Brief History of Christian Monasticism

 

Image: The Prayer Foundation logo (with white Celtic cross on a green shield).
 

  By Monk Preston 

Photo: "Skellig Michael" Copyright Irish Tourist Board.

Image: portion of illuminated manuscript page from "The Book of Kells."Image: "Titus in a Monk's Habit" by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

  • Introduction: Is Monasticism Based on the Bible?

  • I.) First Wave of Christian Monasticism: The Desert Fathers

  • II.) Second Wave of Christian Monasticism: The Monasteries

  • III.) Third Wave of Christian Monasticism: The Friars

  • IV.) Fourth Wave of Christian Monasticism: New Monasticism

Introduction: Is Monasticism Based on the Bible?

Many early Christians moved to the desert to draw closer to God, following the example of Christ, when he fasted for 40 days in the wilderness of Judea.  Later many Christians would also do so to escape the persecutions of the Roman Empire.

website bullets and arrows Based on Jesus and the Apostles

     The words: monk, monastery, and monasticism do not appear in the Bible.  The idea of Christian monks historically is based on the Gospel accounts of the lives of Jesus Christ and the Apostles (and also influenced by the lives of the Old Testament Prophets).  Particularly, the lives of Elijah and John the Baptist were inspirational.  

The ultimate inspiration, however, is the life of Christ.  Our Lord's example is of a life wholly dedicated to God, bathed in prayer and Bible study, teaching, preaching, and including spiritual disciplines like fasting and Scripture memorization.  

     The entire concept of a "community" of about twelve believers under the Lordship and teaching of Jesus Christ; preparing for a future as evangelists who will preach the Good News; comes from the Gospels. 

 website bullets and arrows Christianity Actually Has No Such Thing as a "Lay" Member

Many of the disciples (including Peter), were married men.  The disciples were "lay" persons in the sense that they were not members of the Jewish Priestly caste, the Sanhedrin governing body, or even the Rabbis of the Pharisee and Sadducee groups and the Synagogue system.  However, after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of The Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, Christianity actually has no such thing as a "lay" member (the  Greek word "laikos," which means "laity," is not found in the New Testament.  See "Note" in sidebar to right).

The doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" teaches that every Christian is a priest with direct access to God through Jesus Christ; that every Christian may receive teaching through the Scriptures directly by the Holy Spirit; and that every Christian is to fulfill "The Great Commission" to go into all the world and preach the Gospel as its ministers and witnesses.

website bullets and arrows Based On the Old Testament Prophets

     Prophets like Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and Nathan, and also John the Baptist (though of course John the Baptist appears in the New Testament, he is generally considered to be the last example of an Old Testament-type of prophet).  These holy men of God spoke (and acted) as they were moved and led by the Holy Spirit, rejecting sin in their lives, and proclaiming the Word of God against King, religious ruler, or that aspect of popular culture opposed to God.  

     Though there were a few exceptions, these men were generally married men with regular occupations.  In the Books of I and II Kings we hear of the "schools of the prophets" which were for young men attempting to study God's Word and live their lives in emulation of the prophets.  Modern terms with some equivalency might be "Bible Colleges," "Seminaries," or even "Monasteries."

  I.) First Wave of Christian Monasticism: The Desert Fathers

website bullets and arrows Paul of Thebes / Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (250 A.D.)

Paul of Thebes retreats to a cave in the Egyptian desert in 250 A.D. to avoid the persecution initiated by Decius.  Paul of Thebes is traditionally considered to be the first hermit (eremetic).  Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, goes into hiding in the same year and for the same reason at the other end of the north African coast.  He is said to have "lived with the hermits" during this period, and wrote of the eremetic lifestyle.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, Paul of Thebes and Cyprian of Carthage are not considered to be hermits due to their desiring to separate themselves, not for solitude but from persecution.  St. Anthony is considered the first monastic in the Eastern Church due to his desiring to separate himself from the sinfulness he found in the society of his day.

website bullets and arrows Anthony and Pachomius: (270-356 A.D.)

      Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony was the book that introduced Christian monasticism to Europe and inspired thousands there to adopt a monastic lifestyle.  This is the same Athanasius which the Athanasian Creed was named after.   He also was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A. D. when the Nicene Creed was officially adopted in a General Council of the entire Church).  

