Monasticism and its origin in the West

Since the beginning of Christianity, there have been men and women called to live an ascetic vocation.  Asceticism, or monasticism, is a life removed from worldly pleasures, riches and temptations of the flesh.  Monastic practices include intense fasting, prayer and isolation from the outside world.  The roots of monastic life are deep and there were many men and women who made significant contributions to its development.  None of these contributors should be discounted or undervalued, however one stands out as the father of Western Monasticism as it is today, St. Benedict.

The monastic movement began in the deserts of Egypt.  The most well-known and best documented monk of that time, St. Antony of Egypt (251-356 AD), is known as the “Father of Monasticism”.[1]  Living in complete isolation as a hermit for 20 years and never seeing another person, St. Antony honed the skills of an ascetic lifestyle.  When he was discovered, people came to him to learn his way of life and he eventually set up monasteries for his followers which was the beginning of official Christian monasticism.[2]

The further development of Christian monasticism is owed to many great men who each contributed to what monasticism would eventually become.  St. Pachomius (292-348 AD) established “cenobitic monasticism” which emphasized community life with structure.  There was a superior in charge and each minute of prayer and discipline was regulated.[3]  St. Basil (330-379 AD), St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD) and St. Athanasius (296-373 AD) all contributed to the spread of monasticism throughout the East.[4]

St. Martin of Tours (ca. 315-397 AD) is largely considered the founder of “Western Monasticism” and is credited with bringing the practices of the Desert Fathers, who mimicked the monastic practices of St. Anthony, into Gaul, which would then spread and flourish throughout Europe.  St. Martin was born to pagan parents and joined the Roman army at the age of fifteen.  With the ending of Christian persecution, the once underground Christian communities were more visible and Martin was exposed to the teachings of Christ and what it meant to live the Gospel message.  He began his conversion during this time of Christian emergence.  While in the army, Martin came across a freezing beggar.  He tore his cloak in half and shared it with the beggar.  Later that night, Jesus came to Martin in a dream wearing the half of the cloak he had given to the man.  This experience solidified his conversion and he was baptized at the age of eighteen.  He eventually left the army and began his new life as a pioneer of Western Monasticism.[5]

The exact events and their order after Martin’s departure from the army are unclear, however it is known that he eventually retreated to an island called Gallinaria where he lived the life of a hermit.  After several years, in 360, he was given a piece of land in Gaul by Bishop Hilary and it was on this land he built the first Western monastery.[6]  In one biography of Martin is a description of life within one of his monasteries: “No one owned any personal property; it was forbidden to buy or to sell; each one kept to his cell, although it is also noted that they gathered for communal prayer.  They all took their meals together, ‘after the fast was ended’…No one drank wine, except for those who were ill, and the chronicle says that ‘most of them wore clothes of camel’s hair.’…No craft was practiced there except that of the copyist, and that was assigned to the younger men.  The older ones were left free for prayer.’”[7]

The Rule

With the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312, it was possible for cenobitic monastic communities to begin building more permanent structures, allowing monasticism to take root in the West and grow.  It became clear than in order to sustain these monasteries and foster stability and growth, there would need to be a “rule of life” for each community.    A rule of life is list of rules and regulations by which an individual or community is to live.  When compared to the worldly ways of personal conduct a Christian rule will seem stringent and restrictive.  However,  a rule is not intended to reduce Christian living to a mere following of specific rules, rather they intended to reduce human error and make living according to God’s will more accessible, thus creating a liberating freedom.  By living according to a rule of life, one becomes closer to God and lives in service to others as the Gospel message instructs.[8]

In the beginning of the fourth Century, there were a number of rules written for these various monasteries.[9]  St. Basil wrote his rule in three stages through the middle of the 4th Century.  In it he lists the motivations for living a monastic life: love of God and love of neighbor.  He quoted scripture that could be applied to monastic living.  What distinguishes Basil’s rule is “its human moderation, which avoids all unnecessary severity.  A certain flexibility and adaptability allows it to be applied to various forms of monastic life.”[10]  Basil additionally emphasized the need for work.  He differed from some more extreme types of asceticism in that he regulated fasting and eating to be appropriate to what God requires “Both fasting and eating must be used in the way proper to piety; so that when we ought to be fulfilling God’s commandment through fasting, we fast, and again when the commandment of God requires food to strengthen the body, we eat, not as gluttons, but as God’s workers.”[11]

Around 397 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a rule for his monasteries.  Augustine wrote rules for both male and female monastics which included some overlap.  His rule is comprised of three texts – “Regulations for a Monastery,” “Rule for Nuns,” and “Reprimand to Quarrelling Nuns”.  Like Basil, Augustine begins with the motivations for monastic life based on Scripture “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of those things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” (Acts 4:32)  Augustine’s rule addresses just the basics such as regulation of prayer and the ownership of private property.  He also addressed issues regarding discipline when one fell into lust, recognizing that it would likely occur when men and women were together.  While some monastics viewed their lack of hygiene as a sign of holiness and self-sacrifice, Augustine encouraged appropriate self-care without going to either extreme.  Also recognizing that when people live together in community, problems inevitably arise, he provided guidelines on how to address relational and communal issues.[12]

Another widely used rule in the West is from an anonymous author and unknown date called the “Rule of the Master”.  Like Basil and Augustine, the Master begins with the motivation of monastic life.  However, rather than the motivation being love of God and love of neighbor, the Master believes monastic life is driven by the salvation of one’s soul.  He focuses on the fact that one will eventually die and face judgement and that living the monastic life will help to ensure a life that followed the path to salvation.  Differing from Basil and Augustine, the Master spends a great deal of time emphasizing the role of the abbot of the monastery.  The abbot is first “the representative of Christ in the monastery” and his performance as abbot will be judged by God through the actions of his monks.  Whatever is, “lacking in the sheep will be laid to the blame of the shepherd.”[13]  It was the abbot’s job to be a perfect example of Christ in all things and to discipline monks when they strayed from the rule.  With its emphasis on salvation, the Rule of the Master was not a lax one and tended toward rigidity.  The Master also placed an emphasis on humility which became a main focus as the Father of Western Monasticism emerged.[14]

St. Benedict of Nursia and His Rule

The primary resource for information regarding St. Benedict (480 – 547 AD) is in Book 2 of the Dialogues by Gregory the Great (d. 604).  The genre of Dialogues is hagiography which was a popular genre of Christian literature of the time.  Hagiography is concerned with emphasizing the holiness and miracles surrounding the Christian figure and not necessarily the facts of their lives.  However, hagiography should not be considered complete fiction either, rather it should be read carefully so as to avoid potential problems.  Gregory’s account of St. Benedict’s life is as close to a true biography as possible.[15]

St. Benedict was born in Nursia and was sent to Rome for his formal education.  While in Rome, he witnessed the vices of his classmates and wanted to escape the same fate.  “He was afraid that worldly knowledge might cause him to fall into a depth of hell.  So, abandoning his literary studies and leaving his family home and inheritance, he sought to please God alone.  He went looking for a monastic habit so that he could lead a holy life.”[16]  He was given a monastic habit by a monk named Subiaco and retreated to a cave for three years.[17]  In his isolation, Benedict was greatly tempted by Satan.  “The temptations of the flesh are said to have been so strong that the monk rolled naked in thorns in order to be rid of them.  As a result he obtained from God a perfect tranquility that showed the success of his ascetical efforts.”[18]

Eventually word got out about Benedict’s holiness and monks from a local monastery asked him to be their abbot.  Fearing the intensity of his own discipline would not please the relaxed approach of the monks, he was reluctant, however he eventually agreed.  His fears were confirmed as his monks grew angry with him.  “They saw that under this man the unlawful would not be lawful for them, and it pained them to leave aside their habits.  It was hard for them to have to change their attitudes.  For the life of the good is always a heavy burden for those with bad habits.”[19]  After an attempt on his life by the monks, Benedict left and went on to found several other monasteries around Subiaco including his most well-known monastery at Monte Caassino which inspired him to write his rule. [20]

Benedict’s rule differed from the other rules that came before it because it reflected a balance that had not yet been achieved in any other rule.  The rules of the early fathers were either general and basic or, like the Rule of the Master, overly rigid.  “It strikes the right balance between sufficient legislative specificity and robust ascetical teaching.”[21]  It is the rule of St. Benedict, in its balance and emphasis on humility, obedience and hospitality that would come to be adopted by monastics for centuries to come.

Benedict’s Rule contains 73 chapters and can be broken down into the Legislative Directives: Role of the Abbot, Other Monastic Offices, and Organization of the Monastery and the Ascetical Teachings: The Tools of Good Works, Personal Behavior, Virtues and Discipline, Prayer, and Hospitality.[22]  The themes of humility, obedience and hospitality run throughout all of the chapters and are all related to one another and crucial to the monastic life.

Borrowing from the thoughts of the Master regarding humility, Benedict constructed a 12 rung ladder of humility by which his monks would climb to spiritual perfection.  This ladder of humility evokes the imagery of the Jacob’s ladder to heaven in Genesis 28:10-22.  For Benedict, the virtues of humility and obedience are intimately bound, so the steps reflect humility through obedience.  For example, step 3 says, “A monk submits out of love of God to his superior.”[23]  Rather than mastering each step and moving on, Benedict saw the steps as building blocks with mastered skills foundational to the next, subsequent step.  After mastering all 12 steps, the monk has obtained spiritual perfection.[24]

Three of the top four steps require control of the voice and the tongue.  Benedict regards speech as a means to sin so the less one speaks, the less likely he is to commit certain sins.  The control of speech also appeals to humility as it keeps the monk from feeling self-important as if he has something to say that everyone should hear.  Two of the steps require a self-control of laughter since it can be a distraction for monastics and can interrupt silence and prayer.  This attention to speech and laughter also places the importance of the community over the importance of one’s own self.

For Benedict, obedience to one’s abbot is obedience to Christ.  In Chapter 5 of his rule regarding obedience, Benedict quotes Luke 10:16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me”.[25]  This obedience is born out of a love and devotion to Christ as the abbot is the representative of Jesus in the monastery.  “They no longer live by their own judgment, giving in to their whims and appetites; rather they walk according to another’s decisions and directions, choosing to live in monasteries and to have an abbot over them.  In return, as a representative of Christ, the abbot is required to care for his flock as a shepherd.[26]  His sole job is to help his monks obtain eternal salvation and because of that responsibility, he should exemplify Christ’s teachings and rebuke those who go astray.  He should also treat all of his monks equally, regardless of their background, as Christ treated everyone with the same equal love.  “The abbot should avoid all favoritism in the monastery.  He is not to love one more than another unless he finds someone better in good actions and obedience.  A man born free is not to be given higher rank than a slave who becomes a monk, except for some other good reason.”[27]

Benedict predicted that a monk’s greatest risk of sin would be in disobedience to his abbot, so he laid out guidelines on how the abbot should work with the erring monk to bring him back into accordance with the rule.  These guidelines include a progression of steps from public chastisement, to physical punishment to excommunication, meaning a temporary or permanent extraction from the community rather than from the Faith.  There is a system in place for older monks to mentor younger monks in order to help them on a path to reunification with the monastery.   Since it is the sick who need a physician rather than the healthy, the abbot should use the skill of the physicians he has on hand, “that is, mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”[28]

While Benedict envisioned his monasteries as being completely self-sufficient and his monks as being prepared to avoid the outside world altogether, he did not forbid any contact with the world outside whatsoever.  He prepared his monks for how to deal with trips outside of the monastery.  He also placed great emphasis on hospitality to the guests that would inevitably visit.  “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share in our faith and to pilgrims.”[29]  Since all were to be welcomed as if they were Christ himself, great care was taken with visitors including washing their hands and feet, breaking fast to eat with them, reading the Word of God to them, and praying with them.  Even greater concern was shown to the poor as they more explicitly represented Jesus Christ.

