The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek word monos which means ‘alone,’ solitary.’ These words indicated the idea of solitude, of isolation. As we shall see, the term ‘monk’ has come to be applied to men living the same life in common —a life in which they are indeed separated from the world, but not from one another. Strictly speaking the term, ‘monasticism’, should be reserved for the form of religious life led by those who, having separated themselves entirely from the world, live in solitude — as, in fact, the etymology of the words ‘monk’, ‘monastery’, etc., clearly indicates.
Monasticism is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one’s life to spiritual work. Monasticism (Greek word monos means ‘single’) usually refers to the way of life, communitarian or solitary, adopted by those individuals, male or female, who have elected to pursue an ideal of perfection or a higher level of religious experience through leaving the world. Monastic orders historically have been organised around a rule or a teacher, the activities of the members being closely regulated in accordance with the rule adopted. Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called ‘monks’ or ‘brothers’ (male), and ‘nuns’ or ‘sisters’ (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called ‘monastics’.
Technically, monasticism embraces both the life of the hermit, characterised by varying degrees of extreme solitude, and the life of the cenobite, that is, the monk living in a community offering a limited amount of solitude. Monasticism always entails asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. This asceticism may include fasting, silence, a prohibition against personal ownership, and an acceptance of bodily discomfort. Almost always it includes poverty, celibacy, and obedience to a spiritual leader. The goal of such practices is usually a more intense relationship with God, some type of personal enlightenment, or the service of God through prayer, meditation, or good works such as teaching or nursing. It can be found in some form among most developed religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, the Sufi branch of Islam and Christianity.
There were only two Jewish groups —the Essenes and Therapeutae— engaged in any form of organised asceticism. The Essenes may be regarded as one of the most striking examples of monastic life outside of Christianity. They inhabited the monastery at Qumran near the Dead Sea and appear to have lived in ascetic style, practicing chastity, poverty and obedience. The Essenes (circa. 150 BC) offer all the principal characteristics of the cenobitic life — community of goods, practice of poverty and mortification, prayer and work, meals and religious exercise in common, silence, celibacy, etc. The Qumran monastery was destroyed during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD, and the fate of the Essenes thereafter is uncertain. It is unlikely that they had any impact upon Christian monasticism, which began only in the late III century. Although there is no direct relationship between them, it is nevertheless true that both Essenian and Christian asceticism derived much of their practice from the same source, viz. the Jewish religion.
The Therapeutae were contemporary with the Essenes. They abandoned families and possessions in order to live in ascetic seclusion far from the noise and commotion of cities. Philo of Alexandria is our sole witness to their existence. He describes them as cenobites, leading a life almost identical with that of the Christian cenobites. Nevertheless they do not seem to have exercised any direct influence on Christian monasticism.
Christian asceticism is known to have begun in Egypt about the III or the IV century AD, and is associated with St. Antony. It is believed that about the end of the III century Antony’s life as a solitary ascetic was brought to an end by a number of disciples gathering round him. So he becomes the father of Christian monasticism. It was this type of monastic life that prevailed in Egypt up to the middle of the V century AD. All later Christian asceticism and monasticism is traceable to it.
The origins of early Christian monasticism are not clearly known and are, therefore, subject to controversy. Some scholars believe that the monastic movement was prompted by Late Jewish communal and ascetic ideals, such as those of the Essenes. Still others speculate that Manichaean and similar forms of dualism inspired extremes of asceticism within the Christian family. However, the first Christian commentators on monasticism believed that the movement had truly gospel origins.
Christian monastics drew their spiritual strength from Christ’s emphasis on poverty and on the “narrow way” to salvation. Early monastics believed that Paul preferred celibacy to marriage. Indeed, the first nuns seem to have been widows of the late Roman period who decided not to remarry. From one point of view, the decision of some Christians to live separate from the community, both physically and spiritually, was regrettable. From another, the commitment and service of the monastics made them the most valued people in early medieval society.
Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian church, modelled upon scriptural examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution by the scriptures. While most people think of Christian or Catholic monks or nuns as “Something to do with living in a monastery,” from the Church’s point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity. Rather, the focus is on an ideal called the religious life, also called the state of perfection. This idea is expressed in the notion that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or run is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are “be ye perfect like your heavenly father is perfect”.
Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle ages.