     You will often hear St. Anthony (251 - 356 A.D.) referred to as "the first Christian Monk."  When Anthony was converted to Christ, and moved out to the deserts of Egypt to follow God, his own story says that there were already hundreds of others there (they had gone there fleeing persecution).  Because of the inspiration of the story of his life for the entire world, Antony may truly be called "the father of monasticism".

website bullets and arrows The First Christian Monks Did Not Live In Communities 

     By consulting the Dictionary, we learn that the word: monk, comes from the Greek word monachus, meaning "alone" (the Christian Community in Egypt in the Fourth Century was a Greek-speaking community).  The first Christian monks were what we would call "religious Hermits" ("hermit" from: eremites, eremetic).  

It was a monk named Pachomius (Ca. 292-348), a contemporary of Anthony, who formed the first organized monastic community (cenobitic).  There had previously existed monastic communities not formally organized made up of individual hermit-type (eremitic) monks who of their own accord would meet together weekly for religious services including Communion.  

Pachomius also built a convent (the first organized women's community) in which a number of religious women lived with his sister.

     These two types of Christian monasticism have been recognized for  at least the past 1,700 years.  Eremitic monasticism refers to monks who dwell alone ("eremites" or "hermits").  This was the original Christian monasticism, and was exemplified in the life of Anthony.  

Cenobitic monasticism was begun by Pachomius, and refers to monks who live in "communities" ("cenobites").

  II.) Second Wave of Christian Monasticism: The Monasteries

St. Basil (329-379) founds Cappadocian Monasteries

St. Basil the Great (329-379), influenced by Pachomius, founds monasteries in Cappadocia (eastern Asia Minor; now modern-day Turkey).

website bullets and arrows Timeline of Early Monasteries of Gaul:

  • Liguge: the first monastery in Gaul, founded by Martin of Tours in 361 A.D.

  • Marmoutier (Majus Monasterium): the second monastery founded by Martin of Tours, in 372 A.D.

  • Lerins: monastery founded by Honoratus in 410 A.D.

  • Auxerre: monastery founded by Germaine in 422 A.D.

website bullets and arrows Martin of Tours founds the first monastery in Gaul (361 A.D.)

Martin of Tours founds first monastery in Gaul (modern-day France) at Liguge in 361 A.D.  It is here that Ninian of Whithorn trains and leaves as the first Christian missionary to Scotland.

website bullets and arrows St. Jerome Translates The Rule of Pachomius

St. Jerome translates The Rule of Pachomius into Latin ca. 404 A.D.

website bullets and arrows Augustine founds the "Servei Dei" Lay Monastic Order

Augustine of Hippo (Nov. 13, 354-Aug. 28, 430) is converted to Christianity in 374 A.D.  While the Servei Dei (Servants of God) Lay Religious Order of the fourth and fifth centuries did not occupy official positions, the Church recognized and honored these Laymen who pursued a monastic life of contemplation and prayer.

In 388 A.D. Augustine and a few Christian friends founded the Servei Dei (Servants of God).  Centuries later it would be re-founded as the Augustinian Order, the oldest Monastic Fraternity in the West.  Eventually Augustine is made Bishop of the town of Hippo, where he establishes a monastery that functions also as a Seminary, training young monks to be Bishops in all of the towns throughout North Africa.  He would write 93 books that would influence the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Churches.

Monk John Cassian writes The Conferences in 425 A.D.

This book comprised interviews with 24 of the greatest Egyptian monastics of the time.  The book was a great influence on St. Benedict, and he recommended it to his monks to read.  In 415 A.D. John Cassian had founded an Egyptian-style monastery in Marseille (in Gaul); with complexes for both men and women (a "double" monastery).

website bullets and arrows The Celtic Monks 

      Celtic Monks: It is not known for certain when Christianity first arrived in the British Isles.  We do know that the Galatians were Celts.  These may have spread the faith to their  brethren in Britain while the Apostle Paul was still completing his missionary journeys in the Mediterranean.

 "About A.D. 208  Tertullian exultingly declared 'that places in Britain not yet visited by Romans were subject to Christ.' "1

1 Adv. Judæos 7: "Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca, Christo vero subdita."  Bishop Kaye, (Tertull., P. 94)  understands this passage as referring to the farthest extremities of Britain.  So Burton II. 207: "Parts of the island which had not been visited by the Romans."  See Bright, P.5.  (Philip Schaff; "History of the Christian Church"; Vol. 4, Medieval Christianity A.D. 590-1173; Section 8. The Britons; P.25).

 website bullets and arrows Ninian founds "Candida Casa" monastery at Whithorn, Scotland (Ca. 397 A.D.)

