A Brief History of Monasticism

From pre-Nicene times to our modern times, the monastics of the Church have kept us vigilant and sober, showing us that God does indeed call modern day John the Baptists’ and Paul the Apostles’. God calls these monks to live a life of purity not merely for themselves, but for the greater health of the entire Church – men and women praying for the Church and the world, serving the Church and the world, and sacrificing for the Church and the world.

The movement of monasticism was first inspired by John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” – John 1:23. His very calling was prophesied by Isaiah as the forerunner to Christ; a spokesman and martyr for Christ, yes, but a monastic one at that. St. John’s life was one that was dedicated to one primary thing: meditating on the revelation of God in the purist form possible: alone, celibate, with little to no material possessions to look after; a slave to Christ! Saint John’s calling, of course, exemplified the calling of Christ, who also lived a “monastic” life; thee monastic life! Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12), as well as his solitary habits (e.g., Luke 4:42; 5:15-16), would become an important model for later monastic practices.

At times Jesus encouraged the renunciation of commitments to important symbols of established society: marriage (Matthew 19:12 – “Others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven; the one who can accept this should accept it”), and wealth (Mark 10:21 – “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor”). He had also promoted a high level of self-denial among his followers (Mark 8:34).This was the beginnings of the New Covenant Church, formed and fashioned amongst the very highest of ethical, moral and spiritual standards ever known to man.

After John and Christ we see many others who follow the monastic calling in order to promote and grow the Kingdom of God. Saint Paul the Apostle could certainly be considered a monastic. We see that in his writings he withheld from not only the companionship of a wife but also of material gain. Saint Paul’s influence on the New Testament Church was extreme, and we can see in Acts 16:5 that from this work the Church began to gain great momentum, “being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.”

In Acts 4:32, we can see how the Church shared all things and lived a very communal life. This communal life was a natural progression likely inherited from the simple fact that in order to love one another an attitude of giving and fellowship had to manifest. It was this communal lifestyle that gave way to the later monastic communities.

As Williston Walker states in his book, A History of the Christian Church (p.154), monasticism “arose originally among the peasantry.” This early movement of Christians sought to withdraw from the populations in Egypt and Syria as well as the churches within those areas. The Church witnessed this separation and so began to sponsor the communities and becoming actual products of the monastic movements.

Known as one of the Desert Fathers, St. Anthony (250-356 A.D.) is said to be one of the first official Christian “monks.” When he was about twenty he heard the voice of God saying, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” He did as he was commanded and sold his possessions. Anthony’s sacrifice went far beyond what most monks practice today. When Anthony was 35, he retired into the desert, where he shut himself up in an abandoned fort. Food was thrown to him over the wall and for twenty years he saw no people whatsoever.

After these years of isolation an entire colony of men gathered around his fort to follow their call to monasticism. In 305 A.D. the monks persuaded Anthony to come out to disciple them. He spent five or six years at this task and in 311 A.D., paid a visit to Alexandria to encourage the Church in persecution. He then retired deeper into the desert, where he lived alone for the rest of his life (Bonnell Spencer, Ye Are the Body, p. 62). Through a famous biography written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Anthony’s monastic life became widely known. Athanasius portrayed Anthony as if he were a wrestler in training and so tapped both the religious fervor and the sports fever that were characteristic of the common men and women of the Eastern Empire and thus Anthony’s influence spread well beyond Egypt.

A number of monastic communities that sprang off of Anthony’s work made the point of it all to live alone, and although still connected with the Church were still very disconnected from people, including other monks. Pachomius (290-346 A.D.) went a step further, however, and arranged that the monks should work to produce their own food and clothing. This way, they were no longer dependent upon the charity that the public could spare for their sustenance, and the number of people who could adopt this cenobitical life (“life in common”) would become unlimited. After the reforms of Pachomius, the number of monasteries and monks began to increase rapidly in the East, including addition of women into the monastic fold.

In Syria, the monastic life grew with the tendency of self-denial. Simeon the Elder (390-459 A.D.) was one of the more popular examples of what was called a “Stylite,” because he spent thirty years of his life living at the top of a pillar, where he prayed and preached to those passing by.

In Cappadocia, and later in Asia Minor cenobitism became the rule. The monastic life in this region owes its progress to the efforts of Esustathis of Sebaste (300-377 A.D.) and Basil the Great of Caesarea (370-379 A.D.). Basil promoted the “philosophical life” and demanded both the love of God and neighbor. Basil also encouraged his monks to situate themselves on the edge of the cities so as to serve the general public with instruction and hospitality.

The Monastic ideal was first taught to the West by Saint Athanasius, who wrote the biography of Saint Anthony called The life of Anthony. The book was quickly translated into Latin (360 A.D.)

The earliest sign of monastic life in the West was that of Bishop Martin Tours (335-397 A.D.). Around the same time, Eusebius of Vercelli (340-371 A.D.) introduced a new monastic community which involved clergy under a special ascetical rule. This same rule was followed by Augustine of Hippo.

The constant growth of monastic communities in the West, particularly in Italy, Gaul, and Spain, led to a fifth century rule called the Rule of Benedict, which is very likely to be contributed to Benedict of Nursia (480-550 A.D.) (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church). Benedict’s members were required to renounce personal possessions and to remain in the community for life. The monks conducted a communal praise of God in a sevenfold daily office, they labored in the fields and they participated in what is known as lectio divina – the meditative study of the Scripture. They conducted a school for reading and studying of Scripture, equipped with a library. This gave way to other monasteries beginning the same ministry, eventually, reaching into the Middle Ages, resulting in the monastery as the primary institution of learning. Although the Benedictine Rule spread slowly, it was used very steadily by Pope Gregory the Great, who used its monks as missionaries, bishops and ambassadors.

Monasticism has grown today as a major influence in the Orthodox Church with thousands of monasteries around the world. It serves as an anchor in the Church for ethics and spiritual practices that would otherwise fade with those who are caught up in marital and other social affairs. The monks of the Church can in many ways be considered to be the very conscience of the Church. The daily lives of various parishioners around the world are not lived without the consideration of the monks and how they live. We know that there are many monks living a strict spiritual life for the kingdom of God, and this convicts us and gives us strength! We also reap the prayers of the monks and greatly benefit from the theological/educational resources that they create.