In the 4th century, the great Bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote a biography on St. Antony of Egypt. St. Antony was among the first hermits. St. Athanasius was both a first rate theologian and an outstanding writer. For a time in which books were copied by hand, his small tome on St. Anthony became a “best-seller.” More than that, it set on fire the imagination of a generation of Romans (from all over the empire). The result was a massive growth in monasticism, such that the deserts of Egypt would eventually hold hundreds of thousands of monks (as unbelievable as it seems). Indeed, the entire matter looked like a state crisis, when the sons and daughter of the well-born were no longer producing children but pursuing God in the desert.
That initial impulse yielded the Desert Fathers and contained monastics from every walk of life, including those who had left the service of the Emperor in order to enter the service of God. They established a monasticism that would come to be a hallmark, especially of the Eastern Church. Constantinople had a massive population of monks.
Some have said that Anthony’s foundation of monasticism prepared the Church for the compromises that came along with the Church’s later embracement of the State under Constantine and later. The monastics had no place for compromise in their lives. They had a vision that believed entirely that the way of asceticism was a way to know God and to truly become a partaker of His life in this life.
Ever since those times, Orthodoxy in the East has often risen and fallen with the fortunes of the monasteries. They were a consistent force for Orthodoxy against the various heresies that arose and held to the faith in such a way that compromise of the truth seemed absurd.
Every great flowering of the Orthodox faith in its subsequent history was accompanied by a flowering of the monastic life. Often the monasteries were the place where the flowering began. Such names as St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Theodore the Studite, St. Athanasius of Athos, St. John of Damascus, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov (and the roll could be ever so much longer) are all associated with monastic health and rightness of belief.
So how is this relevant for the Orthodox Church today. I do not think anything has changed. There were speculations in Europe in the mid-20th century that a new monasticism, a “hidden monasticism,” would come into being. Robbed of the great monasteries by the Communist revolution – many thought to find alternative ways to have this essential presence in the Church’s life. Some began to “re-imagine” monasticism.
As time has gone by, such “hidden monasticism” as they imagined has largely not been born. Instead, Communism is fallen, and the great monasteries are being reclaimed and thousands are filling their space. The monasticism that has seen such a rebirth since 1989, is still quite young and will take generations to come to its full maturity. But such a rebirth has begun.
In America, as recently as the early 20th century, there was exactly one Orthodox Monastery, St. Tikhon’s in South Canaan Pennsylvania. Others followed by quite slowly. With the coming of the Elder Ephraim from Mt. Athos to America in the 80’s and 90’s, monasticism began not a rebirth, but a new birth in America. Today, there are monasteries that number in the 10’s (the Elder Ephraim’s communities are around 20 simply by themselves). But there has been a birth of new monasteries with the OCA, the Greek Archdiocese, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and a number of others. Monasticism is growing – slowly in relative terms – but growing.
The question is, whether there will be young men and women who will come to believe that the monastic life holds the same promise that the first monks saw. It is not a promise of a changed world, nor of institutionalized educational service or medical service. It is the promise that through careful devotion to Christ we can become what he promised us we would be. Generations of such men and women have changed the face of certain parts of the world – primarily because they changed their own faces first.