Monastic Communities, Religious Orders and Monks and Nuns of the Early Church

This is a compilation of passages from the early Church about monastic life. I wanted to make this compilation as a resource to help Catholics show that the monastic life is an ancient part of the faith.

Old Testament precedents include the Nazirites (Numbers 6:1-21, Judges 13:4-5, Amos 2:11-12, 1 Maccabees 3:49), the Essenes, the Therapeutae (possibly -- see below), the companies of prophets (1 Samuel 10:10, 1 Samuel 19:20, 1 Kings 20:35, 2 Kings 2:3, 2 Kings 2:5, 2 Kings 2:7, 2 Kings 2:15, 2 Kings 4:38, 1 Chronicles 25:1-3), and desert-dwelling prophets like Elijah (1 Kings 17:3-7). See also this article by Catholic Answers.

~1 A.D. - St. Anna the Prophetess is described by St. Luke as follows: “[S]he was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:36-37) Luke’s description goes on to give evidence of her faith in Christ in Luke 2:38, thus making her perhaps the first Christian to live a monastic life.

~20 A.D. - St. John the Baptist may be the earliest monk-like figure in the New Testament, because he lived in the desert for most of his life (Luke 1:80) while adopting the lifestyle of a hermit (Matthew 3:4).

~30 A.D. - Jesus promoted the model that monks and nuns would adopt in several ways. Living in the desert for 40 days (Matthew 4:1-2), promoting celibacy for the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:12), telling his disciples that they will be blessed for leaving wives and family and following Him (Luke 18:28-30), and revealing the evangelical counsels of poverty (Matthew 19:21), chastity (Matthew 19:12), and obedience (Matthew 6:24) were some of the ways He promoted the monastic tradition.

~30 A.D. - The Apostles started communities whose members sold their property and pledged the proceeds for the benefit of the community (Acts 2:44-47, Acts 4:32-37). These communities treated the apostles as superiors and judges (Acts 5:1-10), and were known for daily attendance at the Temple and at Mass (Acts 2:46). They also had a routine of daily prayers (Acts 2:42), and there is some evidence that this routine involved gathering for prayer at certain hours of each day (Acts 3:1, Acts 10:9). These practices are still what Catholic monasteries do today: they live in community, and its members sell their property and devote themselves to poverty, prayer, and obedience to the superiors of the community. They have special times of the day devoted to prayer and study, and usually have some sort of outreach by which they can teach the gospel through their words and their actions.

Before 50 A.D. - The book De Vita Contempliva, On the Contemplative Life, is composed by an ancient Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria. It describes a religious order called the Therapeutae, which means Servants of God. Philo says that the members of this order pledged themselves to poverty and chastity, and each community had a leader whose duties included, among other things, teaching his community out of the Old Testament as well as out of the writings of the founders of their sect -- which Philo says was Jewish in origin. According to Philo, these monks and nuns were not only in Alexandria, but had communities in several other places as well, and were known for their lives of fasting, prayer, Scripture reading, and frequent public vigils where, among other things, they sung hymns about Bible stories. It is quite possible that these Therapeutae were Christians -- because Christianity started out as a Jewish sect and its monks and nuns fit the description Philo gives. His reference to how they treated the writings of their founders might be a reference to the New Testament, and their presence in other parts of the Roman empire matches both Christianity and Judaism. If the Therapeutae were a Christian order, they are a very early example of one, and if they are a Jewish order, they are a clear precursor of the Christian monks of later centuries who were so integral to Christian culture.

~66 A.D. - St. Paul - “Honor widows who are real widows. ... She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day... Let a widow be enrolled if she…[has] devoted [herself] to doing good in every way. But refuse to enrol younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. … [And] let the church...assist those who are real widows.” (1 Timothy 5:11-16)

~95 A.D. - St. John - The Book of Revelation assigns a special place in heaven to lifelong virgins, which is a characteristic of monks and nuns: Revelation 14:4.

107 A.D. - St. Ignatius of Antioch - “I salute...the virgins who are called widows. Be strong, I pray, in the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans Chapter 13)

~150 A.D. - St. Frontonius starts a monastic community in the desert of Alexandria, Egypt. He takes with him 70 others who live together in worship and manual labor. Here is a link to his biography.

