The 3 Earliest Christian Monastic Orders

In early Christian history, three Church Fathers established monastic orders that lasted more than a thousand years. Learn more about St. Macarius, St. Basil, and St. Benedict!

Jan 22, 2023By Vedran Obucina, PhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA Philosophy

3 early christian monastic orders


While monastic orders are not exclusively Christian, Christian orders speak volumes about the greatness of the human spirit, transcending earthly reality. At the same time, they speak of mankind’s most hidden depths, searching for the source of everything that exists, which is God, at least according to monotheistic teachings.


Monasticism provides clear testimony to the insatiable human need for God. Strength consists in abandoning everything one owns and even one’s own plans for self-realization and greatness, while embracing the complete and unreserved openness brought about by a relationship to the Holy, in this case — to Jesus Christ.


Saint Macarius and the Egyptian Desert Monastic Orders

icon of saint macarius
Icon of Saint Macarius, via


Many people think that Christian monasticism has its roots in  Egypt. But new historical research shows monastic orders came to be almost simultaneously all around the ancient Middle East. Still, Egypt is the cradle of some important monastic orders because of their  leaders who significantly influenced the future of monasticism in the Christian East and West.


There were two kinds of early monastic orders. The first, hermeticism, was a sort of monasticism characterized by solitude, where a person completely withdraws from the world to have a strong religious experience. The other was cenobitism, monasticism organized as a religious order regulated by a rule. Anchorites combine the two forms, following a rule but remaining religious hermits. Some hermits started writing their reflections and produced a recipe for the monastic lifestyle. The most well-known ones are St. Anthony the Great, St. Pahomius, Serapion of Thmuis, and Evagrius Ponticus. Still, none was so relevant for the future development of the monastic orders as St. Macarius.

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In the prime of manhood, St. Macarius left everything that the world could offer him and went into the desert, living there in poverty and self-denial for 65 years; he believed that in man, apart from the physical and mental, there is a supernatural life. Macarius, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, found it in the desert — and he was not the only one.


torment of st anthony
The Torment of St Anthony, by Michaelangelo, c. 1487, via Kimbell Art Museum


During the 4th century, after the end of the Christian persecutions, many young people heard that Jesus said “If you want to be perfect, come sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven! Then come and follow me!” (Mt 19:21). Hearing that call, they left everything and went into the desert to reach the kingdom of heaven.


Macarius decided to become a hermit in his mature years. His decision was not one of momentary, reckless youthful enthusiasm but a mature decision of a man in his 30s who had a trade and a job. He was a baker. He went to the desert to dedicate himself more and more freely to the salvation and perfection of the soul, to the development of a life of grace, in the complete freedom of evangelical poverty.


In constant prayer and contemplation, he strove for perfection, overcoming by renunciation all disorderly inclinations. He filled his days with fasting, work, and prayer. Around his cell, he cultivated a meager piece of land to provide himself with at least the bare necessities for life. The Patriarch of Alexandria even ordained him as a priest so that he could lead others spiritually. At the end of all his penances and fasts, like so many other hermits, he lived to very old age and died a holy death in 398.


Saint Macarius and his Rule 

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Saint Catherine Monastery in Sinai, via Britannica


While St. Macarius was an inspiration, he did not create a rule himself, although one bears his name. It is based on the famous 50 homilies, written in the form of letters to the abbot Simeon and his monks. The content of these homilies is oriented toward the perfection of the spirit. They speak about the consequences of original sin and provide thoughts on how to make oneself free from them through prayer.


The Rule is the synthesis of various other writings, notably by his predecessor St. Pahomius, who wrote short instructions on how to live like a hermit. These ideas were adopted by St. Anthony the Great, the abbot of the Sinai monasteries, who did not write much himself. Still, he was revered immensely by his followers.


The hagiography of St. Anthony was written by St. Athanasius, probably the biggest theologian of the ancient Christian East. This heritage found its way to St. Macarius, who was so inspired by the Egyptian desert fathers that he systematized the lifestyle of the earliest Christian monks.


Saint Basil the Great and the Establishment of the Orthodox Monastic Orders

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Artist’s impression of Basil the Great, via


As a region in central Anatolia, Cappadocia was not so open to Hellenistic influence. It opened up to Christianity due to the missionary work of St. Gregory the Miracle Worker in the 3rd century. However, Cappadocia was a center of Christian activity by the 4th century with great theological minds like St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa living there. Among them, St. Basil the Great is venerated as the author of the monastic rule that still governs the life of Orthodox Christian monks today.


