Gleanings from Orthodox Christian Authors and the Holy Fathers


The cenobitic life came into being at the time of the apostolic preaching. It was all there in that crowd of believers at Jerusalem, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. "There was one heart and one mind among the crowd of believers, nor did anyone claim as his own whatever it was that he possessed, but all things were held in common among them" (Acts 4:32). "They sold their possessions and their goods, and they divided the money for these among everyone, in accordance with need" (Acts 2:45). "No one among them lacked anything. Owners of land and of houses sold them, brought the prices of what they had sold and laid them at the feet of the apostles. And this was divided among individuals in accordance with need" (Acts 2:34-35).

As I say, that was how the whole Church was then, and very few like them can be found today in the monasteries. After the death of the apostles, however, the mass of believers began to turn lukewarm. This was especially true of those who had come from among foreign and different peoples to faith in Christ. Their belief was rudimentary and their pagan habits were deeply ingrained, and so the apostles demanded no more of them than that they abstain from "food sacrificed to idols, from fornication, from strangled animals, and from blood" (Acts 15:29). This freedom granted to pagans because of the weakness of their elementary belief began, little by little, to contaminate the Church in Jerusalem. Every day the numbers of Jews and outsiders grew, and the zeal of that first faith began to grow cool. Not only those who came to faith in Christ but even Church leaders relaxed the original austerity. There were even quite a few who came to believe that the concessions which they saw granted to the pagans were also allowed in their own case and they did not think there was any danger in following and confessing faith in Christ side by side with ownership of goods and wealth.

But as for those in whom there was still the zeal of the apostolic days, these remembered the old perfection and they went away from their own communities and from the company of those who believed that it was quite lawful for themselves or for the Church of God to display the neglectfulness of a more relaxed way of life. They settled in the neighborhood of cities and in more remote places and, individually and in their own way, they began to put into practice those rules which, as they remembered, had been laid down by the apostles for the whole body of the Church. And so there came into being that organized life which, as I have said, was characteristic of those disciples who had withdrawn from the contagion of the multitude.

Gradually, with the passing of time, they were cut off from the mass of believers. Because they avoided marriage and because they kept themselves away from their parents and from the life of this world they were called monks or solitaries because of this life of solitude separated from their families. As a result of this living together on their part they were called cenobites and their cells and their quarters were called monasteries.

This, then, was the only type of monk in the earliest days. They were first not only in time but in grace and they endured safely through all the years until the era of Abba Paul and Abba Anthony. And we see traces of them still continuing in the monasteries where austerity is practiced. Colm Lubheid, trans., "John Cassian: Conferences," from "The Classics of Western Spirituality" series, (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 184-185

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St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas