THE COPTIC CHURCH
THE MONASTIC MOVEMENT
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
AN EVANGELIC ASCETICISM
The Coptic Church is known by her ascetic attitudes, not
only because it was there the monastic movements started,
but because these attitudes represent characteristics of her
life of worship. These attitudes have an evangelic base;
"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole
world and lose his own soul?!"
"Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor ... and
come, follow Me" Luke 18:22.
"But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified" 1 Cor. 9:27.
The Copts enjoyed this evangelic thought, and their hearts were flamed by the love of eternity.
THE ASCETIC LIFE AND THE WORLD TO COME1
The ancient Egyptians believed in the so-called
"resurrection," that is, it was possible for the dead to live
again forever if certain ceremonies were carried out2. For
this reason the bodies must be well kept in sealed tombs, so
that only the soul (ka) can visit the tomb and dwell in it.
No doubt, then, that tombs were provided with all articles
used in daily life. Clothes, food and drinking vessels, cutlery,
chairs etc. Besides the actual furniture, the deceased was supplied with his weapons and carriages. The ornaments of women and the playthings of children, such as dolls and balls were also placed in the tomb.
When the Egyptians were converted to Christianity their
longing for the world to come increased, based on the
evangelic truth. Instead of their interest in the return of the
spirits to their bodies that are preserved in the tomb, they
desired that their spirits, minds and hearts be lifted up to
enjoy heavenly life even while their bodies were on earth. In
other words, their longing for the world to come paved the
way to practice ascetic life on a biblical basis.
THE CONCEPT OF THE COPTIC ASCETICISM
Asceticism, in the Coptic Church, is not a goal in itself
that believers desire to attain, but it is a practical response to
divine love. Our Lord gave Himself on our behalf, and we in
turn long to give ourselves a loving-sacrifice for God's sake.
We abstain from temporary pleasures as a sign of our
internal desire to enjoy the divine delight through the new
life in Jesus Christ. Believers, especially monks, have one
purpose; to attain the inner heavenly Kingdom as a pledge of
their hope for eternal life and meeting with God.
ASCETICISM AND CHURCH LIFE
In many occasions I spoke about asceticism in the Coptic
Church and its effect on her theological concepts, her life of
worship, her conduct etc. Here I refer just to the following
1. The effect of the ascetic life on the Coptic Church is
very clear, especially in her worship: the hymns are lengthy
but very sweet and soul-comforting and long fasting too
many (more than half of the year), liturgies concentrate on the advent of Christ.
2. Her martyrs are innumerable, so that some historians
look upon her existence as a divine miracle. It was not
uncommon that an entire population of a city would hurry
joyfully to their persecutors to gain crowns of martyrdom.
3. The spiritual ascetic thought had its own effect on the Alexandrian theology, because it has a soteriological attitude, and theology concentrated on the enjoyment of salvation. Theology is not philosophical thoughts to be discussed, but it is rather an experience of God's redeeming acts in the believer's life4.
4. The ascetic life does not mean an enmity to the body and its senses and energies, but rather it looks upon the body in sanctity as aiding the soul5.
5. The ascetic life prepared the way to the monastic
movement in all its forms: monarchism, coenobitic and
communal systems, which aim at the unity with God in
different forms. Therefore, the Egyptians understood
"monarchism" not as an isolation from men but as a unity
with God... The monk does not isolate his heart from the
human race but loves everybody wholeheartedly even if he
lives in the desert. He prays for them, and shares them their
sorrows, begging earnestly for their salvation.
6. Many of the Egyptian Fathers resisted the exaggeration in asceticism, especially if it is practiced without wisdom or discernment.
THE MONASTIC MOVEMENT6
In Egypt, all monastic forms started, in the fourth century, to reattract the heart of the Church to the inner life, after the country had accepted Christianity and the Emperor had opened his door to bishops and priests .
Undoubtedly the various monastic forms or orders did not
start on the basis of previous church plan, but they came to
light through instinct love that flamed the hearts of many
1. In the Apostolic age, many believers practiced
asceticism, to enjoy the perfect life as it came in the Gospel.
