THIS TIME OF FREEDOM in the Church gave rise to one vital problem. Without the suffering of persecution and martyrdom as a means to Christian perfection, many of the Christians began to conform to this world. In their freedom and wealth they began to forget that the Christian life is about leading the soul from this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a path of suffering in this life in order to obtain peace in the next. Consequently, men and women seeking spiritual perfection instead of the pleasures of this world, fled into the deserts and wildernesses of Palestine and Egypt. Like the walls of the catacombs, the wide expanses of the desert isolated them from the influence of the world and provided the opportunity for a more God-centered life. Through a life of prayer, fasting, self-denial, chastity and vigilance these ascetics became voluntary lifelong martyrs and were known as monks and nuns.
Although it was in the fourth century that monasticism developed, its origin is in the Old Testament times when God revealed to Moses the vow of the Nazarite—a vow of consecrating one’s life to God (Numbers 6:2). Then from Elijah to John the Baptist, the prophets set examples of this vow. Later this was perfected in the life of Christ. After having witnessed Christ’s example, the Apostle Mark, who established the Church in Egypt, started the first ascetic communities which continued this way of life. These communities had as their models the prophets of the Old Testament, and operated on the principles set forth in Acts 4:32. They came to be known as monasteries, and their inhabitants began to be called monks. The term “monk” was derived from the Greek word monos, which means single or alone—one who chooses to be alone with God. From these communities arose the great monastic saints of fourth century Egypt.
One of the earliest records of a monk is the life of St. Anthony the Great (t356). When he was young his rich parents suddenly died and left all their wealth to him. Saddened by their death, he went one day into the church and heard the priest read from the Scriptures these words: If thou wilt he perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven: and come and follow Me (Matthew 19:21).
Hearing this his heart began to burn for Christ. He then went home, gave away all his inheritance to the poor and went off into the Egyptian desert to be alone with God. He then went home, gave away all his inheritance to the poor and went off into the Egyptian desert to be alone with God. He lived there until he was over a hundred years old—praying, fasting and reading the Holy Scriptures. Hearing of his way of life, thousands of others followed his example, and monasticism began to spread far and wide. After Sr. Anthony died, the bishop of Alexandria, Sr. Athanasius the Great, who was close to him, recorded his life for the inspiration of others. This was the same Athanasius who was responsible for choosing the books of the New Testament that we use today. Athanasius brought this life of a saint throughout the world and changed the face of history with the story of St. Anthony, the uneducated monk who lived in a cave.
This way of life called monasticism quickly spread throughout the world, preserving the same genuine spirit of the early Church. Entire cities and societies found their beginnings in the simple poverty of these monks. First a monk would settle in some uninhabited place, then people would settle nearby, and in time villages would grow. In this way, monasticism spread throughout Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, Ireland, France, Romania, Serbia, Russia and to the ends of the world.