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Hermias Sozomen:
Book One, Chapter Twelve

Translated by Chester D. Hartranft.

Chapter XII

On the Organization of the Monks: its Origin and Founders.

Those who at this period had embraced monasticism were not the least in manifesting the church as most illustrious, and evidencing the truth of their doctrines by their virtuous line of conduct. Indeed, the most useful thing that has been received by man from God is their philosophy. They neglect many branches of mathematics and the technicalities of dialectics, because they regard such studies as superfluous, and as a useless expenditure of time, seeing that they contribute nothing towards correct living. They apply themselves exclusively to the cultivation of natural and useful science, in order that they may mitigate, if not eradicate, evil. They invariably refrain from accounting any action or principle as good, which occupies a middle place between virtue and vice, for they delight only in what is good. They regard every man as wicked, who, though he abstain from evil, does not do good. For they do not demonstrate virtue by argument, but practice it, and count as nothing the glory current among men.

They manfully subjugate the passions of the soul, yielding neither to the necessities of nature, nor succumbing to the weakness of the body. Having possessed the power of the Divine mind, they always look away to the Creator of the whole, night and day worshiping him, and appeasing him by prayers and supplications. By purity of soul and by a life of good works they entered without guilt upon religious observances, and despised purification, lustral vessels, and such ceremonials; for they think that sins alone are blemishes.

They are greater than the external casualties to which we are liable, and hold, as it were, all things under their control: and are not therefore diverted from the path they have selected by the disasters or the necessity which sway the life. They are not distressed when insulted, nor do they defend themselves when suffering from malice; nor do they lose heart when pressed by sickness or lack of necessaries but rather rejoice in such trials and endure them with patience and meekness. They inure themselves through the whole of life to be content with little, and approximate as nearly to God as is possible to human nature. They regard the present life as a journey only, and are not therefore solicitous about acquiring wealth, nor do they provide for the present beyond urgent necessities. They admire the beauty and simplicity of nature, but their hope is placed in heaven and the blessedness of the future.

Wholly absorbed in the worship of God, they revolted from obscene language; and as they had banished evil practices, so they would not allow such things to be even named. They limited, as far as possible, the demands of nature, and compelled the body to be satisfied with moderate supplies. They overcame intemperance by temperance, injustice by justice, and falsehood by truth, and attained the happy medium in all things. They dwelt in harmony and fellowship with their neighbors. They provided for their friends and strangers, imparted to those who were in want, according to their need, and comforted the afflicted. As they were diligent in all things, and zealous in seeking the supreme good, their instructions, though clothed in modesty and prudence, and devoid of vain and meritricious eloquence, possessed power, like sovereign medicines, in healing the moral diseases of their audience; they spoke, too, with fear and reverence, and eschewed all strife, raillery, and anger.

Indeed, it is but reasonable to suppress all irrational emotions, and to subdue carnal and natural passions. Elias the prophet and John the Baptist were the authors, as some say, of this sublime philosophy. Philo the Pythagorean [De Vit. Cont.] relates, that in his time the most virtuous of the Hebrews assembled from all parts of the world, and settled in a tract of country situated on a hill near Lake Mareotis, for the purpose of living as philosophers. He describes their dwellings, their regimen, and their customs, as similar to those which we now meet with among the monks of Egypt. He says that from the moment they began to apply themselves to the study of philosophy, they gave up their property to their relatives, relinquished business and society, and dwelt outside of walls, in fields and in gardens. They had also, he informs us, sacred edifices which were called monasteries, in which they dwelt apart and alone, occupied in celebrating the holy mysteries, and in worshiping God sedulously with psalms and hymns. They never tasted food before sunset, and some only took food every third day, or even at longer intervals. Finally, he says, that on certain days they lay on the ground and abstained from wine and the flesh of animals; that their food was bread, salt, and hyssop, and their drink, water; and that there were women among them who had lived as virgins to old age, who, for the love of philosophy, and from their voluntary judgment, practiced celibacy.

In this narrative, Philo seems to describe certain Jews who had embraced Christianity, and yet retained the customs of their nation; for no vestiges of this manner of life are to be found elsewhere: and hence I conclude that this philosophy flourished in Egypt from this period. Others, however, assert that this mode of life [i.e. Christian monasticism] originated from the persecutions for the sake of religion, which arose from time to time, and by which many were compelled to flee to the mountains and deserts and forests, and they became used to this kind of living.

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    The St. Pachomius Orthodox Library, St. Demetrius of Rostov, 2009.

    Have mercy, O Lord, upon Thy servants the translator Chester, Bryce, Richard, Jeff, Lori, Vincent, and the newly-departed Sophia.