Christian Monasticism

March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

Monasticism was unknown in Christianity until the end of the third century. Most of the early Christians continued to own private property after their conversion, and marriage was not condemned. St. Paul expressed a personal preference for celibacy, but admitted there was no "command from the Lord" on the matter.

Widows were treated with special respect, but those under the age of 60 were enjoined to remarry and bear children. Missionary and charity work were emphasized over personal meditation and spiritual development.

However, there were strands within Christianity dating back to the time of the apostles that emphasized asceticism, celibacy, poverty or moral perfection. Fasting was an accepted discipline in the early church. It became customary for older widows to remain single and devote themselves to prayer and church work. Celibacy was lauded as a higher calling by not only St. Paul, but also The Shepherd of Hermas and the Marcionites. In 305, a synod in Spain required celibacy of bishops. By then, the custom had already been established that members of the clergy should not marry or (if widowed) remarry after ordination.


In ancient Egypt and Syria, the distinction between the tilled and irrigated fields of the villages and the surrounding wilderness was very clear. Beyond the fields was "the desert," rocky and dry land, with a sparse vegetation of brambles, nettles, and thornbushes, and incapable of supporting human habitation.

It was the site of caves and small springs of brackish or salty water, abounding in poisonous snakes, lizards of all sorts, and watched over by vultures. But believe or not, these conditions favored the life of a monk. The moderate temperatures and sparse rain meant that he could live alone with little shelter, and the solitude and stark landscape aided in meditation and prayer.

From time immemorial, however, men and women had left their villages to live nearby in these badlands and to seek -- with the aid of solitude, exposure to the weather, and in hunger and thirst -- a deeper knowledge of the universe and the role of human beings in it, and perhaps to experience a mystic ecstacy in which they felt themselves united with the universe and its god.

Associated with this custom was the popular custom of going out into the desert to seek enlightenment, particularly when confronted with some important decision or when dissatisfied with life in general. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Muhammad, as well as the entire Israelite people, among many others, retreated into the desert and found their life's mission there.

Such people, hermits [a word that comes from eremus, or "desert," and meaning "desert dwellers"], were regarded by the local villagers as holy men. They would take offerings of food to the hermits near their village, and the hermits would give them wise advise. Some hermits subjected themselves to rather extreme forms of self punishment to drive out cravings for worldly things, and the villagers, admiring such conduct, would sometimes travel long distances to see and offer sustenance.

Anthony of Egypt (251-356)

One of these was a young man named Anthony (251-356), a resident of Alexandria in Egypt. He went into the desert at the age of fifteen and remained there, living a life of extreme austerity, for the next ninety years. As time passed, Anthony became famous and numbers of young men decided to join him in the desert the learn from him and to attempt to follow his way of life. Through a famous biography written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Anthony's way of life became widely known and his influence spread beyond Egypt, and soon collections of hermits were establishing themselves in various places throughout the Eastern Roman Empire.

Why did he become so famous and why was his example so influential? Why were young men and women, but especially young men, so eager to give up all of the pleasures of the world and to abandon their families, friends, and -- something that was extremely important to the people of the time to give up their hopes that their name and family would live on through their children? If we are to rely entirely on Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony, it was not only because people believed that the world was filled with demons that sought to lead men and women off the path that led to eternal life and that Anthony's way of life prepared people to fight off these evil forces. Athanasius portrayed Anthony as if he were a wrestler in training and so tapped both the religious fervor and the sports fever that were characteristic of the common men and women of the eastern empire. The monks were known as "athletes of Christ," and so were doubly worthy of emulation.

Pachomius (290-346)

But the number of people who adopted this eremitical (hermit) life made the point of it all to live alone a difficult matter and it became necessary to develop some form of regulation to allow hermits to live in close proximity while still maintaining a life of isolation. Pachomius (290-346) developed of Rule that attempted to solve that problem. Under this Rule, the monks lived in isolated huts, gathering only for meals and even then not speaking to each other. Pachomius went a step further, however, and arranged that the monks should work to produce their own food and clothing. In this way, they were no longer dependent upon the charity that the public could spare for their sustenance, and the number of people who could adopt this cenobitical life (meaning "life in common") became, for all purposes, unlimited. After the reforms of Pachomius, the number of monasteries and monks began to increase rapidly in the East.


Pachomius' reforms were carried still further by Basil. The Rule that he wrote in about 360 abandoned the idea of isolation and extreme asceticism that had been characteristic of Anthony's approach to the spiritual life. Under Basil's Rule, the monks lived and worked together, and were supposed to form a community based upon moderation and fellowship. So it was that only four years after Anthony's death, the monastic ideal had become so moderated that it was nothing like what had originally attracted people to it.

