Father Zossima left his monastery during Lent to enter the desert, hoping to find a spiritual father to offer him wisdom. Instead he met a woman, her naked body scorched by the Egyptian sun. Recognizing a life filled with holiness, he knelt and begged her blessing.

Reluctant with modesty, she spoke of her conversion from prostitution and of the 47 years she had lived alone in the desert: "I was burned by the heat of summer and frozen stiff and shivering in the winter … struggling with many and diverse needs and huge temptations but through it all even until this day the power of God has guarded [me]."

The woman, St. Mary of Egypt, was exalted in this popular sixth-century story as a source of spiritual wisdom who could teach even a godly monk like Zossima. But the characters in this story, a monk and a desert hermit, would have seemed strange or even distasteful to many pagan Romans, because they seemed to reject traditional values such as loyalty to one's city, marriage, and obligation to family. How did early Christians come to embrace such peculiar lifestyles?

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, Christians no longer faced the specter of martyrdom as the ultimate test of devotion. Instead, many ardent Christians withdrew to the wilderness to fast and pray. The "monk" (meaning "solitary"—either male or female) practiced "asceticism" (literally "training"), a life of spiritual discipline, either alone in the wilderness like Mary of Egypt or within the structure of a monastery as Zossima did. The temptations to despair or pride experienced by monks living alone could be guarded against by living with others in community. The Christian ascetic inherited the mantle of the martyr, as a witness to a divine reality that ran counter to the expectations of Roman society. Early Christian monks rejected traditional social mores and embraced ascetic disciplines, such as prayer, fasting, celibacy, and giving up sleep.

Ascetic Christians also repudiated the Roman method of striving for immortality by producing citizen children, who embodied part of a parent's very body and soul and guaranteed the survival of the community. Christ had promised that Christians' bodies would be made immortal and had offered his own broken flesh restored as a pledge. Monks sought to live an angelic life on earth, neither marrying nor having children. By refusing to participate in the continual process of physically repopulating the earth, they recognized that Christ's coming had initiated a new age and believed that their lives could help usher in his kingdom.

Although early Christian ascetics sometimes borrowed rhetoric from Neo-Platonists or Gnostics who seemed to denigrate the body, in actuality Christian asceticism rejected any dualistic beliefs that elevated the spirit over the material world. Monks repeatedly emphasized the physicality of the gospel. Not only did Christ become human, but he endured great physical sufferings and the ultimate bodily humiliation—death.

In imitating Christ's sufferings through martyrdom and asceticism, the believer's body became an instrument by which God could work the mystery of salvation. Christ's bodily resurrection was the guarantee for Christians' own expectations of physical resurrection. For the monk, the body became the canvas on which to practice a new form of spirituality, taming physical passions in order to pursue union with God.

Taking the Bible at its Word

Early Christian ascetics were motivated by a literal interpretation of the gospel. Jesus had said, "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37), and anyone who does not "hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters … cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

A young Egyptian peasant named Antony heard Jesus' command read aloud at church: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven" (Matt. 19:21). Antony obeyed. Giving his wealth to the poor and his sister to the care of nuns, he retreated to the desert. Living among the pagan tombs and temples, Antony battled evil spirits with God's help.

The popular account of Antony's life written by Athanasius in 357 was soon translated into many languages and proved influential in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo to Christianity. Western Christians eagerly read monastic texts from Egypt and began to follow their example, pursuing the ascetic life.

Cassian, a monk from Bethlehem who visited monasteries in Egypt before settling in the West in the early fourth century, captured the ethos of Egyptian spirituality for Westerners in his Conferences and Institutes written in Latin. Benedict of Nursia used Cassian's writings to develop his own ideas.

A New Way for Women

The Romans were scandalized by the fact that Christian monasticism welcomed women as well as men. This ascetic call offered women the freedom to have their worth defined in service to God, rather than in relationship to parents, husbands, and children. Such freedom threatened existing social structures.