Ninian, a missionary Bishop, was the first person to preach Christianity in Scotland; founds "Candida Casa" ("White House") monastery at Whithorn; and converts the eastern Picts to Christianity beginning Ca. 397 A.D.

website bullets and arrows Honoratus founds Lerins Monastery (410 A.D.)

Honoratus founds Lerins monastery on island off southern France in 410 A.D.  St. Patrick is said to have lived and studied here.

website bullets and arrows Germaine founds Auxerre Monastery (422 A.D.)

Auxerre Monastery founded in 422 A.D. by Germaine

website bullets and arrows St. Patrick

St. Patrick was born 387-390 A.D.  He was enslaved by Irish raiders at age 16 (403-406 A.D.).  He escaped Ireland six years later and returned to Britain at age 22. (409-412 A.D.)  He left home to train for the priesthood in the monasteries of Lerins and Auxerre, both located in Gaul (France).  

At this period there were very few monasteries in western Europe, it still was a relatively new movement there.  Martin of Tours had only relatively recently founded the very first monastery in Gaul at Liguge in 361 A.D.

website bullets and arrows A Possible Timeline that fits all of the known dates (including the founding dates of Lerins and Auxerre Monasteries):   

  Born 390; Enslaved 406; Escaped and returned to Britain 412; In France at Lerins monastery (founded 410) from 412 to 422 (10 years; or a later start date if he remained in Britain longer); at Auxerre monastery (founded 422) from 422 to 432 (10 years).

Returned to Ireland (sent by God through means of a dream) as a missionary Bishop around age 42 about 432 A.D.  Died March 17, 461-464 A.D.

     St. Patrick became a Christian while a slave in Ireland.  He later received monastic training before returning to Ireland as a missionary (ca. 400 A.D.).  Celtic Christianity was a monastic-based church that may have allowed married monks.  It held in high regard both in eremitic (individual hemitage) and cenobitic (community monastery) monasticism.  

Unlike the Orthodox portion of the early church, it eventually placed itself under the authority of the Bishop of Rome at the Synod of Whitby (ca. 664 A.D.) thus ending the Celtic Church's historic independence in England.  The Irish Celtic monks returned to Iona in Scotland, and to Ireland.  It was another 500 years before the Irish Celtic Christians also submitted to Rome at the Synod of Cashel (1172 A.D.).

website bullets and arrows Ireland and the Irish Celtic Christians become part of the Roman Catholic Church at the Synod of Cashel (1172 A.D.)

Pope Adrian IV had granted authority in 1155 A.D. in a "Papal Bull" (Church document) to Henry II of England to effect the conquest of Ireland "for the enlarging of the bounds of the Church" (this is the formal statement of definitive proof from Rome's own archives, and a sitting Pope, that Ireland was not a part of the Roman Catholic Church before 1172).  

This Papal Bull was renewed 17 years later by Pope Alexander III.  When this was accomplished, the Synod of Cashel was called, to institute Papal and Roman Catholic control of Ireland and the Celtic church.  

This was the end of the practice of traditional Celtic monasticism.  The historical Celtic monastic Orders were replaced with traditional Roman Catholic Orders: Augustinians, Benedictines, and so forth.

website bullets and arrows Leo I, Bishop of Rome, Claims Authority over all Christians (440–461 A.D.)

Leo I "The Great" (400?–461 A.D.).  Bishop of Rome from 440–461 A.D.  was the first Bishop of Rome (Pope) to claim primacy/authority over all other Christians.  The claim was largely ignored for the next 200 years by other Christians, including the Celtic Christians, and the four other Apostolic Sees of the East; particularly by the Patriarch of Constantinople

By about 600-650 A.D. The Roman Popes (Bishops of Rome) had established their doctrine of Papal Supremacy in their city of Rome, and begun slowly extending control of the Roman Church over other Christians across Europe.

This Papal claim would ultimately affect monasticism by causing the Great Schism between the Eastern and Roman Churches in 1054 A.D., and ending independent Celtic monasticism in Great Britain at the  Synod of Whitby (ca. 664 A.D.--when Christians in northern England first came under the authority of Rome) and in Ireland at the Synod of Cashel in 1172 A.D. (when the Christians of Ireland first came under the authority of Rome).  

Note: the term "Pope" is an equivalent term to the Eastern Orthodox term "Patriarch" (of an Apostolic "See"), and in early times was given to both the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Alexandria, who is to this day still referred to as "Pope" (Patriarch), but none of whom have ever claimed jurisdiction over any of the other "Sees".  

