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324 7he Egyptian Contribution to Christianity
Thebais, the latter in Nitria: he would have joined their
number, but found the discipline too severe for his health and
age: he has left us an account of his visits and of the ascetes he
met in the Historia Lausiaca, but seems to have kept to the
monasteries where there were monks able to speak Greek, and
so missed a meeting with Shenoute. St. John Cassian was in
Egypt between 390 and 400, but he did not go so far as Thebais.
On what he saw and heard he compiled two books, the Institutes
and the Collations, published between 420 and 430. These
became the classics of monasticism and held up before monks
of every land the examples of the Egyptian ascetes as the model
to be copied. All through the Middle Ages they were read aloud
in Benedictine monasteries throughout western Europe, and
still are so read. Thus there grew up a body of literature dealing
with the monks of Egypt which exercised a great influence over
all who adopted the monastic life. St. Benedict in his Rule
reproaches the negligence and lack of fervour of those monks
who recite less than the whole Psalter in the week, 'when we
read that our holy Fathers courageously performed in one day
what I would that we who are tepid may do in a week' (Benedict :
Regula, 18): the reference is to Cassian's account of the desert
fathers, not the Fathers of the Church. Reference to this
passage appears in the prefatory matter prefixed to the Anglican
Book of Common Prayer, where the 'ancient Fathers5 who divided
the Psalms into seven nocturns for weekly reading are held up
as a model of devotion. The author is quoting John Cassian
from memory, or via St. Benedict, but omits to specify that the
'ancient Fathers' he holds up for imitation were the early monks
of Nitria.
In due course monasticism spread abroad and was copied in
other lands; indeed one of the most striking features in its
history is the rapidity with which it developed and then spread.
As the movement passed westward along the Mediterranean
various settlements were founded in some of the islands, the