Basil was born in Cappadocia Caesarea to an affluent Christian family known for its Christian spirit. Basilius was weak, shy, and not particularly healthy, but from his youth, he already possessed an authority that emanated from his whole person. As for his higher education, Basil attended the school of rhetoric in his hometown, then trained in Constantinople, and finally Athens. In Athens, he met Gregory of Nazianzus, with whom he would establish a friendship that would last for the rest of his life. Around 356, he returned to his hometown, where he began a rhetorical career, which he would later give up, at the encouragement of his sister Makrina, in order to devote himself entirely to God.


Although he received solid Christian instruction from his family, he was only baptized after some major life decisions. In 358, after his father’s death, he gave up his worldly career, sold his possessions, asked for baptism, and retired to Anesa, to his family’s estate on the river Iris on Pontus, with his mother and sister. His lifestyle was shared by his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa until he got married. Gregory of Nazianzus did not find an ideal of life, but he still enjoyed hospitality in Anesa and contributed to Basil’s formation with his extended stay.


gregory of nyssa icon
Icon of Gregory of Nyssa, via


Basil, took over the diocese’s administration as a priest since the Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, was not suited to a complex situation where the primary tenets of Christianity were being discussed. He immediately began to implement two important goals that would be a priority for his entire life: The fight against the imperial Philo-Homeic policy and the unification of the Eastern Homouusian Churches on the trail of the Nicene Confession and communion with Rome. In this spirit, synods were held in Lampsac (364) and Tiana (366), and the resistance of the city of Caesarea against Emperor Valens (365) was also encouraged.


When Eusebius died in 370, Basil succeeded him as metropolitan of Cappadocia Caesarea, despite his strong opposition to imperial policy. After becoming a bishop, he hastened to side with Athanasius in the fight against Arianism. In return, he received a pledge of communion with the West. His ascetic and charitable activity became even more intense in his new role because he had more significant opportunities and more income. Thus, in 374, he founded a new city outside the city walls of his episcopal seat, the so-called Basiliad, to accept and care for lepers, the injured, the sick, the poor, and pilgrims. This city, which took Basil’s name, presented itself as the realization of the evangelical principles of poverty and charitable love.


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Coin of Emperor Valens, 4 century CE, via the British Museum


As for the intra-church debates, even later attempts by Emperor Valens himself in 372 did not divert Basil from orthodoxy. Even when a new province was created, Cappadocia II, with the main seat in Tiana, Basil did not let things get out taken of his hands. Still, they increased the number of episcopal seats in the area of his jurisdiction. Basil worked with all his might for the unity of the Church, trying to reduce the differences between the bishops of Asia Minor. He supported a moderate dogmatic formula that guaranteed a confession of faith without imposing on different traditions more than what was required by Scripture: the confession of the Nicene Creed and breaking communion with those who considered the Holy Spirit a being while not imposing new formulas.


Basilius would live for a few more years after that, although already in 378 his activity was quite reduced. He would see the death of Emperor Valens, and thus better times for the Church, although there was no final solution to the dispute, which would happen later at the Council of Constantinople in 381. He died on January 1, 379.


The Rule for Orthodox Monastic Orders

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Greek Orthodox monks praying, by RichardMC, via Pixabay


After traveling in Syria and Egypt where monasticism had spread, Basil compiled a “dossier” of 1,500 New Testament lines, the so-called “Moral Rules”, a summary of Christian duties concerning the crisis of the time. At the same time, he devoted himself, together with Gregory of Nazianzus, to the study of Origen’s thought, extracting exegetical and philosophical methodology from his works, as a result of which his work the Philokalia was created.


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Rule of St Benedict, 8th-century copy,


Ascetic communities, even those that were formed before him and were relatively independent of him, nevertheless relied on him and at the same time gave him support. They invited him to answer their questions regarding the interpretation of the Gospel, which gave rise to the “Asceticon”, a collection of answers.


This edition would be called the Little Asceticon, in contrast to the Big One, which was created a little later. Both Asceticons do not resemble a formal rule but a form of questions and answers. Later, it would be translated into Latin and, as such, used by St. Benedict and St. Cassian to form their western monastic orders.


It is important to emphasize that the Rule of St. Basil carries his name because of his organizational skills and not because he invented all the rules. Basil gathered the monastic principles from the dawn of Christianity until his day and systematized them. Furthermore, his rules were suggestions rather than obligations. Only under Theodor Studita would these rules become an obligatory way of life for Orthodox monastic orders.


 Saint Benedict

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Stained glass window depicting Saint Benedict, via


Saint Benedict is called the father of Western monasticism because he introduced the monastic way of life to the Western Church and gave it important guidelines. Pope Paul VI proclaimed him the patron of Europe on October 24, 1964, wishing to recognize him because he left immeasurable treasures to the whole of Europe with his Rule and his activities in verious fields, especially religion and culture.


