I have described elsewhere my scepticism about the sceptics in regard to Dionysius the Areopagite. I noted how Maurice de Gondillac, the translator of Dionysius’ works for the Bibliotheque Chretienne series in the 1940’s, considers the Dionysian references to religious life to be proof of the pseudonymous character of the writings. He says:-

The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy recounts in the detail the ceremonies of monastic profession… But, we know well that hermits appear only in the third century in the East, with Paul of Thebes and St Anthony, while the first religious communities go back to St Pachomius in the year 340.

Do we know this well? Eusebius of Caesarea (c.265-c.340), at any rate, appears not to be included in this ‘we’ . In book 2 chapter 17 of the Church History he recounts what the Jewish author Philo (c. 25 BC- c. AD 50), said of the ascetics of his time:-

First of all they renounce their property. When they begin the philosophical mode of life, they give up their goods to their relatives, and then, renouncing all the cares of life, they go forth beyond the walls and dwell in lonely fields and gardens, knowing well that intercourse with people of a different character is unprofitable and harmful… The whole interval, from morning to evening, is for them a time of exercise. For they read the holy Scriptures, and explain the philosophy of their fathers in an allegorical manner, regarding the written words as symbols of hidden truth which is communicated in obscure figures…. But some, in whom a great desire for knowledge dwells, forget to take food for three days; and some are so delighted and feast so luxuriously upon wisdom, which furnishes doctrines richly and without stint, that they abstain even twice as long as this, and are accustomed, after six days, scarcely to take necessary food.

Philo also describes, says Eusebius, ‘how, while one sings regularly in time, the others listen in silence, and join in chanting only the close of the hymns; and how, on the days referred to {the vigils of feasts} they sleep on the ground on beds of straw. They taste no wine at all, nor any flesh’. He adds, ‘These statements of Philo we regard as referring clearly and indisputably to those of our communion.’ He says that Philo is describing a ‘mode of life which has been preserved to the present time by us {Christians} alone’.

In other words, Eusebius, the father of Church history, says that from the first century onwards, certain Christians have been giving up their property in order to concentrate entirely on spiritual things, separating themselves from those who have not made this resolve, and regularly praying together at fixed times with others of like mind, observing together common rules of self-denial. Pace Monsieur Gondillac, it sounds rather like the religious life.

[Objection] Gregory says in the Moralia: ‘after the embraces of Leah, Jacob came to Rachel, because every perfect man is first united to an active life, in order to be fruitful, and afterwards is joined to a contemplative life in order to gain rest.’ But the active life consists in keeping the commandments, whereas the religious state is a form of contemplative life. Therefore no one should be encouraged to enter the religious life before he has been trained by keeping the commandments.

[Response] Rachel’s embrace signifies the peacefulness of contemplation, to which even those who follow the [evangelical] counsels cannot immediately reach from the outset, but only after long training in good works. But this peace is more easily reached by the observance of the counsels than by the keeping of the commandments in secular life.

{This is part of a long defence of the practice of allowing teenagers to enter religious life.}