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The Motives of Monasticism

Since its earliest years, Christians have suffered nearly constant persecution — socially, financially, and physically — due to their religious beliefs. During one period of reprieve that commenced in the early fourth century with the enactment of the Edict of Milan by Emperors Constantine and Licinius, the monastic movement began to flourish as many individuals flocked to the desert to practice Christian spirituality most fully. Scholars have long debated the inspiration for this movement: were early Christians driven to monasticism to be united with God, or was their newfound lifestyle simply an escape from the threat of persecution? Scholarly literature suggests the latter.[1] Such a view, it should be noted, is not a mere interpretation of the sociocultural atmosphere during the early monastic movement, but draws inspiration mainly from historical hagiographies[2] such as Jerome’s Life of Paulus.[3] However, while the motivations of every individual who sought monasticism are not documented, for spiritually devout monks, withdrawal into the desert was generally not a means of escaping persecution or other worldly difficulties, but the pursuit of God in what they regarded to be a deeper or more perfect way. These individuals, in fact, continued to suffer persecution alongside their Christian counterparts in society and were subjected to various forms of conflict while fulfilling their ascetical responsibilities. In reviewing the applicable literature, it rather becomes evident that an escape from the difficult circumstances of persecution was not among the primary motives for the Christian monastic movement.

Persecution in the Roman Empire

Persecution, or the oppression of an individual or group in the form of hostility and ill-treatment due to their religious beliefs, is embedded in the history of the Church since its establishment by the Lord Jesus Christ through His Apostles. The Lord Himself spoke regarding the persecution of His followers: “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.”[4] At the time of the Roman Empire, persecution was especially prevalent, and Christians confronted it in various ways: some voluntarily apostatized (sacrificiati),[5] some bribed officials for a certificate without actually offering sacrifices (libellatici),[6] some confessed when accused of being Christians (stantes),[7] some voluntarily confessed their faith, and some proactively fled. The most controversial approach was that of fleeing. Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, and Cyprian of Carthage, among several others, escaped persecution this way. On the other hand, some, such as Tertullian, opposed this approach, ultimately classifying it as a weaker form of apostasy.[8] Pertinently, Tertullian does not mention among those who fled persecution the men and women who withdrew from the city to practice asceticism. Such individuals, on the other hand, were understood to have been regularly practicing a proverbial martyrdom, as depicted in Athanasius’s Life of Antony.

Monasticism in the Roman Empire

The word monk in its earliest form was not wholly associated with religious matters. Early evidence from Egyptian papyri demonstrates that the term monk was a designation for merchants and property owners, as well as those who were celibate for religious reasons.[9] This emphasis on celibacy would become a foundational prerequisite for those who sought monasticism and the detachment from worldly cares and carnal lusts that such a life offered.[10] 

Historically, while the first group that may be considered monks in the popular Christian sense is found in discipleship to Antony the Great, at the end of the third century, the major uptick in monasticism did not occur until 318 C.E., seven years after Roman persecution ended. Prior to Antony, and as seen in the account of his Life, Christian monasticism was associated with recluse civilians who did not withdraw into the desert or completely isolate themselves from the secular world, but instead renounced secular life through asceticism, the practice of severe self-discipline.[11] Inspired by a few men in the third and fourth centuries who decided to abandon the world to serve God in a more perfect way, Christian monasticism was born.[12] Athanasius uses the word anchoresis (“withdrawal from the world”) to signify Antony’s departure into the desert. In its secular meaning, this word could indicate withdrawal from politics, battle, or even tax evasion.[13] While it is expected that some individuals withdrew to monasticism to escape such grievances and persecutions, this notion cannot be considered characteristic of the entire movement.

