Christian History Institute

Sharing our story of faith across the ages

items tagged with monasticism


In Context

  1. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.
    Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480–ca. 550 ), in his Benedictine Rule.
  2. You who dress your walls, and let your fellow-creatures go bare, what will you answer to the judge?
    Basil the Great (ca. 330–379), in a sermon.

Study Modules


26 Aug 2016

The heavens declare the glory of God

by Glenn E. Myers | Issue 119

Greek monasteryPSALM 19 PROCLAIMS, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Psalm 19:1–2). Since the beginning of the church, Christians have affirmed this insight and joined together with the creation pictured in Psalm 19 to worship God. 

Many of those vibrant believers were monks and nuns who set their lives apart for prayer and memorizing Scripture; but these monastic Christians also tended the garden of creation where the Lord had...

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25 May 2013

Become Completely as Fire

by Michael Birkel | Issue 105

A MONASTIC ASKED AN ELDER, “What good work is there that I should do?” And he said to him, “Are not all works equal? Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. And Elijah loved contemplative silence, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. So whatever you see your soul desire in accordance with God, do that, and maintain interior watchfulness.”  (Early monastic story)  

While early Christians from Syria, Palestine, and Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) made significant contributions to the...

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30 Nov 1999

Antony and the Desert Fathers: The Gallery — Getting Their Act Together

by Columba Stewart; John Cassian; Frederica Mathews-Green; Macrina Basil; Marci Rae Johnson | Issue 64

John Cassian (c.365–c.435)  

J ohn Cassian was only a teenager when he, with his friend Germanus, left his home in Scythia Minor (present-day Romania) and joined a monastic community in Bethlehem. One day, an Egyptian monk named Pinufius sought lodging in their monastery. Pinufius filled the young men’s imaginations with stories of the asceticism of the Egyptian desert, making their Bethlehem community seem tepid in comparison.

Soon Pinufius was discovered by a posse of Egyptian monks who had been hot on his trail. He was their abbot, they...

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30 Nov 1989

The Search for a Holy Life

by Thomas Kay | Issue 24

BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX was first and last a monk. Whatever else he did or contributed to Christendom must be relegated to a secondary role. The call to monasticism was for over a thousand years preeminent in Christendom, and Bernard faithfully answered the call. For yet a longer time many people considered the call to seclusion, prayer, contemplation, and a life of rigor and service as the choice will of God—though this vocation was for a select group. Bernard was a leader in this select group. He desired above all to draw near to the heart...

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15 Nov 1990

540 Benedict Writes His Monastic Rule

by Bennett D. Hill | Issue 28

WE HAVE, THEREFORE, TO ESTABLISH A SCHOOL of the Lord’s service, in the institution of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous,” wrote Benedict in the prologue to his Rule. The Rule of St. Benedict is a short document, perhaps thirteen thousand words, yet it has influenced all forms of organized religious life, Protestant and Catholic, in the West.

Reading the Rule

Scholars speculate that Benedict (c. 480–549) wrote the Rule in the early sixth century (a) as a constitution for his own monastery of Monte Cassino between Rome...

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30 Nov 1989

A Chimaera of His Age

by Russell K. Bishop | Issue 24

I AM A KIND OF CHIMAERA of my age, neither cleric nor layman. I have long since stripped off the way of life, but not the habit, of a monk. I do not wish to write about myself what I suppose you have heard from others: what I am doing, what I am up to, the crises in the world I am involved in, indeed the precipices down which I am being cast.”
From a letter by Bernard

Like many a devout Christian saint from Augustine in the fifth century on throughout the entire Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux longed above all else to live a quiet life of...

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15 Feb 1986

Into the Desert: the First Monks

by the Editor of Christian History | Issue 9

SOME PEOPLE THINK that Christian monasticism began in the sixth century with Benedict of Nursia and his Rule of Life. But in fact it goes back far beyond that, to a time before there were monasteries, even before the ‘ desert fathers’ of the third century. Monasticism, as a recognizable and named phenomenon in the church, has no official beginning, no official foundings. It emerged, in several places at once, as a spontaneous development from the various forms of the ascetic life: the tradition of strong self-discipline which had taken...

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30 Nov 1999

The Best There Ever Was

by Mark Galli | Issue 64

CROSSING THE DRY EGYPTIAN DESERT, a band of philosophers finally arrived at the “inner mountain,” the monastic abode of a Christian named Antony. The skeptical scholars asked the illiterate old man to explain the inconsistencies of Christianity, and after they got started, they ridiculed some of its teachings—especially that God’s Son would die on a cross.

Antony, who spoke only Coptic (not Greek, the international language of the day), answered through an interpreter. He began by asking, “Which is better—to confess a cross, or to attribute...

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31 May 1997

The Spirit-Bearers

by John Chryssavgis | Issue 54

MONASTICISM BEGAN ON A SUNDAY MORNING in the year 270 or 271 in an Egyptian village. The Gospel passage read in worship that day included the words “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). In the congregation sat a young man called Antony, who, upon hearing these words, sought a life not merely of relative poverty but of radical solitude.

Antony’s step into the uninhabited desert was little noticed outside, or even inside, his...

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15 Feb 2007

The Original Do, Re, Mi

by David Neff | Issue 93

When the irrepressible nun-turned-nanny Maria taught the Von Trapp children to sing, she began with “Doe, a deer, a female deer, Ray, a drop of golden sun.” Or so Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein portrayed it in their 1959 musical, The Sound of Music.

