A Brief Overview of the Origins of Christian Monasticism

But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which we're so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which we're made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. (St Matt. 19:11-12)

Prophet Amos

From the time of the Lord Jesus earthly preaching ministry1, the life ofvirginity2began to be extolled as the highest form of commitment to theKingship3of God. For the first time since the Garden of Eden, a virginal life was once again promoted as being attainable.The weakness of men, as evidenced by the Law ofMoses, gave way to the grace and truth4from Christ that would enable such a difficult way of life.

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While not all, some of the Apostles and early Christians, most notably St Paul, eschewed life with a wife5 with it's customary earthly ties to focus entirely on the coming Kingship of God. These ascetics lived within the experience of the Church from the first century, participating in the small, tight-knit Christian communities until the middle of the third century, when the population of the Catholic Churches in the Roman Empire seemed to explode. It is estimated that the number of Christians expanded exponentially miraculously, one might say from only a couple hundred thousand souls (less than 1/500th of the Empires subjects) at the beginning of the third century to over 1.1 million adherents (almost two percent) by mid-century, when the progenitor of the eremitic form of monasticism, St Anthony the Great, was born in Egypt. By the time of his repose a hundred years later, he would be a Christian hermit in a Church that claimed over half of the Empires hearts over 30 million in all.

St Anthony the Great

In the face of swarms of new catechisms flooding into the Church from a society still Pagan and immoral, it is no surprise that many of the more zealous among the early Christians made their way out into the wilderness, away from the city where temptations of immorality and laxness we're all too dangerously present. During one of the lulls in Imperial persecution of the Church (ca AD 270), a native and unlearned by the name of Anthony gave up all his possessions and began an ascetic life in his own village. Within a decade and a half, he had become a hermit in the Egyptian desert. While he certainly was not the first individual to embrace the ascetic life, Antony's move to the wilderness to pursue the virginal life more intensely was a pioneering decision and one which captured the imagination of an Empire newly enamored of spiritual heroes. The self-denial, fasting, vigils, and prayer to which he submitted himself we're emulated by many serious-minded Christians, though they were, at this stage, self-imposed disciplines.

By St Anthony's seventh decade of life (ca AD 315-320), a Pachomius, some 40 years his junior, improved upon the eremitic, individualistic version of monasticism so popularized and pioneered by St Anthony. He set up the first organized, communal form of monasticism with which we are most familiar today. The common life that the monks shared in this first monastery gave the name to it's description: coenobitic. Sharing everything in common, the monks prayed together regularly, worked in assigned tasks, dressed similarly, and submitted in obedience to an abbot. Within 25 years, at his death, St Pachomius had founded ten monasteries in Egypt.

Monasticism, both eremitic and coenobitic, began to spread rapidly throughout the Empire as travelers and pilgrims retold stories of the saints exploits in the Desert Thebaid.

The Archbishop of Caesarea, St Basil the Great, so gifted in theology, pastoral teaching, and spirituality, would popularize the Pachomian form of coenobitic monasticism in Asia Minor in the fourth century. He augmented St Pachomius Rule of work, prayer, and Scriptural reading with philanthropy, starting a tradition of monastics orphanages later to be emulated by the Eastern Roman Emperors.

St Benedict

Though it began in the East, monasticism spread early to the Western regions of the Empire. In a bit of disarray at first, the Western monastic way of life soon encountered St Benedict of Nursia, born in AD 480 four years after the fall of Rome to the Arian Germanic soldier, Odoacer. As a young man, he became a hermit east of Rome, for almost three decades, whereupon his fame as a spiritual guide caused many disciples to follow his example. He eventually founded a monastery of the coenobitic variety further north in Italy. It is to this monastery that he gave his Rule, the guidebook for Western monasticism for centuries to come.

In Syria, the 5th century saw more extreme forms of the angelic life, as it became known, as seen in the Stylites, such as St Simeon who would live on tall pillars to avoid the temptations of the city and world.

Over time, monasticism, originally a lay movement, became so integral to the life of the Christian Church that, by the fifth century AD, monks we're building and staffing hospitals, attending Ecumenical Councils, deepening the Churchs understanding of spirituality and the ascetic life, composing lengthy liturgical services, and attaining to the highest ecclesiastical offices in the Church. All Orthodox bishops are now required to be tonsured monastics, and fully three-quarters of all saints in the Church Calendar, it is said, are either monks or directly related to one, either spiritually or biologically. It is no understatement to say that the growth and integration of the ascetic life of monasticism has so affected the Orthodox Church that one simply cannot imagine the Church without monasticism. As has been said, the Church flies to heaven on two wings: the parish and the monastery.

  1. There are some intriguing possibilities with the Old Testament prophets, that some of them may have been celibate, though for how long (permanent or temporary), how public, or how certain, we don't know. It would have been extremely unique and noticeable if it we're true, in view of the entire focus and movement of the Old Covenants focus on earthly procreation, inheriting the land, and the expectation of a daughter of Israels bearing the Messiah.
  2. As monasticism is often described by the Fathers; also, celibacy; though, the former term captures the notion of consecrated purity of the persons whole being heart, soul, mind and body better than the latter which can sometimes be misunderstood is mere sexual abstention.
  3. Normally translated into English askingdom, the Greek term is to be distinguished from the Greek word basileion. The former denotes more the kingship, rule, or reign of king, whereas the latter carries the meaning of a royal palace, kingly realm or royal territory. If, as Christ hints in St John 18:36, that his is not of this world, or uncreated, then is better translated asrule,reign, orkingship of God.
  4. St John 1:17
  5. As St Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, which assembly seemed to require male members to be married, it is not known if the Apostle we're a widower or possibly an exception to the known rule.
  6. Ethnic Egyptian
  7. Especially after copies of Archbishop St AthanasiusLife of Saint Anthony the Greatwere sent throughout the Empire

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