For the past eighteen centuries, in various forms, monasticism has existed within the Catholic Church. It is a lifestyle where an individual withdraws from society in order to devote oneself entirely to God through prayer, penance, solitude, and self-denial. Throughout the history of the Church, this devotion has adopted two forms: the anchoritic style, whereby the monk lives by himself or herself as a hermit; and the cenobitic, where the monks live in community. Today, monasticism remains one of the oldest and most treasured traditions of the Church. The faith has profited enormously, both spiritually and intellectually, from this tradition.
Egyptian roots (3rd Century - 5th Century)
Although monasticism can be found in other religions throughout history, the origins of Christian monasticism date back to the second half of the third century in Egypt (c. 270). Under the influence of both Clement of Alexandria and Origen, a number of Christians withdrew from society in order to dedicate themselves completely to God and the pursuit of holiness and perfection. Detaching themselves completely from all worldly possessions and relationships, they would spend their days praying, fasting, laboring, studying Scriptures, and performing penitential exercises in order to cleanse both their souls and bodies.
Among these first anchorites, the most famous is Saint Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356). One of the first to adopt this lifestyle, he attracted a great number of followers through his personal example of living and praying. Today, he is regarded as the Father of Monasticism.
Although the anchorite life blossomed in the Egyptian desert, another form of monasticism soon challenged it. This latter form of monasticism, called cenobitism, would eventually play such a major role that it would create the basis for the formal monastic orders founded in later years. This type of monasticism consisted of a group of like-minded men or women coming together to reside in a community under the authority of an abbot or abbess. Saint Pachomius (d. 346), who organized the first monastic communities in upper Egypt, was primarily responsible for the formulation of the cenobitic lifestyle.
Expansion across Europe (6th Century - 9th Century)
Before long, the monastic idea swiftly swept across Christian lands as many people chose to pursue this path to holiness. Saint Basil the Great, himself, also gave the monastic lifestyle a boost by contributing an extensive theological foundation to it. Furthermore, he fostered the idea that communities such as these should be concerned not only with labor but also with learning. This new way of thinking helped heighten the appeal of monasticism. In time, monasteries soon became important contributors to the intellectual life of the Church.
Although monastic life in the East thrived from earlier on, it took much longer to develop in the West. Loose organizational structures were partly to blame, as many of the monasteries in the West followed the rules of their own individual abbots, thus providing for no uniformity.
However there was one Italian monk who helped put an end to this problem—Saint Benedict of Nursia (d. c. 480-550). As the leader of his own monastery, he wrote and instituted a very useful, yet flexible rule that captured both the guiding principles of earlier monastic customs as well as addressing the practical day-to-day needs of his monks. The excellence of his rule (Rule of Saint Benedict) was such that it spread across the West, facilitating the rise of the Benedictine Order as a major contributor to the civilization of Europe. Also, the impact of his rule was so great that Saint Benedict would earn the title “The Father of Western Monasticism.”
Meanwhile, as monasticism continued to spread to other countries, Ireland soon emerged as one of the truly great centers for monastic life since the Irish monks proved to be so numerous and zealous in their approach to the faith, setting out to convert other lands, including Scotland, parts of Germany, Switzerland, and northern Gaul. In fact, many monastic missionaries, not only from Ireland but also from England and modern- day France, set out to bring the faith to Poland, Hungary, Scandinavia, and elsewhere.
During the Carolingian era, the development of the monastic culture steadily continued. Despite the opposition of Saint Benedict of Aniane (d. 821), the Benedictine houses continued to place heavy emphasis upon learning and culture, including the arts (such as manuscript illumination). Throughout the Carolingian Renaissance, many monasteries became important cultural hubs for both education and economic involvement. As a result of their significant contributions to both society and the Church, monasteries gradually acquired wealth, influence, and prestige, while their abbots received royal favors and political rights.
Reform and peak monasticism (10th century - 13th century)
In 910, a much-needed reform of the monastic life began with the founding of Cluny. This event marked the beginning of what was later considered to be the peak of the development of monasticism in the West, lasting from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. With its call to greater prayer (choir office) and unity among the houses, the Cluniac Reform quickly found widespread appeal. Since many monasteries and abbeys wished to share in the spiritual vigor of Cluny, the abbey soon found itself extending its jurisdiction over more than one thousand houses. Even the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, which served to correct moral abuses within the Church, drew much of its inspiration from Cluny.
During this time, monasteries continued to thrive as rich cultural places. Many monks became well-known historians, chroniclers, advisors, theologians, artisans, and architects. While many agreed that the monasteries played a very positive role within society because of their secular contributions, a significant number of monks began clamoring for a return to the religious and spiritual simplicity of earlier times. As a result, new, stricter orders were born including the Carthusians, Camaldolese, Vallambrosians, and Cistercians.
Decline (14th century - 18th century)
From the fourteenth century on, Western monasticism declined, both in membership and appeal. Although there were many causes, some of the decline was due, in part, to the widespread relaxation of rules and poor leadership exhibited by the abbots. However, one major cause of the decline could also be attributed to the rise of the mendicant orders, which included the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites. Many potential monks joined these new religious orders of the Church. Although a slight revival of the Benedictine Order took place in the late fourteenth century, it was quickly smothered with the onslaught of the Protestant Reformation.
In many of the lands where the Reformation took root, monasteries were suppressed, ransacked, and looted. Monks were either expelled or executed, while cultural and intellectual treasures were stolen, burned, or destroyed. The worst destruction occurred in Scandinavia and England, where King Henry VIII (1509-1547) plundered and dissolved the communities. Martin Luther, himself an Augustinian monk, added to the chaos through his severe attacks on monasteries in his writing.
As Western monasticism became a quickly sinking ship, a beacon of light eventually emerged when the Catholic Church responded with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and its own Reformation. Strong decrees of reform, centralization, and revitalization helped not only to save monasticism from obliteration, but to provide it with new energy, vitality, and direction. Among the fruits of this Reformation were the creation of two new monastic congregations: the Maurists (founded in 1621) and the Trappists (founded in 1662).
Although the monasteries would eventually experience a sense of calm, they soon had to once again endure intense struggles as the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815) almost wiped them off the face of Europe. Because of their destruction, monastic houses throughout France, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere virtually vanished overnight.
Rebirth (19th century to the present day)
Fortunately, in the nineteenth century, monasticism began to witness a rebirth as prominent leaders such as Dom Prosper Gueranger (Solesmes, France) oversaw the creation of new houses in France, Belgium, England, America, and Australia. In the nineteenth century, European monastic communities again began to blossom, seeking to open new communities around the world.
Today, monastic orders continue to play a vital role both in the world and the Church. They not only make a great contribution to the intellectual life of society and the Catholic faith, more importantly, they continue to pray unceasingly on behalf of all humankind.