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.

Flexible rigorists

In Egypt three main types of monasticism developed, roughly corresponding to three geographical locations:

  1. The hermit life, found in lower Egypt, where Antony (d. 356) is the model. Here monks lived an isolated and austere life of prayer.

  2. The cenobitic or communal form, found in upper Egypt, where Pachomius (d. 346) formed a community of monks who prayed and worked together.

  3. 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 to Mount Athos, Greece, where these three types of monasticism still exist.

Other regions produced a variety of lifestyles: in Syria, for example, we find "stylites," who chose to live on pillars. In Cappadocia (in modern Turkey), a more learned, liturgical, and social monasticism appeared under the inspiration and influence of Basil the Great (d. 379). In Palestine the tradition of spiritual direction was established by such men as Isaiah of Scetis (d. 489) and Sabas (d. 532). On Sinai a more silent, or "hesychast," spirituality was founded by John Climacus (d. about 679).

Monasteries could also be found in cities. By 518 Constantinople numbered some 70 communities for men alone. Monks became increasingly influential in ecclesiastical and social life: they intervened in theological disputes, they taught liturgy and spirituality, and they inspired the laity, who tended to follow charismatic monks.

In general monasticism in the East has been more flexible and less uniform than in the West. The East never had an Augustine or a Benedict, who wrote strict regulations for monks. The "rules" of Basil of Caesarea, by contrast, are not nearly as systematic. His Longer Rules is a series of sermons, while his Shorter Rules are answers to questions raised by monks as Basil visited the monasteries of his diocese. There has been no generally accepted rule or order in the East. One simply becomes attached to a specific monastery with its own particular tradition.

There were also monasteries for women, which may have risen earlier than those for men. Before retiring to the desert, Antony had placed his sister in a "home for virgins," a fact that unintentionally reveals that women were already organized into Christian communities in Egypt.

In general in the East, there was less emphasis on "stability," that is, the requirement that monks and nuns live in one monastery their whole lives. In the East, monks and nuns often changed monasteries.

"Sleepless ones"

Stability may not have been a main feature of Eastern monasticism, but "sitting in one's cell" was. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Moses (d. 407) reveals "The cell teaches us everything."

The cell was foremost a place of prayer, and prayer was the primary social service of the Byzantine monk. Most Eastern monasteries were located in desolate areas, remote from civilization, and thus conducive to prayer: St. Sabas's monastery in the Holy Land, St. Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai, the monastic republic of Mount Athos, and the towering rocks of Meteora in central Greece.

Some Eastern monks and nuns engaged in education, evangelism, and charitable work, but these works were considered secondary to the monastic's main vocation—prayer. Visitors to the monasteries expected to find places of prayer, to discover persons of prayer, and to encounter holy people with the gift of spiritual direction.

The goal of prayer, and of all monastic life, was union with God. Such union was made possible only through a life of spiritual purification and total renunciation—a self-stripping of both material possessions and intellectual projections. This was the way of negation, or of apophatic knowledge. The unknowable God was venerated through a series of negations that showed God as "ever beyond." The apophatic way had a moral dimension too: the purification from wrongful desires.

In the West, monasteries often became nurseries of scholarship, but in the East, they were always centers of spirituality. The most precious service of Eastern monasticism was its ever burning flame of prayer and spirituality. One monastery in Constantinople was called Akoimetoi (literally, "the sleepless ones"), where prayer was ongoing, 24 hours a day, with monks taking turns to recite prayers.

In a sense, then, Eastern monastic life has been an experience of charismatic enthusiasm, a Pentecostal reality. The monk has been a pneumato phoros ("Spirit-bearer"), bearing witness to the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church.

John Chryssavgis is professor of theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts.