by Panayiotis Christou
During the fourth century A.D. there appeared within the Church a strong movement of withdrawal from organized society to the desert, a movement which grew ever larger during the subsequent period. To interpret the sudden appearance of this movement historians have put forward various hypotheses, the most favoured of which are two. According to the first, the monastic life was a product of eastern religions, in which from earlier times asceticism was practiced, either in total solitude or in a monastery. According to the second, the monastic life provided a way out when a reaction was provoked by the closer contact of Christianity with the world, and the inevitable decline of moral standards.
The first hypothesis is without foundation, because it has not been possible historically to discover a link between oriental asceticism and the Christian monastic life. Moreover, if Christianity had been influenced in this way, the influence should have come from the ascetic groups of the Essene sect, whose environment was that in which Christianity was born; yet the monastic life appeared well after the disappearance of the Essence communities. This, of course, does not mean that in its later stages monasticism did not have certain features in common with the Essence and Neo-Pythagorean communities. The second hypothesis is likewise unacceptable, because there were numerous hermits living in the open country even before the recognition of Christianity by Constantine the Great.
Monasticism is a way of life which appeared within the Church and developed organically by pushing the moral principles of Christianity to their limits. Indeed, although Christianity did not enter the world either as a pessimistic philosophy or as a society dissolving force, nevertheless it was governed by principles which separated in the society of that time. It turned its whole attention to the center of life and disregarded the periphery. One thing has supreme value for man: the soul, beside which the whole world is insignificant. “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? (Matthew XVI, 26). The affairs of this world impede the movements of the soul, and the goods of this world accumulate around it, choking it and preventing it from developing into an integrated personality. A hard struggle therefore awaits man if he is to liberate himself from his lower self, which is attached to worldly things, and develop his higher, ideal self, which will render him capable of standing boldly before God. In this struggle, as Jesus Christ declared, man will have to submit himself and his activities to rigorous examination. He must divorce himself from many earthly goods in order to acquire the heavenly treasure, and submit to the trial of suffering in order to purify his will.
On the basis of these principles the first Christians ordered their lives on an exceptionally high moral plane; but some of them wanted to advance to greater austerity, depriving themselves of more goods and imposing upon themselves greater self-restraint, fasting, and prayer. For the Christian marriage is honorable, a great sacrament, but it is an institution of this world, while in the beyond men will live like angels. For this reason, those who could avoided it; some sought to circumvent it by replacing it with a kind of spiritual marriage, in which man and woman lived together in purity (I Corinthians vii, 36 ff.). Many widows avoided marriage, and virgins entirely refused to marry. These women organized themselves into special societies, firstly for their own protection, and secondly for the channeling of their activity into social work. We have here the first form of monastic life which developed within the framework of organized Christian community.