The emphases found in the documented lives of early monks are consistent with philosophical tradition, stoicism, and the cultural wisdom of their time. Thus, monasticism served as a way for its adherents to return to their roots and pursue a more perfect way of life with God as their focus. Philosophy was understood as the pursuit of the perfect way of life, which was a prerequisite for “pure knowledge and illumination by the divine [God].”[14] Such a life was not characterized by one’s intellectual activity, but rather by detachment from secular, social, and political affairs, as well as the renunciation of wealth and bodily pleasures.[15] These characteristics are explicitly seen in the lives of the monks of the early monastic period. For instance, Antony the Great gave away all of his wealth in order to follow God according to what he deemed, as a result of his sound Christian upbringing, to be the best way. The recluse Palamon, who served as a mentor to Pachomius, likewise exemplified detachment from the world, living in seclusion at the edge of civilization. In addition, common practices in the lives of monks, such as strict dietary rules, frequent recitation and memorization of Scripture, and solitude, were emphasized as being necessary to this Philosophy, and monks were regarded as pursuers of the “philosophical life” following the “true philosophy” that is Christianity;[16] thus, there are many descriptions, in the literature arising from the period of early monasticism, of monks as successors, and even competitors, to the ancient philosophers.[17] Ultimately, monasticism granted the monks freedom from the obligations of civic life so that they could become solely concerned with the pursuit and worship of God.

The Early Monks And Civic Life

Escape from religious persecution and suffering in the Roman Empire during the rise of monasticism required the complete abandonment of one’s sociocultural milieu. This, however, was not common amongst monastics in late antiquity monks during this period did not always live in complete isolation from society. In fact, documents from this period depict early monastics living in cities and towns and participating in economic and social interactions within them.[18] These traditions predate even the establishment of organized Christian monasticism itself, and are known through the early monastic hagiographies, such as Athanasius’s Life of Antony, where Athanasius narrates that Antony sought the apprenticeship of holy men living on the outskirts of his village who practiced the ascetical discipline and were renowned for their virtuosity.[19] The same approach was later used by Pachomius, who apprenticed himself under a local anchorite named Palamon.[20] Thus, there were in those days recluses who practiced a form of monasticism without full retreat into the wilderness. The withdrawal of these individuals from the world was not necessarily physical, but emotional, mental, and, most importantly, spiritual. Indeed, the early monks emphasized the renunciation, and not an abandonment or disdain, of traditional forms of social life marriage, private ownership, and civic responsibilities — and established for themselves instead a singular focus on spiritual nourishment.[21] As previously mentioned, their pursuit of the monastic life was therefore not borne out of an escape from persecution and suffering, since they continued in large part to live in and engage with mainstream society, but instead was due to their longing to worship God in a more perfect way, removed from the distractions of the world.

The Early Monks as Mediators in Conflict

Further evidence for the falsity of the proposition that the monks were those who sought to escape persecution and conflict is their frequent involvement as mediators in societal, political, and religious conflicts. Soon after the rise of monasticism in the second half of the third century, monasticism became a topic of discussion at several councils in the East, and monks played a pivotal role in important controversies that arose in the Church.[22] Monks participated in both local and ecumenical councils, such as the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople, and the First Council of Ephesus, and were deeply involved, even apart from participating in such formal proceedings, in addressing theological issues that arose in their time. It was, after all, the unshakeable doctrinal foundation of the Christians living near the White Monastery, which foundation was primarily attributable to the educational and pastoral efforts of Shenoute of Atripe and the monks of his monastic federation, that Nestorius was eventually exiled to nearby Panopolis, being incarcerated at Psinblje.[23] 

Due to their theological proficiency and learnedness, monks were frequently called upon by presiding bishops to address local theological disputes. For instance, Antony the Great was called upon by Athanasius of Alexandria to preach against Arianism in Egypt, a heretical teaching that God the Father and God the Son, or the Logos, are not of the same substance, or nature. There are several other examples of the same sort of reliance by bishops on monks who were renowned for their soundness of doctrine and persuasiveness of character in combatting heresy. Athanasius himself, in facing the Arian heresy, introduced the practice of ordaining monks to the bishopric by carefully selecting such monks to be ordained bishops in order to assist his efforts at curtailing the spread of the heresy and securing the dioceses against its infiltration.

Far from being an escape from persecution and suffering, then, monasticism was instead the pursuit of the presence of God, and its adherents’ consecration of mind and heart to God and the things of God enabled them, by His grace, to excel in understanding, teaching, and wisdom such that they were indispensable to the Church in the face of theological conflict.