2. The eschatological attitude of the church flamed the
believers' longing for the Bridegroom's advent. On this base
some believers preferred to live in virginity and devote all
their time to worship, as a spiritual preparation for the
heavenly wedding feast. In the second century Christian
virgins used to walk in the liturgical processions after the
priests and before widows. Many communities of virgins
lived in Alexandria and many other countries all over the
world, and many treatises on "Virginity" represented a vital
part of the patristic writings in the first three centuries.
3. Some felt not only the need to live as virgins and have
no family responsibilities, but also the need for a spiritual
atmosphere. Women lived together in a house to assist one
another spiritually. Men preferred to leave the cities and live
in simple huts in villages. They were called "devotees." Some
Christians felt thirsty towards the angelic life, and escaped to
the deserts. We know only a small number of them such as
St. Paul the First Hermit who lived in the desert more than ninety years (c. A.D 250-341).
Although many preceded him in practicing
monasticism, it was St. Anthony the Great who established
the monastic movement and is considered the father of the
monastic family for the following reasons: His close
relationship with the leaders of the Church, especially Pope
Athanasius who wrote about him to the Roman world; and
because his cave was opened after twenty years of complete
isolation and many leaders of monasticism became his
disciples. Philosophers and rulers came to discuss reason
with him. He also was an active member of the Church, who
visited Alexandria in the period of persecution to serve and
encourage the confessors, and to assist St. Athanasius in his
struggle against Arianism.
5. St. Pachomius established the coenobitic system, because he was aware that the anchoric order was not fit for all those who desired the monastic life.
6. SS. Macari the Great and Amoun and others
established the communal order in Wadi-el-Natroun, where
many came from all over the world to live the monastic life
in Egypt, and to write about the Egyptian monasticism.
It is worthy to note that the leaders of the three forms of monasticism were not prejudiced to their own orders, but praised the other orders.
7. Women monastic movement started side by side with
that of men, and monks contributed in the building of the
nunneries. Many female leaders appeared, who played
effective roles, such as abbess Sarah and abbess Theodora.
Many Egyptian and foreign women were disguised in men garments to live an ascetic life in men monasteries, and they became pioneers in asceticism and spirituality.
SOME EXAMPLES OF MONASTIC LEADERS
1. ST. PAUL OF THEBES (The First Pilgrim -
In the year 374 or 375 A.D., St. Jerome wrote
his biography. St. Paul a native of the lower Thebaid in
Egypt was highly skilled in both Greek and Egyptian
learning. Being about sixteen year old, upon the death of his
parents he came into a rich inheritance, during the per-
secution of Dicus (250 A.D) the young man fled to the
desert, when his brother Peter threatened to betray him.
When the blessed Paul, already one hundred and thirteen
years old, was leading a heavenly life on earth, St. Anthony
visited him. St. Paul called St. Anthony by his name, and
they were speaking about God's wonderful works, praising
Him. At sunset, a raven alighted upon a branch of a tree and
gently swooped down and laid a whole loaf of bread before
them, although it used to bring only half of a loaf every day
for St. Paul to feed.
On the third day St. Paul asked St. Anthony to go and
fetch him a cloak that bishop Athanasius had gave him, to
wrap his body with. When St. Anthony returned to the cave,
he found St. Paul kneeling as if he was praying, but he
discovered that he had already departed. Two lions came and
dug the ground with their paws so that the corpse of the
blessed man might be buried.
2. ST. ANTHONY:
He was born about A.D 251 in
Coma (Kemn-el-Arouse) in Middle Egypt. He was eighteen
years old when he entered the church and heard the word of
the Gospel: "If you want to be perfect, sell all you have, give
to the poor and come follow Me" Matt. 19:21. He sold his
land and left his sister in a community of virgins, and lived in
a hut under the guidance of a recluse. Later he departed to
the western desert to live in a tomb carved in a mountain,
where he struggled in his spiritual war against demons. He
was about thirty-five years old when he settled on the east
bank of the Nile at Pispir to live as a hermit. Many came to
him to copy his holy life. He again retired into solitude in the
inner wilderness in the "El- Kalzam Mountain." He urged
himself to visit Alexandria in A.D. 316 to assist the martyrs,
and in A.D 352 to help St. Athanasius in his controversy
against Arianism. Many came to him as disciples. He de-
parted to the Lord in A.D 356. Among his disciples were SS.