Saint Benedict was born around 480 in Nursia (today it is Norcia near Perugia, Italy), together with his twin sister Scholastica, also a saint. His parents sent him to study to become a lawyer, but he stopped his studies in Rome and withdrew into solitude. He lived for some time in a community of ascetics in the hills near Subiaco. Still, he wanted to build an even greater personal spirituality, so he withdrew into complete solitude, living in a cave, and spending three years there.


People started talking about his sanctity, so monks, or hermits who lived in the community, came from a nearby monastery and asked him to become their abbot because theirs had died. Saint Benedict agreed, but when he came to them, he was quite disappointed because he felt that the first rapture of life in the community had weakened, and indiscipline and corruption had begun to creep in. He decided to restore order, but the monks tried to poison him because they couldn’t stand such a strict leader.


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Courtyard of Monte Cassino, via Monte Cassino


Disappointed with this state of affairs, he left them for Subiaco, where he founded twelve small monasteries and appointed twelve superiors, supervising everything himself, and thus organizing a solid community in which he introduced order and discipline. They would come to be called the Benedictines. The brothers accepted him, but his work caused envy among others, so he left in 529. On the hill of Monte Cassino, between Rome and Naples, with his brothers, he built a large monastery and two churches.


Monte Cassino became a significant religious and cultural center. In it, the Benedictines, under Benedict’s strict supervision, truly lived a life full of obedience, brotherly love, and idealism. Their main motto was: Ora et labora! (Pray and work!). The Benedictines spent a lot of time in prayer, but they also engaged in physical work: they cultivated the fields and gardens, and were involved in various crafts, copying religious texts, and doing other helpful work.


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Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica and Two Companions in a Landscape, Jean Baptiste de Champaigne, 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons


From its construction down to the present day, the Monte Cassino monastery has experienced much destruction due to the Lombards and the Saracens, earthquakes (in the 14th century), and looting (French, Neapolitans, Piedmontese). In addition, during the Second World War, Nazi soldiers were stationed there, so the Allies completely destroyed this cultural monument in February and March 1944. It was finally restored in 1949.


The sister of St. Benedict — St. Scholastica also followed her brother in everything, which is why Benedict founded a women’s order, also called the Benedictines, and built a monastery for them at the foot of Monte Cassino, and appointed St. Scholastica as an abbess. Thus, Scholastica became the mother of Western nunneries, accepting the Rule of St. Benedict. She died in 542, and her remains are now in France. Saint Benedict died on March 21, 547. Part of his remains are in the restored church of Monte Cassino, and the rest of him is in France.


The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Rule for Western Monastic Orders

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Stained glass depicting Benedictine monks, via


Drawing from monastic sources, Benedict confirmed his fidelity to tradition; he respected and imitated the monastic orders that preceded him. We can safely say that he brought together the monastic tradition of Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, and central Gaul. In the Rule, the influence of Pachomius, Basil, Augustine, Cassian, the monasteries of the Lerin islands, and other existing western monastic rules are recognizable. Church councils in the first half of the 6th century also significantly influenced Benedict’s Rule; it was at them that the matter of monastic rules and discipline were intensively discussed and decided upon.


He also had a strong relationship to the Teacher’s Rule (the Regula Magistri), which Benedict used extensively. This is not surprising. It was common for people to use other orthodox writings during this period without citing them.


Benedict did not write his Rule all at once, but over an extended period, from the time he arrived at Monte Cassino in 529 until the end of his life. Knowledge of the rich monastic tradition of the East and the West, as well as his own experience in the community, thus merged into the final form of the Rule.


stone figures christian monks monastic orders
Stone figures of Christian monks, via pixabay


The monastic Rule (lat. Regula Monachorum), is a collection of regulations, advice, and incentives that regulate fraternal life in the community and direct each monk on his personal path of conversion. Rooted in the Holy Scriptures, it remains open to the action of the Spirit: either by the examples of the lives of the holy Fathers or their written works or by the teaching of the community’s abbot. It is, therefore, not surprising that Benedict would characterize his work as a modest Rule for Beginners.


However, although “unfinished,” compliance with the rules is binding; precisely because it is the beginning of monastic life; it is a step that must not be skipped. The monastic rules were created because spiritual life can occur only when it is regulated. In the image of the order God inscribed in his work of creation, the Rule reveals and watches over the positive, constructive, and healing power of an ordered life. Thus, it supports inner stability and restores peace, without which it is difficult to cope with the demands of conversion. Unsurprisingly, the word peace has become synonymous with monastic life.

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By Vedran ObucinaPhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA PhilosophyVedran is a Croatian political scientist, historian, and theologian. He is an Old-Catholic priest and is interested in the history of religions and philosophy. He is also very active in religious peacebuilding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Regensburg; an MA in political science from the University of Zagreb; and an MA in Theology with a BA in philosophy from Old-Catholic Seminary. He writes about world religions, their histories, and rituals, as well as the history of philosophical ideas.