The involvement of monks in the affairs of the mainstream Church, moreover, was not limited to theological or doctrinal matters. For instance, the White Monastery, under the guidance of Shenoute of Atripe, opened its doors to 20,000 Christians and provided them both physical and spiritual nourishment after their village was raided.[24] The monks also served as arbitrators in civil disputes and, given their largely unrivaled piety and the reputation that many of them had for being granted special spiritual gifts, were also often asked to intervene on behalf of those in need, such as the poor and the sick.[25] Indeed, following the establishment of communal monasticism under Pachomius in the early fourth century, monasteries frequently became the spiritual centers of villages and urban quarters, and places where local inhabitants could attend services, seek accommodations, or request help in times of need, whether medical, financial, spiritual, or otherwise.[26] 

In all, the monks’ involvement in the affairs of the Church and their fellow believers in these ways attest not to their escape from persecution or societal existence, but instead their even more intimate involvement with the hardships and tribulations that arose in their days that resulted from their monastic vocation. What is more, even if some among the early monks sought out this manner of life to escape societal conflicts, they ironically found themselves all the more acquainted with it because of their monasticism. Thus, as the monks retreated further from the world spiritually, they became all the more deeply ingrained within its societal, political, and religious conflict, enduring all things, and becoming all things to all men for the sake of Christ, due to their understanding that, in the words of the founder of their way of life, “…our life and our death is with our neighbor.”[27]

Monasticism as New Martyrdom

The focus on suffering and tribulation as a path to glory and victory is a common theme in Christianity and was put into practice most notably by the Christian monks, who understood and approached these common experiences in the hope of the glory which God would bestow on the faithful who endure suffering for His sake. As such, they could not have abandoned suffering by their pursuit of the monastic life, but rather, by retreating to the desert, they created for themselves a prayerful oasis flowing with the waters of spiritual nourishment.

Many teachers of the early Church, such as Cyprian of Carthage, in submission to the teaching of the Lord, emphasized the Christian believers’ absolute non-conformity to the world and the glory that is realized by them through their experience of tribulations.[28] These principles are vividly represented in the lives of the early monks, who renounced traditional forms of social life in choosing to suffer for the sake of God.

Besides the focus on suffering and glory, the early Christian Fathers and teachers, such as Cyprian and Origen, also emphasized the necessity of surrendering all attachment to wealth and material possessions in order to attain perfection.[29] This way of poverty was a foundational component of monastic life: most notably, Antony the Great, upon hearing the encounter of the rich man with Christ in the Gospel according to Matthew,[30] went and sold all his possessions before withdrawing into the desert. Furthermore, while representing a personal opinion of his and not the teaching of the early Church generally, Tertullian asserts, in his De Fuga, that persecution is ordained by God and therefore good,[31] and accordingly, should not be fled but instead embraced.[32] The monks can be understood to have taken such advice most literally abandoning their possessions and the comforts and pleasures of the world to pursue labor and suffering for the sake of cultivating virtue in their lives to the end of attaining to Christ at the Last Day.

The practice of accepting suffering for the sake of Christ cannot be separated from the life of the monk, whose transition from civic life to monasticism resembles the transition from worldly suffering to spiritual suffering. Monasticism, similarly to martyrdom, thus epitomized for the early believers complete renunciation of the world.[33] While martyrs endured a physical death, monks associated the desert with a place of burial.[34] The desert represented complete and utter dependence on God,[35] allowing the monks to choose their own means of suffering through relative withdrawal, austere dietary practices, and physical labor. The adoption of the monastic life therefore became one of many paths by which Christian men and women strove to put into practice in their own lives the command of their Master to follow Him.[36]

Following Antony’s death and Athanasius authoring the Life of Antony, and in light of the cessation of the systematic persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire that characterized much of the preceding century,[37] one particular motif regarding monasticism became especially widespread: monks were the successors of the martyrs. Rather than facing a physical, imminent death, the monks “died” daily.[38] Antony himself describes dying daily as the way a monk learns to “wean himself of craving, of possessions, of grudges, of sin.”[39] This theme became prominent in early monastic literature,[40] teaching fellow monks and civilian Christians alike that “to die is to allow Christ to live within us.”[41] Ultimately, the desert provided a transformative setting for the soul’s encounter with God,[42] allowing monks to forsake the traditional way of life in order to suffer and worship God in what they deemed a more perfect way.

