Monasticism

The Greek term monachos at first probably meant “celibate, single,” rather than “alone, solitary” (see Asceticism). Ascetics, especially women, tended to separate themselves from congregation as well as society long before monasticism proper began. Total withdrawal from the world, following Jewish and Christian traditions of wilderness spiritually and pagan conventions of “dropping-out” to escape social burdens, emerged in the East in the late third century with the hermits (eremites) or anchorites like Antony* of Egypt-who was not the first (even disallowing Jerome's Paul of Thebes) but the most influential. Retreat in pursuit of perfection was stimulated by growing laxity within the church-Hellenized, at peace, and imperially patronized-and by lay ambitions for the heroism of the martyr in face of increasing episcopal domination. The hermits, in Egypt mainly Coptic fellahin, abandoned both civilization and church, but as admirers and imitators sought them out, informal colonies developed, especially in the deserts of Nitria and Scete SW of the Nile delta, where in the fourth and fifth centuries a rudimentary corporate life was observed by the solitaries. Manual tasks predominated, learning remained minimal.

Cenobitic (“common life”) monasticism was pioneered in Egypt by Pachomius* (d.346), who subjected his several communities to an elementary common “rule.” Monks multiplied in these and in independent monasteries and around centers like Oxyrhynchus, and were forward in the eradication of heresy and paganism from rural Egypt. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers, rooted in Origen's* teaching, was preserved in collections of Sayings of the Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum) and systematized supremely by Evagrius Ponticus* (d.399), who influenced Palladius* (the historian of monastic origins), John Cassian* (who transmitted anchoritic piety to the West), and later ascetic-mystical Byzantine theologians.

In Palestine, Antony's disciple Hilarion* (d.371) propagated anchoritism near Gaza, and Epiphanius,* future bishop of Salamis (d.403), founded the first cenobitic establishment nearby. Biblical sites attracted hermits and communities, and Jerome and Rufinus of Aquileia were associated with Roman matrons in nunneries at Bethlehem and Jerusalem late in the fourth century. A major Palestinian development was the laura, combining a chiefly eremitic regimen with a common subjection to one “Father.” Euthymius the Great (d.473) and Sabas* (d.532) led famous lauras.

Monastic origins in Syria were independent of Egyptian models. Jacob of Nisibis (d.338) and Juliana Saba near Edessa (d.366/7) were prominent early anchorites. Syria's inveterate asceticism, latterly vitiated by the Manichaean-type dualism observable in the Messalians,* bred extreme, even suicidal, manifestations in eremitic stylites,* “browsers” (who lived like animals), and vagrant exiles. Cenobitism, resisted by Ephraem the Syrian,* eventually emerged through Egyptian and Manichaean influences. Syria's primary significance in monastic development, evident in Egyptian use of the Syriac abba, “father,” extends to the missionary monasticism of the Persian Church and beginnings in E Asia Minor. Here the exaggerations of Eustathius* of Sebaste condemned at the Council of Gangra (c.343) as well as Messalian aberrations fostered suspicions largely overcome by Basil* of Caesarea (d.379). Abjuring solitude and ascetic athletics in favor of a “brotherhood” of love and service modeled on primitive ascetic groups, Basil guaranteed the ecclesiastical acceptance of monasticism in Asia Minor, e.g., in Constantinople in the 380s. Basil's informal Rules influenced most subsequent Eastern developments.

The independence and individualism of early Eastern monasticism were progressively eliminated through the discipline of rules and subjection to the church's hierarchy, notably by the canons of Chalcedon. The monks were prominent in the Origenist controversies, intervened tempestuously in the fifth-century christological disputes, and became Byzantine Church's “democratic front.”

Monasticism came to the West from the East with travelers like the exiled Athanasius* and Jerome* and through accounts of Egyptian happenings. From the first its impact was felt in clerical and cultured circles as nowhere in the East. The clerical groups in N Italy around Eusebius of Vercelli* (d.371) and later Jerome and Rufinus* were followed by the championship of monasticism by Ambrose* in Milan and Augustine* in North Africa. (In North Africa the Circumcellions* had earlier largely cornered asceticism for the Donatists.* Similarly in Spain the heretical Priscillianists* discredited asceticism.) Jerome's ascetic propaganda attracted a following among the Roman artistocracy, though also ecclesiastical disfavor. Anchoritic ideals had most influence in Gaul through the early efforts of Martin of Tours* (d.397) and later John Cassian (d.435), and in Celtic Ireland where in the sixth century through influences deriving in part directly from the E Mediterranean, the whole church assumed a monastic mold in which penitential rigors and (missionary) exile were prominent.

Monastic rules multiplied in the fifth and sixth centuries (cf. Augustine, Caesarius of Arles,* Columban), only to be overshadowed in due course by the Rule of Benedict* (c.540), now agreed to be largely based on the Rule of the Master (c.530). The Benedictine pattern, delivered from Benedict's isolationism, dominated developments in medieval Europe. In the Byzantine Church Basil was revered as the patriarch of monasticism, while Theodore of Studium* (d.826) was a significant later monastic organizer.

H.B. Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (1913); J. Ryan, Irish Monasticism, Its Origins and Early Development (1931); H. Waddell, The Desert Fathers (1936); K. Heussi, Der Ursprung des Mönchtums (1936); A. Vöobus, History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient (2 vols., 1958, 1960); O. Chadwick, Western Asceticism (1958); G.B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (1959), part 3; J. Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (1961); L. Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers (1963); D.J. Chitty, The Desert a City (1966); M.D. Knowles, Christian Monasticism (1969); J. Ryan and P.J. Corish, The Monastic Institute: the Christian Mission (A History of Irish Catholicism I:2,3, 1972).