The Practices of Monastic Prayer: Origins, Evolution, and Tensions
By Columba Stewart
Living for Eternity: The White Monastery and its Neighborhood. Proceedings of a Symposium at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, March 6 – 9. 2003, edited by Philip Sellew (Minnesota, 2003)
Introduction: Egyptian monks were known for the commitment to unceasing prayer, but what did this really mean? This paper will explore forms of monastic prayer from historical, theological, and ascetic perspectives, challenging our assumptions about how early monastic men and women actually prayed and what their own experience of prayer may have been. Both textual and archeological evidence will be considered. Major issues will include the role of biblical texts in monastic prayer, tracing fault lines between different theological understandings of prayer, and establishing foundations for later development of prayer practice.
What can we know of how Egyptian monks prayed? There are the usual kinds of evidence, textual and archaeological, as well as the enduring effect of Egyptian monastic prayer practice on later—and even non-monastic traditions, down to the present day. We can derive a basic pattern of prayer with a distinctive character. But before describing this pattern, we need to reckon with some of the features of Egyptian monasticism that made it both so unusual and so powerful in the later monastic imagination, and which contributed to its spectacular development in the centuries leading up to the establishment of the White Monastery and the transition to a typically cenobitic pattern for Egyptian monastic life.
First there is the desert. This was not simply a topographical feature of the Egyptian monastic experience, but the backdrop against which the drama of classic monastic idealism was enacted. Much has been, and continues to be, written about the monastic conception of the desert, with varying degrees of romantic coloration. We know that most Egyptian ascetics did not in fact live in the deep desert, and as time passed even those in the more remote outposts benefited from the protection of companions, patronage, and income from cultivated lands in more hospitable regions.
The Life of Antony is the classic depiction of the monastic “invasion” and occupation of the demons’ homeland. There, the geographic progression from village to remotest desert plays an essential role in the development of Antony’s monastic vocation. Largely because of this extraordinary work of monastic hagiography, the Christian monastic tradition has cherished the notion of desert, real or metaphorical, as a place of intense focus and struggle.