Monastic Life in the Syriac Orthodox Church
- The Institution of Cenobitism
Monastic life was known in Christianity from the 2nd century AD (as mentioned by Bar Hebraeus). In the 3rd century AD many ascetics, worshippers, and hermits appeared in many places subject to the See of Antioch. Saint Anthony (+ 356) is regarded as the founder of monastic life. He was called the “father of monastic life” and “star of the desert.” And, Saint Paul of Thebes was considered the first anchorite (His daily meal consisted of half a loaf of bread which was brought to him, like to the great prophet Elijah, by a raven).
With the flowering of monastic life and the spread of monasteries in Egypt, Saint Pachomius wrote the rules for cenobitic life, regulating all the spiritual, bodily, and social needs of the monks.
- The Syriac Monasteries
From the beginning of the 4th century, many famous monasteries were founded throughout the lands under the jurisdiction of the See of Antioch, that is to say in Syria, Mesopotamia, on the southern coast of Palestine, in the Syrian desert, at Mount Edessa, at Mount Izla, which surveys Nisibis and Tur-Abdin, and in Qardu and Al-Faf close to Mosul. They became centers of learning and of the virtuous life; thousands of monks and nuns withdrew into them from the worldly life in their quest for the Kingdom of God.
- Monastic Life in the Service of the Church
Although monastic life arose outside the church, it is a force that supports the church. For monks and nuns live not for the redemption of their own souls alone, which is their mission, but the pastoral and spiritual well-being of the population is also their concern. They have prayed day and night for the church and the world, so that the light of faith has been shed upon all humanity.
In hard times the anchorites abandoned their cells and monasteries and went into the cities to aid the faithful and to confirm them in their religion, to help them bear oppression with patience and in steadfast faith. When heresy arose, they departed to preach to the faithful and to preserve them from the mistaken beliefs of the heretics and to give them a firm hold in the orthodox faith that was entrusted to them by the holy apostles and the church (a great example here is St. Aphrem the Syriac +373).
- The Worthy Status of Monastic Life in the Church
In the eyes of society, the monk is the bearer of sublime tidings — the teachings of the Gospel — which he lives in truth, practices in perfection and offers as an example to humanity.
The church has thus recognized monastic life and has chosen its bishops and sometimes the patriarchs from among the monks.
Patriarchs and bishops, after election as spiritual fathers and leaders, continue to live as monks as if still living in their monasteries. Saint Jacob, Bishop of Nisibis, the teacher of Saint Aphrem is said to have worn a goatskin robe, and to have prayed, fasted and kept vigil by night. Thus monastic life has performed an invaluable service for the church. Moreover, the development of the church is bound up with the flowering of monastic life. As Saint Athanasius wrote: “If monastic life and the priestly ministry grow weak, the entire church weakens.”
In his book “The Scattered Pearls: History of Syriac Learning and Literature”, the great scholar Patriarch Aphrem I Barsaum (+ 1957) writes: “83 monasteries have been counted that were important centers of higher learning since the advent of Christianity. Only ruins remain of some of them. But, despite the campaigns of destruction and persecution their inhabitants have suffered, other monasteries have remained steadfast.
Examples of famous monasteries which were previously inhabited are: The Qenneschrin Monastery, The Qarqaphto Monastery, The St. Barsoum Monastery, The St. Zakai Monastery, and The Baared Monastery.
Examples of monasteries still inhabited and active today are: St. Hananyo Monastery (Dayr az-Zafaran) – Turkey, St. Gabriel or Qartomin Monastery – Turkey, Monastery of Mark the Evangelist – Jerusalem, St. Matthew’s Monastery – Iraq, and The Syrian Monastery in Egypt (occupied until the mid-17th century and now inhabited by Coptic monks).
- Monastic life in our Syriac Church Today
The Syriac Church has experienced various forms of oppression, especially since the beginning of the present millennium. These have led to weakening monastic life and thus weakening the church.
Today the church is aware that renewal and awakening is imperative, thus she has encouraged her children to dedicate themselves to the church and to become monks and join the communities of our monasteries.
The church has devoted particular care to the St. Aphrem Seminary (which was founded in Zahle, Lebanon in the 1930’s by the Patriarch Aphrem I Barsaum and has finally settled in Ma’rat Saidnaya). It has produced and will continue to produce monks who are aware of their responsibilities and who are willing to make sacrifices in the effort to revive the church. Some of the graduates are sent to theological colleges abroad to complete their university education.
On the other hand, the church has established the monastary of St. Jacob of Baradaeus for nuns in Atchaneh – Lebanon.
It should also be mentioned that Syriac Church has two schools in St. Gabriel Monastery and in Dayr az-Za’faran Monastery as well as a theological school in Mosul, and a theological faculty in India.
The Syriac Church also has monasteries in Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. It is her hope that Syriac monastic life will flourish everywhere in the world where Syriacs live.