Coptic Monasticism and its Theology: The Models of Antony and Pachomius

by Mina Fouad Tawike

Date added: 19/04/2016

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Coptic Monasticism and its Theology

The Model of Antony and Pachomius

By Mina Fouad Tawike[1], Coptic Orthodox Pastristics Teacher, Alexandrian School of Theology


A. Monasticism


On Monasticism, Palladius in the introductory piece of his work wrote: “I have been privileged to see with my own eyes… who had already been perfected in the arena of piety, I have learned their heavenly mode of life from inspired athletes of Christ.” (Palladius, 5)

The aim of that way of life is “Encountering God”; Abba John the Dwarf said this “Watching means to sit in the cell and always be mindful of God. This is what is meant by the words ‘I was on the watch, and God came to me’ (John the Dwarf, 27). This is what the monastic way of life all about, and it is also our aim as Christians in modern days: “Encountering God”.


B. The Rise of Egyptian Monasticism[2]


Numerous theories, which have given rise to an abundant literature, have been advanced since the end of the nineteenth century to explain the origins of monasticism in Egypt. But none of the explanations is convincing. The very beginnings of the monastic movement are obscure. Normally Saint Antony is considered to be "the father of the monks," but the Life of Antony bears witness that when he was converted to the ascetic life in 270, there were already ascetics who withdrew from the villages. In its beginnings, monasticism was anchorite. Pachomius himself began by living as an anchorite, under the guidance of the anchorite Palaemon. It was only after disciples had come to him and he had learned by experience that it was necessary to organize their way of life that he created monasteries. Each monastery contained a number of "houses," and the whole body of the monasteries constituted the Pachomian koinonia or congregation. Two features are strongly characteristic of monasticism—work and residence in a cell. Manual work was an obligation, each monk having to provide for his needs—at Scetis the majority of the monks devoted themselves to basket-making. This work was to be as far as possible continual, like prayer itself, which consisted not only in the recitation of the office at appointed hours but also in what was called melete (meditation), the recitation of texts from scripture, chiefly from the psalms. Monasticism left a profound mark on Coptic Christianity in its piety, its ethics, and its institutions. With few exceptions, down to our own day the patriarch is chosen from among the clergy who come from the monastic milieu. But Egyptian monasticism, through the immense influence it exercised outside of Egypt, has set its stamp no less profoundly upon the church universal, in the West as well as in the East. This is certainly the most considerable legacy Egypt has left to Christianity.


C. Monastic Theology


C.1 Body and Evil

"Modern shorthand for many of the religious movements of the time including monasticism labels them not only 'world-rejecting' but also claims that they involved a radical 'rejection of the body'[3]; even modern anti-monasticism views assert that monasticism emerged from Gnosticism as both rejects the body and consider it evil. This is not true. The idea of Christian asceticism in its basics differs, and contradicts the gnostic trends. Christian asceticism/monasticism aims towards salvation of the soul, saving it from the worldly temptation, and mortifying the body from lusts, as bodily lusts hinders from salvation (Rom 8:1-13; 1 Cor 9:27; Gal 5:16-25; James 3:2-6). So, the body/flesh itself isn’t evil but its lusts and desire; this is very different from Gnosticism that considers body/flesh itself as evil; and while Christian asceticism aims to the salvation of both the body and the soul, Gnosticism aims to save the soul from the evil body:

"20 He [God] sets for them a rule for how to repent in their bodies and souls… 22 He also gives them control over their souls and bodies in order that both may be sanctified and inherit together. 23 First the body through many fasts and vigils, through exertion and the exercises of the body, cutting of all the fruits of the flesh…27 The mind also starts to discriminate between them and begins to learn from the spirit how to purify the body and the soul through repentance " (Letter of St. Antony 1:20-27)[4]

In asceticism, the soul strive to reach perfection through three stages, freeing from sin through mortifying lusts and earthly desires then acquiring inner virtues through prayer and imitating Christ, and at last growth in the perfect love of God till be united with God and deified.

C.2 Celibacy

Celibacy was a fundamental characteristic that indicates that Christian has become a part of the clique of the ascetics, but it's not the 'only' characteristic of ascetics. The Christian who devotes himself to the life of celibacy means he is devoted to God; as he enters some kind of spiritual marriage with Christ. But being a celibate as an ascetic isn't something that an ascetic can do by his own, but as Clemet of Rome says:

"Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence." (1 Clement 38:2)[5]

Origen adds:

"God therefore will give the good gift, perfect purity in celibacy and chastity, to those who ask Him with the whole soul, and with faith, and in prayers without ceasing." (Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Book XIV)[6]

Despite of this, we don't find Antony or Macarius speaking on celibacy as a fundamental base for an ascetic life.

