Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Has monasticism played a significant role in Christianity?

Since about the third century, small numbers of Christian men and women have sought ways of dedicating themselves entirely to an intensified spiritual quest. At first that quest typically took the form of a highly ascetic withdrawal from society. One of the earliest, and eventually most influential, of these hermits was St. Antony of Egypt (c. 250-350). Early in the fourth century he decided to organize a community of fellow hermits. Later monastic founders also developed rules of common life. Pachomius (c. 290-346), also of Egypt, is known as the true founder of communal or cenobitic monasticism. During his lifetime, there were nine male and two female monasteries. Other important developments were the work of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-550), whose Rule became the basis of the worldwide order called the Benedictines, now including a number of women’s orders as well as monks. Benedict himself was not an ordained priest, although nowadays the majority of Benedictine monks study for the priesthood.

Other important monastic orders have been founded since, especially in medieval times. Major orders are the Franciscans, founded by Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), with various sub-branches, and the Dominicans, founded by Dominic (1170-1221). They are known as “mendicant” orders, since they were historically dependent on alms for monetary support. The Church of England also still sponsors several small monastic orders, such as the Monks of St. John the Divine, and distinctive monastic communities, such as the Order of St. Basil the Great, continue to make important contributions to several of the Eastern churches.


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