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Cenobites are the monks who live in a monastery,
where they serve under a rule and an abbot.
Hermits are those who,
having come through the test of living in a monastery,
are now trained to fight in single combat against the devil.

(Rule of St. Benedict)

Monasticism: the beginnings
By the end of the 3rd century AD, especially from 313 AD when emperor Constantine gave official recognition to Christian religion, persecutions against Christians were rare; as a consequence, being a Christian no longer seemed a demanding choice. It was at this particular time that monasticism emerged in the Church as a movement aiming at living Christian life in a radical way.

The two figures most typical of such movement were those of St Anthony, a hermit, and of St Pachomius, a cenobite. In his Rule, speaking of hermits and cenobites, St Benedict may have well had also these two saints in mind.

St Anthony
Anthony the Great was born into a wealthy family in upper Egypt about 254 AD. Also known as Anthony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, and Anthony the Anchorite, he was a leader among the Desert Fathers, who were Christian monks in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.
One day after a teaching on Jesus saying to the people, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me’ (Matthew 19:21), he sold everything he owned, gave the proceeds to the poor, and left the city behind to live in the desert.
He is regarded as the first Christian monk, indeed, the ‘patriarch’ of Christian monastic life. He sought God alone in the Bible and the emptiness of the desert (the word ‘monachos’, monk, means single or alone). After a few years his reputation as a saint spread around, so people started coming to him for advise and prayer. In the ‘Life of Anthony’, the bishop of Alexandria St Athanasius says that Anthony memorized the whole Bible, as a consequence people coming to see him actually saw Christ himself.
St. Anthony died in 356: he had left instructions to his followers to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave, lest his body become an object of veneration. (Part of this text adapted from Orthodoxwiki - Anthony of Egypt).

St Pachomius
While St Anthony stressed solitary life, St Pachomius (292-348) emphasied cenobitic life, that is communal monastic life.
Pachomius was born to pagan parents in Thebaid (Upper Egypt). There he received an excellent secular education. At the age of either 20 or 21, he was called to serve in the Roman army. It was then that he stayed in a prison, used to house the new conscripts, which was run by Christians. He was so impressed by their love of their neighbor that he vowed to become a Christian after his military service ended.
Thus in 314 Pachomius was baptized and began to practice the ascetic life. Three years later he withdrew to the desert under the guidance of the elder Palamon. According to tradition, after ten years with Palamon he heard a Voice telling him to found a monastic community at Tabbenisi (also Tabenna, Tabbenisiot). He and Palamon traveled there, and subsequently Pachomius had a vision in which an angel came to him, clothed in a schema (a type of monastic garment), and gave him a rule for the cenobitic life. This is significant because up until this time ascetics had for the most part lived alone as hermits, not together in a community. Pachomius’ rule balanced the communal life with the solitary life; monks live in individual cells but work together for the common good.
Furthermore, Pachomius was strict with the community of monks that began to grow around him. He gave everyone the same food and attire. The monks of the monastery fulfilled the obediences assigned them for the common good of the monastery. The monks were not allowed to possess their own money nor to accept anything from their relatives. St Pachomius considered that an obedience fulfilled with zeal was greater than fasting or prayer. He also demanded from the monks an exact observance of the monastic rule, and he chastised slackers.
By 348, Pachomius directed almost three thousand monks, housed in different monasteries. This, however, was also the year that he was infected by some form of plague or pestilence: he died around the year 348, and was buried on a hill near the monastery.
The rule of St. Pachomius (translated by St. Jerome into Latin in 404) influenced St. Benedict, the most influential figure in Western monasticism, in preparing his own rule. (Part of this text adapted from Orthodoxwiki - Pachomius).

But the two great figures whose writings St Benedict speaks about in his Rule are those of St Basil the Great and of John Cassian, both of them supporters of a monastic way of life lived in a community (i.e. cenobitic monasticism).

