Early Monasticism

The concept of monasticism is ancient and can be seen in many religions and in philosophy. This ancient expression of monasticism is that of the eremitical style of the solitary hermit who renounced the secular world seeking liberation through an ascetic life in solitude. This devotion to religious life under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, was known to the great world religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism many centuries before Christianity. Our focus is on the development of monasticism in Christianity.

Christian Monasticism drew its origin from the examples of the Prophet Elias, and John the Baptist who both lived alone in the desert. Beginning with the Exodus and all through the Old Testament times, the desert was regarded as a place of spiritual renewal and a return to God. St. Anthony the Great (251-356) was the first well-known Christian to adopt the life in the desert. He withdrew from secular society retreating to the Egyptian desert to lead an intensely prayer-oriented, ascetic life with the sole purpose of pursuing God in solitude. Anthony lived alone as a hermit in the Egyptian desert until he attracted a circle of followers, and as the idea of devoting one's entire life to God grew, more and more monks joined him in the far desert. Anthony is generally considered the father of the Christian monastic family.

Some of these early renowned followers belong to the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They each lived in isolation but later, loose-knit communities began to be formed. The progression from hermit "anchorite" to monk "cenobite" living in community under one abbot, soon followed. In Egypt, St Pachomius established the first Christian monastery in 346.

The Eastern monastic teachings were brought to the western church by Saint John Cassian (ca. 360 - 435). As a young adult, he and his friend Germanus journeyed to Egypt visiting a number of monastic foundations. He then wrote, codified and transmitted the wisdom of these Desert Fathers of Egypt in his 'Institutes and the Conferences'. Cassian founded a complex of monasteries for both men and women, which was one of the first such institutes in the west. These served as models for later monastic development and a major source of influence for St. Benedict who then incorporated many of the same principles into his monastic rule (Regula Benedicti), and recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian. Since Benedict's rule is still used by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monks, the thought of John Cassian still guides the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Western Church....Next