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Early in second and third century Christian history, violence against Christians by the Roman Empire, struggles against pagan ideology, practices that were corrupting the Church, and certain lax spiritual discipline had crept into many areas of the Christian faith. As some leaders attempted to control the faith by growing their personal power and influence on the political front, others sought escape from the spiritual darkness they perceived among the world to retain their own spiritual purity.
Many men fled life in mainstream culture in an effort to purify their hearts and minds by practicing asceticism, or a self-denying way of life for Christ's purpose as stated in Matthew 19:21 when He stated, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." (NASB) They frequently secluded themselves in caves on the outskirts of villages and cities to find relief in their heart level relationship with God. Their behavior was marked by their willingness to put all aside everything they had in order to escape the environment in which they lived while they honored God through their spiritual disciplines.
"Wherefore there is no need to set much value on these things, nor for the sake of them to practise a life of discipline and labour; but that living well we may please God." - Anthony of the Desert
Anthony of Thebes or Anthony of the Desert (about 250-355 A.D.), as described by writer Athanasius of Alexandria (a student' of Anthony), is considered by scholars as being a prime figure in the monastic movement in the early Christian Church. He fled Egyptian society around the age of twenty and spent the next eighty six years of his life in first a cave , a tomb and then in an abandoned Roman Fort deep in the roughest terrain of the Western Egyptian desert wilderness.
Anthony found both solace and spiritual battles in the extended periods of prayer, fasting and rigorous spiritual disciplines. He was best known for His epic battles with satanic forces and demons which tormented him throughout his life. Occasional visits from Christian brothers who brought small amounts of food allowed them to hear a saying or short teaching from him during their stay. These sayings and teachings frequently made their way back to mainstream culture.
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Anthony began to realize that the more and more frequent visits from those outside were interfering with his time of worship to God, so he moved to an oasis in the Eastern Desert of Egypt where he completed his days on earth.
While Anthony himself was not the creator of monasticism, a large community grew around him in following his example. Others took to the desert to the point where "there were so many hermits in the deserts that the caves were all taken". Those who followed his lifestyle found that they needed others around them in order to persevere through the difficult conditions of the desert.
Shortly after the time of his death in the middle 4th century, a formal monastery was constructed on the burial site of Anthony. This monastery is the oldest Eastern Christian monastery in the world. His influence led to many other traditions founding communities across the East which brought monks into life together for the purpose of working, studying and worshiping.
When religious persecution began to be quieted and the time of martyrdom ended, the monastic movement became popular as an example of self-denial and stringent discipline. Asceticism somewhat replaced, in my opinion, the thought of "I will die for Christ", with the thought of "I will die to myself, for Christ".
There were many notable monks who entered a life of asceticism who followed the example of Anthony later in the 4th and 5th centuries in many Western areas including among them Athanasius of Alexandria (writer of much of the teaching of Anthony), John Chrysostom, John Cassian, and Augustine of Hippo (all of whom are and were known for their writings which are still revered today within the Catholic church as well as other religious traditions).
Through the next years, Western monasticism began to grow through the example of Benedict of Nursia. Perhaps the best known Western monk, he segregated himself from society in about 500 A.D., and then founded his first of twelve monasteries in 529 A.D. near Rome , some of these twelve including some of the first schools for children . Benedict and Benedictine practice shaped and formed the rules, practices and codes of monastic life, known as the "Rule of St. Benedict", which are still in active practice today in the Benedictine monastery tradition.
Frequently, almost sole credit is given to Benedict for the founding of monastic life. While he indeed brought much in the way of format and institutional structure; it would be a shame to not give ample credit to the "Desert Fathers", such as Anthony of Thebes and the many unnamed Christians of his time, who set an example of monastic life that would be followed to this day.
Wikipedia, Monasticism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monasticism
Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Volume IV of NICENE AND POST-NICENE FATHERS, Series II, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, editors. P.206.
Baker and Landers, A Summary of Christian History(Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2005), p.70
Athanasius: Select Works and Letters,pp196-209
Summary of Christian History,p.70
Wikipedia, Anthony the Great, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_the_Great
Summary of Christian History, p.88
Wikipedia, Benedict of Nursia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Benedict_of_Nursia