Monasticism began on a Sunday morning in the year 270 or 271 in an Egyptian village. The Gospel passage read in worship that day included the words "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Matt. 19:21). In the congregation sat a young man called Antony, who, upon hearing these words, sought a life not merely of relative poverty but of radical solitude.
Antony's step into the uninhabited desert was little noticed outside, or even inside, his village at the time. But when he died at the age of 106, his friend and biographer Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373) informs us that his name was known "all over the road." "The desert," he wrote, "had become a city," meaning thousands had regularly flocked to Antony to be taught by him.
Monasticism has been an essential feature of Eastern Orthodoxy ever since, and one cannot understand Orthodoxy without understanding its monastic tradition.
In Egypt three main types of monasticism developed, roughly corresponding to three geographical locations:
- The hermit life, found in lower Egypt, where Antony (d. 356) is the model. Here monks lived an isolated and austere life of prayer.
- The cenobitic or communal form, found in upper Egypt, where Pachomius (d. 346) formed a community of monks who prayed and worked together.
- The middle way, in Nitria and Scetis, west of the mouth of the Nile, started by Ammon (d. about 350). Here a loosely knit group of small settlements of two to six monks together looked to a common spiritual elder, or "abba."
The center of Eastern monasticism moved from Egypt to Asia Minor in the late 300s, to Palestine in the 400s, to Sinai in the 500s, and in the 900s ...