Getting Along Together: Toleration among the Monks of Ancient Egypt.
In a recent article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies (1997:1, pp.61-84) James E. Goehring proposes a fascinating thesis concerning the early monks of Egypt. He claims that despite sharp clashes among the clergy over doctrinal differences, these controversies did not overly disrupt the monastic communities. There were, of course, significant variations in the thinking of the monks, and not just between houses; the same monastery might contain partisans of both sides of a given controversy. Nevertheless, these differences did not tear the monasteries apart. At least for some time, the monks considered shared ascetical ideals a sufficient basis for common life; only later, and under pressure from the hierarchy, did they let their doctrinal differences divide them.
The first case Goehring brings forward concerns Abba Sisoes, a follower of Antony who lived at the Inner Mountain after his master's death. According to the Apophthegmata, or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Sisoes 48; PG 65.405; Eng. trans. Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian 1975, p. 185) this hermit finally decided to move to the Outer Mountain, a monastic district on the right bank of the Nile that served as another Antonian center. For our purposes here, the move itself is not as relevant as a related event: It seems that some lay Christians wished to visit Sisods, but they would not do so because there were also Melitian monks living there.
Now these Melitians demand some explanation because their name is not well-known, even to students of Church history. Like the Donatists in the western part of North Africa, the Melitians were unhappy with the policy of readmitting to the Church those Christians who had capitulated to the Diocletian persecution of 300-10 AD. Although they later affiliated with the Arians, at first there were no doctrinal differences between the Melitians and the Orthodox party. After the matter was mediated at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), they were reconciled with the Bishop of Alexandria. But this accord broke down and became particularly acerbic during the long reign of Bishop Athanasius (328-73 AD). Although the Melitians were a small group, they persisted for several centuries in northern Egypt.
What is interesting in the case of Sisoes (late 4th century), says Goehring, is the fact that he was willing to live in a monastic settlement where there were Melitian monks as well as Orthodox ones. Even though his lay admirers chose to avoid the Outer Mountain because of this fact, the monks themselves did not consider it a cause for conflict. That does not mean that he meant to live a common life with them; after all, anchorites usually gave each other quite a bit of social space. But at least Sisoes was less fastidious about ideological differences than were some of his lay admirers.
In a second case described by Goehring, however, Melitian and non-Melitian monks apparently did live cheek by jowl in a cenobitic monastery. In the monastery of Labla, which was situated in the district of Arsinod, a certain monk by the name of Aioulios willed his cell to another monk named Eulogios. Apart from the shocking (according to Benedictine standards) transfer of property by one monk to another, the interesting point here is that Aioulios was Orthodox and Eulogios was Melitiani. This fact is made perfectly clear in the papyrus document that tells the tale (Trinity College, Dublin, pap. D5). Since Aioulios intended to continue living in his cell until death, apparently he was quite content to live among Melitian brethren. Furthermore, the will is witnessed by three Melitian clergy and three Orthodox! It is almost as if the document wants to insist on the ecumenical nature of life at Labla.
But why should we be surprised to find this kind of live-and-let-live attitude? Mainly because the principal monastic texts of the period would have us think just the opposite. For example, the famous Life of Antony makes a strong point of insisting that the hero was dead set against the Arian heresy and indeed all heresy. But Goehring reminds us that the author of that tract himself was the main enemy of the Arians, namely, Bishop Athanasius. One of his purposes in writing the Life was precisely to enlist the monks in his cause. Yet that does not prove that the monks themselves were given to ideological or doctrinal internecine warfare.
The same thing is said about the founder of cenobitic monasticism, St. Pachomius. In the First Greek Life (44), Pachomius makes an especially strong statement versus Origenism: "[He] hated the man Origen ... because he recognized him as a blasphemer ... [and he] ordered the brothers not only not to dare to read that man's writings, but not even to listen to his sayings." In addition to this, Pachomius has a book of Origen publicly burned.
Given Pachontius' reported allergy to anything even faintly associated with heresy, it comes as a surprise to learn that some scholars, including Goehring, now suggest that in actuality, that community may not have been so closed to other theological viewpoints. The main reason for saying this lies in the discovery in 1945 of a large Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, which is quite close to the site of one of the Pachomian monasteries. What is more, some of the bindings of these texts include papyrus on which are written letters from the Pachomian communities.
Now, the discovery of this cache of early heterodox texts is to early Church history what the Dead Sea Scrolls is to biblical studies: a treasure trove. But the suggestion that the monks owned such unorthodox materials could cause embarrassment to modem monastic readers. However, there is no absolute proof that they did. A major Pachomian scholar such as Armand Veilleux, OCSO, is rather doubtful of any connection between these texts and the monks. Yet the eminent petrologist Henry Chadwick has recently commented that it would be no surprise to him if this was in fact a Pachoniian library. He writes:
This is not a matter of naively setting out to "discover" Pachomius to have been a heretical ascetic subsequently covered by orthodox plasterwork, but rather of asking to what extent it is reasonable to think the early Pachomian tradition largely indifferent where dogma is concerned, content to make use of a diversity of gifts so long as they encourage renunciation of the world. ("Pachomios and the Idea of Sanctity," Byzantine Saint: University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, ed. Bentley Layton [London: Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1981] p. 18).
Goehring, however, is not ready to agree that all the Pachornian monks were simple or naive, especially when it came to spiritual texts. He thinks they understood what they read, and they were also discriminating enough to take what was useful and reject the rest. In other words, they were not simpletons who needed to be protected from dangerous heterodox ideas. But how can we square this with the explicit claim in the Life of Pachomius that he hated Origen and banned all his books from the monastery?
Goehring thinks that this is a later retrojection of a doctrinal fanaticism that was not present in the founder himself, but only came into play when the community became more closely allied with the Archbishops of Alexandria. Since the condemnation and book-buming does not appear in the Coptic versions of the Life of Pachomius, we can suspect it was added by someone who wished to include the great saint posthumously in the crusade against Origen. In fact, says Goehring, there are signs that Pachomius himself was by no means eager to become too closely connected to the archbishop. When Athanasius came to ordain him, he hid himself until the Alexandrian "Pope" went away (Bohairic Life 28).
So Goehring, at least, thinks that it is not unlikely that the Nag Hammadi books were part of a Pachomian library. What does this mean? It is probably more important to insist, along with Goehring, on what it does not mean. Certainly it does not mean that Pachomius was a Gnostic heretic! Some of the Nag Hammadi texts are wildly heretical and completely incompatible with biblical Christianity, to which Pachoniius was passionately attached. Neither does it mean that any of his monks, contemporary or later, adhered to any of the teachings taught in the Nag Hammadi Gnostic materials.
What it may suggest, however, is that the Pachomian communities were not afraid to have some Gnostic books in their libraries. Such books may not have been accessible to all the monks, especially the unlettered or the novices. But it was not thought necessary to purge the library of all theological ideas at variance with the reigning orthodoxy. If that was their attitude, then it was certainly different from the ferocious heresy-hunting of the famous Abbot Schenute, who personally led his monks on expeditions against pagan temples in the years around 440 AD (See Tito Orlandi, Schenute contra origenistas [Rome: CIM 1985]).
In summing up, it is important to note also that Goehfing is not suggesting that the early monks were completely indifferent to doctrine, or that they were "relativists" who thought that doctrinal orthodoxy was irrelevant. His point is subtler: He thinks that the first monks did not think that it was their primary task to create communities of absolutely like-minded persons; nor was their first concern to be a conventicle of doctrinally pure individuals. They were first of all interested in living in harmony with others who also sought to live a dedicated ascetic life. Actually, Goehring goes so far as to suggest that monasticism originated among intellectuals, who were often open to differing opinions. The idea that it originated among simple peasants is gradually losing favor among scholars.
The suggestion that the early monks were not too interested in doctrinal questions may surprise us today. But this is largely because we look at them through the lens of what happened later in the Church. By the end of the fourth century, the Church was riven by dogmatic controversy, mostly concerning the nature of Christ. And sometimes the monks were recruited by the bishops to function as mobs to make their points forcibly. Thus it was not unknown for the monks of Nitria and Sketis to descend on Alexandria at the behest of the bishop in order to make things hot for his opponents. Of course, such mobs were fickle, and could be used by another demagogue for the opposite purpose the next day.
What has all this got to do with us modem monks? Probably no bishop is interested in hiring us as henchmen. It has been a long time, perhaps, since theological controversy has torn apart a monastery-although De Rance imposed silence on the Trappists to keep Jansenist controversy out of his monastery. Somehow, the notion of a tolerant, broadminded, peace-loving monasticism is more attractive (at least to this writer) than the spectre of the monastery as fortress harboring narrow-gauge spiritual fanatics. The latter tend to form into tightly wound cadres capable of doing remarkable things, both good or bad. The former may risk mediocrity, but at least its members realize that salvation is not, by and large, a matter of avoiding theological error, but of loving your neighbor--even if he is slightly unorthodox.
Terrence Kardong, OSB