Monasticism as Flight From Persecution

Tertullian classifies fleeing from persecution as a weaker form of apostasy. While Tertullian’s view may have been true in some cases, it is a significant generalization and cannot be considered applicable to all Christians who fled due to persecution, especially those who became monastics. For instance, Jerome writes, in his hagiographical Life of Paul of Thebes, that Paul of Thebes fled to the desert to await an end to persecution.[43] However, Paul never returned to society even after the persecution ceased. Rather, “making a virtue of necessity,” he dedicated his life completely to God, becoming the first “hermit.”[44] While Tertullian argues that most New Testament references to persecution emphasize endurance and patience, not withdrawal,[45] he fails to understand the “virtue of necessity” as encapsulated in the Life of Paul. Tertullian rightly justifies the idea of apostasy in those fleeing persecution for the sake of their secular livelihood. However, this idea cannot be applied to those who used this opportunity to strengthen their relationship with God by choosing to suffer for Him in another way.

The spiritually devout monk did not withdraw to the desert to escape persecution, but to choose his or her own means of suffering for and worshiping God. However, not all monks retreated for the right reasons. The idea of monasticism as a means of escape from the demands of civic life was quite prevalent following the establishment of monasteries. In the fourth century, this escalated to the point where the emperor ordered the removal of many individuals who fled to monasteries to escape public duties.[46]

Early in Pachomius’s communities, he encountered many such individuals, who did not take the spiritual life seriously and caused abuse to Pachomius specifically and the community more generally.[47] Once these began to neglect the synaxis (assembly for scriptural reading and prayer), he drove them away with the support of the local bishop.[48] Subsequently, Pachomius and his monks began to discreetly interview monks entering the monastery regarding their motives,[49] ensuring that these individuals came with pure intentions.

Further, while monasticism appeared on its surface to be an escape from civic responsibilities or other secular hardships, it led to more difficult spiritual duties. Monks practiced strict dietary measures, performed physical labor for long periods of time, and endured difficult living conditions. Inevitably, their toil was described as warfare, not necessarily against the body only, but for the body and spirit.[50] While monasticism may have been seen as an “easy way out” by some individuals, those truly rooted in its practices abandoned secular difficulties for spiritual ones, which allowed them to serve God in the manner most suited to their desired ends.


For the spiritually devout, withdrawal to the desert in the late third and early fourth centuries was an opportunity to choose one’s own means of suffering for and worshipping God and not a means to escape persecution or other worldly difficulties. Monasticism therefore served as a new sort of martyrdom, instilling in monks a willingness to suffer for the sake of their spiritual growth while providing them a place to worship God without worldly distraction. Nonetheless, out of their love for God and thus their brothers and sisters in the world, many monks, despite their chosen way of life, remained involved with the civic community through social service and their involvement in religious issues. They therefore did not accomplish an end to persecution and suffering through their so-called escape, and while there were many monks who sought to retreat to the desert to relieve themselves of their secular responsibilities, these were typically rejected from the monastic community and forced to return to their own villages and cities.

Monastic practice today closely resembles its original form. There continue to be monastic anchorites today who follow in the footsteps of Antony the Great, who became “the defining moment for monasticism and the measure of true spirituality.”[51] Likewise, monks living in communal monasteries are now found all over the world. Monastics today also continue to serve their local communities, whether through religious or social services, or simply by their prayers for the people. Truly, the Church today, and indeed all of world history, would not be as it is without the invaluable contributions of Christian monasticism.

The Desert Fathers, or Desert Monks, were early Christian hermits living in Egypt who laid the foundation for Christian monasticism as we know it today. The Apophthegmata Patrum, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, is a collection of their wisdom, sayings, and stories, all of which have helped shape theological terminology, monastic practices, and scriptural interpretation since the establishment of the monastic movement. These sayings continue to be treasured until today for all Christians. Accordingly, monasticism has long been, and continues to be, an ever-integral component of the life of the Church in every generation.

[1] Talbot, Alice-Mary. “An Introduction to Byzantine Monasticism.Illinois Classical Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 229–41.

[2] A hagiography is a written account of the life of a saint.

[3] Jerome writes of Paul, “As the storm of persecution rumbled on, he withdrew to a more distant and isolated spot.” (Alexandrinus, Athanasius, et al. Early Christian Lives. Penguin Books, 1998).

[4] Matthew 24:9.

[5] Cyprian, Laps. 7-8, (CCSL 3:224-225).

[6] Tertullian, Fug. 12 (CCSL 2:1153-55).

[7] Cyprian, Laps. 3, (CCSL 3:222).