151 A.D. - St. Justin Martyr - “And many, both men and women, who have been Christ's disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men. For what shall I say, too, of the countless multitude of those who have reformed intemperate habits, and learned these things? For Christ called not the just nor the chaste to repentance, but the ungodly, and the licentious, and the unjust; His words being, I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (First Apology Chapter 15)

And: “[E]ven [some women] who are not barren abstain from sexual intercourse, some being virgins from the first, and others from a certain time. And we see men also keeping themselves virgins, some from the first, and some from a certain time.” (On the Resurrection Chapter 3)

160 A.D. - Acts of Paul and Thecla - "At length, certain gentlewomen hearing of the virgin Thecla, went to her, and were instructed by her in the oracles of God, and many of them abandoned this world, and led a monastic life with her."

177 A.D. - Athenagoras - “Nay, you would find many among us, both men and women, growing old unmarried, in hope of living in closer communion with God. [For] remaining in virginity and in the state of an eunuch brings [a person] nearer to God.” (Plea for the Christians Chapter 33)

~194 A.D. - Polycrates of Ephesus - “Among [the saints] are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who sleeps in Hierapolis, and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus.” (Letter to Pope Victor I)

195 A.D. - St. Clement of Alexandria - “[All who] endeavour to be assimilated to the [image] given by [God], strive, from exercise, to become free of concupiscence. For he who has exercised concupiscence and then restrained himself, is like a widow who becomes again a virgin by continence. … Such are the [spiritually elevated] souls, which the Gospel likened to the consecrated virgins who wait for the Lord.” (Stromata Book 7 Chapter 12)

200 A.D. - St. Hippolytus of Rome - “[In the last days the] shepherds will be like wolves; the priests will embrace falsehood; [and] the monks will lust after the things of the world.” (Discourse on the End of the World Chapter 7)

225 A.D. - Zosimus - “After this I lived thirty-six years, and communicated the way of life of the blessed to the fathers in the desert. ... And after the completion of the thirty-six years, the angels of God came to me as to the blessed. And all the monks were gathered together and all who heard it, and this testament was read to all of them, and in such life he gave up his soul to God.” (The Narrative of Zosimus Chapter 21)

250 A.D. - Liturgy of St. Mark - “Remember the orthodox bishops everywhere, the elders, deacons, sub-deacons, readers, singers, monks, virgins, widows, and laity.” (Liturgy of St. Mark, priest’s prayer during the offering of incense)

~250 A.D. - St. Paul of Thebes - During the persecution by Emperor Decius, Christian hermits grew in numbers as monks fled to the desert. The men and women who went into the desert after this point are the most famous among the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers. They drew inspiration from Elijah and St. John the Baptist, and some saints who had lived before them. An early example was St. Paul of Thebes, whose decision to become a hermit is described in St. Jerome’s Life of Paulus:

“During the persecutions of Decius and Valerian...Paul [of Thebes]...retired to a house at a considerable distance [from the town] and in a more secluded spot. … [Later he] fled to the mountain wilds to wait for the end of the persecution. He began with easy stages, and repeated halts, to advance into the desert. At length he found a rocky mountain, at the foot of which, closed by a stone, was a cave of no great size…and there in prayer and solitude [he] spent all the rest of his life.” (Life of Paulus Paragraphs 2-6)

253 A.D. - St. Cyprian of Carthage - “But if they [consecrated virgins] have faithfully dedicated themselves to Christ, let them persevere in modesty and chastity, without incurring any evil report, and so in courage and steadiness await the reward of virginity. But if they are unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better that they should marry than that by their crimes they should fall into the fire. Certainly let them not cause a scandal to the brethren or sisters.” (Letters 61:2)

~271 A.D. - St. Anthony of the Desert’s decision to live a monastic life in the desert is described in his biography by St. Athanasius:

“[T]here were not yet [very] many monasteries in Egypt, and no monk at all knew of the distant desert; but all who wished to give heed to themselves practised the discipline in solitude near their own village. … [Anthony] hurried to the mountain...found a fort, so long deserted that it was full of creeping things...crossed over to it and dwelt there. … [And] it happened in the end that [more] cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonised by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens.” (Life of St. Anthony Chapters 3, 12, 14)

