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§ 36. Spread of Anchoretism. Hilarion.
The example of Anthony acted like magic upon his generation, and his biography by Athanasius, which was soon translated also into Latin, was a tract for the times. Chrysostom recommended it to all as instructive and edifying reading.320320 Hom. viii. in Matth. tom. vii. 128 (ed. Montfaucon). Even Augustine, the most evangelical of the fathers, was powerfully affected by the reading of it in his decisive religious struggle, and was decided by it in his entire renunciation of the world.321321 · Comp. Aug.: Confess. l. viii. c. 6 and 28.
In a short time, still in the lifetime of Anthony, the deserts of Egypt, from Nitria, south of Alexandria, and the wilderness of Scetis, to Libya and the Thebaid, were peopled with anchorets and studded with cells. A mania for monasticism possessed Christendom, and seized the people of all classes like an epidemic. As martyrdom had formerly been, so now monasticism was, the quickest and surest way to renown upon earth and to eternal reward in heaven. This prospect, with which Athanasius concludes his life of Anthony, abundantly recompensed all self-denial and mightily stimulated pious ambition. The consistent recluse must continually increase his seclusion. No desert was too scorching, no rock too forbidding, no cliff too steep, no cave too dismal for the feet of these world-hating and man-shunning enthusiasts. Nothing was more common than to see from two to five hundred monks under the same abbot. It has been supposed, that in Egypt the number of anchorets and cenobites equalled the population of the cities.322322 “Quanti populi,” says Rufinus (Vitae Patr. ii c. 7), “habentur in urbibus, tantae paene habentur in desertis multitudines monachorum.” Gibbon adds the sarcastic remark: “Posterity might repeat the saying, which had formerly been applied to sacred animals of the same country, That in Egypt it was less difficult to find a god than a man.” Montalembert (Monks of the West, vol. i. p. 314) says of the increase of monks: “Nothing in the wonderful history of these hermits in Egypt is so incredible as their number. But the most weighty authorities agreed in establishing it (S. Augustine, De morib. Eccles. i. 31). It was a kind of emigration of towns to the desert, of civilization to simplicity, of noise to silence, of corruption to innocence. The current once begun, floods of men, of women, and of children threw themselves into it, and flowed thither during a century with irresistible force.” The natural contrast between the desert and the fertile valley of the Nile, was reflected in the moral contrast between the monastic life and the world.
The elder Macarius323323 There were several (five or seven) anchorets of this name, who are often confounded. The most celebrated are Macarius the elder, or the Great († 390), to whom the Homilies probably belong; and Macarius the younger, of Alexandria († 404), the teacher of Palladius, who spent a long time with him, and set him as high as the other. Comp. Tillemont’s extended account, tom. viii. p. 574-650, and the notes, p. 811 sqq. introduced the hermit life in the frightful desert of Scetis; Amun or Ammon,324324 On Ammon, or, in Egyptian, Amus and Amun, comp. Tillemont, viii. p. 153-166, and the notes, p. 672-674. on the Nitrian mountain. The latter was married, but persuaded his bride, immediately after the nuptials, to live with him in the strictest abstinence. Before the end of the fourth century there were in Nitria alone, according to Sozomen, five thousand monks, who lived mostly in separate cells or laurae, and never spoke with one another except on Saturday and Sunday, when they assembled for common worship.
From Egypt the solitary life spread to the neighboring countries.
Hilarion, whose life Jerome has written graphically and at large,325325 Opera, tom. ii. p. 13-40. established it in the wilderness of Gaza, in Palestine and Syria. This saint attained among the anchorets of the fourth century an eminence second only to Anthony. He was the son of pagan parents, and grew up “as a rose among thorns.” He went to school in Alexandria, diligently attended church, and avoided the circus, the gladiatorial shows, and the theatre. He afterward lived two months with St. Anthony, and became his most celebrated disciple. After the death of his parents, he distributed his inheritance among his brothers and the poor, and reserved nothing, fearing the example of Ananias and Sapphira, and remembering the word of Christ: “Whosoever he be of you, that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.”326326 Lu. xiv. 33. He then retired into the wilderness of Gaza, which was inhabited only by robbers and assassins; battled, like Anthony, with obscene dreams and other temptations of the devil; and so reduced his body—the “ass,” which ought to have not barley, but chaff—with fastings and night watchings, that, while yet a youth of twenty years, he looked almost like a skeleton. He never ate before sunset. Prayers, psalm singing, Bible recitations, and basket weaving were his employment. His cell was only five feet high, lower than his own stature, and more like a sepulchre than a dwelling. He slept on the ground. He cut his hair only once a year, at Easter. The fame of his sanctity gradually attracted hosts of admirers (once, ten thousand), so that he had to change his residence several times, and retired to Sicily, then to Dalmatia, and at last to the island of Cyprus, where he died in 371, in his eightieth year. His legacy, a book of the Gospels and a rude mantle, he made to his friend Hesychius, who took his corpse home to Palestine, and deposited it in the cloister of Majumas. The Cyprians consoled themselves over their loss, with the thought that they possessed the spirit of the saint. Jerome ascribes to him all manner of visions and miraculous cures.
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