Into the desert: the first monks
Some people think that Christian monasticism began in the sixth century with Benedict of Nursia and his Rule of Life. But in fact it goes back far beyond that, to a time before there were monasteries, even before the 'desert fathers' of the third century. Monasticism, as a recognizable and named phenomenon in the church, has no official beginning, no official foundings. It emerged, in several places at once, as a spontaneous development from the various forms of the ascetic life: the tradition of strong self-discipline which had taken shape in the church from the very beginning.
The most striking features of monasticism, the renunciation of marriage and the renunciation of wealth, go back to the New Testament. The apostle Paul recommended celibacy, in his first letter to the Corinthians, on the grounds that 'the unmarried man worries about the things of the Lord and how to please the Lord, but the married man worries about the things of the world and how to please his wife, so he is torn in two'. And this is a theme which is developed in subsequent literature, Fallen mankind is at odds with himself; one of the blessings of redemption is an inner reconciliation, and , for that matter, a reconciliation between body and soul. Redeemed people can become 'single' again. This is almost certainly one of the original meanings of the word 'monk': a monk is a 'single', undivided man, and a 'single', solitary man. A romantic notion developed too, that since we are married to the Lord, there is no room for any other kind of marriage. In particular, if as Paul says the body is the Lord's, it would be wrong to enter into carnal union with anyone else.
Another important strand in early ...