Why St. Benedict is the Father of Western Monasticism

Not long after the death of St. Benedict of Nursia, his monastery at Montecassino was destroyed by the Lombards in 577.  The displaced monks retreated to Rome and from there the Benedictine monks did not experience a resurgence for some time.  Pope St. Gregory the Great, inspired by the Benedict’s Rule, wrote his Life of St. Benedict which became a popular read.  The popularity of the book helped to influence those who would later revive Benedict’s Rule.[30]

From approximately 600-750 A.D., each monastery had their own rule which they would adopt from various resources.  There was no real uniformity in monastic life.  Around 750, the son of a count was born who would eventually become a monk.  He was so inspired by Benedict of Nursia that he adopted his name and became Benedict of Aniane.  Displeased with his experience with monastic life in the existing monasteries, he became convinced that reviving the Rule of Benedict and adhering to it strictly was the way to reform monasticism.

Benedict of Aniane began to gain a following and in 792, he and his group of monks obtained the protection of Emperor Charlemagne and were then able to begin a process of reforming monasteries to conform to the Rule of Benedict.  In 802, Charlemagne required that all monasteries adhere to the Rule of Benedict and have a copy of the text within the monastery.[31]  During this time Benedict became friends with Charlemagne’s son Louis who would eventually succeed his father and support Benedict in his reform of monasticism.  He was appointed as the abbot of Maursmunster, a monastery which was intended to serve as a model for reformed Benedictine monastic living.[32]

In 816 a synod of bishops and abbots, including Benedict of Aniane, was called at Aachen in order to create and implement legislation to make all monostatic communities conform to Benedict’s rule, making them uniform.  “There can be little doubt that the Aachen statutes were the work of Benedict of Aniane.  Their purpose was to make the Rule of Saint Benedict normative for all monks in the empire and to reshape the traditional rhythm of monastic life in conformity to it.  The concept of una regula, ‘a single rule’, was balanced by that of una consuetudo, ‘a single custom’.”[33]  Included in the statutes from the 816 synod were the requirements that all abbots read the Rule to their monks aloud daily and that whomever could memorize it should do so.  There was also a re-emphasis on the importance of manual labor and equality of all of the monks including the abbot.  Benedict’s regulations and requirements in adhering to the Rule were so clear that any community which did not meet expectations were refused the terms ‘monk’ and ‘nun’.[34]  The combined support of politicians and powerful religious figures allowed this reform to flourish across Europe and provided little resistance to its success.

The effects of Benedict of Aniane’s reform became so deeply rooted, that even as the Church experienced struggles, the Rule of St. Benedict remained the standard for monasteries.  Monks were of the upmost importance for reform within the church.  Through Benedict’s Rule, their finely honed virtues of humility and self-control, and their dedication to service for the good of the community, the monastics proved to be profound leaders within the Church.  “Monks dominated the reform papacy.  Frederick of Lorraine, who was elected pope as Stephen IX in 1059, had briefly been abbot of Montecassino.  Gregory VII himself was a monk, though to which monastery he belonged is not clear…Victor II, who succeeded him in 1086 was the former abbot Desiderius of Montecassino.  The next pope came from Cluny.  Eudes de Chatillon was one of the monks who had been identified by Abbot Hugh as suitable for promotion to the episcopate.  As Pope Urban II (1088-1099) he was the ablest and most effective of the popes of the reform.”[35]

St. Benedict’s Rule has also had a lasting impact on women monastics.  Communities of women, or nuns, were rare compared to those of men until the middle of the 10th Century.  The ones that did exist did not have the same sort of organization and structure as the male monasteries.  As these communities of religious women began to emerge, they were encouraged to adopt the Rule.  The Rule which was originally written for men adapted well to the women’s communities.  Through the support of the monasteries and various good abbots wanting to help religious women, nuns developed and flourished through the middle ages under the Rule.