Hilarious of Gaza, Macari of Sheheet, Amoun of Nitria and
Paul the Simple.
3. ST. PACHOMIUS:
He was born in about A.D 290, in
Upper Egypt, and he was converter to Christianity in Esnah
(Latopolis) in Upper Egypt because of the generosity of its
people and their love even towards their enemies. He left the
army and was baptized in A.D 307 in Chenoboskion. He
became a disciple of Palamon the Hermit, until an angel
appeared to him and guided him to the Coenobitic system.
As a successful leader he was concerned with the salvation
of everybody; established many monasteries in Upper Egypt
in an accurate order. In addition to two nunneries under the
guidance of his sister.
His coenobitic laws were translated into Greek and Latin,
and they were used by St. Basil the Great, and by the
Gaulians in the fifth Century. Benedict, the Father of the
western monasticism and Caeserius of Arles adopted them
4. ST. AMOUN:
He was a contemporary to St. Anthony.
He was born about A.D 275, when he was a young man of
about twenty-two (A.D 297) he was constrained by his uncle
to marry, but he lived with his wife as two ascetics. After
eighteen years (c. 315) she asked that they should live apart
for the good of the progress of their spiritual life. Then he
went to Mount Nitria, where many came to him as disciples,
and where he established the communal system. It is a
system half way between monarchism and the cenobitic
system. The monks do not share in worship and food daily;
they gather only on Saturdays and Sundays. They live in cells
or caves around a church.
5. ST. MACARIUS THE GREAT (c. 300-390 A.D): He was the founder of the communal order in the desert of Scetis; he visited St. Anthony at least twice.
His parents obliged him to marry, but God permitted that his wife should die while she was a virgin. He lived in a hut, in a village, practicing asceticism about ten years, under the guidance of a hermit. As he longed for anchorism he went to Scetis, following a Cherub. He practiced worship and asceticism, with an open heart and therefore many came to him as disciples; from the East and West.
6. ST. SHENOUDA THE ARCHIMANDRITE
Head of Anchorites): He was an abbot of the White
Monastery of Atribe in the desert of Thebes for more than
sixty five years (the forth/fifth century), heading 2200 monks
and 1800 nuns. He is called Archimandrite for he used to practice the hermitic life from time to time, and encouraged some of his monks to withdraw to the desert after a few years of coenobitic life. In A.D 431 he accompanied St. Cyril the Great to the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus.
He created Egyptian nationalism or Coptism, eliminating
every Hellenistic culture from the Coptic literature, and did
not permit any foreigner to be admitted to his monasteries.
Besides his deep spirituality he was a political leader and a
7. ST. SARAH THE ABBESS:
The first monastic
community in the world for women was founded in
Alexandria by St. Syncletica, whose biography and teachings
were preserved by Pope Athanasius. St. Pachomius
established two women's convents, and many women hermits
lived in the desert.
Many foreign abbesses came to Egypt such as St. Melania
the Great (in A.D 374) and her granddaughter Melania the
young (in A.D 418).We also cannot ignore St. Mary of
Egypt who was converted in Jerusalem. For forty-eight years
she dwelt in the desert beyond Jordan seeing nobody, except
St. Osima twice in the last two years of her life.
Many abbesses were endowed with the grace of the true
leadership and spiritual discernment. One of them was Sarah,
who lived in Pelusium, and her sayings were treasured by the
8. ST. HILARY:
The daughter of Emperor Zeno in the
fifth century, fled to the desert of Scetic to practice
asceticism while she was disguised in a monk's clothes. When
her sister Theopesta was possessed by an evil spirit the elders
of the wilderness sent her to Hillary without knowing that
she was a woman. She prayed for her all night and kissed
her. When she was healed the emperor was astonished at the
monk who prayed for his daughter and was kissing her. He
called (him) to his palace and when the (monk) got a promise
that the emperor would leave (him) return to (his) cell, he
uncovered (his) personality.
