Records of Roman Catholic monasticism go back as far as the third century. The earliest Roman Catholic monks were hermetical, living solitary lives far from the noise and distraction of civilization. Monastic communities started to rise in the fourth century, giving birth to various religious orders, many of which still exist today. The writings by and about those ancient monks provide a look at the hows and whys of early Christian monasticism.
"Life of Anthony"
Anthony was the earliest Roman Catholic monk to write something that would endure through the ages. As was the case with Socrates and Plato, however, Anthony's writings and ideas were destined to be preserved by someone else -- in this case Athanasius, a bishop and a contemporary of Anthony. He wrote the "Life of Anthony" sometime in the early fourth century. Within this text are chapters provided directly by Anthony, including a discourse on how an ascetic life should be lived and another on doing battle with demons. Anthony also wrote letters to various bishops and other church leaders concerning contemporary issues such as those being debated at the Council of Chalcedon. Many of Anthony's letters were collected and copied, allowing them to survive to the present day.
Rule of Pachomius
The first recorded instance of monks gathering together to lead a communal life rather than a solitary one comes via Pachomius, a contemporary of Anthony who aspired to live a similar ascetic lifestyle. Unlike Anthony, Pachomius also organized into a group other Roman Catholics who sought to live the monastic. The instructions for communal living that Pachomius created, known as the "Rule of Pachomius," became the basis for many of the monastic orders that would rise in the following centuries.
Basil lived in the second half of the fourth century, spending many of his early years as part of at least two monastic communities. Basil wrote a number of works on the life of a Roman Catholic monk, the most notable being "Tractatus Praevii" (A Preliminary Treaty). Later in life, Basil served as a bishop and wrote his "De Spiritu Sancto" (On the Holy Spirit), a work primarily aimed at fighting the beliefs of Arianism.
The writings of the organizer and reformer Benedict of Nursia set the tone for Roman Catholic monks for centuries to come. During his lifetime, he organized dozens of monastic communities and created what is now called the "Benedictine Order." The "Rule of Saint Benedict" offered monastic communities a balance between the individual zeal that most often inspires a person to join a monastic community and the formula required to maintain that institution. The rule helps religious communities to establish order and relationships while also encouraging individual asceticism.
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images