A History Of Christianity In Egypt

.. s the Thracian) however, responded by increasing persecutions in his territory of Egypt. The story is told that once before the Battle of Milvian Bridge (by which Constantine took complete control of the Western Empire) when the odds were greatly against him, Constantine beseeched God for help, praying in the Christian fashion, and won the day. He later adopted the Chi-Rho, a stylized monogram of the first letters of “Christus,” as his standard, and led his armies to victory after victory. Because of this, Constantine was even more well-disposed towards the Christians, though he himself was not baptized a Christian until his deathbed. In 313 together with Licinius, the eastern Augustus, he developed a policy of religious tolerance throughout the Empire and for the first time in many many decades there was a social peace.

People were free to worship as they pleased and the Christian Church was allowed to own property, making it much easier to build permanent churches. Additionally, Christianity was made the official state religion, freeing it at least from persecution by the Imperium. Constantine’s order giving religious freedom to all under his rule is known as the Edict of Milan or more properly, the Edit of Tolerance, and was the forerunner of other religious laws such as those found in the American Constitution and the Lateran Treaty of 1949, part of which created Vatican City. Feeling that his power in Egypt was threatened, Maximinus, still carrying out his persecutions against the Christians there, marched an army across Asia Minor into Europe and confronted Licinius. Licinius, following Constantine’s example, prayed in the Christian fashion with his army before the battle and defeated Maximinus. With this, Licinius brought the new Roman policy of religious tolerance to Egypt and ended the persecution of the Egyptian Christians.

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After this, Constantine became more and more involved in the workings of Christianity. His dream was to travel to the Holy Land and be baptized in the Jordan River, but this was abandoned when he discovered that the eastern churches were in upheaval, mostly due to the stir caused by the beliefs of Arius, now called the Arian Heresy. In 325, in response to this disharmony, Constantine ordered the Council of Nicaea. This council was the largest gathering of Christian bishops in the history of the Church so far, and though the majority of those present were representing the eastern churches of Egypt and Greece, there were delegates from Rome, and thus the sobriquet “ecumenical” (meaning “of the whole world”) was attached. Constantine attended as well, describing himself as “bishop of external things,” and kept a secular position on the issues, but it was clear that he wanted Christianity to be united and harmonious. The Nicene Creed, the great contribution of the Council and a prayer still used by Christians to this day, was composed by Saint Athanasius, a young Egyptian deacon who would later follow Alexandros as patriarch of Alexandria.

The Foundations of Monasticism Egypt is regarded by many Christians, regardless of denomination, as the home of Christian monasticism, and it is very easy to see why. The sheer number of Christian monasteries scattered about the East is astounding, from the 300 that were in Constantinople alone to the isolated Saint Catherine’s at Mount Sinai. Yet it was Egypt that was seen as the heart of the monastic idea. The anonymous work, History of the Monks in Egypt, written at some time in the fourth century, says of Egypt: There is no town or village in Egypt or the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and the people depend on their prayers as if on God Himself..Through them the world is kept in being. Christian monasticism emerged as a genuine movement during the early fourth century, but the spirit of monasticism was already present in Christianity with its ideas of asceticism and moderation.

For the Christian East, the monk was by definition a solitary role, and there have been more Christian hermits in this area than in any other in the world. It is Saint Anthony of Egypt who is credited with the founding of monasticism, along with his fellow countryman Saint Pachomius. Yet even they were only expanding on an idea that had already existed. After the death of his parents in the 270’s, Anthony had entrusted his younger sister to a parthenon, or convent of women. Thus priories of what are today called nuns were already established long before Saints Anthony and Pachomius even began their work.

Indeed, it is women who are to be truly credited with the origin of the monastic vocation. Yet Anthony still deserves the praise due to him, for his true innovation was to move the monastic community away from the distractions of society and the city and into the wilderness, which he did, founding his first hermitage in AD 305. Unlike monasteries in the West, the monasteries of Egypt and the surrounding area had no centralized orders, rather, each one was an autonomous unit. Many of the early monasteries in the East were founded and maintained by the rulers and nobility, others by groups of the citizenry wishing to have prayers said for themselves and their families. The size of the monasteries also varied greatly. Some were highly organized enterprises, owning large amounts of land and commercial interests, while others were hermitages of only three or four members. After Saint Anthony, there were two basic types of monasticism in Egypt, and later on, the world. There was the eremetical, or hermit, style and the cenobitic, monasteries in which the residents led a communal life. These Egyptian ascetics each lived very similar lives to the others of their type. They took vows of chastity and poverty, and if part of a monastic community, obedience to the abbot.

They practiced long and frequent fasts, some abstained from alcohol and meat, and they supported themselves by doing services for the lay people nearby, such as helping with labor or the selling of some small handicrafts. The largest monasteries were often self-sufficient, owning farms and herds, as well as making everything they needed, from the clothes they wore to the bread that was on their table. If they did make any money for anything they did, they kept only what they needed to subsist and gave the rest to the poor. While crowds of the poor often joined monasteries (vows of poverty being nothing new to them, and at least they would have food, clothing, and shelter), later on many of the upper class joined as Christianity spread across class and caste. Quite a number of the latter were educated and were employed by the Church in various intellectual occupations such as catechists, clerks and doctors.

From the very beginning, the early Christian Church had a place and a task for everyone.