COPTIC MONASTICISMOrigin and Rise of monasticism
Christian monasticism is a way to perfection. It started in Egypt in the first century. The first monks were the disciples of St. Mark the apostle of Jesus and the gospel writer.
St. Mark started to preach Christianity in Egypt immediately after his arrival to Alexandria, to the city where the Ptolemy founded a famous philosophical school. However, he found within the city different philosophies and different religions competing against one another and each claiming to be the right way of life. Shortly after his preaching he succeeded to win many converts who loved the new faith and new life.
The philosophers of Alexandria could not accept the new principles which was considered to be hazardous to their teaching and to their own existence. Particularly because some of the
philosophies (e.g. Gnosticism) taught that the body and the matter as a whole is evil and sinful. Moreover, St. Mark preached that God took a human body, saved and sanctified it and our whole nature which was against their teaching and started to attack Christianity.
For St. Mark to defend Christianity and explain its reality, he founded a theological school where he taught philosophy from a Christian point of view. The philosopher of the school of Alexandria before Christianity lived an ascetic way of life to have a lucid mind and to think and study better. They led a communal way of life fully dedicated to learning. Others adopted asceticism as hatred to the body.
On the other hand, the disciples of St. Mark lived ascetic lives because they considered themselves as defenders of the faith and as soldiers for Jesus according to the biblical ordinance (Take your part in suffering, as a loyal soldier of Christ Jesus. A soldier on active duty wants to please his commanding officer and so does not get mixed up in the affairs of civilian life).
Those first students of St. Mark also learned from his life paradigm, since he himself imitated Jesus and they considered this way of life to be a gift of God (For there are different reasons why men cannot marry: some, because they were born that way; others, because men made them that way; and others do not marry for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Let him who can accept this teaching do so.) Mat 19:12
When Christian monasticism started
Monastery Al-Sorian, Wadi el-Natrun
When the disciples of St. Mark increased in number they moved further into the desert nearby Alexandria and gradually covered many places in the Egyptian deserts. We know from the history of the church of Alexandria that they used to choose the dean of the theological school of Alexandria to be the next Patriarch because they were living as monks. St. Athanasius, the 20th Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, was a disciple of St. Antony the Great. He later wrote in his biography while in exile in Trier, which helped in starting and spreading monasticism in Europe. The disciples of St. Antony founded many monasteries in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Persia and many other places.
This is why we consider St. Antony to be “The Father of Monasticism”, even though he was
not the first monk. During St. Antony’s time, many monastic dwellings emerged like
Nitria (where St. Anthony visited St. Amoun), Tabennesi, Atreeb,… and many others. The monasteries covered the Egyptian deserts from the north (west of Alexandria and east of Pelusium in Sinai) to the south (Aswan and Abu Simble).
St. Bishoy Monastery
Wadi el-Natrun, Egypt