FROM the fourth century AD, monastic life flourished in all parts of the Christian Church. Its origins go back not only to the beginning of Christianity, but to ascetic movements in the non-Christian world. Christian monasticism began in Egypt, and quickly spread to the Latin-, Greek-, and Syriac-speaking churches. This book describes the development of monastic life in the Christian East, and complements The I. B. Tauris History of Monasticism: The Western tradition by G. R. Evans.
John Binns, a former Vicar of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies there. For many years, he has had a great interest in the Oriental Orthodox Churches as well as the Eastern Orthodox, and has visited many of the places that he describes. Inevitably in what these days ranks as a short book, he has had to be less than comprehensive in telling the story, and has chosen to do so through selected events, anecdotes, and personalities.
Eastern monasticism was and is more varied than Western. There was no equivalent of the Rule of St Benedict in either the Greek or the Syriac monastic traditions; and, although the rule, or typicon, of certain monasteries influenced the way of life of others, each monastery had its own distinctive pattern. There were urban monasteries, which engaged in social work, rural monasteries, and monasteries deliberately founded in remote, mountainous regions. Hermits often lived in or around coenobitic communities as well as in deserts; and smaller communities, known as scetes, normally had a more austere way of life than their parent monasteries.
Binns takes the reader from the Egyptian desert to Syria and Asia Minor, from Jerusalem and Palestine to Constantinople, and to Ethiopia and Africa. From the ninth century, Greek-speaking Christianity was translated into Slavonic. It expanded into the Balkans and Russia, where monasteries played a vital part in its diffusion. From the tenth century, Mount Athos became the most important monastic centre for both the Greek and Slavonic Churches; and, after several centuries of decline, it has been surprisingly reinvigorated in recent decades.
The book’s historical compass matches its wide geographical range, and brings the story to the present day. Monasticism has survived Islamic rule in the Middle East; and the collapse of Communist rule has enabled its remarkable revival. Readers will meet notable monastics in a wide variety of situations, but all united in their single-minded pursuit of Christ-like holiness.
Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford.
The T & T Clark History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition
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