Monks were Christians who lived in solitude to pursue a life of prayer and spiritual purity. They turned away from the world and followed the teachings of Jesus Christ in radical obedience. Monasticism was a significant feature of the Orthodox Church and Byzantine society. This article explains the history and purpose of Christian monasticism.
Monasticism comes from the Greek word alone. The first monks in Egypt lived by themselves in remote desert caves. Later monks lived together as small communities in a monastery. These Christians renounced worldly concerns to focus their life on prayer and spiritual development. The goal of monasticism was obedience and commitment to Jesus. They forsook normal social patterns to follow Jesus' radical calling. (See also, "Monastic Life" and "St. Basil's Monastic Vision).
"He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 10:37–39)
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?" (Luke 9:23–25)
As Jesus commanded, monks left behind everything to follow their Lord. Monks took vows of obedience and poverty. This meant severing family ties and renouncing all wealth. Monks thus devoted themselves to a life of prayer, contemplation, and worship. This communal life embodied God's Kingdom here on earth. Monks followed an angelic way of life, dedicated to praising and loving God.
Asceticism was a common element of the monastic experience. To train the mind and soul, monks would perform spiritual exercises, such as fasting and living in extreme conditions. Physical practices developed inner strength and spiritual purity by overcoming the desires of the flesh. The disciplined exercises helped a person hear and obey the voice of God, but also expressed humility and repentance before God. The goal of ascetic practices was to cultivate a heart of obedience and repentance before God.
The famous monk-bishop John Chrysostom (347–407) described the monastic life as such:
Delicacy of good was disregarded and extravagant attire disdained, all pride was put down, and all zeal for profane wisdom [pagan philosophy] was wholly transferred to the divine oracles [of Scripture]; whole days were spent in reading, and whole nights were devoted to prayers; no mention was made of the glory of your patrimony, nor any thought taken of wealth. You knew that to clasp the knees [in work] and run to the feet of the brothers [in service] is superior to all high birth.
Two Types: Eremetic and Cenobotic
Christian monasticism began in Egypt with Antony the Great (251–356), the so-called "Father of Monasticism." Orphaned at an early age, Antony sold his inheritance and lived in the Egyptian desert for thirty-five years. After enduring spiritual and physical trials, he emerged healthy and serene to the awe of many people. The popular biography Life of Antony inspired countless people to adopt a monastic lifestyle in the deserts of Egypt. These early monks lived as isolated hermits. This eremetic ("desert-living") monasticism emphasized solitude and asceticism.
Another type of monasticism, called cenobotic ("common life"), emphasized community. These monks lived together in active spiritual fellowship. They lived in a common area, followed a common "rule," shared their meals in the refractory, and worked as a group. These communal activities allowed the monks to grow in their love for one another. An Egyptian monk named Pachomius first developed the cenobotic monasteries in Egypt in the 320's, but soon afterward St. Basil the Great in Cappadocia popularized communal monasticism. The Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire preferred this communal form of monasticism.
A third type, lavratic monasticism blended individual (eremetic) and communal (cenobotic) monasticism. In lavra monasteries, monks lived independently during the week in their solitary cells, where they prayed and worked. Then on weekends, they would visit the monastery complex to attend the liturgy at church and get more supplies for the week. Finally, "wandering monks" traveled the countryside as holy men, but they were often maligned as selfish and irresponsible.
Basil and the Monasticism Movement
St. Basil the Great (329–380 AD), after his studies in Constantinople and Athens, visited the first monasteries in Egypt. When he returned home to Caesarea (modern Kayseri), he introduced communal monasticism to Cappadocia and European Christianity. Basil started a large monastic center for his family, and leveraged his position as bishop to shepherd many other monastic communities throughout Cappadocia. Through letters and personal visits, Basil guided and instructed the monasteries. His book The Rule of St. Basil became the template for Christian monasticism.
Basil championed monasticism to reform the church. After Constantine made Christianity the state religion, people became Christians for political gain, not spiritual convictions. These opportunists corrupted the church and few people were qualified to lead as bishops. To address this issue, Basil established monasteries as places of spiritual formation and leadership training for the institutional church.
Basil's monasteries had certain notable innovations. The communities were smaller in number, so monks could encourage and support one another. The main spiritual virtue was love, rather than grand displays of asceticism. Monasteries were also located near urban populations—not isolated in the desert—so monks could interact with the community. Also, manual labor and economic production were spiritually fruitful.
By the year 400, communal monasticism has spread from Cappadocia to all of Asia Minor and Europe. In the early 500's, Constantinople had over one hundred monasteries and St. Benedict adopted The Rule of St. Basil for his famous monastic order in Italy. For these reasons, Basil is called "The Father of Communal Monasticism" and "The Father of Western Monasticism."
The Spread of Christian Monasticism
How can we explain the popularity of monasticism? When Christianity became an official imperial religion in 315 AD, Christians no longer faced persecution and martyrdom. Monasticism grew during this era as a "spiritual martyrdom." In this new religious context, monasticism was how pious Christians forsook the world and publicly declared their faith in Jesus. Monks were the new martyrs—people who sacrificed their lives as witnesses to Christ.
There was also a socio-economic draw towards the communal life of monasticism. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 200's created financial difficulties and dire conditions for many people. Monasticism provided economic security and escape from urban trials. People sought the security and hope of communities working together for a common purpose.
Monasticism played a significant role in the Byzantine Empire and Orthodox Christianity. To illustrate the scale of monasticism, half of all literate people in the Byzantine Empire were monks, and most literature in the Byzantine world came from monasteries. Monasticism was a prominent cultural institution in Byzantine politics and society. Monasteries were located throughout the Byzantine Empire, though one-third of all monasteries were in Constantinople. By the early 500's, over one hundred monasteries were located around the capital city.
Monks were widely revered as holy people, like "living martyrs." Local communities visited monasteries for advice and prayer. Unlike the official bishops who were beholden to imperial salaries, monks were respected for being independent. Byzantine kings and church officials sought to control monasticism and subordinate the monks, but rarely succeeded as the monks enjoyed great popular support.
Monks were leaders in the institutional church as well. Most Orthodox bishops were monks, as Basil modeled himself and advocated. For example, Gregory Nazianzus and John Chrysostom—influential Church Fathers and bishops of Constantinople—were both monks. The monks did not seek the official positions, but local communities elected them to fill leadership posts.
Monks also assumed the mantle "Defenders of Orthodoxy." During the Iconoclastic Period, monks led the popular resistance in favor of icons (paintings of saints on wood), and even suffered for their resistance. After monks defeated the iconoclasts in 843 AD, there was a surge of monastic development throughout the Byzantine world. The Middle Byzantine Period (843–1204 AD) was the golden age of Eastern Orthodox monasticism and the period when most Cappadocian cave churches were built. After the Turkish invasion of Asia Minor, monasteries moved westwards to the Balkans and Greece, where Orthodox monasticism continues to this day.
The monastic movement gathered Jesus’ followers in communities. The movement started around 300 AD in Egypt, and quickly spread to all Christian areas, thanks to the vision of St. Basil the Great. By the time Cappadocian cave churches were built around 1000 AD, monasticism influenced every aspect of Byzantine life and society.