Cenobitic (also spelled coenobitic) is the name associated with the monastic tradition that emphases regulated community life, that is, in which the monks live together under a set of rules established by the ruling abbot. The opposite style of monasticism is called eremitic, in which monks live in isolation as hermits.
The words cenobite and cenobitic are derived, via Latin, from the Greek words κοινός and βίος (koinos and bios meaning "common" and "life"). Such a group of monks is sometimes referred to as a 'cenobium.'
Christian monasticism had its beginning in the early centuries of the Christian era. The early Christian monks were usually hermits, especially in the Middle East. The hermits lived mostly in solitary cells or caves and met together once a week for common prayers. Some of the hermit monks found this eremitic life too lonely and difficult; it sometimes led individual monks to have mental breakdowns. In response to these conditions, many monks began to spend more time together in organized monastic groups in common prayer on a regular basis.
By the fourth century in Egypt, organized monastic communities often developed in or near villages. The cenobitic monks found themselves in contact often with local village people, whereas the eremitic monks tried their best to keep to the solitary life, meeting only occasionally for prayer. The living arrangements for the cenobitic monks came to differ from that of the eremitic hermits as the monks settled into separate rooms or cells in houses. This arrangement of living, particularly in the merging of smaller communities and monasteries into larger monastic communities, has been attributed to St. Pachomius, who is thought to have come up with the idea from his experience serving in the Roman army: It was “reminiscent of army barracks” (Dunn, 29). His monastery in Thebaid, Upper Egypt was the first “modern” cenobitic monastery.
While Pachomius is generally considered as the father of cenobitic monasticism, some scholars note that other cenobitic groups had preceded his efforts. Examples of such groups included communities of heretical Melitians and Manichaeans who may have adopted the idea from other cenobitic monastic groups, such as the Buddhists and Elkasites, who already were practicing the cenobitic tradition. Thus, the idea of cenobitic monasticism cannot be traced to a single source. In the history of cenobitic monasticism, Pachomius was the first to bring separate monasteries together in a larger, more organized structure.
Initially, monks were prohibited from becoming clergy. As monasticism grew, its “charismatic” nature led to overzealousness and extremes, to the extent that the zealots began to advocate monasticism for all Christians. These practices were condemned by the Council of Gangra in 343. As monasticism developed into a strong movement in the life of the Church, the Church also shaped the monastic movement. In part this was accomplished as the Church encouraged a convergence of monasticism and the clergy. Monks were now ordained in a special religious service, the tonsure, at which the monk subscribed to special monastic vows.
As monasticism spread to Asia Minor, St. Basil, Archbishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia, with influence from Eustathius of Sebastia, formulated two significant sets of rules for regulation of cenobitic monastic life. These were the Great Rules and the Brief Rule, which regulate cenobitic monastic life, extolling it as the ideal Christian life while noting the dangers of solitary anchorite life. St. Basil’s Rules became the monastic standard in the East, while in the West both this work and that of St. Benedict of Nursia were the most common influences.
The idea of cenobitic monasticism over the next several centuries took root throughout the Christian world. Among the major cenobitic monasteries founded in the early centuries are:
- Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mount Izla above Nisibis in Mesopotamia from which the cenobitic tradition spread through Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, and Georgia.
- Sabbas the Sanctified organized, in 483, the monks of the Judean Desert into a monastery that was to bear his name, the Lavra of St. Savas, which is considered the mother of all Orthodox monasteries.
- Benedict of Nursia, using a modified Basilian rule, founded, in 529, the Monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy, which became the seed for monasticism in western Europe.
- Attridge, Harold W. and Gohei Hata. “The Origins of Monasticism” in Ascetics, Society, and the Desert : Studies in Egyptian monasticism. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999.
- Dunn, Marilyn. The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
- Goehring, James E. Withdrawing from the Desert: Pachomius and the development of Village Monasticism in Upper Egypt. Harvard Theological Review 89(1996): 267-285.
- Halsall, Paul. “Chapter XXXII: Pachomius and Tabennesiots” in Palladius: The Lausiac History. September 1998. Internet Medieval Sourcebook. 30 March 2007. .
- Harmless, William, S.J. “Chapter 5: Pachomius” in Desert Christians - An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Lawrence, C.H. “Chapter 1: The Call of the Desert” in Medieval Monasticism. 3rd edition. Toronto: Pearson Education Limited, 2001.