An Overview History of Monasticism in the Early Church
The Essene Community of Qumran, discovered with the uncovering of the Dead Sea Scrolls, disproved the Protestant contention that Christian Monasticism was a Pagan addition to the pure Jewish practices of the Early Church once and for all. This discovery shows that they not only had celibate asceticism, but a ritualized view of meal-covenants, and extreme commitment to an expectation of the coming of a literal and singular Messiah (Jerome Kodell, The Eucharist in the New Testament, pgs 46-48). How much they influenced the Early Church is still not known, but the similarity of the Essene practices with the Baptism of John and the general Messianic timbre of the time of Christ, leads us to see the possibility of overlap between this highly organized, separate, ritualistic, ascetic, and Messianic Jewish cult with the Early Jewish Church. (Williston Walker, The History of the Christian Church, pgs 15-16)
Early Christian Celibacy and Asceticism
As mentioned above, the “Virgins and Widows” of the Early Church were an inherited prototype for the unmarried ascetic, St. Paul being the primary supporter of this approach to Christian life, stating that it was, indeed, a high calling and useful state for the service of the Christ (I Corinthians 7:25-40). With the collision of this way of life with the necessity of fleeing into the dessert for safety during times of Imperial persecution, the first evidence of unintentional dessert asceticism can be found at the close of the 2nd century.
The Formalization of Christian Monasticism
With the conversion of Constantine and the “Edict of Milan”, the immediate danger of “conversion of convenience” was first felt by the Christians of the 4th Century. In response to this lowering of standards and the problem of nominalism and unbelief in the “Popular Church” after Constantine (IBID, pgs 97 &125), a new form of Christian piety began to spread in popularity. The reasoning behind this was very simple – if Martyrs had been the greatest expression of faith within the Early Church, and martyrdom, the giving of one’s whole being in witness of faith in Christ, was no longer available because of the new political acceptance, then the giving of one’s self into a living state of complete and total dedication to Christ was the next best thing.
Into this mentality came a man, St. Antony, a wealthy Alexandrian by birth (251-356AD). One day in church he heard the Gospel read, and as if Christ stood before him Himself, he heard, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and follow me!” (Mark 10:21) St. Antony obeyed, selling all that he had and giving it to the poor. He then followed the voice of the Holy Spirit that he heard whispering in his heart into the dessert, where, for 40 years, living in isolation, he battled demons, prayed for himself and the world, and finally became a teacher and helper, a powerful and insightful counselor, to all those who came to him from far and wide. A community sprang up around him and the first Christian monastic community, albeit a loose one, was born. St. Antony had no formal order, was not a priest or bishop, and started no formal organization, but his individualistic and radically charismatic way of life spread like wildfire throughout the newly converted Roman Empire, transforming the popular devotion of the laity and cleric alike. While the formal Church, weighed down by tens of thousands of new converts, many of them becoming Christian for no better reason than to find political favor, struggled to catechize and transform the worldliness of the people by teaching of the model lives of the earlier saints, the monks headed for the hills to start lives as intercessors, “working out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philipians 2:12-13). They would “take up their cross” to follow Christ (Matthew 16:24-26, Luke 9:23) and could “draw near to God by overcoming the flesh” (IBID, pg 125). St. Athanasius later popularized monasticism in the West with his Latin “Vita” of St. Anthony, which was possibly the most influential book within Early Christianity beside the Bible in the Late Roman period of the West’s decline.
St. Pachomius (292-346AD), a converted pagan soldier, originally undertook the life of a hermit upon the inspiration of St. Antony, only to be disappointed with the irregularity and lack of spiritual accountability of a life in isolation. Based on a vision of a Christian way of life in contrast to the world, he established the first Christian monastery in southern Egypt, near the banks of the Nile in Tabennisi in 315-320AD. “Here all the inmates were knit into a single body, having assigned hours, regular hours of worship, similar dress, and cells close to one another – in a word, a life in common under an abbot.” (IBID, pg 126) This structure was ultimately to win over the rest of the Christian world, provide a society in which the world could be filtered out and ignored, and operate a survival mechanism over centuries of prolonged isolation for cultures that otherwise would have gone extinct under outside pressure. Cenobite monasticism thus provided a cultural tool that civilizations had previously lacked for the insurance of long-term survival - the state of hibernation! Because of monasticism, the Christianity of the 4th and 5th centuries has survived until today, virtually unaltered, as a witness of a time when Christianity was new, fresh, and still philosophically controversial! This, along with the advent of the Skete on Mount Athos and its use by the Hysechasts for the purpose of universal human salvation, makes group asceticism not only a mechanism for the preservation of theology, practice, and a way of life, but also the expression of Christianity’s highest values.