The original "Sees" were/are in order of their founding as Churches by the Apostles: Jerusalem (all Apostles), Antioch (Peter), Rome (Paul, Peter), and Alexandria (Mark).  Constantinople (the founding of the Church there in the earlier City of Byzantium is attributed to the Apostle Andrew) was added as the fifth Apostolic "See" when the Emperor Constantine made it the new Capitol of the Roman Empire.

Note: The Churches (and "Sees") of Jerusalem (founded by the Holy Spirit; all the Apostles being present) and Antioch (founded by the Apostle Peter) both outdate Rome.  

The first Church Council was held in Jerusalem (Book of Acts), and though the Apostle Peter was present, was presided over, not by Peter, but by the Apostle James.

(The above summary is the view held in common by Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Secular Historians).

website bullets and arrows Benedict of Nursia

     St. Benedict lived for many years as a solitary hermit in a cave near Subiaco, Italy.  He was asked to be head over several monks who wished to experiment with the idea (of Pachomius) of monks living in community, but they were unhappy with the strictness of life under Benedict, and the experiment ended.  He wrote The Rule of St. Benedict, a monastic "Rule" (guidelines for monks living in community) that advised moderation in all things in the life of a monk.  Benedict then founded the monastery at Monte Cassino in 529 A.D., which is the oldest continuously inhabited monastic community in Europe.  

     The Rule of St. Benedict became the "Rule" for almost all monastic communities in Europe.  Exceptions: the Orthodox Communions, the Celtic Christian Church (some of which also allowed married monks: each monastic founder composed his own "Rule"), the Augustinians (who follow the Rule of St. Augustine) and a few other Orders with their own distinctive rules.  

It was the custom of most these early monasteries, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Celtic Christian, to only have around twelve members.  When another twelve had joined, they would be sent off to "found" a new monastery.  In later centuries some individual monasteries would have hundreds of monks.      

website bullets and arrows Mount Athos

In the mid-ninth century, Orthodox hermit monks (eremitic anchorites) began living on Mount AthosAthanasios the Athonite, in 963 A.D., built the Great Lavra monastery on mount Athos, officially making Mount Athos a monastic republic (it is located on the Athos Peninsula of Chalkidiki in Macedonia). 

III.) Third Wave of Christian Monasticism: The Friars

website bullets and arrows Francis of Assisi 

     1200's: St. Francis, desiring to live for Christ and following Christ as his example, gave up all his possessions and went about preaching the Gospel and helping the poor.  Though today we hear of Franciscan "monks."  At the time, his return to a "biblical monasticism" was so different from the then-current monasticism, that the new terms, "friars," and "mendicant order" were coined to describe his followers and their Order.  

It is said that St. Francis was aware of and approved of the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland.  This had been founded as a result of Columbanus' (Columban's) missionary outreach to continental Europe; he went as far as Bobbio, Italy, and founded a Celtic monastery there.

website bullets and arrows St. Dominic 

      St. Dominic also in the 1200's founded the Dominican Order as a "mendicant order."  In common with the Franciscans, they were monks who went about preaching, rather than only remaining in monasteries, withdrawn from the world. 

website bullets and arrows John Wycliffe & The Lollards

1300's: John Wycliffe a Roman Catholic priest and an Oxford Scholar, comes to believe all of the teachings that would later be taught in the Protestant reformation (200 years before Martin Luther!)  

Wycliffe made the first complete translation of the entire Bible into English and founded a religious Order (the Lollards) of itinerant preachers to go throughout England preaching the Gospel in English (in many ways they were Protestant Franciscans, and therefore in some ways very similar to the Knights of Prayer .  They were founded 200 years before the Protestant Reformation, and 100 years before Francis of Assisi!).  

There was a revival throughout England because of the Lollard preachers until the Church suppressed both their Order, and the Bible in English.  However, some of Wycliffe's students were from Bohemia, and were the spark for the Moravian movement that influenced almost every subsequent Evangelical Christian movement, especially John Wesley (Methodists) and the worldwide missionary movement of the 1800's.

IV.) Fourth Wave of Christian Monasticism: New Monasticism

(Also: Neo-Monasticism, Neomonasticism.  Primarily a Born-again, Bible-believing, Evangelical Monasticism.)

'...the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this...' 

  -Dietrich Bonhoeffer (January 14, 1935)

 
website bullets and arrows Apr. 26, 1935: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Founds Seminary
 
Apr. 26, 1935: Dietrich Bonhoeffer founds a  Seminary to train Pastors for the underground Confessing Church (Evangelical Christians persecuted by the Nazis); putting into practice his teachings of a New Monasticism.   In 1937 Himmler declared the Seminary illegal.  By the following November, 27 of its former students had been arrested.    
 
 Both the term itself, and the actual existence of the new and ever-expanding Christian movement called New Monasticism actually had its origins in the writing, teaching, and practice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  
 
It began on April 26, 1935 when Bonhoeffer brought into practice his interest in monastic teaching in the founding of an illegal seminary in Zingst, Germany, during WWII.  In June of that year it moved to Finkenwalde.  Himmler ordered State Security police to close it down in 1937, imprisoning 27 of its students.
  
The same year Bonhoeffer wrote his most famous book, The Cost of DiscipleshipDietrich was executed by the Nazis on Apr. 9, 1945 at Flossenburg Prison, just a few weeks before the end of WWII.  He was 39 years old.

website bullets and arrows Jesus Abbey

1965: Descendants of R. A. Torrey found Jesus Abbey in Korea.  They allow marriage and do not call themselves "monks."  It is a born-again evangelistic missionary community, affiliated with the Episcopal Church In their own words: 

"Jesus Abbey is a house primarily dedicated to intercessory prayer (for revival in the church in Korea, for the Korean nation, and for world peace, and for world evangelism).  A small farm, dairy and orchard help to support this work in a remote mountain valley near the East Coast of Korea."  

R. A. Torrey was himself a Congregationalist, and the first President of the Moody Bible Institute, who later replaced Dwight L. Moody (upon Moody's death) in Moody's worldwide Evangelism ministry.

 website bullets and arrows The Prayer Foundation (Knights of Prayer Monastic Order)

In 1999, The Prayer Foundation ™, was founded and the Knights of Prayer   Monastic Order consisting entirely of Born-again, Bible-believing, Evangelical Christians was begun.  It's co-founders were Monk Preston and Monk Linda.

It was the first Religious Order in the history of Christianity to allow Women Monks.  On July 19, 1999, Monk Linda became the First Lady Monk in Christian history.

In response to the great truths of the Protestant Reformation, and in common with early Celtic monasticism, we also allow married monks.

  Go back and read the very first paragraph at the top of the page, and you will see a return in a full-circle to the teachings of the Bible.

website bullets and arrows The New Monasticism: New Things Happening Every Day.  In 2008: Over 100 Groups in North America Alone

There are new things happening every day in this New Monasticism.  This new Fourth Wave of Christian Monasticism.  More than we could possibly list here, or that we may even know about 

By 2008: There are estimated to be over 100 groups in North America claiming to be both "Evangelical" and "Monastic" according  to The Boston Globe (Feb. 3, 2008).  Many groups have been founded in the U.K., also.

You, reading this page right now, are a part of it.
________________________

"There are two extreme tendencies in the ministry.  The one is to shut out itself from intercourse with the people.  The monk, the hermit were illustrations of this.  They shut themselves out with men to be more with God.  They failed, of course.  Our being with God is of use only as we expend its precious benefits on men."  

-E. M. Bounds

"The renewal of the Church will come from a new type of monasticism which only has in common with the old an uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount.  It is high time men and women banded together to do this."  

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

"Monasticism was only a success when; as with the Celtic Monks, the Lollards, and Francis of Assisi; seeking God in prayer and in His Word was coupled with a missionary zeal to reach the lost with the Good News of Jesus Christ."   

           -Monk Preston           ___________________________________________

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Note: In the original Greek of I Peter 5:3 (an admonition to Elders): 

"The entire body of Christians are also called "clergy" (xLnpoi), a peculiar people, the heritage of God." (Schaff, Vol II, P.124, History of the Christian Church). 

"Neither as being Lord's over God's heritage ("kleros", the Greek word for "clergy"), but being ensamples to the flock." -I Peter 5:3

The English word "Laity" is derived from the New Testament Greek word "laos," which means "people."  

The  Greek word "laikos," which means "laity," is not found in the New Testament.  

All in the body of Christ, whether "saints, bishops, or deacons" (Phil. l:l), are the "people" ("laos") of God (Schaff, Vol II, P.124, History of the Christian Church).

-Monk Preston ____________