293 A.D. - The Martyrdom of Shamuna, Guria, and Habib - “In the six hundredth year from the empire of Alexander the Macedonian, when Diocletian had been nine years sovereign of the Romans...a great persecution was raised against the churches in all the countries which were under the sway of the Romans. The name of Christian was looked upon as execrable and was assailed and harassed with abuse; while the priests and the monks, on account of their staunch and unconquerable steadfastness, were subjected to shocking punishments.” (Martyrdom of Shamuna, Guria, and Habib)

314 A.D. - Council of Ancyra - “If any persons who profess virginity shall disregard their profession, let them fulfill the [penitential] term for digamists [since they were first married spiritually to Christ]. And, moreover, we prohibit women who are virgins from living with men as sisters.” (Canon 19)

318 A.D. - St. Athanasius of Alexandria - “Now these arguments of ours do not amount merely to words, but have in actual experience a witness to their truth. For let him that will, go up and behold the proof of virtue in the virgins of Christ and in the young men that practice holy chastity, and the assurance of immortality in so great a band of his martyrs.” (The Incarnation of the Word of God 48:1–2)

325 A.D. - First Ecumenical Council - “Likewise in the case of their [the Paulianists’] deaconesses...let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands [holy orders], are to be numbered only among the laity.” (Canon 19)

357 A.D. - St. Athanasius of Alexandria - “The Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, having become man for our sakes...bestowed this also upon us, that we should possess upon earth, in the state of virginity, a picture of the holiness of angels. Accordingly, such as have attained this virtue, the Catholic Church has been accustomed to call the brides of Christ. And the heathen who see them express their admiration of them as the temples of the Word. For indeed this holy and heavenly profession is nowhere established, but only among us Christians, and it is a very strong argument that with us is to be found the genuine and true religion.” (Defense Before Constantius 33)

And: 359 A.D. - “Athanasius the bishop to the brethren in foreign parts: You have entered upon a noble rivalry with the monks of Egypt by your determination either to equal or surpass them in your training in the way of virtue. For by this time there are monasteries among you, and the name of monk receives public recognition. With reason, therefore, all men will approve this determination, and in answer to your prayers God will give its fulfillment.” (Life of St. Anthony, introduction)

393 A.D. - Council of Hippo - “Holy virgins, when they are separated from their parents by whom they have been wont to be guarded, as to be commended by the care of the bishop, or presbyter where the bishop is absent, to women of graver age, so that living with them they may take care of them, lest they hurt the reputation of the Church by wandering about.” (Canon 31)

396 A.D. - St. Jerome - “Far be it from me to censure [the bishops,] the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. ... But, as I have before hinted, the case of monks is different from that of the clergy. The clergy feed Christ’s sheep; I as a monk am fed by them.” (Letters 14:8)

And: “The Arians do right to accuse me, but the orthodox forfeit their orthodoxy when they assail a faith like mine. They may, if they like, condemn me as a heretic; but if they do they must also condemn Egypt and the West, [Popes] Damasus and Peter. Why do they fasten the guilt on one and leave his companions uncensured? ... I blush to say it, but from the caves which serve us for cells we monks of the desert condemn the world. Rolling in sack-cloth and ashes, we pass sentence on bishops.” (Letters 17:2)

412 A.D. - St. Augustine of Hippo - “It is not right to give occasion for God’s servants to think that a promotion to a better position is more readily given to those who have become worse. Such a rule would make monks less careful of falling, and a most grievous wrong would be done to the order of clergy, if those who have deserted their duty as monks be chosen to serve as clergy, seeing that our custom is to select for that office only the more tried and superior men of those who continue faithful to their calling as monks.” (Letters 60:1)

451 A.D. - Fourth Ecumenical Council - “It is not lawful for a virgin who has dedicated herself to the Lord God, nor for monks, to marry; and if they are found to have done this, let them be excommunicated. But we decree that in every place the bishop shall have the power of indulgence toward them.” (Canon 16)

452 A.D. - St. Patrick of Ireland - “How, then, are the people of Ireland, who never had the knowledge of God, but until now worshiped idols and unclean things, how are they lately been made a people of the Lord, and are called the sons of God? The sons of the Scots and the daughters of their kings are seen to become monks and virgins of Christ!” (Confession of St. Patrick 41)

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