Before the reign of Constantine, when Christianity was an illegal and sometimes persecuted religion, the Christian elite were divided into two groups—one, Confessors, who openly preached with the belief of being martyred, that is, killed for their devotion (this, actually, was hard to do if you wished to die by the state since, as Roman legal records show, few Christians were executed by the state for only the offense of being non-Pagan due to the lack of such violence in pagan doctrine), and two, the martyred, who were the ones actually killed. In fact, Roman authorities would often plead and compromise with Christian confessors to attempt and dissuade them from their chosen path.
Of course, once Christianity became the dominant religion, becoming-Martyr was nearly impossible. During Constantine’s reign many became Christian for opportunistic reasons and so for the truly faithful it was difficult to find modes of expression which resonated with their devotion. Antony, an Egyptian, would answer the call of these Christians by an accidental establishment of a “monetary” of extreme asceticism. (Antony, of course, never built any structures and wished to live as a hermit after his failed attempt at martyrdom in Alexandria, but people kept travelling to his position to live near him and he eventually reconciled himself to living near others.)
In this desert, Antony and his followers lived in extreme conditions: they would eat barely anything, stay up at night and keep long vigils in the extreme weather of the sands, they would get little sleep and wholly refrain from sexual activities. Supposedly, this sort of lifestyle gives Antony the ability to confront Satan in the desert, thus giving him an elevated spiritual level.
Despite all of this, however, Antony is not the founding father of monasticism; this honor would fall to Pocomeous, another Egyptian, who would go on to engage in collective prayer activities followed by individual prayer activities. Pocomeous considered this kind of collective prayer as a boot-camp or training ground for the ultimate challenge of following Antony in the desert and living by yourself. Many who followed this lifestyle, however, considered such communal living to be an end in and of itself during the fourth century.
During this period we see the beginning of Monasticism. Specifically, the building of individual houses for all of the monks to live in together, the term ‘Abbot’ being applied to the head of the monetary, and, of course, the emergence of written guidelines which the monks are supposed to follow. It is important to note, however, that during this period many forms of Christian experimentation were devised in an effort to find that niche which was right for certain people.
To illustrate some of these other bouts of experimentation, the Grazer Movement were holy men who lived by only eating grass and shoots, sometimes going as far as to chain themselves up like barn-yard animals, all in an attempt to rid themselves of their humanity to get closer to God; there was the Holy Fool movement (popular in the fifth and sixth centuries, esp. in Syria) who tried to shock their contemporaries with absurd actions. One such figure-head for this movement was Simian the Fool who would parade into the women’s bath house and disrobe. The purpose of this movement was to rid yourself of reason and rely wholly on God to make the proper choices for your life. Then there is the Stylite movement; Stylites were people who lived atop tall poles (popular in fifth and sixth century Syria; founder: Simian the Stylite). Though all of these movements were popular at one time or another, they still remained fringe movements and would never catch on outside of Egypt and Syria in the same way that Monasticism caught on.
The main force which spreads Monasticism into the Western Roman Empire is a book by the title of The Life of St. Antony by a bishop named Athonasieius. The book’s sole intent was to inform people what had been going on in Egypt and with its publication had invented a whole new literary genre—hagiography, or the ‘lives of the saints.’ A sign of Monasticism’s popularity is the election of the first monk as pope, Gregory the First (590-604). Western monasteries, however, were a bit different in their foundation than their more Eastern counterparts; for instance, you might have a dozen or two dozen monks living together as opposed to the hundreds which lived in an Egyptian monetary. Western monasteries were often located in towns, as opposed to away from civilization which the Egyptian contemporaries focused upon isolation. Western monasteries were usually created through a grassroots formation with rules designed by the founders, so Western monasteries were not usually strict in their theological foundations and paled in comparison to their Egyptian counterparts. Western monasteries were usually filled with older people and young people; old people who desired a sense of community and togetherness and young people—infants (“Oblates”)—who were given to the monastery by parents who could not take care of them their selves. Though not up to the rigorous standards of Egyptian standards, Western monasteries were still supported by laymen due to their slightly elevated closeness to God, an elevation which was still above that of a normal person.
In regards to marriage and original sin, there was a debate on whether marriage and sexuality were the result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God or if it was a part of God’s plan itself; two sides warred on this issue and took rigorously delineated theological positions based on how their earthly existence necessitated the religious, and how the religious, in turn, demanded of the physical; as a history it is a testament to mankind’s quest for understanding our place in the world. An intriguing history, to be sure, and one which was inextricably connected to an attempt to find a rationale for the human existence.