St. Martin of Tours (316-97)

While this strange transformation had been occurring in the East, attempts to spread the monastic ideal to the West had been largely unsuccessful. Athanasius spent several years in exile in the West about the middle of the fourth century, and had attempted to spread the ideal of St. Anthony. Perhaps the greatest follower of the monastic ideal of the time was Martin of Tours (316-397), a cavalryman from the Danubian frontier who became the most famous and influential spiritual leader of early medieval Europe. He was best known for having torn his cavalry cloak (capella in half to share with a naked beggar in the midst of winter. The cloak was preserved and became a powerful relic. Charlemagne took it to Aachen to place in his palace church, which soon became known as "the Capella" as a result. In time, most Carolingian churches came to be called by the same name, and our modern word "chapel" is derived from St. Martin's cloak.

Despite his admiration of Anthony, Martin seemed incapable of emulating him. Even before embarking on his spiritual life, Martin had displayed an attention to the plight of the poor that played little or no part in Anthony's search for the holy life. Moreover, as soon as Martin was discharged from the army, he began to attempt to convert his family and comrades. Anthony had shown little interest in Jesus' admonition "to spread the Good News to the nations," which was something that Martin was constantly involved in promoting. Finally, Anthony had lived his ninety years free from any responsibility for anyone or anything, while Martin soon found himself bishop of Tours, a difficult administrative and political task that absorbed much of his energy for the rest of his life.

Monasticism in Ireland and Scotland These same demands limited the influence of the most important center of eastern monasticism in the West. The eastern monk, Honoratus, established a community on the isle of Lèrins, of the coast of southern France, a community that soon developed a school of Christian doctrine and an example of the monastic life. A number of brilliant men sought the monastic life there, but, one after the other, they were called forth to assume the responsibilities of bishoprics and the leadership of missionary churches.

The most famous of the students of Lèrins was the Englishman, Patrick. After some time in the monastic life, Patrick felt the missionary call, and left to complete the conversion if Ireland. His love of the monastery did not desert him, and Ireland developed a set of ecclesiastical institutions peculiar to itself. Unlike those lands that had once been part of the Roman empire, Ireland did not have an urban infrastructure. Its population was grouped in clans -- something like the smaller groups that joined together to form a North American Indian tribe. The clansmen often lived in small, scattered settlements, coming together for special purposes in the village in which the hereditary chief of the clan resided. Irish Christianity adapted to these circumstances. Monasteries were established in virtually each of the many clans that made up the Irish folk, and the abbots became in many ways as much clan chieftains as monastic rulers. Many such abbots were regarded in their lifetime as saints, and there are stories in which entire monasteries, each under their own saintly abbot, did battle with each other for one reason or another.

The Irish attempted to follow the eastern mode of an ascetic life, but they were also convinced of the need to spread the word of Christianity and went about it in a unique way. They would board one of the flimsy leather and wicker boats that were used by the Irish, push out to sea, and go wherever the current took them. One place they landed was the island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, where they founded what became a famous and influential monastery. The monks of Iona soon managed to convert southern Scotland and the North of England to Christianity, and they founded still other monasteries there, the most famous being Lindisfarne, on an island off the eastern coast of Northumbria. Although their practices differed from the Christians following the policies of the bishop of Rome, the Irish were quite learned and skillful. They had close contact by sea with Spain and, through Spain, with the Byzantine world, and so contributed to what is sometimes called the Northumbrian Renaissance in the seventh and eighth centuries. For a time, the North of England was one of the most cultured regions in Western Europe.

Also see: The Book of Kells

Benedict of Nursia (480-543)

Monasticism did not spread as rapidly on the continent as in the British Isles, perhaps because it still had not developed a character that struck a responsive chord in the people of the West. This was reserved for Benedict of Nursia (480- 543), who founded the great monastery of Monte Cassino, where he wrote his Holy Rule.

Benedict had studied law before adopting a monastic life, and he defined his monastery as a corporation. More to the point, however, he emphasized obedience and discipline, regular and congregate meals, a moderate life divided equally between work, sleep and prayer, standard dress to be drawn from a common store, a series of special offices to regulate the communal life and a number of other, similar, things. His monastery was to be much like an army unit, and he freely used military terminology in writing the Rule. He referred to his monks as a schola, a word from which we derived "school," but which originally referred to an elite army unit. Regularity, moderation and, above all, discipline appealed to the people of the West, and the military ideal was one that attracted them.