C.3 Christ as a Model

Christ's teachings and life was the role model for the ascetic life. Leaving the world and following Christ is what it means to be and ascetic:

"1. Antony you must know was by descent an Egyptian: his parents were of good family and possessed considerable wealth, and as they were Christians he also was reared in the same Faith…. And though as a child brought up in moderate affluence, he did not trouble his parents for varied or luxurious fare, nor was this a source of pleasure to him; but was content simply with what he found nor sought anything further." (Athanasius' Life of Antony 1)[7]

"2… he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles Matthew 4:20 left all and followed the Savior; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles' feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven." (Athanasius' Life of Antony 2)[8]

C.4 Ascetic Life Style

Without reluctance of the world no one can be a true monk:

"… [St. Macarius met two men in the wilderness], I asked them how can I become a monk? They replied: If man didn't reluctant in all the worldly things he can't become a monk" (Bostan El Rohban "Paradise of the Fathers", St. Macarius the Great 37)[9]

And without the life of humility and serving others, one can't be a true monk:

"They said to him [Antony]: Is it good for a monk to be for himself, not taking from or giving his brother? He said: If a monk acts like this, then he is living with no humility and no mercy, and he is far away from the good things that are prepared for humble and merciful ones", "and they also asked him: Is it good for a monk to be for himself, not serving or being served by others? H said: the Lord has taught us to serve our brother as servants serve their masters, and as he bowed and washed the feet of his disciples we don't refrain from serving; for when Peter didn't want his feet to be washed, Christ said to him: If I don't wash you, you'll not have part with me" (Bostan El Rohban "Paradise of the Fathers", St. Antony 18,19)

Although, monastic/ascetic life is characterized by work, competition and staying up through the night; salvation isn't by man's righteousness but with the grace of God:

"Anba Bemwa asked Saint Antony what he should do for his salvation, he [St. Antony] replied: don't depend on your righteousness, and never do something you would regret later, hold your tongue, your stomach and your heart" (Bostan El Rohban, "Paradise of the Fathers, St. Antony 22)

"And at last, the merciful God starts at last [after trials and labor work] to open man's heart to understand that God is the one who sustains him; and then man starts to learn by truth how to glorify God with humbleness and contrite heart as David says: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit"

Suppressing and constricting the body are not enough for salvation:

"And he [St. Antony] said too: Some people tortured their bodies with asceticism and couldn't find the inner-sight and they became away from God's way" (Bostan El Rohban, "Paradise of the Fathers, St. Antony 27)

And everything that an ascetic does must be according to God's will:

"And this is how the saints should understand: that a man to know God's will and totally listen and submit to truth, because he is on the image and likeness of God. It's from the most evil things that a man obeys his will and disobeys God's will" (Bostan El Rohban, "Paradise of the Fathers,St. Isozorus the priest 162)

The life of asceticism/monasticism is connected to humility; humility is the highest ascetic virtue; when a man became humble, he understands that his victory in his struggle is from God and not from himself, and that without the Grace of God he will not be saved:

"And at last, the merciful God starts at last [after trials and labor work] to open man's heart to understand that God is the one who sustains him; and then man starts to learn by truth how to glorify God with humbleness and contrite heart as David says: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit" (Macarius Letter to his Children 12)

"St. Macarius was once asked: which virtues are the greatest? He replied: If pride is the greatest vices as it dethroned a troop of angles from the heights; then with no doubt, humility is the greatest virtue" (Bostan El Rohban, "Paradise of the Fathers, St. Macarius 36)

So, resisting the lusts of the flesh is part of asceticism, as bodily desires represent longing for this world; and resisting these desires means controlling the body not neglecting it:

"Abba Macarius was told about a hermit who went into the inner wild 50 years ago and never ate bread… so, Abba Macarius went to him, and the hermit was very happy to see Abba… Abba [Macarius] said to him: I've some questions that I want to ask: if you found gold between the rocks, can you differentiate it from the rocks? He [the hermit] replied: yes, but I control my thoughts that I won't take anything from it. Abba said: okay, and if you saw a beautiful woman, can you think of her as if she's not a woman? He [the hermit] said: No, but I control myself that I don't lust her." (Bostan El Rohban, "Paradise of the Fathers, St. Macarius 49)

Also, truthful ascetic life is situated in spending all the day with God according to the strength God gives to man not according to a strict unforgiving law:

 "Question: How can I spend my day? Answer: read a little in the psalms, recite a little, test your thoughts and don't put yourself under the bonds of a law; but do things according to the strength God gives you; and don't leave reciting the psalms and reading a little, so you can spend your day pleasing God; as our fathers didn’t have laws for the hours, but they spent the whole day: readings sometimes, reciting the psalms sometimes, learning their food needs sometimes and so on" (Bostan El Rohban, "Paradise of the Fathers, Abba Barsonofius 268)

And, ascetic life is not a literal life but spiritual life:

"Abba Siluan and his disciple Zachariah, once visited a monastery. The forced them there to eat a little before travelling, and when they got out, his disciple found some water and wanted to drink; the Abba [Siluan] said to him: Zachariah, today we are fasting; he [Zachariah] replied: but we just ate father!, Abba said: what we ate was from the act of love, but here we keep our fasting" (Aqual Al Aba' Al Sheo'k, "Sayings of the Elder Fathers", Abba Siluan 1)

And so repentance is; it's not by how hard are the practices but by how pure and faithful is the heart:

"Some people asked Abba Sisoi: if a brother falls into sin, shouldn't he repent for a whole year? He replied: no, this saying is harsh; they said: then is 6 months enough? He replied: this is too much. They said: so, is 40 days enough? He replied: and this is too much too. They said: so what? Then if he falls into sin he immediately join the brothers to the table. He replied: no, but a short time is enough for repentance, as I believe that if a man repented from his heart, God will accept him in three days" " (Aqual Al Aba' Al Sheo'k, "Sayings of the Elder Fathers", Abba Sisoi 20)


D. Antony and Pachomius


Antony and Pachomius are representatives respectively of two different forms of monastic life, that of the hermit and that of the community. While, Antony and the hermits stressed the need to live in seclusion in order to carry out the spiritual and physical acts necessary to prove devotion to God, reach spiritual purification, and atone for sins. Pachomius, however, displayed that communal living could also bring out the best in followers of Christianity.

Anchorites living in cells, usually a master and one or two disciples often clustered in larger groups; this form of monasticism is characterized by its interaction with society and the wider monastic community and by its stress on the teaching of disciples; represented early in the fourth century by Anthony. With a strong emphasis on authority based in experience, on the teaching of disciples and on obedience, the anchoretic tradition gives an impression of having its roots partly in the tradition of philosophical teaching. The emphasis on the complete isolation and remoteness of the cell of the single monk, stressed in the sources, is in many cases probably a literary ideal, rather than a physical reality.[10]

Although Antony came into contact with other individuals, his chosen way of life did not stress community living and stability of place. Antony’s solitude did not allow for the building or maturing of relationships and his spirituality was solely dependent upon his own will and desire to keep temptation at bay. In addition to fighting religious demons, Antony had to find ways in which to ward off temptation. Naturally, humans are social creatures who thrive upon communication with others. Living in solitude adds yet another difficulty in the already arduous task of asceticism and strict spirituality.[11]

Coenobites, monks living in a centrally organized monastery, often enclosed by a wall; this completely new model is first visible in the foundations by Pachomius in Egypt. In the sources for the earliest monasteries of this kind, three traits stand out as characteristic. The first is the emphasis on learning and teaching. The members of the community are not only taught the rules necessary for an organized community but also the motives behind them and the biblical support given to them, and are supposed not only to listen to exhortations, but to undertake study through reading. Second, the monasteries are organized for common work, primarily either agricultural or social, and in their relations to other sections of society they function as economic entities. Third, the monasteries are governed by a defined leadership responsible for all relations to the authorities, civic as well as ecclesiastical.[12]

Antony and Pachomius came to prescribe different means to achieve their ends as a result of their individual experiences. Antony believed God told him to become a hermit. Pachomius was encouraged by a monastic tutor to join a religious community. The people we meet and the encounters we have can change the course of our lives. This fact of life was true for Antony and Pachomius.[13] Both of them developed different streams to achieve their own goal; while Antony withdrew further and further into the desert; Pachomius stayed within the sphere of the village.

