How did monasticism come to be?

February 14, 2017

How did monasticism come to be?

 Why is monasticism such an essential part of the Orthodox tradition and how did it begin?

To begin answering this question we need to look back at history.  In the first couple of centuries after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church and those who were faithful underwent a tremendous amount of persecution.  Those who were persecuted would offer their lives to the Church literally in the form of martyrdom.

The word martyrdom (Martyria) literally means to be able to be a witness.  This is what the Church did for centuries.  Christians would offer their lives and shed their blood for the sake of the their faith, their Church, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  They would do this constantly until the early 4th century (the year 313 AD) where a new righteous emperor arises named Constantine. 

Constantine was a man whose heart was touched by God so he can work with the Church.  In the year 313 AD this new emperor created an edict in which Christianity is not only acceptable but he began to abolish the notion of persecution against Christians.

Now that persecution has died down, how was a Christian going to offer his life to the Church?

This question led many to the notion of monasticism.

There was still a movement among people who wanted to offer their lives to the Church and this led to the rising of a character extremely important in history named St Anthony the Great.

In the early 4th century this young man enters a Church and hears a reading of the Bible and with a simple verse his entire life is flipped upside down and he decided that he wants to offer himself as a sacrifice to the Church and to God.  Despite the fact that he never shed his blood, St Anthony the Great, the founder of monasticism, became the first person to introduce this idea of offering myself as a sacrifice by offering my will, my mind, and body and my entire life for the sake of living an ascetic relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Through St Anthony the Great, many were attracted to come to the desert where he founded this idea of the monastic life.

St Anthony wasn’t alone, with him was the great St Paul the hermit.  After St Anthony also was St Pachomius of Alexandria.  St Pachomius the Great begins to take this idea of an ascetic personal life in the desert to another level (through a revelation from our Lord Jesus Christ) that he is to create communities in these deserts so people can come together and recognize the Lord in a monastic and ascetic movement but within small communities.

In the late 4th century and the beginning of the 5th century, we see an explosion of beautiful different communities that now exist in the deserts of Egypt where you see the entire monastic movement beginning to flourish.

It didn’t end there.  Despite the fact that it began in Egypt, we saw people like the great St Basil of Caesarea who came to Egypt and observed what’s happening and he took what he saw and brought it back to his home and began a monastic movement there. 

Today we see monasticism has flourished from the small deserts of Egypt to the great globe we have today where a multitude of people have offered themselves as living sacrifices to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us not make the mistake to think that people that fled the world to monasticism have fled the world because they are too weak.  On the contrary, the true belief of the Church is that those who are called to monasticism are those who are capable of enduring a lot of temptation.  Those people live a life full of struggles despite the fact that they are far from this world.The following is a reading from the rites of the ordination of a monk within the Coptic Orthodox Church. We read from Sirach chapter 2:

“Son, when you apply yourself to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare your soul for temptation.  Humble your heart and persevere.  Incline your ear, and accept the words of understanding.  And you should not hurry away in the time of distress.  Endure steadfastly for God.  Join yourself to God, and persevere, so that your life may increase in the very end” Sirach 2:1-3

The notion of persevering is one that is crucial to understand.  Those who are called to monasticism are those who couldn’t offer their lives with blood as martyrs so instead they offered their will.

We believe in the Orthodox faith that those who are monastics are sustained by the Holy Spirit. 

To understand this, we quote St Anthony the great who says the following: “The Spirit that comes down upon the Holy Baptism, the same comes down on the form of monasticism and purifies him who becomes a monk”

Monasticism began with a need for every Christian soul to cry out to its Creator and say ‘I want to be united to You and offer myself to You.’  In the early Church many had the chance to offer their lives in the shedding of blood and monasticism today offers every living soul the possibility of offering its life yet again without the necessity of shedding blood.

 Remember know your faith, live your faith and teach your faith







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