The role of Seniors in Egyptian Monasticism

F. Guido Dotti, Monk of Bose

In any monastic community, the presence of elders has always been an opportunity and a challenge. An opportunity because it gives an opportunity for monks to confront the experience of faith, and a challenge because it forces us to create fraternal bonds between different generations. Today, especially in Europe, monastic communities are experiencing a gradual ageing, and sometimes the few young people are confronted either with a heavy workload and responsibility or they are limited to a nursing role. This may occur in a social and cultural context that no longer recognizes in old age its traditional aura of wisdom.

From the beginning of monasticism, it was clear that the issue of ‘seniority’ is not so much the respective ages of the monks, but rather the path followed in imitation of Christ. All the monastic rules include extensive guidance on ‘order in the community’(1), namely the relationship between seniors and juniors in the monastic life. The senior is one who has already experienced the roughness of the road and the mercy of the Lord, the infidelity of the disciple and fidelity of God. The senior has learned that the monastic life, as the Christian life, consists of failures and recoveries, as an Abba once said: “A senior monk was asked, ‘Abba, what are you doing here in the desert?’ The Abba replied: ‘We fall and we rise, we fall and we rise, we fall again and still we rise!’”(2).

Moreover, if we read the stories of the lives of the first hermits, we find that none of them - not even the one who is regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism, Anthony the Great - began the ascetic life alone; he has received it in the school of someone who went before him. To this fundamental anthropological and spiritual datum, we must add the realization that in a traditionally oral culture, as was the Middle East at the time of the hermits, the role of an older person in society and the family was - and in much of civilisation still is - that of the sage who, enriched by the experience of life, could provide advice and help to ‘read’ events with more discernment and lucidity.

Thus the teaching that passes from senior to junior is born of a personal relationship very demanding for both parties: the primary responsibility of the senior is to teach the disciple how to live the monastic life in the face of the problems and temptations to which every monk is exposed. On the other side, from the disciple is demanded openness of heart, patience and obedience.

But what exactly was the relationship between senior and junior, the Abba and his disciple? The fundamental reason that brought a young monk to live with an experienced senior was to learn the concrete elements of monastic life, fasting, remaining in the cell, the balance between prayer and manual work. However, the personal relationship becomes also the practical road which leads via obedience to the monastic quality of an evangelical life. “One of the brothers questioned Abba Poemen, saying, ‘The brothers who live with me, do you think I should give them orders?’ The old man said, ‘No, first do your work and if they want to live, they will look after themselves.’ The brother said: ‘But, father, it is they themselves who want me to command them.’ The old man said: ‘No, be their model, not their lawgiver’.”(3) The senior, the experienced monk, capable of discerning spirits, constitutes a living rule. He remains at the side of his disciple and, by his presence rather than by his word, leads his disciple gradually to spiritual maturity. In this way the disciple, having in his turn become an experienced monk, is able to help others younger than himself.

This is a way of maturing available to all, even to those who know that they do not have the necessary strength in themselves. ‘What can I do to my soul?’ a brother asked Abba Paesios, ‘because it is insensitive and does not fear God?’ Paesios answered, ‘Go, join up with someone who fears God. By living with him, you will yourself learn to fear God.’ (4) This way of learning occurs also in monastic teaching: ‘If you cannot manage by yourself, attach yourself to someone who lives according to the gospel of Christ and you will advance with him. Either listen yourself or put yourself under someone else who does. Be strong and be called Elijah, or else listen to someone else who is strong and you will be called Elisha.’ (5)

In obedience to a senior the monastic life of the young monk takes the right form and colour, through following the furrow ploughed by those who have gone before. This also allows the junior to avoid the excesses typical for that age, to shake free of the most dangerous enemy, selfwill, and thus concentrate on the reality of daily struggle: “The seniors used to say, ‘If you see a young man rising up to heaven by his own will, seize him by the foot and bring him down again, for that is what he needs’.” (6) This is also the witness of the one who may be called the senior par excellence, Anthony: “I know monks who, having overcome many trials, fell into spiritual pride because they had placed their hope in their own works and had neglected the advice of the one who says, ‘Ask your father and he will teach you’.”(7)

Falling after overcoming many trials’ shows the sterility of a monastic life lived without the awareness of one’s own limitations and without the help of a senior. However, as we have seen, this support is not meant to last forever and every disciple is called to achieve a degree of spiritual maturity such that he can live his life without the regular support of a brother and that, in turn, he can help a younger brother. Any Abba, in fact, has first been a ‘novice’ and has travelled the path toward maturity whose first step is living in company with a senior - a path that some monks, determined to live alone, have wished to travel before being adequately equipped to do so without disaster. Furthermore, submission of one’s own will by means of obedience to a brother is considered by the Fathers of the desert to have a value of its own, not merely as an instrument that can be abandoned once training in monastic life has been completed.

This is a lesson that I learned viva voce from a modern father of the desert, during my first pilgrimage to the monastery of St. Macarius in Egypt. Having found that there were several hermits living in the vicinity of the great cenobitic monastery, I asked F. Wadid by what criteria the father of the monastery gave the blessing to a monk to live the eremitical life. ‘It is very simple,’ he said. ‘It is enough that the monk knows how to pray. And this is seen in his prayer being heard, for this means that it has been accepted by God.’ However, this acceptance of prayer is not judged by human measurements or by the greatness of some ‘miracle’. The only essential thing a Christian must ask in prayer, with the certainty of being heard, is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who can discern what the will of God is for that person and for others, and can distinguish this from their personal desires and their own will. ‘The whole Christian life,’ continued F. Wadid, ‘is a continual effort to arrive at the point of saying to the Father with Jesus, “Not my will but yours,” and in this search, the senior brothers are a great help. Therefore it is only when a monk receives the gift of “answered prayer” is to say, the Spirit of discernment, that he can live as a hermit, depriving himself of the daily support of the brothers, without falling prey to illusions. And what is more,’ concluded my interlocutor, ‘he will be prepared to leave the solitude of his hermitage if younger brothers need his spiritual guidance.’

This is a very concrete example of the balance between community life and the life of solitude, between spiritual maturity and support: seniors and juniors enrich one another by the opening of the heart, whose main purpose is to learn to fight against the temptation of self-will and to discern the nature and quality of thoughts that fill a monk’s heart. It is a shared responsibility within cenobitic communities, as the writings of the Pachomian tradition show: “There are those who are attentive only to themselves. In their desire to live by the precepts of God, they say constantly, ‘What can I have in common with others? As for me, I seek to serve God and do his will; what others do does not concern me.’ However, once we have given an account of our own lives, we will also be accountable for those who have been entrusted to us. Heads of houses must bear this in mind no less than superiors of monasteries, and even all the brothers who are part of the People of God, for all must bear one another’s burdens to fulfil the law of Christ ... God has given us a deposit, the lives of our brothers, and it is in looking after them that we hope for future rewards.” (8)

Furthermore, submission to a senior is the keystone of fraternal relations as much in the eremitical life as in the cenobitic. The words of the Abba – whether this is the spiritual father of a single disciple or the guide of a monastery or a senior among his brethren, with whom the Abbot has seen fit to share his responsibility as father9 - enjoy a special authority which demands respect and obedience from disciples but also from visitors and anyone else who approaches him for spiritual advice. Indeed, the influence of seniors radiates far beyond the walls of their cells, as is shown by the insistence with which disciples and pilgrims ask, ‘Abba, give me a word’.

Here it is worth recalling that if this influence persists right up to our time, it is precisely due to the daily relationships between seniors and their disciples. If all the hermits had lived their entire lives locked up in their caves, never meeting and sharing advice, we would not today possess this vast wealth of sayings. Born in a specific circumstances, through the relationship between spiritual father and son, and in an atmosphere of submission of both to the will of God, these words were gathered by a first group of listeners and witnesses as effective ‘actionsayings’, as teachings full of meaning also for very different times and situations.

During the history of monasticism, this has made a significant contribution, especially to new communities which had not yet among their members ‘ancients of days’, through the possibility of benefiting from the spiritual wealth of ‘seniors’. It may seem to us paradoxical that hermits have become ‘masters’ for monks and even for whole communities that did not lead a monastic life. Yet it is precisely the unique and basic character of the fraternal relations lived out in the desert between seniors and younger monks that effectively provided - and continues to provide - very valuable guidance on the fundamental elements of Christian life as a life of community. These are memories capable of spreading the love of God and the love of human beings, the source and summit of lived community, to the ends of the earth.

(1) See, for example, RB 63.
(2) Anonymous saying, quoted by T. Colliander, Il cammino dell’asceta (Brescia, 1987), p. 55.
(3 )Poemen 188.
(4) Cf. Poemen 65.
(5) Pachomius, Catéchèse à un moine rancunier.
(6) Nau 111.
(7) Anthony 37. (8) Book of Horsesios, 8 and 11.
(9) Cf. RB 21.3.