When studying history, we often see the truth in the adage, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A few weeks ago, we looked at how Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. In reaction to this, we briefly discussed the rise of monasticism, that is, the appearance of the monks. We even looked at the lives of a few monks, including the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, and Saint Patrick. The word monk comes from a Greek word that means, “solitary,” which embodied what those first hermits sought. As we will see, the monastic movement had a profound and long-term effect on the church.
the desert hermits
When Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, not all Christians rejoiced at the news. Many saw this turn of events as the corruption of the church by becoming allied with the state. They mourned the church’s increasing wealth and political power and sought to return to a time when following Christ meant a life of self-denial, which brought spiritual growth.
To achieve this, the first monks had to leave—literally. They left towns and cities to find secluded places where they could devote themselves to solitude and prayer. Following the example of Jesus and John the Baptist in the Gospels, the first monks often went to the desert.
In order to understand how monasticism began, we will take a trip back in time to observe one of the first monks, or desert hermits as they were also known at that time: Anthony the Great. Born around 250 in the village of Koma in Egypt, Anthony grew up in a wealthy family. When he was around age of eighteen, his parents died, leaving him their wealth and the responsibility of caring for his younger sister. Eventually Anthony felt convicted by Jesus’ words to the rich young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Anthony sold all his possessions, gave the proceeds to the poor, and placed his sister in the care of other Christian women. He left for the Egyptian desert, where he spent the rest of his life in poverty, focused on prayer. He is known for the temptations he endured during his years in the desert and for inspiring others to follow him in rejecting worldly life for a life of contemplation and spiritual growth.
the first monasteries
Anthony was one of the first monks in a great exodus to the desert. Eventually some commented that these deserts had become more crowded with hermits than the cities. While this was clearly an exaggeration, it shows that this phenomenon was not isolated to a few devout Christians. This was a movement.
As more people sought a deeper spiritual life in the desert, not all could withstand the rigors of an isolated life such as Anthony’s. One monk, Pachomius, founded a community in the Egyptian desert for those seeking a monastic life. A primary marker of the community was discipline. Everyone had a role and had to obey the leader, who came to be known as the abbot. The monks lived, ate, worked, and worshipped alongside one another. Everyone within the community took a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Soon, similar communities began to appear for both men and women.
monasteries and the community
The monastic life and this community model spread throughout the Christian world. Later on, as the Western church faced the fall of the empire, the monasteries became a source of stability for their local communities. As we will see tomorrow, the monasteries’ impact was just beginning.
What surprises you about the first monks? When they were frustrated with the church of their day, they sought ways to grow closer to the Lord. In reading about their austere lives in the desert, we may feel we have nothing in common with them. While we live in different circumstances, we can learn from the monks the importance of solitude, prayer, and spending time studying God’s Word. They found contentment by making these practices the central focus of their lives.
While God may not call us to live alone in the desert, how can we incorporate a routine of prayer, solitude, and the study of Scripture into our lives?
How do the monks provide an example of how to grow spiritually?
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