Church Established: Monasticism



Each of the men discussed last week was, at some point in his life, a monk. What is monasticism? Why would a man (or woman) leave their homes and lives and give up all property and the privilege of marriage and having children to become a monk?


Historic perspective:


  1. Why did men seek the monastic life? In the early days of Christianity, it was hard and dangerous simply to be a Christian. By the 3rd century, Christianity had become a respectable religion. As a respectable religion, many joined with only lip service. No longer called upon at any moment to become martyrs, Christians became wealthy. It was hard to tell a Christian from a pagan. Compare and contrast with today! Those who left for the monastic life wanted something more. They wanted to live for God alone, to love Him alone, undistracted by worldly possessions and other life successes. They withdrew to a life of undisturbed prayer, worship, and meditation. Discuss this sentence: The monk was the martyr of the 4th century.


  1. Early monasticism took three forms and all had appeared in Egypt, the deserts of which were the home of a vast majority of the monks. Egypt became known as the Second Holy Land because of its many monks and monasteries.
    1. Hermit monks – living by themselves in huts or caves, according to their own rules. St. Anthony the Great was the prototype of the hermit-monk.
    2. Community Life Monks – living together in a village-like area known as a monastery. They prayed alone, but ate, worked, worshipped, and lived together according to the rules of an abbot, the leader of the monastery. The pioneer for the community of monks was Pachomius of Egypt. The work of Pachomius was furthered by St. Basil with his set of rules still followed today in the East, while his order was used as the basis for the Benedictine Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia in the West.
    3. Semi-hermetic monks – living in loosely-knit groups of 2-6 monks under the guidance of a superior – a middle road pioneered by Macarius of Egypt.


  1. The “center” of monasticism in the east shifted several times thru the centuries, often because of conquests. Find each of these places on a map.
    1. Egypt, the Second Holy Land of the 3rd and 4th centuries.
    2. Palestine in the 5th and 6th centuries under Euthymius the Great and his disciple Sabbas. St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai and the Monastery of Sabbas in the Jordan valley exist to this day.
    3. Constantinople with the rise of the Byzantine empire and its great monastery of Studium.
    4. Mt. Athos, a rocky peninsula off the coast of Thessalonika in northern Greece, since 964 AD.


Some “sample” well-known monastics in biography format:

This list is not meant, by any means, to be exhaustive. There have been thousands and thousands of monks over the centuries, any one of whose lives would put the lives of most of us to shame. Many of the great saints of the Church discussed historically elsewhere were also monastics, since many monks would leave their monasteries to become preachers, theologians, and bishops. But, to get a flavor of monastic life:


1. St. Anthony the Great:     About 250 years after the time of Jesus, a young man in Egypt named Anthony listened to the Gospel from Matthew 19:16-26. Reread it now. Anthony heard Jesus’s words to the rich young ruler. His parents had died; he cared for his younger sister. He was very rich. The words of Jesus spoke to Anthony. He sold his riches, found his sister a Christian home, and went off to the desert to live in a cave. There he spent his days and nights in prayer and Bible study. He at little food – once every day or two or four. He had many battles with demons. He even got real bruises fighting them. Do you remember Jesus’s battle with the devil after His baptism? Finally, after many years, a light shone through the roof of the cave; from then on his pain was gone and so were the demons. Anthony thanked God for the strength He had given him.

                        He decided to go even farther from other men to be alone with God. He found an old fort on the banks of the Nile. He continued in fasting and prayer. Anthony thought he would never see another human being again. But, after twenty years, other men began to seek out this holy hermit in the desert. They began to leave the cities to seek God alone; they became known as monks from the Greek word for alone. Each lived in a cave or grotto alone; only occasionally would they come together for prayer. Many came to Anthony to live near him and learn from his teachings and example. Because of this, Anthony is known as the Father of Monasticism.

                        As Anthony grew closer to God, people would come to him for prayer. A ruler in Egypt was healed of blindness; a girl who was paralyzed was healed. His wisdom was so well-known that Emperor Constantine the Great wrote to Anthony for advice. Anthony died in 356 AD. He asked the other monks to bury him secretly; they did, and his resting place is unknown to this day!


