The Ascetic movement produced a new icon of ideal Christian life, the monk or ascetic. This movement began earlier as various Christians lived ascetical lives in a severe way, with much self-denial and mortification. The founder of Western monasticism is St. Anthony (Antony) of Egypt (250-356), the first Christian hermit. As a young man he was converted to a radical following of Christ. He gave up his family wealth and eventually (age 35 yrs.) went to live in an old fort in the desert. He is often referred to as St. Antony of the Desert as a result.
He felt he had to escape the sin of the city. He had already led an ascetical life and studied other ascetics. By 305 A.D. curiosity seekers went out to find him and found he was aglow with spiritual joy, leading many to follow his way (but he only agreed to be their spiritual guide after years of this). He is the father of eremitical monasticism. He was 54 years old at the time he founded his monastery with scattered cells.
His Life by St. Athanasius says that Satan tortured him with temptations including boredom, laziness and the phantoms of women, but he overcame these with intense prayer. The devil harassed him with images of demons in the form of wild beasts who inflicted blows on him. He lived for 20 years in an old Roman fort in the desert and kind people fed him by throwing food over the wall. He refused to see anyone, but a colony of ascetics formed around him on the mountain, who wanted him to be their spiritual guide. He spent 5 or 6 years instructing them and organizing them before withdrawing to the solitary desert again.
On only two occasions he went to Alexandria, once to strengthen Christian martyrs in the persecution of 311 at the age of 60 years old (expecting to be martyred himself) and once to preach against the Arians near the end of his life when he was 88 years old (d. 356). He died at the age of 105 years old in 356 or 357 according to St. Jerome. In his humility after living 45 years in the desert, he requested his grave be kept secret so that people would not come out to it and reverence him. To this day, his rule for monks, which may have been written up by one of his monks, is followed in Syria and Armenia.
The word monk comes from the Gr. monos, which means literally, one or alone. Later another Egyptian, St. Pachomius, founded communal monasticism (substituting the cenobitical or communal life for the eremitical one). He was born in 286 and had an ascetic master, Palemon, and about 320 A.D., he founded a community of ascetics near Tabenna (Tabennisi) and attracted many followers (eventually 7000 who spend time alone in prayer but gathered in community for meals, liturgy, and sometimes for special celebrations). He refused the priesthood when St. Athanasius offered it to him. He died about 348 having brought together 7000 monks.
Monasticism became so popular that the population of the monasteries rivaled that of secular towns. One book was the Desert of Cities. The title reflects the exodus of people wanting to live in the desert. People wanted to live a radical expression of their faith (white martyrdom vs. former red martyrdom of blood). They devoted themselves to prayer and penance, spawning the religious life models that followed. These ascetics were celibates and they made celibacy an ideal in the religious mind—following the example of Christ. Later this became the norm for priests in the West and for bishops in the East. In his book, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Fr. Christian Cochini argues that this emphasis on celibacy was not a new departure but rather a harkening back to the apostolic example. He cites, for example, canons of the Councils of Elvira (Spain) and Arles (314), which specifically prohibit marital relations of married clergy after ordination on penalty of being “deposed from the honor of the clergy” (p. 161).
The ascetic movement was also a great new source of evangelization and spirituality for the Church. It spawned a witness to Christ and heightened spirituality