[8] Sutcliffe, Ruth. “To Flee or Not to Flee? Matthew 10:23 and Third Century Flight in Persecution. Scrinium 14.1 (2018), pp. 133-160. Note: Tertullian’s hardline view on this issue has been attributed at least in part to the influence of Montanism on his religious thinking and practices beginning in the middle part of his life, which ultimately led him to separate from the Church and join the Montanist schismatics.

[9] Rubenson, Samuel. “Asceticism and Monasticism, I: Eastern.” The Cambridge History of Christianity, edited by Augustine Casiday and Frederick W. Norris, vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, pp. 637–668. Cambridge History of Christianity.

[10] Lemeni, Daniel. “The Untimely Tomb: Death in the Spirituality of the Desert.Hortus Artium Medievalium, vol. 23, no. 2, 2017, pp. 532–537.

[11] Words that were initially secular in meaning began to have religious connotations, and eventually denotations, through the lives of these individuals. Askesis, “to exercise,” was initially used to describe physical training in preparation for athletic contests. Eventually, this word adopted a philosophical, ethical, and spiritual dimension (See Kling, David W. The Bible in History : How the Texts Have Shaped the Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Web.). Ascetics, in the Christian sense, were therefore those who practiced self-discipline, typically in seclusion at the outskirts of their villages, for religious purposes.

[12] Alexandrinus, xii.

[13] Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 64.

[14] Rubenson, 639.

[15] Rubenson, 639.

[16] See e.g., Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 8.1.

[17] Rubenson, 640.

[18] Rubenson, 638.

[19] Harmless, 118.

[20] Harmless 118.

[21] Rubenson, 638.

[22] Rubenson, 637.

[23] Bibawy, A. “St. Shenoute of Atripe and His Monastic Order.” Orthodox Monasticism Past and Present, edited by John A. McGuckin. Gorgias Press LLC, Piscataway, NJ, USA, 2015, pp. 257-258.

[24] For a discussion of this event, see A.G. Lopez, Shenoute of Atripe and the Uses of Poverty: Rural Patronage, Religious Conflict, and Monasticism in Late Antique Egypt. Berkeley, 2013, pp. 57-62.

[25] Rubenson, 641. 

[26] Talbot, 230.

[27] Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975, p. 3.

[28] See, e.g., Cyprian, Fort. 8-10 (CCSL 3:195-102).

[29] Kling, 19.

[30] The story of the rich man is found in Matthew 19:16-22 and portrays a rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to attain eternal life. After a brief interaction, Jesus replies saying, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

[31] Tertullian, Fug. 1, 2 (CCSL 2:1135-39).

[32] This view that Christians should not flee persecution was undoubtedly the minority opinion among the teachers of the early Church. In fact, Tertullian’s own dissatisfaction with the spiritual laxity that he believed had overtaken the mainstream Church, which contributes to this opinion of his, ultimately led him to apostatize and join the Montanist sect for its more rigorous practices.

[33] Lemeni, 535.

[34] Lemeni, 532.

[35] Lemeni, 533.

[36] Kling, 20.

[37] The first empire-wide, official persecution of Christians was enacted by Decius in 250 A.D. and largely persisted until 313 A.D. with the enactment of the Edict of Milan by Constantine and Licinius, which officially put an end to Christian persecution in the Empire and granted freedom of religion to all.

[38] 1 Corinthians 15:31.

[39] Harmless, 70.

[40] Harmless, 70.

[41] Lemeni, 547.

[42] Kling, 33.

[43] Alexandrinus, 77.

[44] Alexandrinus, 77.

[45] Sutcliffe, 135. Sutcliffe mentions the following New Testament passage in support of this notion: Hebrews 11:37-38; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-22; Luke 4:28-30; Acts 8:1-3; 11:19; 13:50; 14:6, 19-21; 2 Corinthians 11:30-33.

[46] Talbot, 232.

[47] Harmless, 120.

[48] Harmless, 120.

[49] Harmless, 126.

[50] Kling, 34-35.

[51] Kling, 39.

Mark Dawod serves as a Reader at St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. He is currently a student at Princeton University, pursuing a career in medicine.

This paper is an adaptation of course work submitted for "The New Testament and Christian Origins," offered by Dr. Jonathan Henry in Fall 2021 at Princeton University.

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