Christian monasteries have a long history. In fact, they are almost as old as the Church itself.
During its first few centuries, the Church faced many problems. Prejudice from without led to persecution. And for decades the Church was plagued by internal problems, including a lack of unity, false teachings and disputes over doctrine.
By the end of the second century, many of these were under control, but then another problem arose. As the Church grew, it lost some of its original character. In particular, the sense of community began to fade away.
Suddenly, the memory of the early Church's fellowship became very appealing. And many felt a need to return to a time when they were still a small, close-knit group.
That's when the monastic movement arose. It allowed the faithful to join tiny groups that stayed at arm's length from the rest of society and thus revived a little of the spirit of those first Christians.
This wasn't a new idea. For centuries, devout individuals had set themselves apart as an act of devotion.
Christian hermits first appeared in Egypt and Syria. There, it was not unusual for people to go to the desert for isolation. Many used the desert's peace and quiet to attune themselves with God, and through them the Church acquired its first ascetics.
A key figure was St. Anthony, a Copt who inherited his family's estate at 20, gave it away, placed his sister in a convent and wandered into the desert at the beginning of the fourth century. As the story goes, he stayed for more than 50 years and then came out to instruct others in hermitical living. Although he did not personally found monasteries, he did teach others who went on to start ascetic communities.
The first was created around A.D. 320 by the retired soldier and convert Pachomius. He was a hermit for several years and may have missed the order and camaraderie of military life, because he organized his own community near the Egyptian town of Tabenna.
While ascetic communities were usually a scattering of shelters erected by individual hermits, St. Pachomius gathered his into an enclosure. Thus, the first true monastery was born.
Still, such settlements were far from perfect. Many were ill-organized and parasitic. They sponged off society and contributed little or nothing in return. Besides, early ascetics were not always saintly. Some were misfits who lived off the charity of others and repaid their kindness with erratic and even offensive behavior.
As a military man, Pachomius avoided these problems by imposing order and discipline. He made newcomers demonstrate their earnestness before entering the community.
They had to serve a probationary period, and once accepted as members of the community, life didn't get any easier. Everyone was assigned tasks - weaving mats, doing carpentry, making shoes. And in proper military fashion, they had to report to the abbot with a weekly account of their work.
Pachomius made his group self-supporting by selling woven mats and produce. Most importantly, he established a rule of conduct for members.
This rule became nothing less than the linchpin of the monastic movement. It established a sense of order and strengthened the monks' relationship with God. More than just a set of regulations, the rule actually defined a monastery and embodied its reason for existing.
Pachomius was in many ways the father of the monastic movement. But, ironically, it was the old hermit, St. Anthony, who inspired its development in the West.
Anthony did not become a myth, as most of his contemporaries had. An account of his life reached Europe in the middle of the fourth century, and people there were inspired by the idea of Christian asceticism.
Monasteries sprang up across the continent. They began as modest efforts by a few committed individuals but found enough supporters to survive and even flourish.
What started as an individual expression of faith thus became a movement. The movement took hold and spread.
Through it, the Church preserved a spark of its early spirit. And from that small beginning, the great monasteries of Europeevolved.
C. Bruce Hunter writes from North Carolina.