Into the Desert: the First Monks

SOME PEOPLE THINK that Christian monasticism began in the sixth century with Benedict of Nursia and his Rule of Life. But in fact it goes back far beyond that, to a time before there were monasteries, even before the ‘ desert fathers’ of the third century. Monasticism, as a recognizable and named phenomenon in the church, has no official beginning, no official foundings. It emerged, in several places at once, as a spontaneous development from the various forms of the ascetic life: the tradition of strong self-discipline which had taken shape in the church from the very beginning.

The most striking features of monasticism, the renunciation of marriage and the renunciation of wealth, go back to the New Testament. The apostle Paul recommended celibacy, in his first letter to the Corinthians, on the grounds that ‘ the unmarried man worries about the things of the Lord and how to please the Lord, but the married man worries about the things of the world and how to please his wife, so he is torn in two'. And this is a theme which is developed in subsequent literature, Fallen mankind is at odds with himself; one of the blessings of redemption is an inner reconciliation, and , for that matter, a reconciliation between body and soul. Redeemed people can become ‘single’ again. This is almost certainly one of the original meanings of the word ‘ monk': a monk is a ‘single', undivided man, and a ‘single', solitary man. A romantic notion developed too, that since we are married to the Lord, there is no room for any other kind of marriage. In particular, if as Paul says the body is the Lord’s, it would be wrong to enter into carnal union with anyone else.

Another important strand in early Christian asceticism strand in early Christian asceticism probably goes back to the instructions which Jesus gave to the preachers he sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God, taking no provisions for their journey as they went. By the end of the first century, at least some people seem to have been taking these instructions as covering a whole lifetime of services as apostles. We hear of apostles touring around preaching the gospel, actually forbidden to stay in the same place for more than two days at a time. Their lifestyle would obviously exclude the possibility of any normal home life. Many of the early Christians expected that Jesus Christ would return to earth in their lifetime, and this provided another reason of opting out of the ordinary practices of human society. Paul had to rebuke some of the Thessalonians for refusing to work on the grounds that they were waiting for the end. But he himself said that, because the end is near, we should either abstain from marriage or, if married, be as if we were not married.

Ready for battle

There was also, from time to time, the threat of martyrdom. Many people, realized that, if it came to the crunch, a radical choice would have to be made between enjoying prosperity in this world and being faithful to Jesus Christ. So being detached from the good things of the world-even renouncing them completely-was seen as a sensible preparation for martyrdom, should the need arise. As the threat of martyrdom receded, ascetic renunciation came to be seen as a kind of substitute for martyrdom. Some people even went so far as to commit suicide as a kind of bid for do-it-yourself martyrdom'. On a more down-to-earth level, some people were without the comfort of marriage through no choice of their own. From very early on the windows in the church seem to have been recognized as a class of their own, and before long they were joined by virgins who gave up their right to be married, and by celibate men too. In some places, they seem to have become a semi-official body of full-time church workers. Practices such as these began in a straightforward way, called for by circumstances. But not surprisingly they developed a more ideological interpretation, which in turn led to new practices.

One probably very early idea was that the church is engaged in a Holy War between the forces of God and the forces of Satan, and that therefore the rules for the Holy War apply, which are laid down in Deut. 20 (the newly married are excused military service). The Lord’s crack troops must be caught out like that, but must be people who are unafraid and free from the distraction of family and property, so that they can go bravely into battle. The theme of battle against demons is all pervasive in Egyptian monasticism. Another idea which became prevalent in monasticism for centuries was that of weeping. In the Syriac language, weeping is actually a technical term for monks. This probably grew out of a Jewish practice of undertaking a life of austerity as a token of grief for the fall of the Holy City. Some Christians extended this and saw the ascetic life as a life of sorrow for the sins of the world. This could easily be narrowed down into a life of sorrow for one’s own personal sins.

The habit of wandering, presumably begun at first as an apostolic necessity, acquired a new value as a sign of the belief that Christians are pilgrims and sojourners on the earth. And it could be given a sharper edge by the belief that the structures of this world, not least its financial structures, are largely controlled by the devil. So we find some ascetics rejecting civilization entirely. This seems to have combined in some circles with the belief that Jesus restores us to the conditions of the first paradise, and so some ascetics, for example, practiced nudism (like-Adam) and ate only food that was naturally available, rejecting both agriculture and cooking.

Some of the resulting practices were bizarre if not dangerous. And the rejection of the world could easily lead towards a dualistic belief-the material world as such is evil-and away from the orthodox belief, that God created a fundamentally good world. But in principle the ascetics were after something of real value. They sought a way of escaping from the domination of worldly society and the ways in which society defines what it means to be human, so that God’s original plan for mankind could be rediscovered. By the third and fourth centuries, at least some ascetics had become important focal points for a vision of humanity and even of society quite independent of conventional social, political and economic factors. Some monks in fact acquired considerable power precisely because of their position outside society. Not m, political and economic factors. Some monks in fact acquired considerable power precisely because of their position outside society. Not merely were they credited with supernatural powers (which they usually exercised in the interests of the poor, the sick and victims of injustice) but their radical independence enabled them to intervene with great authority even in public affairs of church and state. The holy man became an institution to be reckoned with.

Desert fathers

Publicity, however, carries its own dangers. The pioneers of the monasticism which became the classic model for ever after, the monasticism of the Egyptian desert, seem increasingly to have moved away from the ideal of the public, wonder-working, powerful holy man. Instead they stressed humility. The wonderworking monk surrounded by his devotees came now to be seen as a typical example of vanity. And the plea of usefulness to others came to be regarded with suspicion. When I was young, one monk said, I said to myself that I would do good. But now that I am old, I perceive that I have not on single good deed in me.