EGYPTIAN MONASTICISM AND THE CHRISTIAN WORLD7
The Coptic monasticism is considered the most profound spiritual revival that ever happened in all the history of the Church. It attracted people from all over the world to practice angelic life in Egypt. Greeks, Roman, Cappadocians, Libyans, Syrians, Nubians, Ethiopians etc.
The following is a brief account of the effect of the Coptic monasticism on the whole Christian world:
1. Pope Athanasius was greatly responsible for the
introduction of the monastic movement to the Roman
religious life, during his exile in Treve (A.D 336-337), and
his flight to Rome in A.D 339. He also wrote his book "Vita
Antonii" about A.D 357 which was distributed all over the
2. The Pachomian rules were translated into Greek by
Palladius, and into Latin by Jerome. St. Basil visited the
Pachomian monasteries and he was profoundly impressed by
what he saw.
3. The rules of Benedict of Nursia (c. A.D 480-550) were based on the Pachomian ones.
4. St. John Cassian (A.D 360-435) stayed seven years in Egypt, and he wrote his two famous books: the "Institutes" and the "Conferences."
5. Evagrius Ponticus (A.D. 346-399) who occupied a
central place in the history of Christian spirituality, lived as a
monk for two years in Nitria, then fourteen years in the
6. SS. Jerome (A.D 342-420) and Rufinus (A.D 345-410) paid a visit to Egypt.
7. Palladius (c. 365-425 A.D), bishop of Helenopolis and
historian of the early monasticism, spent several years with
the monks of Egypt, where he was a disciple of Evagrius
Ponitcus, and composed his book "Lausaic History" about
the year A.D. 419.
8. Mar Eugenius became a disciple of St. Pachomius; he
established a monastery in Nisibus Persia and translated St.
Pachomius' rules to the Persian and Syrian about the middle
of the fourth century. According to the Chaldean tradition,
seventy Egyptian monks helped him in building several
monasteries at Nisibus.
9. St. Hilarious of Palestine (c.291-371 A.D) became a disciple of St. Anthony and returned to his own land to practice asceticism.
10. St. Epiphanius (A.D 315-403), bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, had been instructed in monastic Coptic thought.
11. The "Dialogues of Sulpicius Severus" (c. A.D 430) written by a traveler called Postumian, recorded what he had seen in Egypt. This was a very favorable view of the Egyptian monasticism.
12 Etheria (Egaria), a Spanish abbess or nun in the fourth century visited Egypt.
13. St. Melania the elder, a Roman lady, visited the desert of Egypt.
14. St. John Chrysostom stayed in one of the Pachomian monasteries in Upper Egypt from 373 to 381 A.D.
THE COPTIC MONASTIC MOVEMENT TODAY
One of the remarkable aspects of the Coptic Orthodox
Church today is the continual increase of those who are
eager to join monastic life. At present, in Egypt, there are
eleven monasteries scattered in the diverse desert regions,
and six convents within the cities. All of them are expanding
and are being renovated.
His Holiness Pope Cyril VI established St. Menas' Monastery in Mareotis, south west of Alexandria.
H. Holiness Pope Shenouda III takes care of St. Pishoy's
Monastery in Wadi-el-Natroun. He established a papal
residence in this area because of his eagerness to practice
monastic life in addition of his tremendous pastoral
responsibilities. Usually he spends three days per week in this
Some of the young men who had been immigrated to
U.S.A., Canada and Australia and who succeeded in their careers, were admitted to the monasteries in Egypt.
1. Fr. Tadros Malaty: The Coptic Church, "Church of Alexandria," Melbourne 1978,
2. Hastings Encycl. of Religion and Ethics vol. 1, p.113.
3. M.E. Harkness: Egyptian life and history, p. 17-19.
4. Fr. T. Malaty: The terms : "Physis & Hypostasis" in the Early Church, Sept. 1986,
5. Fr. T. Malaty: Dict. of the Fathers and the Saints of the Church, vol. 1,
6. Fr. Malaty: The Coptic Orthodox Church, 1986, p. 9-11.
7. Ibid, p. 78-83.