The monastic movement was in many ways a continuation of the tendencies already established in the Christian communities, where baptism was understood as entrance upon a life marked by renunciation of the present order of things and the entire dedication to the new order manifested in the resurrection of Christ. The martyrs were the ultimate model of dedication to Christ – who, like him, fought against the powers of evil and triumphed over them through death. Like Christ, they counted the world and its values as things to be spurned, even to the loss of their own lives, for the sake of the kingdom of God.
From early on, the churches had known their ascetics who sought to imitate Christ and his martyrs, seeking the fullness of Christian life in the full renunciation of the attachments of this world. They renounced family, the pursuit and possessions of riches, committed to sexual continence, fasting, prayer and the study of Scripture. Many consciously appropriated the old Hellenistic ideal of the philosophical life, detached from worldly distractions and directed towards contemplation and the habituation into virtue.
Although giving continuation to such tendencies present in Christian asceticism, the monastic movement also developed in its own particular way. While the former had been present more in the urban centers (since it was there that Christianity initially grew), the monastic movement was mostly a phenomenon seen among the peasantry, who initially sought retreat in the deserts of northern Africa for their ascetic practices. The monastic movement included initially a search for solitude; some sought such isolation primarily for their spiritual development, others for other ulterior motives, such as evasion from debt, tax collectors, family, etc.
Also, this isolation created problems for the ecclesiastical structure of the Church, since those who sought the desert were not, at least in practice, under the supervision and authority of their bishops. This became even more problematic when the populace would revere them and seek them out in the desert for their spiritual guidance and advice. This problem was resolved only as the leaders of the churches themselves became sponsors, organizers, and eventually products of this movement.
One of the earliest and most influential monastic leaders was Anthony of Egypt (251-356). Athanasius wrote his biography, Life of Anthony, and the bishop’s fame and authority provided the base for the wide dissemination of this work and the consequent spread of Anthony’s fame. One of the most influential writings of Western literature, the Confessions of St Augustine, has its central turning point when he is led to repentance and conversion after hearing his friends’ reports of St Anthony – his life, asceticism, resolve, and holiness.
Anthony was a native of Egypt, of Coptic ancestry and language, born about 250. At about 20, he walked into a church and heard the words of Mat. 19:21: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He was seized by those words, sold his parental inheritance and took up the life of a hermit at the edge of his village, under the tutelage of an older ascetic. He eventually moved farther into the desert, and spent twenty years in the solitude of a ruined fort near the coast of the Red Sea.
The struggle of the martyrs, in his particular experience, took the form of fighting against the demonic powers in their very dwelling place, the desert. He was able to overcome them through constant work, fasting, vigil, prayer, and the recitation of the Scriptures. When St Anthony emerged from his retreat, he was not only perceived as a hero, but also a holy man, one who represented human nature restored to its proper glory. He healed the sick, reconciled enemies, and by word and deed taught the wisdom he had learned. As others started gathering around him, a loose community of hermits appeared under his tutelage. At the opening of the fourth century, other such leaders and communities appeared in North Africa. By the time Anthony died in 356, there were probably thousands of ascetics who had sought life in the desert.
With the growth in numbers of those seeking the ascetic life, a new communal form of monastic practice appeared in Upper (southern) Egypt under the leadership and inspiration of Pachomius (ca. 290-346). He organized a monastic community in Tabbenisi in around 320, where members lived a strictly common life (koinos bios, Latin “cenobite”) following a common schedule of work, prayer and meditation. In time, there developed a number of such monastic centers which supported themselves by their work and were directed to mutual assistance and encouragement. Anthony’s eremitical monasticism and Pachomius’ coenobitism coexisted and spread.
In some places the ascetic practice was developed into more radical forms. In Syria, Simeon the Elder (390-459) spent thirty years of his life living at the top of a pillar, where he prayed and preached to the pilgrims who came to visit him. Others followed this practice, and they were objects of popular reverence and devotion. Simeon himself was appealed to by the imperial authorities for assistance in settling the controversies surrounding the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.
In Cappadocia and Pontus, and later in Asia Minor generally, coenobitism became the rule. Basil of Caesarea promoted such monastic communities as means to develop the “philosophical life” and the love of God and of neighbor. Monks were to practice charity toward their neighbors as well as to submit to the leader of the community, called the abbot. Basil also encouraged monasteries to situate themselves on the edges of the cities, so as to be able to offer instruction, example, medical services, hospitality, and care for the populace and the needy.
The growth of these communities eventually required the development of written rules to regulate monastic life. Monasticism also received its intellectual framework from the tradition of Platonist theology which stemmed from Clement of Alexandria and Origen, emphasizing the soul’s progress from the beginning of its life in Christ at baptism to the fruition of that life in contemplative knowledge of God. Evagrius Ponticus (346-399) was instrumental in establishing this framework in Egypt.
Athanasius’ Life of Anthony was translated into Latin, and became influential in the West. Martin of Tours (ca. 335-397), who had been abbot of a community, became the bishop of Tours and brought his way of life with him there. In Gaul, John Cassian (ca. 360-435), a disciple of Evagrius Ponticus, founded a community in Marseilles. Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences, works designed to acquaint Western ascetics with the Egyptian tradition of monasticism, became foundational documents for Western monasticism. Other communities developed in Spain, Italy, and other areas, and by the fifth and sixth centuries there was a multiplication of formal rules for individual monasteries (Jerome translated Pachomius’ rule into Latin).
One of these, the Rule of Benedict, eventually became the norm for Western monasticism. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480 – ca. 550) was a hermit who gathered disciples whom he organized into small communities. He moved to Monte Cassino and there founded the coenobitic community for which his Rule was designed. He drew from different sources, including the rules of Basil and Pachomius, and a document known as the Rule of the Master. The Rule of Benedict, however, adapted these into a form that was unique in its simplicity and clarity. The members of his community were to renounce personal possessions, practice continence, obey their abbot, and remain in their community for life. The abbot was bound to consult all the brethren in grave matters.
There were three main occupations in the monastery: communal praise of God in the sevenfold office; manual labor in the fields; and lectio divina – the meditative study of Scripture. Benedict was skeptical about extreme asceticism and individualism; his Rule was strict but not severe and it insisted on the communal character of the monastic life governed by love. The Benedictine Rule spread slowly, but it received the patronage of Pope Gregory the Great, who increasingly used monks as missionaries, as bishops, and ambassadors.
Since all monks had to read in order to carry the divine office, Benedictine monasteries ran schools which eventually developed to become the primary centers of learning in Europe. Monasteries also became centers of missionary endeavor, of care for the poor, and of secular learning in addition to sacred learning; this was especially true of Irish monasticism, as a result of the work of the monk Columbanus (ca. 543-615), not only there but also in Gaul and Italy.