Before the conversion of Constantine, martyrs and confessors (those who professed their Christian faith to Roman officials in the expectation of martyrdom) were Christianity’s heroes and spiritual elite.
Martyrdom and openly professing one’s faith before Roman officials were supremely meritorious actions. They were the equivalent of a second baptism, fully atoning for a person’s past sins and guaranteeing salvation. They also allowed Christians to mimic as closely as possible the death and sacrifice of their savior, Jesus.
What they don’t tell you is that Roman officials were actually quite reluctant to put Christians to death for simply professing their faith. After all, the Romans were extremely tolerant to other people’s religions, all they asked is that you include the Emperor in your blessings. Christians were actually placed through a series of stage trials in the hopes of trying to get them to deny their desire to die for their faith. But that’s not to say that they didn’t put many Christians (and others) to the sword.
[Another interesting fact is that, contrary to "Christian history", Christians were never sacrificed in the Roman Colosseum. But I digress...]
The conversion of Constantine virtually eliminated opportunities for martyrdom within the Roman Empire. Thus, it posed a conundrum to those Christians who wished to excel spiritually and to face a tough religious challenge. As a result, ascetics, hermits, and monks, known as the “athletes of God,” grew in popularity during the post-Constantine era.
And here is the rub: The only reason why Christians have such ridiculous rules (i.e. celibacy, self torture, asceticism, etc.) is because Christianity became a state religion. In doing so, the act of martyrdom was removed form their practice (much to their detriment?). They needed something new to replace the act of confession and martyrdom.
Many athletes of God modeled themselves after the remarkably long-lived Antony (c. 255–c. 355), a hermit who lived a life of great asceticism in the deserts of Egypt. Much to the detriment to Anthomy’s lifestyle, he began to gather followers. Antony’s contemporaries in Egypt referred to him and his followers as monachos, or “lonely one.” The word, “monk” in this case, was derived from a derogatory term.
Another Egyptian, named Pachomius (died 346 CE), brought desert hermits together in a communal life and lived under the supervision of an abbot. Pachomius brought people together in Egypt, in order to live a life like St. Anthony. Many preferred this communal aspect more than the lonely style of Anthony, thus was born the foundations of monasticism.
In addition to hermits and monks, various other kinds of religious “virtuosos” flourished in the eastern half of the Roman Empire in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. One such group are the Holy Fools which arose in Syria during the 6th century. It’s leader was Simeon the Fool and they relied on God to guide all of their behavior. They behaved as if they were insane and rejected normal social conventions. When Simeon strolled naked into a women’s bathhouse and was beaten by its inhabitants, one begins to question the intentions of the movement.
Another movement was the Stylite movement. Simeon the Stylite was a 5th century ascetic saint who lived atop a pole for 37 years. Others decided to just eat grass for a living, and son on. Oddly enough, these alternates to martyrdom never caught on, and monasticism flourished, spreading from the eastern half to the western half of the Roman Empire from the 4th century onwards.
Back in Egypt in around 355 CE, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote an account of Antony’s life. This book was the first work of Christian hagiography (i.e., a biography emphasizing a saint’s spiritual attributes and miraculous powers). This work enjoyed wide popularity throughout the empire and spread the ascetic ideal.
Another dessert monk by the name of John Cassian brought back his Egyptian ascetic experiences to the west. He would eventually create an Egyptian style monastery near Marseilles in modern day France called the Abbey of St. Victor, perhaps the first of its kind in the entire west.
Now that we have Abbeys, one has to create rules for how these Abbeys should operate. Enter St. Benedict.
During the 5th and 6th centuries, various monastic rules were composed in the West, but none were to dominate the monastic life more that the Rule(s) of Saint Benedict. It is believed that St. Benedict used Cassian’s Abbey as a model. You might have heard of one of these rules: “Don’t speak unless spoken to”
A sign of monasticism’s growing strength was the election of Pope Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, in 590 CE. He was the first monk to be elected as pope. Gregory I was pope until 604 CE, and practiced his monasticism even after being elected as pope.
Western monasticism, however, lacked some of the austerity found in the Egyptian deserts. Because it was not uncommon for older, often well-off individuals to join monasteries, they functioned rather like retirement communities. It was popular for the elderly who lost a spouse to turn their homes into part retirement community, part monastery of sorts, where the elders could gather and communicate with each other. Sometimes young children were given to monasteries by parents who could not support them. These oblates were raised in the monastic way of life, but did not necessarily practice the asceticism of which St. Anthony would have approved.
Because monks “supposedly” had special relations with God, their prayer were more efficacious. They would receive money and gifts from laypeople who desired the monks to pray on their behalf. It was also not uncommon for the deceased to pass their wealth to these monasteries. Here you begin to see the dollars signs attached to the Christian cross.
Asceticism was supposed to make one more like the angels, who were incorporeal beings, thus needing no sleep, food, or reproduction. Humans would attempt to resemble these characteristics as best they could. Debates were inevitable, especially over celibacy and asceticism. Although it wasn’t clear how strict the celibacy in Christianity had to be, or if it had Classical precedents, they were certainly exceeding the practice of celibacy compared to the laypeople or anyone before them.
Pagans (non-Christians) thought that the practice of celibacy was too extreme. Pagans tended to live a life of moderation, not to too much, not to little. Even the vestal virgins were supposed to have children after 30! This produced a lively debate, indeed just read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
So where does that leave us?
The conversion of Constantine and the end of imperial persecution necessitated a change in Christian heroism. With martyrdom no longer readily available, dedicated Christians eager to excel in their faith began to imitate the example of Antony, a 3rd- and 4th-century Egyptian hermit, abandoning the world and living lives of great austerity and self-deprivation based on the avoidance of food and drink, sleep, and intercourse. During the 4th century, individuals in search of the ascetic ideal came to form communities of monks, living together under the supervision of an abbot and guided by a common written rule. At the same time, church fathers, such as Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, among others, developed arguments concerning the superiority of celibacy to marriage, arguments that would resonate well past the end of the Middle Ages.
Thanks for reading,
Information above comes from Professor Philip Daileader, Ph.D., Harvard University, The College of William and Mary, from his lectures on the European Middle Ages.