As Goehring mentions, Pachomius ascetic career moved him in exactly the opposite direction of that of Antony. Pachomius finds ascetic perfection in his return to the village.[14] Antony’s innovation was heading into the desert, definitively breaking the conventional ties with village and cultivated land that sustained life in Egypt. By doing so, he repositioned asceticism as a movement on the margin of church and society but very much enmeshed in both. Antony becomes the prototypical monk, renouncing an ordinary relationship with the world for the sake of another kind of relationship, and setting the normal issues of human existence against the backdrop of eternity and the vastness of the desert.[15] Pachomius, abandoned solitude for the sake of forming a community of monks that prayed, worked, and ate together in a highly ordered and very cloistered ascetic society.

But Antony's monastic type didn't mean withdrawal from the 'Great Commission.' AsAntony the theologian was a result of Antony the ascetic. Antony was a practitioner of what he taught; he always taught not from an exegetical or theoretical point of view but from experience, he experienced himself what he taught.

In the very beginning of his ascetic life, when he walked inside the church and heard (Matt. 19:21), he saw himself in the reading; he knew the authority of the Scripture, he obeyed it and reflected it in his teachings.

The authority of Scripture is reflected in a response by Antony to some brothers who came seeking a "word" to help them discover how to be saved. Antony felt it sufficient to answer, "You have heard Scripture that should teach you how." This simple response is revealing—regarding not only the authority of Scripture, but also the manner in which the monks often encountered it. Antony's brusque reply to the brothers' question speaks clearly about where he felt that clues to salvation were to be found.[16]

Harmless, from the Life of Antony gives some features of the routine Antony adapted[17]; most of these features have commonalities with his letters as in the First Letter, these commonalities proves that Antony the theologian was a result of Antony the practitioner who experienced first.

First feature, he spent the day doing manual labor to support himself; we read this in

Letter 1:59-60 “And also the movements of the hand, if they were moved disorderly by the will of the soul, are now made firm by the spirit and destined to move towards purity by prayers and acts of mercy….”

Second feature, he practiced “watchfulness,” spending whole nights without sleeping in vigilant prayer, in his first letter we read:

Letter 1:23-24 “First the body through many fasts and vigils, through the exertion and the exercises of the body. Cutting of all the fruits of the flesh”

Third, he maintained an austere diet: bread, salt, water, no meat, no wine:

Letter 1:61 “Also the belly is purified in its eating and drinking, although it used to be insatiable in these matters, once it had been moved towards them by the will of the soul.”

Letter 1:77 “If the soul endures and obeys what the spirit has taught it about repentance, then the Creator has mercy on the weariness of its repentance through the labors of the body, such as prolonged fasts, vigils, much study of the Word of God and many prayers, as the renunciation of the world and human things, humility, and contrition”

The theological vision of the Letters is practical pastoral theology influenced by the experience of asceticism Antony lived. The Scripture is very much fundamental for Antony, as Christopher Snook says “At its most general, the desert’s biblical hermeneutic emphasized that the true appropriation of Scripture required its embodiment in the life of the faithful monk.”[18] Also, Burton argues: “…the desert Christians were convinced that true understanding of the meaning of sacred text couldn’t come apart from the attempt to integrate a text into one’s life”[19]


E. Conclusion


To understand well why and how desert elders practiced these life-structuring strategies, we must understand first that asceticism isn’t running from a world that gone mad but simply turning backs on society in order to seek God and follow the teachings of Jesus as completely as possible in solitary.

Harmless describes Scetis like this: “The name Scetis is said to come from the Coptic shi hêt, meaning “to weigh the heart”—an apt name for a place where men, in the quest for God, spent their lives probing the depths and vagaries of the human heart.”[20] But this is the place; and the monk plays the other major part: Quest for God and pursuit of holiness through "imitation of Christ" and a "following of Christ." Strategies of life-structuring are a part of that; any deviation and the monk will lose his pursuit of holiness.

The aim of that way of life is “Encountering God”; Abba John the Dwarf said this “Watching means to sit in the cell and always be mindful of God. This is what is meant by the words ‘I was on the watch, and God came to me’ (John the Dwarf, 27). This is what the monastic way of life all about, and it is also our aim as Christians in modern days: “Encountering God”.

