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MonkThe Monks

Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been believers and communities of believers whose devotion to God and pursuit of holy living have led them to make radical changes in their life-style.

Such is true of the monks.

One of Christianity's earliest monks lived in a cave in the deserts of Egypt, about AD 251-356. Antony went there as a protest against the extravagances of fashionable Christianity. He, and those who later followed him, sought to copy the example set by Jesus, as He struggled with the temptations of Monk AntonySatan in the desert.

Some of these early monks believed that their lives were still not harsh enough, and decided to live on the tops of pillars. The most famous of these was Simeon Stylites, who spent the last 20 years of his life on top of such a pillar, as crowds of curious onlookers gathered to stare at the spectacle.


It was when the desert hermits began to organize a following that a new pattern of religious institution emerged. Just beneath Antony's cave stands a monastery, now 15 centuries old. A group of monks agreed to live there under a common rule, while maintaining a vow of solitariness.

Pachomius began a different sort of monasticism, building a monastery on the banks of the Nile River in the 4th century. Monks lived a communal existence, cultivating holiness without the harshness of the desert.





Simeon StylitesEventually, such men as Jerome, Basil, and Martin of Tours refined the ideals of monastic life, with a basic call to personal holiness and withdrawal from the secular world.

Monasteries began to pop up all around the Mediterranean, and took a firm hold in the Western Church.

Of higher import was Benedict of Nursia who, in the 6th century, founded the Benedictine Order at Monte Cassino, in central Italy. With its focus on service in holiness to God rather than merely on a harsh lifestyle. In the Benedictine Order, the abbot was spiritual father of the community, and when a monk was accepted into the order, he had to remain there for the rest of his life, his days divided between labor, prayer, meals, and sleep.

In time, monastic practice fell into disrepute, and monks became known for depravity, immorality, and for their involvement in matters of state.


Countless reform movements sought to stem the decay. One center of reform was the Abbey of Cluny, in central France. A succession of abbots led their community into greater levels of devotion, and to a more disciplined worship. The model that was established in Cluny spread to other monasteries, bringing new vitality to the monastic movement.

The 12th century brought more reforms, along with new monastic orders. The Carthusians, in AD 1084, put a new emphasis on withdrawal. The Cistercians, established in 1098, called monks to a life of simplicity built up around a life of agriculture and worship.

Click for a larger view of the St. George Monastery

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