The word monk comes from the Greek “monos”, meaning solitary and alone. Almost since the beginning of Christianity’s history, some of its followers have felt called to a life of solitude. For almost two thousand years, men and women have withdrawn themselves from society to focus upon their faith: some retreated completely to isolation in the desert; others joined with brothers and sisters behind closed doors to worship God; some restricted their lifestyle but remained within secular society in order to serve. David Knowles describes monasticism as:
“a vocation for those who wish to dedicate themselves to a deeper understanding and more thorough observance of the commands and counsels of Christ than is demanded by the simple profession of Christian faith”.
Whilst the practices of their vocation have evolved differently, they are united by their devotion to God and their desire to follow him. But can this life of asceticism and simplicity still be relevant in the materialist, technological twenty-first century? Monks and Nuns around the world certainly think so. And a new type of monasticism is emerging, without habits or abbeys but with the same heart to love like the Jesus of the gospels, in a society that has forgotten how.
Monasticism first arose as a response to the imperial adoption of Christianity. Roman Emperor Constantine, after a vision of the cross and a voice telling him he would win his battle (which he did), passed the Edict of Milan (in 313 AD) granting tolerance of all religions within the empire, particularly Christianity. Emperor Theodosius actually made it illegal not to be a Christian in 346 AD. The church, which had existed in hiding and endured fierce persecution, became the persecutor – killing pagans and conquering vast amounts of land. Having exchanged loving their enemies for burning them at the stake; forgone providing for the poor in order to erect lavish basilicas; abandoned servant leadership to become officials who flaunted their authority, many followers thought it necessary to return to the original values of “the Way”.
In order to do this, they escaped to the desert, where they could reconsider the practices they had adopted. Now known to many as the desert fathers, in the late 3rd century, these (often wealthy) men and women abandoned everything to live a life of ascetic solitude.
The first monk, about whom we know any detail, is St. Antony. Born in Coma in Ancient Egypt, he inherited his wealthy parents’ estate but, troubled by the polarity of the economy in his city, when he heard Jesus command to “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), he did just that. He then went into the desert. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, visited Antony and recorded a “Life of Antony”. He says that Antony spent some time with local hermits (religious men who had removed themselves from society), learning their disciplines of prayer and fasting, gaining a reputation, even amongst them, for his holiness. Antony’s letters taught about the theology behind his life: Marilyn Dunn says that
“For Antony, the life of an ascetic or monachos was a constant struggle for self-knowledge, self-purification and through these, the return of the soul to unity with God”.
Antony would spend his time praying and fasting, reading and contemplating, in his self-imposed desert isolation. However, such a strict life style, so contrary to his previous one, led him to experience great temptation. He would dream about banquets and women and Athanasius records that he had an encounter with the devil. He persevered though, and lived alone in the desert for twenty years.
However, people caught on to his dream, longing to share his intimacy with God, and ventured into the desert to find God for themselves. In fact, so many Egyptians were converted through Antony and willing to abandon their comfortable lives that “the desert was made a city by the monks, who left their own people and registered themselves for the citizenship in the heavens”.
 Knowles, David, Christian Monasticism, World University Library 1969 p.9
 Dunn, Marilyn, The Emergence of Monasticism, Blackwell Publishing 2003 p.4