But encountering God means “struggle” and this is where monastic way differs from other Christian ways: Struggle in the desert is very different from struggle in the city; but results are the same. In Antony’s life “The Lord wasn’t forgetful of Antony’s struggle. God was at hand to assist him.” (Life of Antony, 10). John Chryssavgis says this “If God is right there in the middle of our struggle, then our aim is to stay there. We are to remain in the cell, to stay in the road, not to forego the journey or forget the darkness.”[21] Strugglers in the desert could easily see how God was not only in the middle of their struggle but is always there; in our modern day world we’ve plenty of distraction and jumbling and it becomes very difficult in the midst of these to see God in the struggle.

It’s not the desert itself that make the person encounter God; Antony made it clear, it’s all about complete renunciation, and it’s not a matter or desert or city: “He [Abba Antony] also said, ‘Always have the fear of God before your eyes. Remember him who gives death and life. Hate the world and all that is in it. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh. Renounce this life, so that you may be alive to God. Remember what you have promised God, for it will be required of you on the Day of Judgment. Suffer hunger, thirst, nakedness, be watchful and sorrowful; weep, and groan in your heart; test yourselves, to see if you are worthy of God; despise the flesh, so that you may preserve your souls” (Antony, 33)

So, holiness can be attained outside the physical desert: “Monastic separation doesn’t necessarily have to spatial into Antony’s literal dersert, but some sort of withdrawal or distancing is necessary in order to gain perspective on the world and its values.” [22]




Burton-Christie, Douglas. “Practice Makes Perfect: Interpretation of Scripture in the Apopthegmata Patrum.” Studia Patrisctica 20 (1987): 213–18.

———. Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. Oxf. U.P. (N.Y.), 1994.

Chryssavgis, John. In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers?: With a Translation of Abba Zosimas’ Reflections. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, Inc., 2008.

Dunn, Marilyn. The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages. Oxford, UK; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

“First Clement: Clement of Rome.” Accessed March 27, 2016.

Goehring, James E. Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999.

Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Holder, Arthur G. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality. Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005.

Kuzyszyn, Adriana. “Attractions of Monasticism: A Comparison of Four Late Antique Monastic Rules.” Http://, Honors Papers, 2008.

Mikhail, Maged S. A, and Mark Moussa, eds. Christianity and Monasticism in Wadi Al-Natrun Essays from the 2002 International Symposium of the Saint Mark Foundation and the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society. Cairo; New York (N.Y.): The American University in Cairo Press, 2009.

Mitchell, Margaret Mary. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

“Monasticism, Egyptian?:: Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia.” Accessed March 27, 2016.

Rubenson, Samuel. The Letters of St. Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

Snook, Christopher. “‘Beloved, Know Yourselves’ Theology and Scripture in Anthony’s ‘Life’, ‘Letters’ and Sayings.” Library and Archives Canada = Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, 2007.


[1] M.A. Candidate

[2] “Monasticism, Egyptian.”

[3] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism, 6.

[4] Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony.

[5] “First Clement: Clement of Rome.”




[9] All Saying from "Bostan El Rohband [Paradise of the Fathers]" are my translations from the Arabic Edition: Epiphanius Al Makary, Bostan Al Rohban [Paradise of the Fathers] (Cairo: Abo Makar Monastery, 2013)

[10] Mitchell, The Cambridge History of Christianity, 646.

[11] Kuzyszyn, “Attractions of Monasticism: A Comparison of Four Late Antique Monastic Rules,” 18–19.

[12] Mitchell, The Cambridge History of Christianity, 646–47.

[13] Kuzyszyn, “Attractions of Monasticism: A Comparison of Four Late Antique Monastic Rules,” 20.

[14] Goehring, Ascetics, Society, and the Desert, 94.

[15] Holder, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, 86.

[16] Burton-Christie, Word in the Desert, 108.

[17] Harmless, Desert Christians, 61–62.

[18] Snook, “‘Beloved, Know Yourselves’ Theology and Scripture in Anthony’s ‘Life’, ‘Letters’ and Sayings.,” 57.

[19] Burton-Christie, “Practice Makes Perfect: Interpretation of Scripture in the Apopthegmata Patrum,” 215–16.

[20] Harmless, Desert Christians, 173.

[21] Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert, 104.

[22] Mikhail and Moussa, Christianity and Monasticism in Wadi Al-Natrun Essays from the 2002 International Symposium of the Saint Mark Foundation and the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society, 92.

Mina Fouad Tawike

Mina Fouad Tawike



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