Rushing into Ambrose's church in Milan, an orphaned girl begged him to consecrate her to a life of virginity, ripping the cloth from the altar to serve as her monastic veil. Her outraged uncle appeared in pursuit, screaming, "If your father were still alive, he would never have permitted this!"

"Perhaps that is why God has taken him!" the girl retorted.

Jerome was the spiritual director for a group of aristocratic women in Rome who practiced asceticism. He felt the heat of social disapproval as his protégées pursued activities unusual for women, such as studying the Old Testament in Hebrew. When a young widow under his supervision died from extreme fasting, he was forced to flee. Settling in Bethlehem, Jerome and his colleague Paula (mother of the dead widow) established a monastic foundation for men and women.

They were not the only westerners practicing monasticism in the Holy Land. Another aristocratic Roman matron, Melania the Elder, settled with Jerome's friend Rufinus on the Mount of Olives and helped him oversee a double monastery for men and women. Melania also visited the hermits of Egypt, offering them generous financial support.

Melania's extended family included several pioneers in monasticism. Her niece Melania the Younger fled barbarian raids on Rome to settle in North Africa near Augustine in Hippo. Committed to a celibate, spiritual marriage, she and her husband established a monastery there. Paulinus, a cousin of Melania the Elder and her biographer, implemented monastic innovations in Italy. A former governor, Paulinus retired to Nola (where he would eventually become bishop) to be close to the shrine of St. Felix, his patron. He was a gentle spirited poet and each year composed a new poem for the saint's feast day. As an ascetic he lived in celibacy with his beloved wife Therasia and wrote letters to the leaders of the Western church. Paulinus was concerned with duty towards the poor and spiritual humility, and he praised Melania the Elder for these virtues.

Diverse and dedicated

Although stories of high-status aristocrats who renounced their wealth shocked late Roman society and made for dramatic literary narratives, people from diverse backgrounds practiced monasticism. Soldiers, thieves, and housewives all sought a life of prayer in monastic communities.

In Asia Minor, Macrina, the elder sister of the Cappadocian fathers Basil and Gregory, opened her home to women made homeless by famine. She intentionally invited former slaves and aristocrats to share a common life.

Christians in Gaul remembered St. Martin of Tours for ripping his cloak in two and giving half to a naked beggar. Born to pagan parents, Martin served as a soldier until his growing Christian convictions led him seek release from the army from the pagan emperor Julian, saying, "I am Christ's soldier; I am not allowed to fight." To prove his courage he volunteered to stand on the frontline of the battle with no weapon but a cross. After studying theology under Bishop Hilary in Poitiers, Martin traveled to the Balkans as a missionary but returned to Gaul to build monasteries.

Many in the early medieval West embraced this dual vocation of missionary and monastic founder. Rather than closing themselves off from the world, monks carried the gospel to distant lands as monasteries became the chief agents of the Christianization of Europe.

The stories of the early Christian monks illustrate the challenges of living in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages: barbarian invasions, war, religious persecution, famine, and poverty. The sixth century brought further disasters with an outbreak of bubonic plague that swept through the Middle East and Europe. In the face of these threats, monks embraced a radical way of living out the gospel. Instead of viewing the monastery as a place of retreat, monastic leaders offered spiritual encouragement and intercessory prayer on behalf of their neighbors.

The task of garnering spiritual resources to meet the challenges of this turbulent time resulted in a surge of monastic writings. In the East, the anchorites Barsanuphius and John of Gaza wrote over 800 letters of spiritual guidance to city officials, clergy, and laity. In the West, Benedict of Nursia sought to articulate how the Christian life could best be lived in community in the face of man-made and natural calamities. The endurance of his rule demonstrates the effectiveness of the monastic vocation as a response to life's uncertainties.

Jennifer Hevelone-Harper is associate professor and chair of the history department at Gordon College and the author of Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza.