity is controversial. In 603 he is criticized by a synod of French bishops for keeping Easter according to the Celtic rather than the Roman rite.

He moves to Switzerland (where one of his companions, St Gall, settles as a hermit in the place now named after him), and then on into Italy. By the time of his death in 615 Columban has founded another famous monastery, at Bobbio - the extreme outpost, under the pope's own nose, of Celtic Christianity.

St Benedict and the Benedictines: 6th - 8th century AD

At exactly the moment in the late 6th century when Celtic monks from Ireland are bringing their version of Christianity into continental Europe, Italian monks are travelling in the opposite direction - under the leadership of Augustine - on a papal mission to England. There is no evidence that Augustine and his companions are Benedictines. But gradually, over the next two centuries, the Benedictine pattern prevails. Benedictine monasteries, as great centres of learning, provide the framework within which the barbarians of northern Europe evolve a Christian civilization.

St Benedict, founding his first monasteries at Subiaco early in the 6th century, would be surprised at the wide results of his initiative.

The only source of information about Benedict is a brief account written some fifty years after his death by Gregory I - the pope who does much to spread the influence of the Benedictine order. He says that Benedict, a rich young Roman, is so shocked by the licentious city of his birth that he retires to a hermit's life in a cave above Subiaco (c.520). Disciples gather about him, and he forms them into twelve monasteries of twelve monks each. Later he moves south to establish a new monastery at Monte Cassino (c.530).

The 'rule' which Benedict writes for his monks at Monte Cassino becomes the basis, after his death, of the Benedictine order.

The Rule of St Benedict: AD c.535

In writing his Rule, Benedict makes use of several earlier forms of monastic regime. The great success of his version, which eventually prevails throughout Roman Catholic Europe, derives mainly from its clarity and its good sense as a practical basis for communal life. Part of its appeal, too, is that its demands are not extreme. In this it differs from the ascetic traditions of Egypt or Ireland. Benedictine monks are Not expected to suffer unduly.

This option does not keep the best of them from tireless and dangerous exertions to convert the pagans of northern Europe - a commitment seen above all in the life of St Boniface.

Benedictine nuns: 7th century AD

Within a century of St Benedict's death there are nuns following his rule, and tradition even dates the female order from his own time - seeing its founder as his sister, St Scholastica, who under his instruction lives a life of holy virginity.

The strong tradition of nuns in the western church goes back even earlier (to include, for example, the Roman matrons accompanying St Jerome), and almost every religious order in Roman Catholicism has soon acquired a sisterhood. Sometimes the founders are contemporaries and friends, as in the case of St Francis and St Clare - whose credentials as a partnership are more firmly historical than those of Benedict and Scholastica.

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