While most people think of monks or nuns as "something to do with living in a monastery," from the Church's point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity, rather the focus is on theosis, the process of perfection to which every Christian is called. This idea is expressed everywhere that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the Philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or nun is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity, stability, and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are "be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Precursor models of the Christian monastic ideal
- Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the LORD as a Nazirite, he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink During the entire period of his vow of separation no razor may be used on his head. He must be holy until the period of his separation to the LORD is over; he must let the hair of his head grow long. Throughout the period of his separation to the LORD he must not go near a dead body. Throughout the period of his separation he is consecrated to the LORD.' (Numbers 6:2-8, NIV)
The prophets of Israel were set apart to the Lord for the sake of a message of repentance. Some of them lived under extreme conditions, voluntarily separated or forced into seclusion because of the burden of their message. Other prophets were members of communities, schools mentioned occasionally in the Scriptures but about which there is much speculation and little known. The pre-Abrahamic prophets, Enoch and Melchizedek, and especially the Jewish prophets Elijah and his disciple Elisha are important to Christian monastic tradition. The most frequently cited "role-model" for the life of a hermit separated to the Lord, in whom the Nazarite and the prophet are believed to be combined in one person, is John the Baptist. John also had disciples who stayed with him and, as may be supposed, were taught by him and lived in a manner similar to his own.
- 1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea ... 4 John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3, NIV)
- 7 On finishing the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, greeted the brothers, and stayed with them for one day. 8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea. We went to the home of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who could prophesy. (Acts 21, NIV)
The monastic ideal is also modeled upon the Apostle Paul, who is believed to have been celibate, and a tentmaker:
- 7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. (1 Corinthians 7, NIV)
But, the consummate prototype of all modern Christian monasticism, communal and solitary, is Jesus:
- 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2, NIV)
The first Christian communities lived in common, sharing everything, according to Acts of the Apostles.
Origins of Christian monasticism
Institutional Christian monasticism seems to have begun in the deserts in AD 4th century Egypt as a kind of living martyrdom. Scholars such as Lester K. Little attribute the rise of monasticism at this time to the immense changes in the church that had been brought about by Constantine's conversion and the acceptance of Chritianity as the main Roman religion. This ended the position of Christians as a small group that believed itself to be the godly elite. In response a new more advanced form of dedication was developed to preserve a nucleus of the dedicated. The end of persecution also meant that martyrdom was no longer an option to prove one's piety. Instead the longterm martyrdom of the ascetic become common.
Others point to historical evidence that individuals were living the life later known as monasticism before the legalization of Christianity. In fact it is believed by the Carmelites that they were started by the Jewish prophet Elias. Anthony the Great and Pachomius were early monastic innovators in Egypt, although Paul the Hermit is the very first Christian historically known to have been living as a monk. Eastern Orthodoxy looks to Basil of Caesarea as a founding monastic legislator, as well as the example of the Desert Fathers. Benedict is often credited with being the 'father of Western monasticism'.
From a very early time there were probably individuals who lived a life in isolation—hermits—in imitation of Jesus's 40 days in the desert. They have left no confirmed archaeological traces and only hints in the written record. Anthony of Egypt lived as a hermit and developed a following of other hermits who lived nearby but not in community with him. On the other hand, Paul the hermit lived not very far from Anthony in absolute solitude, and was looked upon even by Anthony as a perfect monk. This variety of monasticism is called eremitical or "hermit-like". Pachomius, a follower of Anthony, also acquired a following; he chose to mould them into a community in which the monks lived in individual huts or rooms (cellula in Latin, "cell", which has a different connotation in modern English) but worked, ate, and worshipped in shared space. This method of monastic organization is called cenobitic or "community-based." All the familiar monastic orders are cenobitic in nature. In Catholic theology, this community based living is considered superior because of the obedience practiced and because one is less likely to err then one would be by oneself. The head of a monastery came to be known by the word for "Father" in Syriac, Abba, in English, "Abbot".
Beginning in Egypt (with such saints as Anthony the Great and Paul of Thebes) and spreading to the Middle East and then Europe, monasticism became a central aspect of life during the western Middle Ages and the high period of the Roman "Byzantine" Empire in the East. The first non-Roman area to adopt the system was Ireland, which developed a unique form closely linked to traditional clan relations, a system that later spread to other parts of Europe, especially France.
The golden age of Christian monasticism lasted from about the eighth to the twelfth centuries. The monasteries became an essential part of society, often acting to unify liturgical practice and clarify doctrinal disputes. The monasteries also attracted many of the best people in society and during this period the monasteries were the central storehouses and producers of knowledge.
In the West, the system broke down in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as religion began to change. Religion became far less a preserve of the religious elite. This was closely linked to the rise of mendicant orders such as the Franciscan friars, who were dedicated to spreading the word in public, not in closed monasteries. Religious behavior changed as common people began to take communion and actively participate in religion. The growing pressure of the nation states and monarchies also threatened the wealth and power of the orders. Finally, after Vatican II in Rome, "religious" orders saw a massive exodus of members, and many monastics left off wearing the traditional garb of their orders. On the whole, monasticism is in severe decline in the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, monasticism still is reflected strongly in western culture. Modern universities have attempted to ape Christian monasticism in a number of ways. Even in the New World, universities are built in the Gothic style of twelfth century monasteries. Communal meals, dormitory residences, elaborate rituals and dress all borrow heavily from the monastic tradition.
In the East, monasticism continued to thrive even after the Great Schism of the eleventh century, becoming a touchstone and unifying center for Christians in the declining Roman Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople,
Today monasticism remains a major part of the Orthodox Christian faith.
Nature of monasticism
Christian monasticism is in itself a lay order, originally not having clergy as a standard part of the community (thus, monks relied on local parishes for sacramental life). However, if the monastery was isolated in the desert, as were many of the Egyptian examples, that inconvenience compelled monasteries either to take in priest members, to have their abbot ordained, or to have other members ordained. A priest-monk is called a hieromonk. In many cases in Orthodoxy, when a bishopric needed to be filled, suitable candidates would be found from nearby monasteries. Since many priests were married (before being ordained to the priesthood), but bishops were required to be celibate, monasteries were a good source of celibate men who were also spiritually mature and generally possessing the other qualities desired in a bishop. St. Gregory Palamas is one such example.