A nun by the name Marguerite d’Arbouze, (1580-1626) provides yet another example of monastics returning to the Rule of Benedict when faced with necessary reform.   After trying in vain to implement strict observance of the Rule at a convent where she had a resistant abbess, Marguerite was gifted a piece of land by Anne of Austria where she became the abbess of Val de Grace.  “For her, monastic reform meant an uncompromising return to Saint Benedict.  She translated the Rule into French and added constitutions adapted for the use of her nuns.  In the title of her book, The True Rule of Saint Benedict, with Constitutions Adapted to it, the adjective was, no doubt, a parting shot at her former abbess.”[36]

The Rule of St. Benedict and the values of monastic life in general are so valuable to reaching spiritual mastery that in recent times, orders have been established for lay people to participate in monastic life without actually becoming monks or nuns.  For example, in 1937 a Manual for Oblates of St. Benedict was written for the lay desiring to adapt the monastic lifestyle within their own life.  It requires a period of discernment during which the candidate prays and reflects on the Rule of Benedict and gathers regularly with a like-minded community. “Benedictine oblates are Christian men and women who choose to associate themselves with a religious community of Benedictine monks or nuns in order to strengthen their baptismal commitment and enrich their Christian way of life.”[37]  The Rule of Benedict appeals to those who want to simplify their life and their journey to heaven by following the path St. Benedict laid out.

Throughout all of Church History, particularly from the Middle Ages through the Protestant Reformation, monastic communities did not always adhere to the Rule as they should.  Like anything in the Church, monasteries were comprised of errant humans.  Monasteries went through periods of lax adherence to the Rule while the monks and nuns lived in worldly decadence.  However, whenever there has been a call to reform the communities, the monasteries have always returned to the Rule of Benedict as the foundation for that reform.  His vision for monastic communities has remained timeless because the virtues his Rule instilled are intended to not be of this world, rather of the heavenly realm.  Anyone who follows Benedict’s Rule, having chosen consecrated religious life or not, would certainly be on a path to salvation precisely because the Rule provides a means to live the Gospel message thoroughly.  Living God’s will over one’s own and living in humble service to others is precisely what Jesus asks his people to do.  Therefore, this clear and concise plan for Gospel living written by Benedict of Nursia is precisely why he is considered the Father of Western Monasticism and as well as a figure to be highly regarded by all Catholics.




Gorg, Peter H. The Desert Fathers: St Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011.

Kardong, Terrence G.  The Life of St Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009.

King, Peter.  Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1999.

Laux, Fr John.  Church History: A History of the Catholic Church to 1940.  Charlotte: TAN Books, 1989.

Moore, Thomas.  Preface to The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict. New York: Random House, 1998.

Pernoud, Regine. Martin of Tours: Soldier, Bishop, Saint. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.

Peters, Greg.  The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

St Benedict.  The Rule of St. Benedict. New York: Random House, 1998.




[1] Fr John Laux, Church History: A History of the Catholic Church to 1940 (Charlotte: TAN Books, 1989), 89.

[2] Ibid., 169.

[3] Ibid., 169.

[4] Ibid., 170.

[5] Regine Pernoud, Martin of Tours: Soldier, Bishop, Saint (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 19ff.

[6] Peter H. Gorg, The Desert Fathers: St Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 100-101.

[7] Pernoud, Martin of Tours, 92.

[8] Thomas Moore, Preface to The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict (New York: Random House, 1998), xv-xvii.

[9] Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015) 53-54.

[10] Gorg, The Desert Fathers, 94.

[11] Peters, The Story of Monasticism, 55-56.

[12] Ibid., 56-59.

[13] Ibid., 62.

[14] Ibid., 59-64.

[15] Ibid., 72.

[16] St Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Random House, 1998), 1.

[17] Peters, The Story of Monasticism, 73.

[18] Gorg, The Desert Fathers, 112.

[19] Terrence G. Kardong, The Life of St Benedict by Gregory the Great: Translation and Commentary (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009), 21

[20] Peters, The Story of Monasticism, 73.

[21] Ibid., 74.

[22] Ibid., 75.

[23] Ibid., 75.

[24] Ibid., 77.

[25] St. Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, 14.

[26] Ibid., 9.

[27] Ibid., 9.

[28] Ibid., 32.

[29] Ibid., 51

[30] Peter King, Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1999), 103.

[31] Ibid., 107.

[32] Ibid., 108.

[33] Ibid., 109.

[34] Ibid., 110.

[35] Ibid., 133.

[36] Ibid., 283-284.

[37] Peters, The Story of Monasticism, 252.