Church History Series 1, Post 8: The Rise Of Monasticism

The Rise of (Egyptian) Monasticism

As the days of early Christian martyrdoms were nearing their completion, another movement was already under way–monasticism.  Monasticism has its roots in the lives of people such as first century widows who would dedicate their lives to prayer.  Over time, this developed into what we now call monasticism.  Although many Protestant Christians today have neither monastics nor an appreciations for this development, it was one the Church found to be organic and not at all an imposition but rather an expression of the divine life to which we are all called.

Monasticism also took over some of the martyrdom impulse.  Once Christianity became tolerated (under Emperor Constantine) and then soon after the official religion of the empire (under Emperor Theodosios), the opportunities for expressing one’s faith to the ultimate end decreased greatly.  No longer might a local prefect decide to persecute local Christian communities.

Two Main Types of Monasticism Arose:

1) anchoritism

2) cenobitism

St. John Cassian encountered a mixture when he visited Egypt, so one should be careful not to treat these categories as a dichotomy.  Although monasticism covered the entire geography of Christianity, the Egyptian Desert Fathers left an indelible mark on Christianity.

St. Anthony the Great (ca. 250-356)

He is considered by many to be the founder of monasticism although there were solitaries in the Egyptian desert before him.  The story of his life was very popular amongst early Christians.

Some have claimed that he was illiterate because of the phrase from the Life of Anthony, which quotes him as saying, “Therefore, one who has a sound mind has no need of letters.’”  However, this hardly means he was illiterate and complete untrained in philosophy.  We have seven letters that he wrote, which display a keen intellect and an indebtedness to the philosophical theology of Origen.

Anthony was an anchorite who believed that the first duty of a monk is to “know himself” not in the sense of some post-1960’s run off to California sense, but in the sense of an ever-growing perception of the divine grace given to us.  In order to do this, Anthony believed four steps have to occur in asceticism:

1)      Renunciation (the acceptance of the divine call to forsake all for God, an act that Anthony believed returned the monk to the original created state)

2)      Repentance (given by “the Spirit of repentance” to guide the monk in recognizing each of his/her own sins)

3) Purification (an activity that occurs in the body first by fasting, keeping vigil, and praying, and then proceeds to remove passions from the soul)

4) Instruction (once purified, the Spirit itself clothed the ascetic and instructed him/her directly by providing him/her with virtues)

Anthony bequeathed his two cloaks, his only possessions, to two bishops—Athanasius in Alexandria, and Sarapion in Thmuis (who had been a monastic disciple of Anthony).


Succeeded Anthony as the bearer of the “Anthonian tradition.”  Presented three steps to asceticism:

1)      Withdrawal (the Spirit of penitence calls the monk, who then withdraws from society)

2)      Purification (fasting, prayer, and quietude affect purification)

3)      Reception of the Spirit and divine power (once the soul is purified, the Holy Spirit sends it divine power/grace)

Pachomius (died 346)

He founded the first cenobium, or monastery, in about 320.  He organized monasticism and wrote a rule.  This rule influenced later monastic rules such as those by St. Basil of Caesarea (Basil “the Great”) and several Western rules, including that of St. Benedict, considered the “father” of Western monasticism.  Pachomius took literacy very seriously.  In order to be fully admitted, the novice had to learn to read and write.

Shenoute (fl. 383-466)

Led the famous “White Monastery” and laid out his own rule that differed from Pachomius’ rule in some ways.  In particular, he allowed for a monastic lifestyle that was a combination of anchoritism and cenobitism—where a monk could withdraw to the desert (in an anchoritic fashion) after spending a few years in the cenobium, though this was done without complete separation from the monastery.