Chapter VI.—Pontitianus Account of Antony, the Founder of Monachism, and of Some Who Imitated Him.
13. And how, then, Thou didst deliver me out of the bonds of carnal desire, wherewith I was most firmly fettered, and out of the drudgery of worldly business, will I now declare and confess unto Thy name, “O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.” 652 Amid increasing anxiety, I was transacting my usual affairs, and daily p. 122 sighing unto Thee. I resorted as frequently to Thy church as the business, under the burden of which I groaned, left me free to do. Alypius was with me, being after the third sitting disengaged from his legal occupation, and awaiting further opportunity of selling his counsel, as I was wont to sell the power of speaking, if it can be supplied by teaching. But Nebridius had, on account of our friendship, consented to teach under Verecundus, a citizen and a grammarian of Milan, and a very intimate friend of us all; who vehemently desired, and by the right of friendship demanded from our company, the faithful aid he greatly stood in need of. Nebridius, then, was not drawn to this by any desire of gain (for he could have made much more of his learning had he been so inclined), but, as a most sweet and kindly friend, he would not be wanting in an office of friendliness, and slight our request. But in this he acted very discreetly, taking care not to become known to those personages whom the world esteems great; thus avoiding distraction of mind, which he desired to have free and at leisure as many hours as possible, to search, or read, or hear something concerning wisdom.
14. Upon a certain day, then, Nebridius being away (why, I do not remember), lo, there came to the house to see Alypius and me, Pontitianus, a countryman of ours, in so far as he was an African, who held high office in the emperors court. What he wanted with us I know not, but we sat down to talk together, and it fell out that upon a table before us, used for games, he noticed a book; he took it up, opened it, and, contrary to his expectation, found it to be the Apostle Paul,—for he imagined it to be one of those books which I was wearing myself out in teaching. At this he looked up at me smilingly, and expressed his delight and wonder that he had so unexpectedly found this book, and this only, before my eyes. For he was both a Christian and baptized, and often prostrated himself before Thee our God in the church, in constant and daily prayers. When, then, I had told him that I bestowed much pains upon these writings, a conversation ensued on his speaking of Antony, 653 the Egyptian monk, whose name was in high repute among Thy servants, though up to that time not familiar to us. When he came to know this, he lingered on that topic, imparting to us a knowledge of this man so eminent, and marvelling at our ignorance. But we were amazed, hearing Thy wonderful works most fully manifested in times so recent, and almost in our own, wrought in the true faith and the Catholic Church. We all wondered—we, that they were so great, and he, that we had never heard of them.
15. From this his conversation turned to the companies in the monasteries, and their manners so fragrant unto Thee, and of the fruitful deserts of the wilderness, of which we knew nothing. And there was a monastery at Milan 654 full of good brethren, without the walls of the city, under the fostering care of Ambrose, and we were ignorant of it. He went on with his relation, and we listened intently and in silence. He then related to us how on a certain afternoon, at Triers, when the emperor was taken up with seeing the Circensian games, 655 he and three others, his comrades, went out for a walk in the gardens close to the city walls, and there, as they chanced to walk two and two, one strolled away with him, while the other two went by themselves; and these, in their ramp. 123 bling, came upon a certain cottage inhabited by some of Thy servants, “poor in spirit,” of whom “is the kingdom of heaven,” 656 where they found a book in which was written the life of Antony. This one of them began to read, marvel at, and be inflamed by it; and in the reading, to meditate on embracing such a life, and giving up his worldly employments to serve Thee. And these were of the body called “Agents for Public Affairs.” 657 Then, suddenly being overwhelmed with a holy love and a sober sense of shame, in anger with himself, he cast his eyes upon his friend, exclaiming, “Tell me, I entreat thee, what end we are striving for by all these labours of ours. What is our aim? What is our motive in doing service? Can our hopes in court rise higher than to be ministers of the emperor? And in such a position, what is there not brittle, and fraught with danger, and by how many dangers arrive we at greater danger? And when arrive we thither? But if I desire to become a friend of God, behold, I am even now made it.” Thus spake he, and in the pangs of the travail of the new life, he turned his eyes again upon the page and continued reading, and was inwardly changed where Thou sawest, and his mind was divested of the world, as soon became evident; for as he read, and the surging of his heart rolled along, he raged awhile, discerned and resolved on a better course, and now, having become Thine, he said to his friend, “Now have I broken loose from those hopes of ours, and am determined to serve God; and this, from this hour, in this place, I enter upon. If thou art reluctant to imitate me, hinder me not.” The other replied that he would cleave to him, to share in so great a reward and so great a service. Thus both of them, being now Thine, were building a tower at the necessary cost, 658 —of forsaking all that they had and following Thee. Then Pontitianus, and he that had walked with him through other parts of the garden, came in search of them to the same place, and having found them, reminded them to return as the day had declined. But they, making known to him their resolution and purpose, and how such a resolve had sprung up and become confirmed in them, entreated them not to molest them, if they refused to join themselves unto them. But the others, no whit changed from their former selves, did yet (as he said) bewail themselves, and piously congratulated them, recommending themselves to their prayers; and with their hearts inclining towards earthly things, returned to the palace. But the other two, setting their affections upon heavenly things, remained in the cottage. And both of them had affianced brides, who, when they heard of this, dedicated also their virginity unto God.
