Saint Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356)
Born around 251, today Saint Anthony of Egypt is recognized as the founder of Christian monasticism. In 269, after giving up all his possessions, he withdrew from society in order to pursue a life of severe asceticism and solitude. Surviving on only bread and water, Anthony spent the next fifteen years praying and meditating while living in a cemetery tomb near his native village. Around 285, he moved to a mountaintop, seeking to gain even greater seclusion and isolation. As word spread about Saint Anthony, more and more people became interested in imitating the hermit’s austere lifestyle. Due to his popularity, he left his hermitage in 305 to organize a community of ascetics under a unified rule. Six years later, Anthony left the area to travel to Alexandria where he labored on behalf of the Church, providing moral support to Christian believers who were suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman government. Later, after returning to the desert, he settled on Mount Kolzim (near the Red Sea) with his disciple Macarius where he remained until around 355, when he left to assist Saint Athanasius in defending the Church against the heresy of Arianism. Once this job was finished, he returned, one last time, to Mount Kozim where he remained until the end of his life, providing advice and counsel to his numerous followers. Saint Anthony died in 356, and his feast day is celebrated today throughout the Church on January 17.
Saint Athanasius (920-1003)
A Byzantine monk, Saint Athanasius is best known for being the founder of the renowned monastic site of Mount Athos. Originally from the Greek Empire of Trebizond, Saint Athanasius founded the monastery of Laura on Mount Athos in 961. It was the first settlement of anchorites on the mountain. Although the hermits who already lived there fiercely opposed him, Athanasius quickly gathered the support of Emperors Nicephorus II Phokas, and John I Tzimiskes. Around 972, the emperors named Athanasius the abbot general of Mount Athos, thus putting him in charge of almost sixty monasteries. Today, he is revered as a major figure in Byzantine monasticism (He is also commonly referred to as Athanasius the Athonite). His feast day is July 5.
Saint Basil the Great (c. 329-379)
Recognized as one of the greatest doctors of the Church, Saint Basil the Great is honored as one of the eminent Cappadocian Fathers (along with his brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa). After obtaining an excellent education at Caesarea during his youth, Basil underwent a spiritual conversion, in 357, as he embarked on a journey to the monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Upon his return, he established a monastic community near Annesi. His innovations, and specifically his Rule, later earned him the title “Father of Eastern (or Oriental) Monasticism.” In 360, he left his hermitage to take part in the general church council at Constantinople. In the years that followed, he fought unceasingly against the heresies of the day, especially Arianism. On January 1, 379, the great Saint Basil died. Because he was so beloved, his funeral was attended by not only many Christians but also by Jews and non-Christians alike. Today, the Rule of Saint Basil is still followed by the members of the religious life of the Orthodox Churches. Basil is ranked as one of the greatest saints in the Church because of his spiritual achievements and extensive contributions to Christianity during the fourth century. His feast day is January 2.
Saint Benedict of Aniane (c. 750-821)
Saint Benedict of Aniane is recognized as being one of the leading monastic reformers in France. Serving under both Pepin II the Short and his son Charlemagne, later, in 773, he became a monk at Saint-Seine. In 779, he established his own monastery at Aniane hoping to reform French monasticism. In 817, the Synod of Aachen granted official approval to his systematization of the Benedictine Rule under the title Capitulare Monasticum. In later years, he introduced reforms for all monasteries which subsequently became official policy. His feast day is February 11.
Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 550)
Saint Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the monastery of Monte Cassino, is recognized as the Father of Western Monasticism. Born in Nursia and educated at Rome, Saint Benedict left society around 500 in order to pursue a strict ascetic life, and to escape the wickedness and immortality of the world of the day. Settling inside a cave at Subiaco, it was not long before he attracted a number of followers, from the surrounding area, who sought to imitate his lifestyle. However, because of local problems, in 525, Benedict and a few of his brethren left Subiaco for Monte Cassino. After founding a new monastery there, he devoted his efforts to reforming monastic institutions throughout Christendom as well as composing his famous Rule.
