Monasticism is by no means a creation of Christianity. Long before the Christian era began, a highly organised monasticism existed in India and other parts of Asia. In all its forms, monasticism involves a withdrawal from the world in order to achieve, through a life of self-denial, a state of contemplation or love which brings full union with the ultimate reality – God.
Christian monasticism owes its origin to the desire of leading a life of evangelical perfection in greater security than is normally possible in secular society. In theActs of the Apostles the great fervour of the new converts to Christianity is mentioned. They are described as assembling daily for prayer, as being of one heart and one soul. What is still more striking, those among them who owned property sold it and put the proceeds into a common fund from which the needs of all were supplied. They ‘had all things in common,’ Saint Luke says. Here, in the second chapter of the Acts, the origins of Christian religious communities can be discerned. Jesus Christ himself had, of course, set out the essence of the monastic ideal when, having been asked by a young man if anyone was expected to do more than observe the commandments, he answered: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow me.’
The word ‘monk’ comes from a Greek word μοναχος (monachos), which means ‘solitary,’ and was first used by early Christians to describe those who retired to some lonely, inaccessible place in order to think about God and to pray. Jesus Christ himself had gone alone into the desert in this way. Christian monastic asceticism appeared at an early date in the life of the Church as a spontaneous development of this example of the Saviour, and of the advice of Saint John: ‘Do not love the world, or the things in the world.’
By the third century it was already common for those seeking after Christian perfection to live in secluded retirement in the neighbourhood of the towns and villages. These early Christian hermits, or monks, felt that by their solitary lives, without social comforts or relationships, they had discovered a new dimension to the deepest realities of life. At first, these solitaries lived without any fixed rules or standard practices; but gradually they began to come under the influence of some noted hermit near whom they lived. One of the most notable of these early hermits was Saint Anthony of Egypt, who lived from 251 to 356, and who is often referred to as the founder of Christian monasticism.