Monasticism began in the 3rd and 4th Centuries as a response to laxity within a uniform church, prompting men and women to seek new avenues of faith and worship.
Monasticism in early Christianity began in the 3rd Century AD and is attributed to Anthony. Refined by Pachomius and carried to the West by Athanasius, western monasticism found its greatest expression in the leadership of Benedict of Nursia in the early 6th Century. Monasticism stressed an ascetic lifestyle but the emphasis on learning resulted in the long-term preservation of many written works and the establishment of medieval libraries.
The Beginning of Monasticism
After the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity, the Christian church went through rapid changes. As greater numbers of people became Christians, church communities began to exhibit moral laxity. Being a Christian no longer carried the possibility of persecution.
The effort to make church worship uniform offended younger Christians, looking for a more individual way to express their personal faith. Hermit Christianity and later Monastic communities provided this intense meditation. Finally, the ascetic lifestyle was seen as the highest form of spiritual achievement, something that had been a part of the martyr experiences in earlier years.
Monasticism began in Egypt as a hermit experience. In 270, Anthony took to the desert, seeking an ascetic lifestyle. Other men followed his example. It was Pachomius, however, who established the first true monastery at Tabennisi in southern Egypt early in the 4th Century. Men seeking a more complete spiritual life joined his community and by the time he died, ten monasteries under his guidance existed.
The monastic experience spread through the Levant with monasteries established in Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece. Basil is credited with the spread and organization of Eastern monasticism. Many Greek and Russian Orthodox monasteries still follow his Rule. There were many “Rules” or written guidelines for monasteries, usually identified with the institution’s founders.
Monasticism in the West
During the 4th Century, the monastic ideal was carried West by Athanasius. It spread through France through the efforts of Martin of Tours who established a monastery at Poitiers in 362. The monastic experience was brought to Britain and then Ireland where it evolved into a different form, stressing missionary activity.
The greatest single impact of western monasticism is associated with Benedict of Nursia. Benedict’s fame as a highly spiritual man spread and he was asked to become the abbot of a monastery. The poor discipline and habits of the monks, however, drove him away. In 529 he founded the famous monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy.
Benedict’s Rule highlighted strict discipline. Benedictines were enjoined to communal worship as well as manual labor in the fields. St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries contains daily readings, focusing on such topics as “What Are the Instruments of Good Works” (Chapter 4), “On the Daily Manual Labor” (Chapter 48), and “Whether Monks Ought to Have Anything of Their Own” (Chapter 33).
During the time of Patrick, the Irish Church still conformed to models concurrent with the continental Catholic Church. This changed over the years after his death. The authority of bishops was replaced by Abbots who, in many cases, were also bishops. Irish monasticism was even more ascetic and emphasized missionary activity.
Irish Benedictines (the Irish monasteries eventually adopted Benedict’s Rule) like Boniface, Apostle to the Germans, brought Christianity to Scandinavia and Northern Europe. The practice of private confession also began with the Irish monks and rapidly spread throughout the western church.
Impact of Western Monasticism
Monasteries maintained the literary treasures of Antiquity and promoted education at a time barbarian hordes were ravaging the remains of the Roman Empire. Great learning sites, such as the monastery at Fulda, established by Charlemagne, helped strengthen a fragile Christianity among neighboring Germanic tribes while supporting missionary activity.
By Michael Streich