Early Christian Monasticism
The monastic spirit in Christianity owed much to the example of its founder, who was himself unmarried, poor, and without a place "where to lay his head." Some of Christ's teachings, taken literally, also helped to exalt the worth of the monastic life. At a very early period there were Christian men and women who abstained from marriage, flesh meat, and the use of wine, and gave themselves up to prayer, religious exercises, and works of charity. This they did in their homes, without abandoning their families and human society.
Monasticism - The Hermits
Another monastic movement began about the middle of the third century, when many Christians in Egypt withdrew into the desert to live as hermits. St. Anthony, who has been called the first Christian hermit, passed twenty years in a deserted fort on the east bank of the Nile. During all this time he never saw a human face. Some of the hermits, believing that pain and suffering had a spiritual value, went to extremes of self- mortification. They dwelt in wells, tombs, and on the summits of pillars, deprived themselves of necessary food and sleep, wore no clothing, and neglected to bathe or to care for the body in any way. Other hermits, who did not practice such austerities, spent all day or all night in prayer. The examples of these recluses found many imitators in Syria and other eastern lands.
Monasticism - The Rule of St. Basil
A life shut off from all contact with one's fellows is difficult and beyond the strength of ordinary men. The mere human need for social intercourse gradually brought the hermits together, at first in small groups and then in larger communities, or monasteries. The next step was to give the scattered monasteries a common organization and government. Those in the East gradually adopted the regulations which St. Basil, a leading churchman of the fourth century, drew up for the guidance of the monks under his direction. St. Basil's Rule, as it is called, has remained to the present time the basis of monasticism in the Greek Church.
Benedictine Monasticism - St. Benedict
The monastic system, which early gained an entrance into western Christendom, looked to St. Benedict as its organizer. While yet a young man, St. Benedict had sought to escape from the vice about him by retiring to a cave in the Sabine hills near Rome. Here he lived for three years as a hermit, shutting himself off from all human intercourse, wearing a hair shirt, and rolling in beds of thistles to subdue "the flesh." St. Benedict's experience of the hermit's life convinced him that there was a surer and better road to religious peace of mind. His fame as a holy man had attracted to him many disciples, and these he now began to group in monastic communities under his own supervision. St. Benedict's most important monastery was at Monte Cassino, midway between Rome and Naples. It became the capital of monasticism in the West. In the 12th century four hundred and eighteen monasteries were founded in England; in the next century, only about a third as many. In the fourteenth, only twenty-three monasteries were founded in England.