Monasticism and the First Christian Monks

The earliest Christian monks (“monk” deriving from the Greek word monachos, which means “solitary”) we know of found in the desert significant appeal in their solitude from the bustle and noise of social life (1). The desert appealed because of its inaccessibility to others and disturbance. It was in the Egyptian desert and those of Syria and Palestine where monasticism experienced early growth in the fourth century CE. 

What is monasticism? Monasticism is the,

“religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one’s life to spiritual work. Monasticism… usually refers to the way of life, communitarian or solitary, adopted by those individuals, male or female, who have elected to pursue an ideal of perfection or a higher level of religious experience through leaving the world” (2).

Monasticism entails asceticism or the practice of disciplined self-denial, which may include a prohibition against personal ownership, fasting, silence, and an acceptance of bodily discomfort. It almost always entails poverty, celibacy, obedience to a spiritual leader, and the pursuit of attaining an enhanced relationship with God.

Although historians do not know who the first monk or nun was, two usually are mentioned: Paul of Thebes (227-342) and Anthony the Great (251-356). We learn of Paulus and Anthony from other Christian writers such as Jerome and Athanasius. Each writer claims that his protagonist was the founder of monasticism, although, in reality, monasticism was not the invention of one individual but rather a mass exodus occurring when thousands of people left urban dwellings for solitude. 

Paul’s and Anthony’s lives were considered important to those who wrote about them. Much in these writings are legendary, although the nuclei of the stories are likely true. According to Jerome, a young Paul of the third century fled persecution to the desert where he discovered an abandoned place for counterfeiters. He lived there for the rest of his life and spent time in prayer and embraced a diet consisting almost entirely of dates. Paul’s life was one of solitude except for some visiting animals of the desert and the monk, Anthony.

According to Athanasius, Anthony emerged from a village on the shore of the Nile. His parents were wealthy and when they died he inherited enough wealth to live a comfortable life for himself and his sister. Although originally planning to live off his inheritance, Anthony heard a reading from the Gospel in a church compelling him to make changes in his life. In that reading, Jesus instructs a wealthy man to “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21). Taking this to heart, Anthony discarded his wealth by giving the proceeds to the poor.

During his first years as a monk, Anthony learned about the monastic life from an old man who lived close by (which, one might add, suggests Anthony was not the first Christian monk). Anthony experienced regret by sometimes feeling sorry for having sold all his possessions and withdrawing to the desert. But when doubts emerged, he would exercise stricter discipline and fast for several days.

Anthony later went to live in a tomb in an abandoned cemetery where he survived on bread some people brought him every few days. Athanasius says that Anthony began having visions of demons that resulted in a physical struggle leaving him sore for days. God also provided Anthony a vision telling him not to fear and that he would always be able to count on divine aid. Anthony then relocated further into the desert where he discovered an abandoned fort. But the demons followed him there and he continued to have visions. But with his belief he had God’s aid, Anthony’s struggles became more bearable. Anthony died in 356 CE.

Those living the monastic way lived simple lives. Their belongings were limited to clothing and a mat to sleep on. Their diet consisted mostly of bread to which fruit, vegetables, and oil were sometimes added. They would plant gardens and earn a living weaving baskets and mats that they traded for bread and oil. The monks often taught each other scriptures from the Bible and memorized biblical books.

References and Recommended Readings

1. González, Justo. 2010. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation. HarperOne. p. 265-272. 

2. Goswami, Anita. 2006. “Hermit to Cenobitic: A Study of Early Christian Monasticism.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 66:1329-1335. p. 1329.

Deferrari, Roy J. 1952. “Life of St. Anthony.” In Early Christian Biographies, edited by Roy J. Deferrari, 127-216. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.


One comment

  1. Regarding these pioneering monks, you state: “Much in these writings are legendary, although the nuclei of the stories are likely true.” Based on what criteria do you conclude that much in these stories are legendary? Do you apply these same standards to the stories about Jesus in the Gospels?

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