St Basil
Basil the Great (330-379) was born at Caesarea in Cappadocia (a region of today’s Turkey). After receiving an excellent education at Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens, about 358 he decided to abandon secular studies in favor of an ascetic style of life. After returning home to Caesarea and receiving baptism he left again Caesarea on a tour of monasteries in order to get a firsthand knowledge of ascetic and monastic practices in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
After seven years he returned home, withdrew from the ordinary affairs of society, took up the ascetic life and devoted himself to an intensive study of the Bible. The result of such study was his first work, ‘The Moral Rules’, composed about 360, and consisting of principles (supported by 1542 verses from the New Testament) for living the Christian life. In fact, for Basil, the monastic life is essentially the Christian life itself, .e.: a life lived according to the Gospel.
Later on, when he was bishop of Caesarea, he wrote ‘Asceticon’, a collection of responses to questions put to him concerning various aspects of the ascetic and Christian life. According to him, Christian life can be understood only in terms of response to the double commandment of love: love of God and neighbor. He then speaks of the necessity of avoiding distraction in the pursuit of this goal, and points out that in order to practice the love of neighbor, it is necessary to live in a community. Following the Bible, especially St Paul, he highlights the necessity of both prayer and work.

John Cassian
John Cassian (360-435) was born at Dobrogea, in the Balkan region (today’s Romania). In 382 he entered a monastery in Bethlehem and after several years there was granted permission, along with his friend St. Germanus of Dobrogea, to visit the Desert Fathers in Egypt. They remained in Egypt until 399, except for a brief period when they returned to Bethlehem.
Upon leaving Egypt they went to Constantinople, where they met St. John Chrysostom, who ordained John Cassian as a deacon. He had to leave Constantinople in 403 when Chrysostom was exiled, eventually settling close to Marseilles (France), where he was ordained priest and founded two monasteries, one for women and one for men.
John’s most famous works are the Institutes, which detail how to live the monastic life (dress, prayer, work and poverty, food, obedience, discipline, renunciation), and the Conferences (for a total of 24 topics), which provide details of conversations between John and Germanus and the Desert Fathers. The effect of these writings upon Western spirituality was and still is incalculable; and these are the very writings St. Benedict urges his monks to read in order to deeply learn the monastic way of life.
According to John Cassian, the Desert Monks of Egypt followed a three step path to mysticism. The first level was called the Purgatio during which the young monk struggled through prayer and ascetic practices to gain control of ‘the flesh’ - specifically gluttony, lust, and the desire for possessions. During this period, the young monk was to learn that any strength he had to resist these desires came directly from the Holy Spirit. At the end of the Purgatio, a period that often took many years, the monk had learned to trust peacefully in the Lord for all his needs. As the monk underwent this period of purging, he identified with Christ‘s temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13).
At this point the Illuminatio commenced. During this period the monk learned the paths to holiness revealed in the Gospel. During the Illuminatio many monks took in visitors and students, and tended the poor as much as their meager resources allowed. They identified strongly with Christ when he taught the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. The monk continued his life of humility in the Spirit of God; his serene acceptance of suffering often made him the only man capable of taking on heroic or difficult responsibilities for the local Christian community. Many monks died never having moved past this period.
The final stage was the Unitio, a period when the soul of the monk and the Spirit of God bonded together in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon (also called, in the Bible, the Song of Songs, or the Canticle of Canticles). Elderly monks often fled into the deep desert or into remote forests to find the solitude and peace that this level of mystical awareness demanded. In this, the monk identified with the transfigured Christ, who after his resurrection was often hidden from his disciples. (Part of this text adapted from Wikipedia - John Cassian).

Monasticism today
Prayer and work: these two things, performed in a silent environment, are still typical of monastic life; therefore a monk’s day is divided up into regular and formal times for prayer, for reading and for work. In the morning Matins and Lauds, at noon Daytime prayer, in the evening Vespers and Compline: one hymn and several psalms are sung, followed by a short Bible reading and prayers for the whole of mankind.
Lectio divina (Bible reading) too is a very important moment of the day. Once in the morning (after Matins) and once in the evening (after Vespers) he spends his time on the Bible. A very ancient and easy way to perform Lectio divina is to memorize parts of the Bible so that the mind may get soaked in the word of God.
This regular rhythm is part of what sustains him, and it is hoped he too, like Anthony, will become another Christ for the brothers and sisters meeting him.

He takes three vows: obedience, stability and conversatio morum. Obedience conforms him to Jesus Christ who came not to do his own will but the will of the Father who sent Him. Stability is a promise to persevere in a particular community. Conversatio morum means a continual change of heart, allowing God to transform him into Christ.

As Jesus did not marry, so monks do not marry, and as the first Christians (as depicted in the Acts of the Apostles) shared averything they had among themselves, they too do not have private property. Everything, even their own habits, are owned by the community.