2.   St. Gerasimus: St. Gerasimus left his home to live as a hermit. He was a kind and gentle man. Animals loved St. Gerasimus. One day, a sick lion with a thorn in its paw visited St. Gerasimus. The saint pulled out the thorn and bathed and bandaged the swollen paw. The lion became his friend and followed the saint like a dog. Each day the lion was told to go with the donkey on its trip to the Jordan River for grazing and water and guard the donkey. But, one day, the lion fell asleep. A caravan of merchants came by and saw the donkey, seeming to be all alone. They took the donkey and rode off. When the lion woke up, he was ashamed and went back to St. Gerasimus without the donkey. The saint thought the lion had eaten the donkey! After that, the lion would carry the barrel of water that the donkey used to carry. One day, a soldier bought the monastery a donkey and the lion was set free.

Much later, the caravan of merchants who had taken the donkey passed by again. The donkey was leading three camels loaded with goods. Suddenly, a lion leaped out and grabbed the donkey’s halter with its teeth. The merchants and camels ran away in fear. The lion led the donkey back to the monastery. The camels, loaded with wheat, followed the donkey and the lion. St. Gerasimus told the lion he was sorry he had accused him unjustly of eating the donkey.

The lion stayed with the monks until the death of St. Gerasimus. It went to the grave of its friend and roared and roared. Then it lay down and died.


3.St. Eugenia: About 300 years after the time of Christ, the ruler of all Egypt, named Philip, had a daughter named Eugenia. Philip was an honest and fair ruler and raised his daughter to love all people and treat them with courtesy and honor. Even her name, Eugenia, means “courtesy”. Eugenia was also learned in Latin and Greek, unusual for a girl in that day. She grew to be very beautiful and many men wanted to marry the beautiful princess.

Eugenia had secretly become a believer in Christianity. One day, she went in her carriage outside the city with her two faithful servants, Protas and Iakinthos. In the dar, the three slipped out of the carriage near a Christian church. When the carriage returned to her father in the city, Eugenia was gone!

Eugenia had become a Christian, along with her two servants. They went to a monastery to devote their lives to the Lord. But girls were not allowed in monasteries. So, Eugenia cut her hair and dressed like a boy and took the name Eugenius. The monk Eugenius soon became known for his holiness and later became abbot of the monastery. No one knew that “he” was really a woman.

One day, a rich and noble woman of Alexandria came to Eugenius for prayer. She was very sick. Eugenius anointed her with Holy Oil and she was made well. After this, Melanthia fell in love with the monk Eugenius, thinking he was a man. When Eugenius would not marry her, Menlanthia called the soldiers, claiming she had been raped. Eugenius was taken before her father Philip and there showed everyone that she was really Eugenia, his daughter. Soon Philip and the whole city became Christians.

But, the happy day was short. The Emperor sent a man to kill Philip. The new governor of Egypt began the persecution of Christians. Among those arrested were Eugenia and her two faithful servants. The soldiers took her to the temple of Artemis and ordered her to worship. Eugenia knelt down and prayed and the whole temple fell down. They then tried to drown her, but Eugenia walked on the water. Next they starved her in prison, but the angels fed her. Finally Eugenia would die a martyr


4. St. Mary of Egypt: Mary was born in Alexandria in the land of Egypt. She was a very beautiful and very rich girl. She didn’t believe in God and said that she could do anything she wanted.

One day, Mary sailed to Jerusalem with her friends looking for fun. Now, it happened to be the time of the feast of the Ascension, and many Christians were going into the Church built over the tomb of Jesus to pray. Mary was curious. What were they doing? She tried to enter the church, but an invisible force pushed her back. She tried again and again, with no luck. She wondered why she could not enter the church. Could it be her sins that were pushing her back?

Suddenly, Mary began to change. She looked at an icon of the Virgin Mary and was ashamed of the way she had been living. She knelt before the icon and cried her heart out. God’s voice came to her and told her to go into the desert beyond the Jordan. At first, life in the desert was hard, remembering all the fun she used to have with her friends and her fine clothes and good food. In the desert, she was hungry and thirsty and had only rags to wear. But the Lord sent her wisdom and peace in her soul.

