by Fr. Dale A. Johnson
St. Anthony of Egypt is often credited with being the father of monasticism. In a general sense, I suppose this is true, but I believe the origins of monasticism began in Syrian Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, it was a form of monasticism, although pure and holy, that eventually died out and gave way to a communal form, the type promoted by St. Anthony in Egypt.
Nevertheless, there was an heroic attempt to recover the state of paradise and emulate it before people. It was a living evangelism where ascetic people modeled a life before God. Until recently, there has not been much proof of this vibrant form of monasticism in Mesopotamia. It seems that the evidence has been right under our noses.
The Acts of Thomas is a second century document created in upper Mesopotamia in the present day region of the Turko-Iraqi border area. While it is an inspired fantasy, it demonstrates a monastic consciousness and mindset that had already developed in the Mesopotamian region. It is evidence that monasticism was forming independently of Eygptian monasticism. St. Anthony is often credited with being the father of monasticism. The Acts of Thomas clearly show that monastic thought and practices were alive and well a century before Anthony.
A cycle of stories arose in the fifth century that tried to show that monasticism was brought to Mesopotamia by St. Awgin and his disciples. While I have no doubt that there were Egyptian monks who brought their particular form of monasticism to Mesopoamia, specifically to the Mt. Izla area, they arrived during a period when Christian monasticism was already quite mature and developed. The love for St. Awgin and his disciples suppressed the historic importance of the prior monastic development. The existence of a prior monasticism has been suspected by a number of Syriac scholars, notably Sebastian Brock, but there has been little evidence to support this idea.
Shafiq AbouZayd in his book Ihidayutha was perhaps the first modern scholar to point to the Acts of Thomas as an ascetical document. Because it is a document of Mesopotamian origin, I propose that we have had before us over the last sixty years the very evidence we needed to support the Mesopotamian hypothesis of a monasticism pre-existent to St. Anthony.
These Acts belong to the earliest group of apocryphal acts of the apostles and go back to the second century according to Brock. Tesserant believes the Acts of Thomas originates in the last quarter of the second century. A few others think the document was composed in the first part of the third century, especially, Klijn, Murray, and Wright. Clearly, all agree that it was composed before the time of St. Anthony.
The Acts of Thomas was probably written in Edessa according to Drijvers and Guillaumont. This was an intellectually active and early Christian community outside of Antioch in the second century. Edessa spawned perhaps the first Christian University and many Christians believed that King Abgar of Edessa corresponded with Jesus. Also, the traditions about St. Thomas were quite strong and Edessa claimed him as their spiritual son.
The vocabulary of the Acts of Thomas demonstrates a rich Mesopotamian ascetic vocabulary according to Klijn and Burkitt. They list terminology that even to this day is associated with Mesopotamian monasticism.
One of the early peculiar features of Mesopotamian monasticism was the attitude toward sleep. Some saints such as Alexander the Sleepless, were quite famous for either not sleeping or sleeping very little. Monks would suspend themselves by ropes or wedge themselves into crevices of rocks so as not to lie down and stay awake.
In Mor Gabriel monastery, an active monastery to this day, St. Gabriel was known to live in a room where he would wedge himself into a crevice and not sleep or lie down for days at a time. Visitors and guests of the monastery are often invited to crawl up a chimney into an upper room where St. Gabriel was reported to live and there they can see where St. Gabriel stood in a crevice. The idea behind this posture is that Christ is the master and because a servant never lies down in the presence of a master, and because we are the servants of Christ who is always present, we cannot lie down. It is a living metaphor that testifies to the mastery and lordship of Jesus.
Wandering was a characteristic of monks in Mesopotamia. It seems that it was an attempt to follow the words of Christ who said that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Again, this was a distinctive characteristic of Syriac/Mesopotamian monasticism. Egyptian monasticism formed a communal approach due to influences from the military experiences many Egyptian monks had prior to entering the monasteries under St. Anthony and others. Syriac/Mesopotamian monasticism was more individualistic and syncratic. It was a life of singleness that was admired in Mesopotamia as against a communal life in Egypt. We see in the Acts of Thomas all the elements of this life of singleness, especially in the preference for wandering.
Theology of the Old Man
The nature of the unconverted human being was presented in Syriac/Mesopotamian monasticism as the Old Man. This is the corrupt and sinful nature of human beings produced by the fall of Adam and Eve. Human beings have access to the original nature available experienced in the Garden of Eden. Through conversion human beings can recover the original nature. This is the core theology of Syriac/Monasticism. It was logical for ascetic men and women to desire to find the state of Paradise and create an Edenic lifestyle. It was natural that some would live in the open air summer and winter. Others would eat grass and never touch a cooked herb. Some wore no clothes and others lived only in caves. It was a madness that hoped to produce divine sanity.
Baptism was the supreme symbol of the converted life and leaving behind the Old Man. Out of the waters of Baptism a New Man would emerge. Exorcism and healing were proofs of the emergence of the New Man. Healing meant that the person was being restored to the original nature of health and unity. Exorcism meant that the filthy nature of sin was cast out so that the pure virgin nature of the original man could reveal itself.
The Acts of Thomas show that Saint Thomas was the Father of monasticism, at least the kind of monasticism of an itinerant form favored by Syriac/Mesopotamian culture. In the Acts of Thomas we read that he is sent by Jesus to India to build a Palace not made with hands. He built the Kingdom of God by giving money to the poor, healing the sick, raising the dead and driving out demons. For all of this Thomas is imprisoned and martyred.Monks who follow this idiosyncratic life were not easy to control by Church authorities. Even St. Anthony in Egypt refuses to submit to Bishop Athanasius. Monks are quite independent who march or wander to their own tune. It is for this reason that Syriac/Mesopotamian monasticism eventually fails and conforms to a more communal and organized expression.