Although Benedict never intended to found a religious order, his holy life and the example he set led to the founding of the Benedictines. His influence was far-reaching, as his Rule has had a major impact on both Christianity and Western monasticism. Saint Benedict died around 550, and was buried in Monte Cassino in the same grave as his sister, Saint Scholastica. His feast day is July 11.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is considered to be one of the greatest monastic figures in the medieval Church. Born in France to a noble family, he entered the monastery of Citeaux at the age of twenty-three and immediately began living a very rigorous and austere life. At Citeaux, Bernard came under the teaching of the exceptional Abbot, (later Saint) Stephen Harding, who, in 1115, asked him to select a site for a new monastery. After choosing Clairvaux, Pope Callistus II granted its charter, and within a short time, the new monastery gained widespread attention since it had become the center of the Cistercian Order. Saint Bernard quickly earned the respect of many throughout Christendom as a brilliant abbot and mystic. In the years that followed, he preached ceaselessly against the heresies of his day and gathered support for the Second Crusade. Canonized in 1174, Pope Pius VIII named him a Doctor of the Church in 1830. His feast day is August 20.
Saint Bruno (c. 1030-1101)
Saint Bruno, along with Saint Robert of Molesmes, was the founder of the Carthusian Order. Born of wealthy parents in Cologne, Germany, Saint Bruno studied at the renowned Cathedral school of Rheims. A brilliant scholar, he served as director of studies at the school for eighteen years, and was later appointed chancellor of his diocese. In the years that followed, Bruno faced many trials because of his many challenges against the corrupt archbishop. Bruno finally returned to Reims, but, despite his popularity, and the expressed wishes of the public that he be named archbishop, he set out with Saint Robert of Molesmes to found a monastic community near Grenoble. Only six years after settling at Chartreuse, Bruno left for Rome, responding to the orders of one of his former students, Pope Urban II. Since the pope needed his counsel, he was not allowed to return to Chartreuse, but was permitted to settle as a hermit at La Torre, Italy, which was near Rome. As a result, La Torre became the second Charterhouse (house of Chartreuse). Saint Bruno remained there until his death in 1101. His feast day is October 6.
Saint John Cassian (365-435)
Saint John Cassian, a monk and ascetic writer, is usually recognized as being the first monk to introduce the Eastern style of monasticism into the West. Although he spent his early days living in Bethlehem, John departed for Egypt where he received eremitical instruction from the Egyptian ascetics in the desert. After a time, in 399, he left for Constantinople, where he studied under the patronage of Saint John Chrysostom. Following his ordination in 405, Saint John Cassian founded the monastery of Saint Victor (at Marseilles, France) and served as its abbot for the remainder of his life. While at Saint Victor (c. 420-429), he wrote two very important works: Institutes and Conferences. The Institutes (full title: Institutes of the Monastic Life) presented the basic rules for the monastic life and was an important source for Saint Benedict in the creation of his own rule; the Conferences (full title: Conferences of the Egyptian Monks or Collations of the Fathers) presented conversations of the foremost figures of Eastern monasticism, the Fathers of the Desert. Although never canonized a saint in the West, today, he is still venerated as a saint in the Eastern Church. His feast day, however, is celebrated in southern France on July 23.
Saint Columbanus (c. 543-615)
Saint Columbanus, also known as Saint Columba, is best known for his promotion of monasticism throughout much of Western Europe. Born and educated in Ireland, he left his country around 590 to establish new monasteries on the European continent. Upon reaching Gaul (France), he founded his first two monasteries in the mountains of Vosges. Despite facing many trials and tribulations along the way, he persevered in his quest. Eventually, he was forced to escape to Italy where he founded the monastery of Bobbio (c. 612). By the end of his life, not only had he helped spread monasticism throughout the continent, but he had also instituted a rule for all monasteries to follow. Even though the rule became known for its rigid authority and austerity, it spread quickly throughout France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, until it was eventually replaced by the less severe Rule of Saint Benedict. His feast day is November 23.