The first Christian hermits seem to have stablished themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, where in pre-Christian times the Therapeutae, an order of Jewish ascetics, had been established. Not long afterword the desert regions of Upper Egypt became a retreat for those who fled from the persecutions of the Christians so frequent in the Roman Empire during the III century, and for those who found the vices of the world intolerable. The earliest form of Christian monasticism was, probably, that of the anchorites or hermits; a later development is found in the pillar saints, called Stylites, who spent most of their time on the tops of pillars in order to separate themselves from the world and to mortify the flesh. After a time, however, the necessities of the religious life itself led to modifications. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common exercise of religious duties, the early hermits had an aggregation of separate called lavra or laura, to which they could retire after their communal duties had been discharged. From the union of the common life with personal solitude is derived the name cenobite (Greek Koinos bios, “Common life”) by which a certain class of monks is distinguished.
Saint Antony the Great was connected with the first Egyptian hermits; Saint Pachomius (d.46), with the first communities of cenobites in Egypt. Saint Basil the Great (f1.379), bishop of Caesarea, placed monasticism in an urban context by introducing charitable service as a work discipline.
St. Antony, who embraced solitude, established himself at Alexandria, and the fame of his sanctity, as well as his gentleness and learning, drew many disciples to him. Most of his followers accompanied him when he retired to the desert. One of his disciples, St. Pachomius who established a great monastery on an island in the Nile River, is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic manner of living. Pachomius drew up for his subjects a monastic rule, the first regulations of the kind on record. Many thousands of disciples flocked to him, and he founded several other monasteries for men and one for women under the direction of his sister. All of these houses recognized the authority of a single superior, an about or archimandrite. They constitute the original type of the religious order. The cenobitic form of monasticism was first introduced into the west at Rome and in Northern Italy by St. Athanasius, in Central North Africa by St. Augustine, and in Gaul by St. Martin of Tours. The religious revival effected by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the VI century gave Western monasticism its permanent form.
Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisbis in Mesopotamia (350), and from his monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China. St. Sabbas the Sanctified organised the monks of the Judaean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.
The first monks of whom we have a good record represent an extreme phase in the evolution of monasticism. These are the so-called desert fathers, hermits, living in the eremitical style in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Enraged by sin and fearful of damnation, they left the towns for a solitary struggle against temptation. Some, like Simeon Stylites lived very exotic lives and became pilgrim attractions. More typical, however, was Antony of Egypt (c.250-356), whose commitment to salvation led him back to the community to evangelise unbelievers. His extreme asceticism deeply touched the sensibilities of the age.
The reputed founder of Christian achoritism, Antonius, was first active in Egypt c.280-90 AD. But in 306 AD., one of his disciples visited western Syria, i.e., the intermediate region between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and reported that monasticism was as yet unknown there.
Moreover, its origin in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia seem to date back to the end of the III century, leaving insufficient time for it to have spread from Egypt. Thus it appears that monasticism arose spontaneously and independently in Egypt and in Syria-Mesopotamia.
The hermits (‘desert’) lived in solitude in the desert; St. John the Baptist, and later St. Paul the Hermit and St. Antony, were the first of these. Anchorites or anchorites (‘retreat’) title is synonymous with the hermits, and indicates those monks who practiced the solitary life. This form of monastic life is the most ancient; it spread, first of all, in Egypt, then in Palestine and Syria, through the whole of the eastern world, and, finally, in the West.
Pachomius (c.290-346), an Egyptian monk, preferred the communal life. He wrote a rule of life for monks in which he emphasised organisation and the rule of elder monks over the newly professed. The rule became popular, and the movement toward communal life was ensured. To the idea of community Basil the Great (c.330-79) added another element. In his writings, and especially in his commentaries on the scriptures, this father of Eastern monasticism defined a theory of Christian humanism which he felt was binding on the monasteries. According to Basil, monastics should care for orphans, feed the poor, maintain hospitals, educate children, even provide work for the unemployed.
Toward the end of the IV century the individualist asceticism of the anchorites gradually became rarer. Ascetic impulses came increasingly to be expressed through the communal life of monasteries, where monks were subject to rules and bishops supervised their activities. Small and crude monastic establishments grew in size, acquiring fields, orchards and gardens, inasmuch as an entire community of monks could not be supported solely on the charity of surrounding villages. Often the presence of monks near a town was considered lucky, and the towns-people helped to erect buildings for them.
