One of the most astounding phenomena in Christian history was the Egyptian monastic movement of the fourth century. During the Roman persecutions of the third century, many men and women took to the desert, partly to escape death, partly to improve their lives. Gradually the movement grew, until there were almost 100,000 monks and nuns in the desert areas all up the Nile River! Only a few of them were priests. Most of them were laymen and laywomen attracted to the life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Nor was it a purely temporary fad. Although the numbers later fell off and many monasteries were destroyed, even today there are still a few desert monasteries standing and in use by Coptic monks.
St. Ammon was one of the early leaders, and the first to establish a monastic center in the Nitrian desert, so called because of its repulsively salty marsh. (Today it is called the Wady Natrun.) Ammon, the son of wealthy parents, had been forced into marriage after their death. On reading together St. Paul’s praise of virginity, he and his wife agreed to live under the same roof thereafter in perfect continence. Having prepared himself spiritually and physically for life in the desert over a period of 18 years, Ammon finally asked his wife to allow him to go out to Nitria and establish a monastic center. She consented, and, for her part, gathered in her home a number of religious women to whom Ammon used to come and give conferences twice a year. Theirs was a true marriage, but one of souls rather than bodies, for God’s greater glory.
At first, St. Ammon’s monks at Nitria lived in scattered cells. Then the great leader of the monastic movement, St. Anthony of Egypt, advised Ammon to have his hermits live closer together, so that he, as their abbot, could keep a careful eye on all of them. Ammon set an example of great austerity to his followers. At the outset, he ate one meal of bread and water per day. Eventually, he ate this meal only every other day, or third day, or even fourth day. (Have we been eating too much of late?)
Many miracles were also attributed to this lay ascetic. Once, for instance, he had to swim a swollen stream. Too shy to undress, he stood on the river bank wondering what to do. Suddenly, his companion Theodore saw him on the other side of the river. Ammon called across to the puzzled Theodore that he had been lifted across by divine power, but no mention should be made of this miracle so long as he lived.
St. Ammon died at the age of 62, but his great work continued after him. What was his monastery like? Not at all like those we know today, small and compact.
A visitor to Wadi Natrun fifty years later has left us an account. On the monastic mountain in various forms of dwelling lived 5,000 hermits. These monks were no idlers. They supported themselves by manual labor, particularly the manufacture of linen and wine, and the baking of bread in their seven bakeries. All male visitors were cordially received in a guest house. They might stay as long as they wanted, even two or three years. But after one week of residence they were given community chores to perform. Doctors and confectioners also lived in the colony to care for the needs of this monastic village. Whips hung on three palm trees, to be used on those who committed some infraction. The first whip was for the hermits themselves. The second was for robbers who were caught intruding. The third was for other assorted upstarts.
There was a great church, serviced by eight priests, but it was used only Saturdays and Sundays. The hermits sang the psalms, at set hours, in their own habitations, where they lived alone or in twos or threes. Standing in the center of the settlement at the hours of prayer, you could hear thousands of invisible voices raised in musical praise of God. “It sounds like Paradise itself,” said one observer.
Thus did these armies of Egyptian Christians “enroll themselves for citizenship in Heaven.” Could a movement like this arise in our own day? Hardly. But the Holy Spirit is very inventive. Who knows what He might inspire thousands more to do for His glory, even, say, tomorrow?
–Father Robert F. McNamara