Dom Prosper Gueranger (1805-1875)
Dom Prosper Gueranger was a French Benedictine monk who played an extremely important role in re-establishing the Benedictine Order in France, as well as bringing Gregorian chant back to the Church. Ordained in 1827, he purchased the priory of Solesmes in 1833, and worked unceasingly over the next few years to reopen it as a formal Benedictine monastery. In 1837, Pope Gregory XVI named him the first abbot of Solesmes. As abbot, he became a prominent clergyman in France, working in all of the French dioceses to have the many local variations of the rite replaced by the Roman rite. Among his most famous writings were those about liturgical matters, which included Liturgical Institutions (3 vols., 1840-1851) and The Liturgical Year (9 vols., 1841-1866).
Saint Macarius (c. a. 300- c. a. 390)
Saint Macarius the Egyptian, also known as Saint Macarius the Great, is credited with being one of the most important Desert Fathers who helped foster monasticism in Christianity. Born in Upper Egypt, he retired, at the age of thirty, to the desert of Scete, seeking a life of solitude. As Macarius’s reputation for sanctity, wisdom, and miraculous powers grew, so did the number of his followers. Before long, a colony of hermits was established at the site. It later became a renowned place for monastic pilgrimages. Ordained a priest around 340, Saint Macarius was regarded by writers of his era as being particularly gifted in spiritual leadership and guidance. A strong supporter of Saint Athanasius and very outspoken leader against the heresy of Arianism, Saint Macarius was banished to an island in the Nile in 374. In his later years, he returned to the desert where he spent his final days. His feast day is January 15.
Saint Martin of tours (c. 316-397)
Declared a patron saint of France, Saint Martin of Tours is recognized as being one of the major figures in the evolution and expansion of Western monasticism. The son of a pagan soldier, he was coerced into entering the Roman imperial army at a rather young age. However, after sharing his cloak with a beggar, he was struck with a vision where Christ told him to abandon the military and pursue the spiritual life. Following his request, Saint Martin left the army and, in 360, founded the first monastery in Gaul. Eleven years later, Hilary of Poitiers consecrated him bishop of Tours. Saint Martin never ceased to promote the spread of monasticism, and in time, became known for the numerous conversions that took place within his territory. Revered as a miracle worker during his lifetime, he was one of the earliest non-martyrs to be venerated by the Church. His feast day is November 11.
Saint Odo of Cluny (879-942)
Serving as the second abbot of Cluny, Saint Odo played a major role in the promotion and expansion of the Cluniac monastic reform. Born in Tours, he entered the monastery in 909 as a result of the influence of Saint Berno.
Twenty years later, he became the abbot of Cluny, and eventually played a major role in the reformation of monasteries throughout France, Italy, and the remainder of Christendom. Pope John XI respected Saint Odo greatly, and entrusted further responsibilities of monastic reform to him. His feast day is November 18 (19).
Saint Pachomius (c. a. 290-c. a. 347)
An Egyptian saint, Saint Pachomius is recognized as the founder of Christian cenobitic (or communal) monasticism. Born near Thebes, Egypt, he converted to Christianity in 313 after serving in the Roman legion. Withdrawing into the desert to seek seclusion, Saint Pachomius served as a disciple under the famed hermit Palemon. A short while later, he founded a community of monks and created a rule for them which called for a balanced life consisting of prayer and work: it was the first such rule in the history of monasticism. Since the rule proved to be so extraordinary and adaptable, Pachomius was able to institute it in all of the ten monasteries he founded, which included both men and women. In the centuries that followed, his rules and teachings exerted great influence on monastic giants such as Saint Basil, Saint Benedict, and Saint John Cassian. Saint Pachomius is venerated by both the Eastern and Western Churches, as well as the Coptic Church. His feast day is May 14.
