Up until now, you may have thought that Christian monkhood is an age-old practice started by the Catholic Church in Rome. However, African history has it that, the home of the earliest Christian monks was in Egypt which dates back to as far as 42 AD.
This was much earlier than the first Catholic monastery, the 529 AD Benedictine Monastery founded by Saint Benedict of Norsia and built in Monte Cassino.
Monkhood is a religious practice that requires one to live alone while renouncing worldly pursuits, so as to totally dedicate oneself to spiritual work. It involves largely asceticism which is a lifestyle characterized by total abstinence of sensual pleasures for the purpose of attaining spiritual fulfilment.
Saint Anthony the Great from Egypt, is esteemed as the Father of all Christian monks because of his significance to the “Desert Fathers” and to all other Christian Monastics. The Desert Fathers were early monks, hermits or ascetics who lived in the deserts of Egypt from as early as the third century AD.
He made the bold decision of living in the desert in solitude after he heard a sermon about how excellent spirituality could be achieved by renouncing all earthly possessions. This move of asceticism by Anthony was regarded as the greatest form of sacrifice and a substitute for martyrdom. Hence, some Coptic Christian men and a few women joined in to live in seclusion.
It is recorded by Athanasius, Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, that Saint Anthony was equally endowed with the ability to heal, stimulate other’s faith in God, and interestingly, talk to God occasionally which were considered privileges of monkhood.
Remarkably, these privileges appealed to many Christians in Egypt and attracted thousands of followers who practised extreme asceticism by renouncing rest, bath, gourmet meals and anything that appealed to their senses. Instead, they focused on maintaining love and unity for one another. They also observed habitual fasts and prayers.
Consequently, many people who were dissatisfied with their religious affiliation made trips to the desert to seek the counsel of Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers.
A lot of the stories and sayings of St. Anthony and the Desert Fathers and mothers, are recorded in a document known as the “Apophthegmata Patrum” from the 5th century AD. These sayings were very popular among Christian monks and appeared in other Christian collections.
Other variants of monkhood such as the cenobitic life and the semi-hermitic life arose from Saint Anthony’s severe monastic life.
The semi-hermitic life started by Saint Amun is widely practised currently and involves two to six monks and nuns with a common spiritual leader joining larger gatherings to worship on Saturdays and Sundays.