The desert fathers’ also rejected the ideal of wandering, and adopted the practice of simple manual work, designed to occupy the monk’s time and to earn his living. Instead of the entirely uncircumscribed life of (alleged) continual prayer, they recommended a balanced life of prayer and work, with a market emphasis on stability within the cell.

The most famous of the desert fathers is Anthony the Great, often, rather exaggeratedly, called the founding father of monasticism. He retired to the desert in about 285; inspired, according to his biographer, Athanasius, by the texts ‘ If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have and come follow me', and Take on thought for the morrow. The very schematic account which Athanasisus gave shows how Anthony withdrew progressively further into the desert, and how he disentangled himself from evil. This evil confronted him first of all in the form of the temptation of irrelevant good works, then in the form of lust, then in the form of terrifying demonic emanations which did considerable damage to his body, and finally, helplessly, in the form of grotesque apparitions which could not harm him and which he mocked with hymns and psalms. After a long time on his own he eventually emerged again, and became a teacher. People were amazed to see that he was in perfect health of body and soul. He exhorted his disciples not to be afraid of demons, and not to imagine that virtue is difficult and alien. In the wake of Anthony, a large number of men and some women too adopted the life of hermits in the desert. Most of them lived in settlements, with churches and priests, and they visited each other for advice and discussion, but in formal and un-programmed ways.

Further south, Pachomius (who died in 346) developed a rather different kind of monasticism, organized in monastic communities, which in time produced fixed monastic rules and government. But in both forms of monasticism the major concern was with the ascetic struggle against the vices, a struggle carried on chiefly on the basis of continual self-awareness. Pay attention to yourself, was a favorite slogan. By staying in their cells, resisting all distracting thoughts and refusing all religious or spiritual pretentiousness, they hoped to become aware of exactly what was going on (discernment) so that they could escape from the insidious wiles of the demons and from all that is contrary to the true God-given functioning of human life. Their austerities, exaggerated though some of them may seem to the modern reader, were never meant to be an end in themselves; they were meant to provide the conditions within which the monk could discover by experience what a real, redeemed human being is like. In particular their poverty and unprotectedness were meant to make them totally dependent on God. The most disastrous mistake, in their view was to attempt to set up some kind of identity for themselves, some kind of life for themselves apart from God’s gift.

Although the desert fathers, at least the more articulate of them, whose words survive, showed a considerable expertise in psychology and were refreshingly down to earth (If you see someone going to heaven by his own self-will grab his leg and pull him down again) they still essentially left the onus of responsibility on the individual monk.

But not everyone is capable of taking this responsibility. We find in later generation of monks much more tendency to regard it as essential for the young monk to have spiritual father, whom he will obey and whose teaching he will follow in everything. And this process led to a blurring of the distinction between cenobites (monks living in community) and the hermits. In the Greek church it became normal for a monk to begin in a monastic community and then move on to being a hermit.

Towards a rule of life

The Egyptian father’s insistence on humility and self-knowledge meant that they played down social responsibility;—It is no good ruining your own house in order to build someone else’s. In Palestine, Jerome (died 420) distinguished between monks and others on just this basis:- There are two ways of winning a fight. Monastic life is a deliberate running away from the risks of a more involved life. Even missionary activity is shunned: It is a monk’s business to weep, not to teach.

Not everyone accepted this. Basil of Caesarea (died 379) reformed monasticism in some parts of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and turned it into something much more like present-day religious communities devoted to good works. And others followed suit. But this was the exception rather than the norm. In the churches of the Western Mediterranean, there were several independent developments. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) formed his cathedral clergy into a monastic community, an example taken up later in the Canons Regular. And in Gaul there was a monastic movement, associated chiefly with Martin of Tours (died 397), which was closer to the public holy man rejected in Egypt. But fairly quickly the Egyptian model was introduced, especially by John Cassian (died 435), leading to a more secluded form of monasticism. Cassian’s influence made for a monasticism more hidebound by its traditions. He was less prepared to trust individuals, whether as learners or as teachers, preferring a more impersonal tradition, expressed in conventional practices and doctrines.

The process of tidying up went much further with the anonymous author of The Rule of the Master in the early sixth century. His aim was to take away all initiative from his monks and to make as many decisions as possible at the outset once and for all. The monks were supervised the whole day long. It was clearly assumed that any independence allowed to them would simply be abused.

This brings us to the time of the greatly influential Benedict of Nursia. He largely followed the Master, though with a rather less suspicious attitude. He did not snoop on his monks the whole time, but was clearly concerned to regulate their life fairly thoroughly, giving them a balanced diet of prayer, manual labour and readings. His Rule is famous for its equilibrium, but, as he himself recognized, it did not make for the higher adventures of the Christian life. It was a rule for beginners, as he said, and he presumably expected people to progress beyond it as hermits, though this never in fact became normal in Benedictine circles.

The organized monasteries of the West played an important role. They were oases of Christian civilization in a world relapsing into barbarism. And they provided an opportunity for people to escape from the temptations and distractions of life in the world to concentrate on serving God. Yet undoubtedly something had been lost. The earlier monastic adventure of self-discovery, renouncing all security for the sake of the gospel had faded into the background. In its place came something more mundane: an accepted monastic definition of life, with considerable material and spiritual security.

By the Editor of <em>Christian History</em>

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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