Saint Paul the Hermit (d. c. 347)
Saint Paul the Hermit, also known as Paul of Thebes, is traditionally accepted as the first Christian hermit. According to early sources, Saint Paul is said to have escaped to the desert during the Decian persecutions of 249251. There, he spent the remainder of his life in a cave, passing his days in prayer and penance. The famed Saint Anthony of Egypt visited him on one occasion, seeking instruction about humility. After Paul’s death, Anthony buried him in the cloak that had been provided by the great Saint Athanasius. According to legend, two lions were said to have helped dig his grave. His feast day is January 15.
Saint Robert of Molesmes (1027-1111)
Saint Robert of Molesme is honored as one of the founders of the Cistercian Order. Born of noble parents in northeastern France, he entered the Benedictine Order at the age of fifteen. Named an abbot at a very young age, Saint Robert left for Molesmes, in 1075, to help a group of hermits institute the Benedictine Rule. Although the new monastery initially prospered, the hermits soon lost their pious spirit. Saint Robert subsequently left to begin a new hermitage in a nearby forest. When the bishop learned of this, he ordered Robert to return to Molesmes. However, as his efforts for reform again failed, Robert was granted permission, in 1098, to leave the monastery and retire to the forest of Citeaux. Here, accompanied by six of his monks, he laid the foundations of Cistercian life. However, one year later, responding to the request of the Molesmes monks and a papal legate order, Saint Robert returned to Molesmes. This time, his prayers and leadership succeeded in restoring a true religious spirit to the house. He remained at Molesmes for the remainder of his life. His feast day is April 29.
Saint Romuald (c. 952-1027)
Saint Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese Order, is best known for instituting one of the strictest monastic reforms in the tenth century. Elected superior of his abbey in 996, Saint Romuald immediately sought to reform the undisciplined life of his monks. After three years, meeting with little success, he left to live in various monasteries and preach the spirit of penance and prayer. Eventually, he assembled a few men who were willing to live the monastic rule of Saint Benedict according to its original requirements. As a gesture of gratitude for land that was donated by the Count Maldolus to build a monastery, Romuald named his new order Camaldolese. The premise of the new order was to blend the eremitic life of Eastern monks with the community life of Western monasticism. Much of the monk’s time would be spent in solitude, except when they would join the others for community prayers. Saint Romuald, the founder and abbot, died in his monastery at Val Castro, Italy, in 1027. His feast day is June 19.
Saint Scholastica (c. a. 480-c. a. 543)
Saint Scholastica is the natural sister of the famed Saint Benedict of Nursia. Although little is known about her life, she is said to have consecrated herself to God at an early age, moving into a hermitage near her brother at Monte Cassino. According to early records, Saint Scholastica and Saint Benedict would meet once a year at a house close to Monte Cassino to discuss various aspects of their spiritual lives. Three days after their last meeting, she died. Four years after his sister’s death, Saint Benedict died and was laid to rest in the same grave. Her feast day is February 10.
Saint Stephen Harding (d. 1134)
Saint Stephen Harding is considered to be one of the most important English monastic reformers, and is often called the “second founder” of the Cistercians. Born in England, he left his country to study in Paris and Rome.
After joining the monastery of Molesmes, he was sent to become a monk at Citeaux. Elected abbot in 1109, Stephen insisted that the community continue its strict observance of the rule despite its declining numbers. In 1112, when all seemed hopeless, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux arrived at Citeaux with thirty monks. This led to a new spirit within the monastery, as the abbey again began to prosper. As a result of an increasing number of monks, new monasteries had to be established. By the time of Saint Stephen’s death in 1134, thirteen new houses had been founded under Citeaux. In 1119, Pope Callistus II approved the Charter of Love (the order’s constitution), which stipulated the rules covering the government of the monasteries tied to Citeaux. His feast day is April 17.