After fifty years, Mary saw a man walking in the desert. It was a monk, Zossima, who had come to pray. Mary asked Zossima to return the next year on Holy Thursday to give her communion for the first time since her repentance. Then Mary disappeared into the desert.

The next year, Zossima returned as he had promised. He waited on the banks of the river, which was flooded. How would Mary get across? The he saw her on the other shore. Mary prayed and walked across the water! Zossima gave her the beloved communion and Mary prayed the prayer of St. Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…” Can you sing this great hymn? Do it now. Mary asked Zossima to return the next year.

The next year Zossima came and found Mary’s body; she was dead. She had written in the sand that she wished to be buried her, in the desert, where she had found the Lord in her heart. Zossima sang the memorial service for Mary, but he was an old man and could not dig the grave. Suddenly a lion came and dug the grave with his claws. Thus, Zossima and the lion buried Mary’s body while her soul went to be with her Lord in heaven.



5. St. Daniel the Stylite: Daniel was dedicated to God even before his birth by his parents. He was born in the town of Maratha. Even as a child, Daniel showed great holiness and love for the Lord. When he was 12 years old, Daniel went to live in a monastery and, a few years later, took his permanent vows as a monk.

One day, on a trip with his abbot, Daniel saw St. Simeon, the first pillar-saint, on top of his pillar. Daniel climbed up the pillar and was given a blessing by Simeon. Later, Daniel again visited St. Simeon and lived near him for many days. So it came to be that, after ten years in the monastery, Daniel decided to imitate the holy life of St. Simeon. He nearly froze to death on his first pillar-home, so the Emperor built him a higher and better one – two pillars fastened together with a shelter on top. There Daniel lived until he was 84 years old, in spite of wind, rain, and frost.

The life of a pillar-saint, or stylite, seems very strange to us today. But, in those days, around 500 AD many men who wanted to give their lives to God would live alone in a cave – or on top of a pillar. There, after many years of prayer and fasting, the holy man would be visited by the sick, who climbed his pillar to be anointed. Daniel also taught the crowds that came to the foot of his pillar, teaching them about love and care of the poor. Even the Emperor would come to Daniel for his wisdom and advice.

Only once did Daniel leave the pillar. A brother of the queen had tried to take the crown of the true emperor. The bishop asked Daniel to go to the wicked brother, who was spreading Arianism in the Church. Daniel came down; he had not walked for so many years that he had to be carried to the palace. Crowds of loving people followed the holy man. The usurper would not let Daniel in, but later he came to Daniel’s pillar. There, Daniel told him he had done wrong in the sight of God and God would punish him. A little while later, the true emperor came back with his army and the wicked brother had to flee for his life.

Daniel lived for many more years, with both common people and kings visiting his pillar. He was buried at the foot of the pillar that had been his home.


6. St. Sergius of Radonezh: Over 600 years ago in the land of Russia was born a boy named Bartholomew. His family had once been rich, but their wealth had been stolen and their town burned by the Mongolian Tartars. They lived like peasants, but there was always a place for the stranger to eat and sleep in their home. Bartholomew grew and went to school, but he somehow couldn’t learn to read. He was very sad about this; his father was very angry. One day, while he was seeking a lost herd of horses, Bartholomew saw a monk sitting under a tree. The boy told the monk about his difficulties with reading. The holy monk gave the boy a small loaf of blessed bread and told him that the bread was as sweet as the Holy Scriptures would be when he could read them. Bartholomew ate the bread; it was sweet as honey. The monk told him not to worry about reading any more. Bartholomew invited the monk to spend the night with his family. The monk and Bartholomew’s family read the Scriptures that night. Bartholomew could read perfectly!

When Bartholomew grew up, he wanted to be a monk. But his parents were very poor. Who would care for them when he left? So, Bartholomew stayed with his parents and cared for them until they died. Then he went into the woods, and built a small hut and chapel. At first, his older brother, Stephen, also a monk, went with Bartholomew. But, Stephen did not like the wilderness and returned to his monastery. Bartholomew was alone. For months he saw no one. He devoted himself to prayer.

