The concept of monasticism can be viewed from various angles. Here it is seen from the Christian viewpoint. But it is worth mentioning that monasticism is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon. All religions know of it, as do some philosophical positions. All this tells sufficiently of the greatness of the human spirit that surmounts the reality of this world and in consequence finds in it no repose. It also tells of its innermost depths, which search for their source and the source of everything that exists, which is God. Accordingly, monasticism provides a clear testimony to the unquenchable human need for God, of its power and greatness. The strength inheres in the abandonment of everything it possesses, even personal plans for self-realisation, and the greatness in the total and unreserved openness and flexibility to the new that it brings and creates the relationship with the Sacred, in this case with Jesus Christ.
What connects all forms of monastic living is a certain contact with and revelation of the divine in the mundane. Enchantment with it gives birth to a desire for as great as possible a closeness and a deeper relationship with it. What above all and primarily distinguishes Christian monasticism from other forms of monastic living is the imitation of Jesus Christ, God and man. He is the model and the criterion to which the monk refers and measures him or herself and life. Christocentricity, then, is its fundamental characteristic.
The history of Christian monasticism
The beginnings of Christian monasticism lay in the East. Prompted by diverse causes, this form of living appeared in the third century in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. In each of these areas it took on and developed the features that make it distinctive.
In Egypt, in the Egyptian desert, to be precise, among the first of the important hermits concerning whom we have reliable information it is St Anthony the Anchorite that stands out. With his life and work he laid the foundation for the monastic life, and is considered the father of monks.
At the beginning of the fourth century, a little later, then, but in the same clime appeared Pachomius the Great, who provided a new form of monastic living. He wrote for monks a “Rule” about the formation and organisation of small monastic communities. Unlike the original isolated, eremitic or anchoretic form of monastic living, the novelty here lay in coenobitic monasticism, in which the communal living of monks was guided by a superior.
Syria and Palestine were also important monastic centres, with their own specific features, and in which various forms of monasticism were developed, most often the eremtic, sometimes of a very unusual and austere type.
Between the fourth and fifth centuries in Asia Minor, monastic communities were formed by Basil. He sought inspiration in Egyptian monasticism, whose life he had observed and knew. The emphasis was on communal life, which he was convinced was the most appropriate for the fullest achievement of a Christian life. For this life to be orderly and harmonious, Basil too wrote his Rule for all the monks he called brothers.
In the West, a huge impetus was given to monasticism, and a great deal else in the Latin Church, by St Augustine. Deeply persuaded of the value and benefit of communal life, he advocated fervently for it and with his life and writings propagated the coenobitic form of monasticism. He also wrote a Rule, one that had a huge influence on the Latin form of coenobitic monasticism. At the end of the fourth century, monasteries were founded and monastic communities formed throughout Western Europe. Some of the most influential monks and founders of these communities were St Martin of Poitiers, St Honoratus of Lérins, St Caesarius of Arles, St John Cassian of Dobruja in today’s Romania and many others, up to and including St Benedict.
The goals of monastic life
The driver and underpinning of monastic life is the desire for oneness with God. Along this road, which lasts all life long, the objective appears alternately in two forms. At times it is very close and achievable, indeed, is achieved, at others it is very distant, and even unachievable. Contained within this tension is the whole of the dynamic of monastic life. It enables men and women monks a lasting newness every day and hour, although on the whole in the same or very similar circumstances. The relationship with God is a very rich one. It includes and bears within itself two other relations. The relationship with the self, and the relationship with others. These are indivisible. Everything that occurs in the relationship with God, at the basic level, is reflected at other levels. In the positive or negative sense. These relationships are intertwined and interfused. They are a whole. Any kind of exclusiveness or neglect of some one of them means the monastic life cannot be led to its plenitude or to the achievement of its aim and purpose.
The term monk derives from the Greek μόνος – alone, one, complete. From the meaning of the word, the main features of monastic living can be derived, and also its purpose. It assumes, then, a certain separation and isolation, with the purpose of the achievement of completeness. Here above all it is the internal harmony of the person that is assumed.
The preconditions and means for both the implementation and the accomplishment of the monastic life are openness and sincerity to the self itself and to others, permanent awareness and collaboration with the voice of conscience, cleansing memory and feeling in the light of the encounter with Christ, to make oneself sensitive and receptive to new influences. The Word Divine, the sacraments, the counsel of brothers and sisters, the guidance of abbot or abbess, of the spiritual father. The creation of a new space for a new form of thinking and living (spiritual reading) and many other means – recommended, tried and tested and handed down in the millennial monastic tradition.