The concept of monasticism is ancient and is found in many religions and philosophies. In the centuries immediately before Christ, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all developed alternative styles of life which involved renouncing the world in some ways, in order to seek liberation or purification or union with God, sometimes as a solitary ascetic, sometimes in community.
Early Christian monasticism drew its inspiration from the examples of the Prophet Elijah and John the Baptist, who both lived alone in the desert, and above all from the story of Jesus’ time in solitary struggle with Satan in the desert, before his public ministry. Beginning with the Exodus and all through the Old Testament times, the desert was regarded as a place of spiritual renewal and a return to God. Although there were ascetics, especially women ascetics, among the first generations of Christians, they generally lived in the towns and cities.
St. Anthony the Great (ca. 251-356) was the first well-known Christian to withdraw to the desert. According to the Life of Anthony written by St Athanasius in the mid fourth century, Anthony retreated to the wastelands of Egypt to lead an intensely ascetic life with the sole purpose of pursuing God in solitary prayer. He remained alone until his holiness and evident wholesomeness attracted a growing circle of followers. So deep was his influence that he is considered the father, not only of the movement of Desert Fathers and Mothers of fourth – fifth century Egypt, but also the father of the entire Christian monastic family.
While the earliest Desert Fathers lived as hermits, they were rarely completely isolated, but often lived in proximity to one another, and soon loose-knit communities began to form in such places as the Desert of Nitria and the Desert of Skete. The progression from hermit (“anchorite”) to monk (“cenobite”) living in community under one abbot, came quickly, when in 346 St Pachomius established in Egypt the first cenobitic Christian monastery.
The Eastern monastic teachings were brought to the western church by Saint John Cassian (ca. 360 – ca. 435). As a young adult, he and his friend Germanus entered a monastery in Palestine but then journeyed to Egypt to visit the eremitic groups in Nitria. Many years later, Cassian founded a monastery of monks and probably also one of nuns near Marseilles, and partly to counter what he felt were the abuses he found in Western monasticism, he wrote two long works, the Institutes and Conferences. In these books he not only transmitted his Egyptian experience (they are perhaps the oldest written record of the thought of the Desert Fathers), but he also gave Christian monasticism a profound evangelical and theological basis.
Cassian’s influence was enormous and lasted for centuries – even the smallest monastic library in Europe’s Dark Ages would have its copy of Cassian. Furthermore, St. Benedict incorporated Cassian’s thought into his monastic Rule, and recommended that his monks read Cassian’s works. Since the Rule of St Benedict is still used by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monastics, the thought of John Cassian, and the desert tradition behind him, still guides the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Catholic Church.
The fear of the Lord is our cross. Just as someone who is crucified no longer has the power of moving or turning his limbs in any direction as he pleases, so we also ought to fasten our wishes and desires, not in accordance with what is pleasant and delightful to us now, but in accordance with the law of the Lord, where it hems us in. Being fastened to the wood of the cross means: no longer considering things present; not thinking about one’s preferences; not being disturbed by anxiety and care for the future; not being aroused by any desire to possess, nor inflamed by any pride or strife or rivalry; not grieving at present injuries, and not calling past injuries to mind; and while still breathing and in the present body, considering oneself dead to all earthly things, and sending the thoughts of one’s heart on ahead to that place where, one does not doubt, one will soon arrive…
John Cassian, Institutes, Book IV ch.35