The Road to Monasticism
Shortly after the stoning of Stephen, the Early Church suffered immense persecution. From one emperor to the next and for nearly three centuries spanning from Nero to Trajan and from Decius to Diocletian, Christians were chased from one end of the empire to the other spilling blood at every turn.
Life in the early centuries of the Church carried with it the very real possibility of financial ruin, imprisonment, torture, or death for being a Christian, and in some cases for even being associated with Christians.
It was an era when many of the greatest heroes of the faith emerged; those who faced down Rome and paid the ultimate sacrifice for their allegiance to Christ.
However, in AD 313, the famous Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine and Licinius forever turning the tide of persecution in the Roman Empire. From this point forward (minus a short run by Julian the Apostate) Christianity was granted protection status and eventually made the official religion of the empire. This change carried for Christians the obvious advantage of being able to freely practice the faith without threat of persecution, but it also advanced many unintended consequences that would challenge the fledgling Church with new internal battles.
As early as the 3rd century the Church had a massive population of second and third generation Christians. Many of these were baptized in infancy and, as reflected in the early homilies of Bishop Kallistos of Rome (AD 217-222), lacked the sort of intensity of faith which animated their parents and grandparents. They were not practicing pagans nor were they “experiential” Christians. Alongside this population was an enormous influx of pagan converts who generally favored an extra dose of “worldliness” with their new Christian affiliation. Mixed in with these two groups was a more serious-minded group of believers who lamented the loss of strenuousness in the Christian experience. For them the Church was becoming something like a factory producing a mediocre product for the masses; in a word, the Church was losing its soul. For those who desired a rigorous Christianity, monasticism posed a viable alternative.
Monasticism was by all measures a layman’s movement. This does not mean that monasticism was somehow a movement which sought removal from the formal Church; rather it served as an added, voluntary withdrawal from normal life in order to achieve the Christian ideal. Following the teachings of Christ, for example his words to the rich young ruler: “If thou would be perfect, go, sell what thou has, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (Matt 19:22), and his edict that some are “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Matt 19:12), the early Christian ascetics sought congruence between Christ’s “hard-sayings” and their own daily lives. They understood Christianity to be a life of total sacrifice and contemplative retirement from the “entrapments” of the world. One of the first and most notable ascetics was St. Antony.
From St. Anthony the Great to St. Benedict of Nursia
St. Antony is considered by most to be the founder of Christian monasticism; certainly within the Orthodox Church he is held to be the greatest of the monastics. He was born in central Egypt around AD 250 and at 20 years of age took up the ascetic life in his native village of Koma. At the age of 35 he moved into total solitude becoming a hermit. He is believed to have remained in this state for nearly 70 years until his death (c. AD 356). According to manuscripts of his life (primarily those penned by St. Athanasius) St. Antony practiced the strictest forms of self-denial, was tormented by demons in every imaginable form, and overcame them through fasting and unending prayer. Though he lived a hermit life, news of his struggles and miracle working power drew many people to him who began to imitate his life, some living absolute isolation and others in small groups.
One of those who sought to imitate St. Antony was later to become the great founder of cenobite monasticism, St. Pachomius. Pachomius practiced the hermit life for many years before becoming dissatisfied with its irregularities. He developed a form of monasticism in which individual worshippers were knit into a close body and were assigned regular work and hours of worship, having a life in common over sought by an abbot. His first of ten monasteries was founded in Tabennisi (southern Egypt) around AD 315-320.
St. Basil the Great & Friends
Pachomius’ cenobite tradition of monasticism flourished in Asia Minor due in large part to the efforts of St. Basil the Great between the years AD 360-379. St. Basil was a highly gifted organizer and administrator and developed his own monastic Rule (which bears his name) working from the foundation laid by Pachomius. Basil’s Rule emphasized work, prayer, Bible reading, care of orphans and similar good deeds, and discouraged extreme asceticism. His Rule would eventually become the basis of Greek and Russian monasticism of the present day.
Monasticism found its way to the West through the work of St. Athanasius and was expanded exponentially by Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine. One of the most influential laborers in France was St. Martin of Tours who established a monastery near Poitiers around AD 362. Both styles of monasticism—hermetic and cenobitic—gained great popularity throughout the West, so much so that Eusebius (bishop of Vercelli in Italy) began the first practice of requiring his clergy to live the monastic life, something that up to this point had no equivalent in the East. But not all was well; as western monasticism continued to develop reforms became necessary. Throughout the West individual monasteries operated under different rules and in general were more lax than their eastern counterparts. As this situation continued and the monastic life became evermore chaotic it eventually gave birth to perhaps the greatest of monastic reformers, St. Benedict of Nursia.
St. Benedict originally launched out into the hermit life seeking solace from the evils of the city (c. AD 500). In a similar manner as St. Antony, Benedict attracted many followers to his place of refuge due to fame of his virtuous life. Through these followers he was offered the leadership position of a neighboring monastery, which he accepted and soon became aware of the ill-regulated and lax state of its monks. Ultimately, Benedict was convinced to resign and founded his own monastery—the first of which was in Monte Cassino—and apply his own Rule (which bears his name).
Like his predecessor, St. Basil, Benedict had a genius for organization and a profound knowledge of human nature. He conceived a monastery to be, according to Williston Walker, “that of a permanent, self-contained and self-supporting garrison of Christ’s soldiers” (Walker, 127), headed by an abbot. No one was to be admitted as a monk until he or she had attempted the monastic life for at least one year; once admitted the vows were irrevocable. Benedict saw worship as, without a doubt, the most important element of a monk’s life. A minimum of four scheduled hours of prayer were observed. Work took a close second place with daily regimented manual labor. Reading and transcribing took up considerable time as well. Benedict’s Rule made the monastery a center of industry and would eventually prove invaluable to the preservation of literature in the Germanic nations. Benedictine monasticism was slow to spread throughout Europe but by the time of Charlemagne it had become fairly universal in the West.
It would be a shame not to include at least a brief mention of one of the most fascinating early developments in monasticism, that of the Celtic type. Celtic monasticism had its import from the East via southern Gaul and flourished from the 5th to the 7th century in Ireland. Much has been made in modern times of the important role Irish monasticism played in the preservation of Greek literature during Europe’s Dark Age. And, true to form, due to its isolated location, Ireland was mostly spared Roman influence and when the empire collapsed Ireland barely felt a tremor. While mainland Europe struggled to get its bearings, Ireland was experiencing something of a Golden Age. It was a period just after St. Patrick had evangelized the island when great monastic leaders filled the stage from one end of nation to the other and throughout the whole of Britain; great names like Finian of Clonard, Columba, and Columbanus.
Celtic monasticism was not highly organized like its Benedictine counterparts, but rather developed along with the Irish clan system. It was very much like the East in its mystical theology and ascetic rigor, and its missionary zeal was greater than anything the East or West could boast of. A final aspect of Celtic monasticism was their development of an elaborate penitential system; one that found its equal nowhere in Church history—for better or for worse, the jury is still out.
The above is truly a mere skimming of the surface of Christian monastic history. For those interested in further study there are countless books on the subject, particularly within the Orthodox Church where monasticism is still highly prized. Throughout the centuries monasticism has served as a spiritual regulator, of sorts, for the Church. Staying fairly self-governing and free from many of the civil and social concomitants that tend to bend the Church in this direction or that, the monastic community serves as a tethering point which helps to keep the Church continually refreshed in its mystic and spiritual center. In my estimation, it is one of the primary factors that has continued to balance the Church these last twenty centuries, helping it to never arrive at the point where it required a reformation to “reinstall” the Spirit, so to speak.