There was little to eat so deep in the wilderness. One day, a hungry brown bear, taller than Bartholomew, came to visit. There was a piece of bread on the table. The man shared it with the bear and they became friends. Later, a visiting monk gave him the new name Sergius.

Word reached the outside world of the holy hermit living in the forest. Other monks came to build huts near his and learn from his example. Soon the bishop named him abbot of the monastery that had grown around him. This was a different type of monastery – a monastery in the wilderness. But, Sergius never ordered the other monks to do anything; he led only by example. He served his brother monks, helping in all the work of the monastery. He was so humble, that people often mistook him for a servant. Once a peasant came to meet the famous monk, Sergius. The other monks pointed out the old, shabby man tending the garden. The peasant was very upset; this could not possibly be Sergius. Then, a prince rode up on his richly decorated horse. He dismounted and bowed before Sergius. The peasant realized his mistake and begged the forgiveness of the famous monk.

Once the Grand Prince Dmitri, ruler of all Russia, came to Sergius. He told Sergius about the Moslem Tartars massing their armies to destroy the Christian army and capture the women and children, forcing them to give up their faith and customs.  Sergius told the prince to humbly offer the Tartars peace and all the riches of the land. But the Tartars continued to gather their armies. The Russian army was small and weak. Dmitri was sure they could not win. But, Sergius told Prince Dmitri to trust the Lord. God would help him win, because he was fighting not for riches but for the heart and soul of his people. And so Prince Dmitri went to battle, a small force against the mighty Tartars. For the first time in Russian history, the Tartars were defeated! Russia was saved.


7. St. Seraphim of Sarov Many years ago there lived in the land of Russia a boy named Prohor. Prohor was very sick as a child, but the Theotokos told him in a dream that he would soon be well. In a few days, a procession with an icon of the Theotokos came by his house. His mother took Prohor out and, when he venerated the icon, he was healed. Soon Prohor wanted to be a monk.

When he was a young man, Prohor set out on a journey. His mother gave him a metal cross. He wore this cross the rest of his life. He walked through the forests of evergreen trees, with streams and flowers and meadows, and finally came to the great monastery of Sarov. There Prohor entered as a novice. He worked in the kitchens; he read and prayed. Especially, he liked to carve crosses out of cedar wood. Finally, young Prohor became a full monk and was given the name Seraphim.

After several years, Seraphim decided to live alone in a hut in the woods – a life of constant prayer. He had only one room with a wood stove. All kinds of animals came to visit. Even a bear became his friend and brought honey. Seraphim fed the bear bread with his own hands. He became so close to God that people said his face shone.

Some thieves came to steal Seraphim’s riches. They beat him up, but found only a few potatoes. Seraphim recovered from his beating but, from that day on, Seraphim was bent and stooped and had to walk with a cane.

Finally, God told Seraphim to move back to the monastery. People all over Russia had heard of this holy man and came for his prayers and advice. Thousands were healed when Seraphim prayed for them. A little girl named Natasha was badly burned with boiling water. She went to sleep with a picture of Seraphim in her arms; that night Seraphim appeared to her in a dream and Natasha was healed. She later visited Seraphim and recognized the old man of her dream. It is impossible to tell all the stories of people who loved Seraphim, the monk who shone with the love of Jesus in the forests of Russia.



  1. Begin with a review of previous monastics studied. Which can the students name? Basil, Gregory, Gregory, Macarius, Ephraim, John Chrysostom…What can they remember about their lives?
  2. Now compare and contrast the lives of the monastics studied today. Which were hermits? Which lived in large monasteries? Both?
  3. From the examples above, how can a monk influence the world around him? Brainstorm a bit here – prayer, healing, teaching (even at the foot of a pillar), discipleship, advice to the rulers, martyrdom.
  4. Monasticism is not dead today. Why would someone today feel called to be a monk? Would it be different from 1000 years ago? Do you feel called to be a monk?


Quiz questions:

  1. List at least 5 monastics and at least 2 details of their lives.
  2. List the three types of monastic life.
  3. List at least three centers of Orthodox monasticism throughout history.