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The Christians went to the desert to see the greatest athletic event, the spiritual combat between good and evil.  And they took mental snapshots for their long meditations back home.  These were some of the things they saw.  

The monks lived in cells ordinarily made up of two rooms: one for sleeping, the other for other purposes like receiving guests.  The monk Ammonius had a beautiful courtyard and a well; it was very private though.  More common were monasteries where many monks lived together in dorms and/or single rooms with a common refectory, kitchen and church.  Most monasteries emphasized the importance of being self-sufficient so that the monks remained inside and "none ever went out."  So the walls of the monastery were not meant to protect the monks from outside attacks; it was primarily meant to emphasize the desire of the monks to remain undisturbed within the walls of the monastery.  St. Isidore prohibited guests from talking freely with the monks.  

A slight variation is the monastery of Oxyrhynchus which was a town-monastery inhabited exclusively by monks and nuns who had their own bishop.  

Life in the desert was reduced to essentials; this is fundamental to monasticism, i.e. food, sleep and clothing.  Some stayed awake the whole night chanting psalms. . .in early times, these Christians were called "the sleepless ones".  Usually one hour of sleep was enough.  Ideally, most ate once a day. . .and only a little, at the 9th hour.  Their food was dry bread and green herbs.  The bread could be kept indefinitely and was soaked in water to make them edible.  

In Pachomius' monastery, they had fresh bread, soup and olives.  The monks usually ate the gifts given them, like beans and lentils.  Their luxury?  Fresh fruits and a pitcher of fresh milk.  

The desert-dwellers disciplined themselves over sleep, food and clothing.  Their clothing, above all showed that they were monks.  Paul wore a tunic made of palm leaves; Macarius dressed in rags; Helle, in patches.  In monasteries, however, a formal uniform was adopted; usually a tunic and a cowl.  In church, the monks dressed in white.  Paternuthius described a short-sleeved tunic, a hood, a cloak for the cold, a chord around the waist.  

The manual work of monks was agriculture for their self-subsistence.  They grew herbs and vegetables and corn for bread.  There was no mention of studies, readings or copying of books.  And yet the hermits were known to be most learned in all fields, especially in Scriptures, even if, like Paternuthius, they were "illiterate".  Truly, wisdom is God's promised wisdom; ". . .I shall teach you all things. . ."

The monks chanted the psalms continually; at least the 150 psalms in one day.  The recitation of the psalms during fixed times like Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, Matins and Lauds was considered a dangerous innovation introduced by "lazy" monks.  

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was a luxury.  It was celebrated in many monasteries once a year.  The luckier monasteries had mass only on Sundays.  The only unique monastery was that of Apollo which had daily mass.  It was celebrated usually at 12:00 noon or 2:00 p.m. and the monks received communion in their hands.      

Historia Monachorum




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