According to historian Matthew Herbst, the rise of monasticism can be seen as an answer to this question: how do you perform heroic self-sacrifice when the age of martyrs is past?
In lecture four of Herbst’s excellent course History of the Byzantine Empire (feed), Herbst says that because the early Christian church was persecuted by the Roman authorities, early Christians had many opportunities for martyrdom and sainthood. But how do you achieve extraordinary sanctity when persecution is a distant memory and Christianity is the official religion of the empire? The answer, as it emerged in the fifth century was: become a monk.
He relates the fascinating story of how monasticism grew from a few isolated hermits to a powerful movement that produced bishops and patriarchs and in later centuries was even seen as a threat by the Byzantine Emperor himself.
The first hermit we know about is St. Anthony who gained fame by isolating himself in the desert and seeking holiness. Other early monks began monastic communities in which they renounced the pleasures of the flesh in order to train their souls and achieve sanctity.
Here are a few tidbits from the lecture.
- While western monasticism developed monastic orders like the Benedictine and Franciscan orders, Eastern Orthodoxy had no monastic orders. Monks are just monks.
- Ordinary people began to seek out monks to act as arbitrators in disputes as well as provide the power of their prayers to help with problems like illness.
- Monks viewed their cells as places of freedom rather than imprisonment. They sought freedom from temptation so they could become entirely holy beings.
It then becomes doubly ironic that in later centuries monastic communities became centers of worldly power with great wealth and influence.