Benedict's form of monastery slowly began to spread and eventually became the standard form for almost all western monasteries. Moreover, the Benedictine monks became known not as "athletes of Christ," as were their eastern counterparts, but militi Christi, "soldiers of Christ," and military imagery became a permanent aspect of western Christianity.

But the Benedictine Rule had an even greater importance for western attitudes and values. It stated that the abbot was in complete control of the monastery, but that he had to consult with the entire body of monks on all important matters, take responsibility for his decisions, and observe the regulations set forth in the Rule. In addition, it required the congregation to read and discuss the Rule chapter by chapter, beginning over again once they had completed it. This may not seem very important, but consider that the abbot's powers were limited and that the principle of limited sovereignty was a new concept in the West. Moreover, he was limited by the Rule, which everyone was to know and which governed all of the monastery's affairs. The Rule was, therefore, a written constitution, something that the founders of the United States felt was a great step forward for individual liberty and which the subjects of Great Britain even now do not possess.

Then, too, all of the monks were equal in status. Although their offices might give them certain authority, this was a result of the office and did not belong to the man himself. There were neither nobles nor commoners in a Benedictine monastery. When they passed through the door of the monastery and were "born again" into the monastic life they were born equal. This was a revolutionary idea in 1776, when it was written into the American Declaration of Independence.

Finally, all were expected to work. In almost all previous societies, people tried to gain a position of wealth and power that would allow them to avoid labor. Benedict stated that work joyously performed was itself a praise of God. People sometimes speak of "the Protestant Work Ethic." Although it is true that the value placed upon labor as somehow ennobling is almost unique to western society, the idea was developed and practiced long before the Protestant Reformation.

In any event, the Benedictine form of monasticism proved congenial to the inhabitants of western Europe, and the monk came to symbolize for many the ideal form of Christian life.

Related Links - Monasticism - Catholic Encyclopedia Detailed, scholarly entry covering monasticism's origins, development, purposes, vows, labors, and orders. Also has articles specific to Eastern Monasticism and Western Monasticism.

  • Monasticism in Britain - Brief history of monasticism in Britain plus links to overviews of the orders of the Augustinians, Benedictines, Carmelites, Carthusians, Cistercians, Cluniacs, Dominicans, Franciscans, Gilbertines, Premonstratensians, and Tironensians.
  • Medieval Monasticism - Georgia College & State University Course on medieval western monasticism.
  • Monasticism - Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Includes articles on the history of the desert fathers and modern Orthodox monastic practices.
  • Monasticism Studies - Articles on Orthodox monasticism.
  • Orthodox Monasteries and Monasticism Information on Orthodox monasticism and directory of Orthodox monasteries around the world.

Related Books - Historical Atlas of Eastern and Western Christian Monasticism Juan Maria Laboa (ed.) "Designed to fully explore both Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic/Protestant traditions, this comprehensive reference treats important figures, movements, geographical locations, rules, and later developments with the help of 59 full-color illustrated maps."

  • The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages Marilyn Dunn "Covering the formative period of the fourth through the seventh centuries, Dunn re-evaluates the role of Benedict of Nursia, early monastic rules, and the contributions of women."
  • From East To West: A History of Monasticism Mayeul de Dreuille, O.S.B. "This volume presents the history of Monasticism in Asia and the Middle East, with as much as possible of its spirituality, in counterpoint to the historical framework of the founders of Christian Monasticism."
  • Lovers of the Place: Monasticism Loose in the Church Francis Kline "The monastery has often been likened to a powerhouse of prayer, providing light and energy for the countless numbers who make up the Body of Christ. This image has inadvertently furthered the view of monasticism as separate from the rest of the Chruch, apart from the cares and concerns of the world. Francis Kline holds out a fresh vision of the monastic life as one form of the Christian vocation which now must struggle to find its place alongside other expressions of Christian life."
  • The Letters of St. Anthony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint Samuel Rubenson "Exposing the widespread misunderstanding that the early Christian monks were unlettered and primitive, Rubenson describes the desert monasteries as vibrant centers of theological reflection, where biblical exegesis was combined with Greek philosophy. Rubenson also incorporates a new translation of the letters."
  • Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality Bradley Holt "Succinct survey of the history of spiritual practice from biblical times to the present, discussing monasticism, mysticism, etc. Refreshingly ecumenical, though tailor-made for Protestants."