The Stylites, fashioned after the ascetic practice of St. Symeon Stylites (died 459AD) – Brought radical isolation and asceticism into the public square, quite literally, by building towers in which they could not lay down or rest, and thus suspended, isolated from the world, preach to the thousands who would come to see them every day. The fame of St. Symeon was such that all that remains of his famous tower is one large boulder that could not be carted away! St. Symeon brought new meaning to the words “in the world but not of it” as his feat of monastic self-exhibition brought more pagans and theologically confused Christians into direct contact with extreme ascesis and the preaching of the Gospel than anyone before. Only with the advent of pilgrimages to the hermitages of wonder-working fathers would anyone manage to effect more people from a state of “isolation”.
St. Basil’s, the Great Cappadocian Father, popularized monasticism with a “Rule” of his own composition (later thought by scholars to be a compilation of many of his writing on the subject), based upon his admiration of Origen’s contemplative principles, his own mystical contemplation and experience, and his secularly active life of asceticism in the founding of orphanages and the first hospitals. St. Basil’s “Rule” focused on a sharing an ascetic “life in common, work, prayer, and Bible reading” (IBID, p. 126), and was thus eminently practical, flexible, and helpful for the channeling of monkish energy into ecclesiastically beneficial routes, a problem for which the Eastern Church was never able to find a completely satisfying solution. Even with the wide reception of this rule, the monks of Constantinople often ended up on opposing political sides, inspiring revolt, and on more than one occasion, taking up arms against one another, inciting riots, civil destruction and mass murder. While the founder of their “rule” would have never allowed it, the burning of the first Hagia Sophia was thus accomplished, by monks and laity of the “Blue” and “Green” parties, monks who were most often noted for their cheering at chariot races!
Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine all championed monasticism, all living secularly active celibate lives, but it did not capture the practical Latin sentiment for another two hundred years, when the Roman Commonwealth completely fell apart in Barbarian conquest and the Monastery became the last surviving cultural and economic link with the Roman Empire. These “cultural outposts”, infused with consistency and systematic living by the “Rule” of St. Benedict, became the active cultural agents within the newly Christianized barbarian lands of the North, which quickly became more Roman than the best Italians. This transference of the Roman attitudes of cultural superiority, order, and military-like drive for conquest, subjection, and authority into Barbarian lands by the success of the monastery’s excessive discipline would later manifest as the primary cultural context for the rise of a Frankish Papacy and the eventual splitting of Christendom into Eastern and Western parts.
St. Martin of Tours lived its ideals in France, establishing a monastery near Poitiers in 362, and was thus received as its exponent in the popular imagination of primitive European society because of his miracles and good works. His dream of Christ as a man whom St. Martin had given half of his cloak, a “chaplet”, inspired the veneration of the cloak in France, and became the origin of the word we now identify with small churches with in English – Chapel!
Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli in Italy, (D371AD) began the practice of requiring the clergy of his cathedral to live a monastic life, which helped to change the perception of monasticism as the exclusive domain of the laity (IBID, pg 126). This change of perception would eventually become another one of the great differences between the East and West, and contribute to the alienation that led to the Schism.
The great reformer of Western Monasticism was St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547AD), who lived as a solitary monk, was abbot of an unnamed monastery for some time, and then established his own monastery in Monte Cassio, where he wrote his “Rule” in 529AD. Benedict believed that the primary responsibility of monasticism was worship, not contemplation, bringing to asceticism the vigorous aspect and ecclesiastical center that it had lacked in the East. His “Rule” was a document with profound social and religious implications. By his injunction that “idleness is the enemy of the soul”, monasteries became centers of industry, learning, and the preservation of culture, which would, in the end, prove to be the salvation of the Roman Culture in the West. The economic system that these monasteries created can be credited with the singlehanded preservation of the Roman culture, mentality, and literary inheritance through the Dark Ages, not only in Italy, but also in France, Germany, and the most famous examples of all, in Ireland. (IBID pg 127). “The highest proof of its adaptation to the later Roman Empire and the Middle Ages was that not only the best men supported the institution: they were found in it.” (IBID, pg 128)