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The Rise of Monasticism (Third to Fifth Centuries)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Monasticism began in the third century in Egypt and developed rapidly during the fourth century in the Eastern Church, before it spread into the Western Church in the fifth century.

The beginning of the fourth century marked the end of the persecutions by the Roman Empire, and the acceptance of Christianity by Constantine and the empire. At this time, the church was growing rapidly until the vast majority of the citizens of the Roman Empire had been baptised and claimed to be Christian. Unfortunately, this influx into the church widened the gap between the ideals and the high moral standards of the Christian faith as taught by Jesus, and what was reality in the church. It was against this growing laxity and moral corruption in the church that monasticism arose, attracting zealous individuals who were eager to live the Christian life to the full. Much of the zealousness which had led people to martyrdom during the persecutions was now channelled into more and more severe forms of asceticism, as the way to express true piety was seen to be through physical hardship.

From New Testament times, many Christians were attracted to asceticism, particularly celibacy and fasting, modelling their lifestyle from the teaching of Jesus and Paul, and from the example of John the Baptist. These ascetics believed that they were called to a higher calling within the Christian faith, and that celibacy earned a higher honour from God. Initially the ascetics remained within the church, but monasticism began and grew as many ascetics rejected the sensuous luxury of the church. They believed that it was impossible to live a true Christian life in the world without compromise, but that it was necessary to withdraw from society.

Monasticism was predominately a lay movement, independent from the hierarchy of the church. It can be seen as a reaction against the increasing power and status of the priests, particularly as an increasing emphasis was given to the sacraments and the mystical power of the ordained priest. Indeed, the monks were often unsubmissive and insubordinate to the local bishops. Within the church, there were no real opportunities for spiritual growth or ministry for anybody except the priests and bishops, within the ever-increasing regimentation and organisation of the church. Monasticism gave opportunities for zealous follows of Christ to serve their Lord.

The monastic movement began in Egypt with individuals who withdrew from the moral corruption of city life to become solitary hermits in the desert. There they gave themselves to a life of prayer and contemplation, and wrestling against the demons in the desert, which was seen as their stronghold. One of the most famous was Anthony. Some people had fled into the desert during the Decian persecution, where they remained when it was over. Gradually, the hermits gathered together into loose communities for fellowship and learning. Pachomius developed a system of monasteries and introduced rules for community living, which began to limit the extremes of asceticism.

Unfortunately, most of the monastic movement became more concerned in individuals seeking their own salvation, that the missionary emphasis and concern for the lost world was forgotten. Later, by the direction of Basil, the monasteries were organised into real communities. The monasteries were moved nearer the cities, so they could care for the poor. They also became centres of learning, where the Scriptures were preserved, copied and studied.