It may be well here to say a few words in regard to Monachism and Antonys relation to it:—(1) There is much in the later Platonism, with its austerities and bodily mortifications (see vii. sec. 13, note 2, above), which is in common with the asceticism of the early Church. The Therapeutæ of Philo, indeed, of whom there were numbers in the neighbourhood of Alexandria in the first century, may be considered as the natural forerunners of the Egyptian monks. (2) Monachism, according to Sozomen (i. 12), had its origin in a desire to escape persecution by retirement into the wilderness. It is probable, however, that, as in the case of Paul the hermit of Thebais, the desire for freedom from the cares of life, so that by contemplation and mortification of the body, the λόγος or inner reason (which was held to be an emanation of God) might be purified, had as much to do with the hermit life as a fear of persecution. Mosheim, indeed (Ecc. Hist. i. part 2, c. 3), supposes Paul to have been influenced entirely by these Platonic notions. (3) Antony was born in the district of Thebes, A.D. 251, and visited Paul in the Egyptian desert a little before his death. To Antony is the world indebted for establishing communities of monks, as distinguished from the solitary asceticism of Paul; he therefore is rightly viewed as the founder of Monachism. He appears to have known little more than how to speak his native Coptic, yet during his long life (said to have been 100 years) he by his fervent enthusiasm made for himself a name little inferior to that of the “king of men,” Athanasius, whom in the time of the Arian troubles he stedfastly supported, and by whom his life has been handed down to us. Augustin, in his De Doctr. Christ. (Prol. sec. 4), speaks of him as “a just and holy man, who, not being able to read himself, is said to have committed the Scriptures to memory through hearing them read by others, and by dint of wise meditation to have arrived at a thorough understanding of them.” (4) According to Sozomen (iii. 14), monasteries had not been established in Europe A.D. 340. They were, Baronius tells us, introduced into Rome about that date by Athanasius, during a visit to that city. Athanasius mentions “ascetics” as dwelling at Rome A.D. 355. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Martin, Bishop of Tours, and Jerome were enthusiastic suppporters of the system. (5) Monachism in Europe presented more of its practical and less of its contemplative side, than in its cradle in the East. An example of how the monks of the East did work for the good of others is seen in the instance of the monks of Pachomius; still in this respect, as in matters of doctrine, the West has generally shown itself more practical than the East. Probably climate and the style of living consequent thereon have much to do with this. Sulpicius Severus (dial. i. 2, De Vita Martini) may be taken to give a quaint illustration of this, when he makes one of his characters say, as he hears of the mode of living of the Eastern monks, that their diet was only suited to angels. However mistaken we may think the monkish systems to be, it cannot be concealed that in the days of anarchy and semi-barbarism they were oftentimes centres of civilisation. Certainly in its originating idea of meditative seclusion, there is much that is worthy of commendation; for, as Farindon has it (Works, iv. 130), “This has been the practice not only of holy men, but of heathen men. Thus did Tully, and Antony, and Crassus make way to that honour and renown which they afterwards purchased in eloquence (Cicero, De Officiis, ii. 13, viii. 7); thus did they pass a solitudine in scholas, a scholis in forum,—from their secret retirement into the schools, and from the schools into the pleading-place.”122:654
Augustin, when comparing Christian with Manichæan asceticism, says in his De Mor. Eccl. Cath. (sec. 70), “I saw at Milan a lodging-house of saints, in number not a few, presided over by one presbyter, a man of great excellence and learning.” In the previous note we have given the generally received opinion, that the first monastery in Europe was established at Rome. It may be mentioned here that Muratori maintains that the institution was transplanted from the East first to Milan; others contend that the first European society was at Aquileia.122:655
See vi. sec. 12, note 1, above.123:656
Matt. 5.3. Roman commentators are ever ready to use this text of Scripture as an argument in favour of monastic poverty, and some may feel disposed from its context to imagine such an interpretation to be implied in this place. This, however, can hardly be so. Augustin constantly points out in his sermons, etc. in what the poverty that is pleasing to God consists. “Pauper Dei,” he says (in Ps. cxxxi. 15), “in animo est, non in sacculo;” and his interpretation of this passage in his Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (i. 3) is entirely opposed to the Roman view. We there read: “The poor in spirit are rightly understood here as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who have not a spirit which puffeth up. Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever, if indeed it is to reach the highest wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111.10); whereas, on the other hand also, pride is entitled the beginning of all sin (Ecclus. 10.13). Let the proud, therefore, seek after and love the kingdoms of the earth, but blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”123:657
“Agentes in rebus. There was a society of them still about the court. Their militia or employments were to gather in the emperors tributes; to fetch in offenders; to do Palatini obsequia, offices of court provide corn, etc., ride on errands like messengers of the chamber, lie abroad as spies and intelligencers. They were often preferred to places of magistracy in the provinces; such were called Principes or Magistriani. St. Hierome upon Abdias, c. 1, calls them messengers. They succeeded the Frumentarii, between which two and the Curiosi and the Speculatores there was not much difference.”—W. W.123:658