Do, re, mi is just one of several ways of naming notes (generically called sol-feg or solfeggio) to help singers learn a song rapidly, or even sing it at first sight. This system had its origins in a medieval monastery, where an Italian monk (rather than an Austrian nun) was teaching...

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15 Feb 2007

Re-Monking the Church

by Chris Armstrong | Issue 93

Christians struggling for sanctity in a too-comfortable world should pay attention to this observation by Mark Noll: “For over a millennium, in the centuries between the reign of Constantine and the Protestant Reformation, almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel was done either by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in their Christian life by the monks.” Can Western monasticism's “father,” Benedict, still give us an antidote to cultural...

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15 Feb 2007

Unceasing Prayer in an Uncertain World

by Dennis Martin | Issue 93

The late 800s and early 900s were not a good time for Western Europe. From Rome to the French Riviera and south to Sicily, towns and monasteries reeled from repeated raids by pillaging, enslaving Saracen (Muslim) pirates. North of the Alps, royal government under Charlemagne's successors wavered and faltered, leaving the monasteries along rivers vulnerable to Viking raiders and northern slavers.

These were the real “Dark Ages.” In what we now know as France, local strongmen simply took matters into their own hands. Christian discipline...

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15 Feb 2007

The Emperor's Scholar

by Garry Crites | Issue 93

Born in Northumbria, England, around 740, Alcuin showed intellectual promise from an early age—promise that bore fruit when he entered the cathedral school in York to study under Aelbert. The young scholar did so well in his studies of theology and the liberal arts that, when Aelbert was made bishop of York, Alcuin became the new schoolmaster.

One benefit of being Aelbert's protégé was the opportunity to accompany the bishop on his trips to the continent. There Alcuin met the young Frankish king Charles, who eventually became known as...

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15 Feb 2007

Illuminating Europe

by Thomas O. Kay with Jennifer Trafton | Issue 93

With the best of intentions, a Christian congregation throws its energy and resources into obeying Jesus' command to be salt and light in society. Its members feed the hungry, care for the sick, and strive for social reform. They have scholars and teachers of the highest caliber and even publish their own literature for the wider community. Their spiritual reputation and social connections have earned them the ear of the leaders of the land and a foot in the door of powerful government offices.

They are eager to serve the world, but the...

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15 Feb 2007

A Monk Who Made History

by Garry Crites | Issue 93

In the year 686, a terrible plague swept through the monastery of Jarrow in eastern England. The population was decimated, leaving only two people to sing the daily prayers: the Anglo-Saxon abbot Ceolfrith and a young lad who had been dedicated to the monastic life. Tradition suggests that the boy who sang the Gloria with such passion was Bede, who would grow up to be one of the finest historians of the early Middle Ages.

All Bede knew was the life of a monk. At age seven, his parents sent him to the monastery of Wearmouth, and soon...

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15 Feb 2007

Converting Europe

by Glenn W. Olsen | Issue 93

Around 696, Duke Theodore of Bavaria gave the young bishop Rupert of Worms a grant of land in what is now Austria. A small Benedictine monastery called St. Peter's already existed in the midst of what was left of a Roman town. Rupert made the monastery into a launching pad to evangelize the eastern Alps. He also founded the convent of Nonnberg, the oldest continuously existing female convent in German-speaking lands.

In about 100 years, Salzburg went from being a ruin of a Roman town to being the center of missionary activity and learning...

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15 Feb 2007

A Life of Listening

by Hugh Feiss, OSB | Issue 93

Listen!" wrote Benedict at the beginning of his monastic Rule. Writing around A.D. 540, he offered a way of listening in a setting where God's voice could be heard, where those who wished to seek God through humility and obedience in a community of like-minded Christians could practice the disciplines of prayer without the distractions of family life.

In his prologue, Benedict invites the reader to listen to the voice of God calling him or her to service in prayer, faith, and good works. Such a disciplined life may be difficult at first,...

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15 Feb 2007

The Blessing of Benedict

by Carmen Acevedo Butcher | Issue 93

Beside a lake, a monk wielded a scythe up and down in fluid arcs, clearing a thicket of thorns for a garden. He had hacked at the wild, tangled weeds most of the morning and stood briefly to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes before returning to work. But when he swung the heavy scythe heavenward this time, its iron blade loosened without warning and flew from its wooden handle, landing with a splash far from shore. The dark water swallowed it up, along with his heart. His hand and the abandoned tool handle shielded his eyes against the...

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15 Feb 2007

Radical Christians

by Jennifer Hevelone-Harper | Issue 93

Father Zossima left his monastery during Lent to enter the desert, hoping to find a spiritual father to offer him wisdom. Instead he met a woman, her naked body scorched by the Egyptian sun. Recognizing a life filled with holiness, he knelt and begged her blessing.

Father Zossima left his monastery during Lent to enter the desert, hoping to find a spiritual father to offer him wisdom. Instead he met a woman, her naked body scorched by the Egyptian sun. Recognizing a life filled with holiness, he knelt and begged her blessing.


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15 Feb 2007

From the Editor - Rediscovering Benedict

by Jennifer Trafton | Issue 93

Not long ago a church history professor at a prominent Protestant seminary remarked to us, “No topic touches young evangelical students more than monasticism.” Surprised? We were. Why monasticism? Why now?

In 1996 Kathleen Norris's Cloister Walk, the quiet memoir of a Protestant woman's experience in a Benedictine monastery, became an unexpected New York Times bestseller. In recent years, monastic spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina, a way of meditating on Scripture, have enjoyed newfound popularity among laypeople—seen, for...

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