The original foundation of a monastery frequently came about when a widely know anchorite was joined in his solitude by a few disciples, and the anchorite failed to send them away. This happened with the monk Saba (d. 366/67 AD) of Edessa. According to his contemporary St. Ephraim, Juliana was known to the “whole world”. This outstanding anchorite inhabited a cave in the vicinity of Edessa, where the practiced severe mortification, including long vigils and severe fasts. Gradually a group of admirers gathered around his cave, and Juliana organised a rudimentary form of common life for them. The fame of Juliana Saba led other monks to follow his example.
Ephraim compared his role in the organisation of monasteries to a huge censer that spread incense through the entire country around Edessa.
Christian monasticism grew and took institutional form in order to provide a supportive setting for those who wished to take vows of poverty and chastity, who valued the love of Christ which surpasses the love of women. As a later development, Christian monasticism is not explicitly regulated by scripture. It has taken a wide variety of forms, from solitary hermits and begging mendicants to orders dedicated to nursing, teaching, scholarship and other forms of service to the world.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
[‡] Article by Goswami, Anita. “Hermit to Cenobitic: A Study in Early Christian Monasticism.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 66, 2005, pp. 1329–1335. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44145947. Accessed 22 Aug. 2021.
- Gaden, A.S., “Monasticism” in ERE, ed. James Hastings, New York, 1980, p. 782.
- Ibid., p. 781.
- Johnston, William M. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Monasticism, 2 vols. Chicago, 2000.
- Marshall, C.T., “Monasticism”, Elwell Evangelical Dictionary.
- Encyclopedia of Monasticism.
- Workman, H.B., The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal, 1913.
- Kane P.V., History of Dharmasastra, Vol. II, part 2, Poona, 1974, p. 933, Ghurye G.S., Indian Sadhus, Bombay, 1953, pp. 1-10; Oman J.C., Mystic ascetics and saints of India, London, 1903; Bhagat M.G., Ancient Indian Asceticism, Bombay, 1975; Sedlar, J.W.. India and the Greek World, Totowa, 1981, p. 236, Gaden, “Monasticism”.
- Beal S., Buddhist Records of the Western World, Vol.1, London, 1884, pp. 79-80, Chakraborti Haripada, Asceticism in Ancient India, Calcutta, 1973, pp.219-247, Carpenter J.E., Buddhism and Christianity, New Delhi, 1988, pp. 81-84, Basham A.L., The Wonder that was India, New Delhi, London, 1954, p. 261; Davids Rhys, Buddhism, London, 1907, p. 47.
- Chakraborti, Asceticism in Ancient India, pp. 219-247, Ghurye, Indian Sadhus, pp. 1- 10; Sedlar, India and the Greek World, Gaden, “Monasticism”, p. 804; Encyclopedia of Monasticism.
- Nicholson, R.A., “Monasticism”, ERE, p. 99; Encyclopedia of Monasticism; Trimingham, The Sufi orders in Islam, 1971.
- Ghurye G.S., Indian Sadhus, pp. 1-10; Sedlar, India and the Greek World, p. 236; Gaden, “Monasticism”; Oxford Dictionary of Christian Church, London, 1938; Gregorios, Paul, ‘The Monastic Tradition’ in India and Greece connections and parallels, Marg Publication, Bombay, 1985, pp. 29-34; Encylopedia of Monasticism, Zockler, O., ERE, op.cit., p. 70.
- Gaden, “Monasticism”, p. 782.
- Sedlar, India and the Greek World, p. 236.
- Gaden, “Monasticism”, p. 782.
- Philo, “The Contemplative life” 18-19, in PAilo (Loeb), IX, 125.
- Gaden, “Monasticism”, p. 782.
- Encyclopedia of Monasticism.
- Knowles, D., Christian Monasticism, 1969; T. Merton, The Monastic Journey, ed. by P. Hart, 1977.
- Butter, E.C., Benedictine Monachism, Chadwick, O., Western Asceticism; Knowles, Christian Monasticism.
- Johnston, op.cit.
- Clay, R.M., ‘The Hermit and Anchorites of England’, in The Antiquary’s Book, London, 1914.
- Sedlar, op.cit., pp. 247-248.
- Ibid., p. 247.