Monk (deriving from monos – the solitary in Greek; also kalos-geros – good old man;) is a person who renounces all that is temporal for the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven, striving to be faithful to Christ until death. Growing in his love towards God he accomplishes a special service witnessing the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven and its appealing power.
Beginnings of monasticism are connected with the beginnings of the Church as such, but monasticism experienced a special expansion at that time in history when Christianity was proclaimed official religion of the Roman Empire. As soon as the widest range of social layers of the population of the Empire entered the Church, the initial zeal of Christian communities became decreased to some extent. The flowering of monasticism thus came as a reaction to the abandonment of the ideal of perfection among many Christians.
Very early in Christian history there were individual ascetics who withdrew to Egyptian and Syrian deserts to adopt the life of hermits and of complete devotion to God. One of the best-known examples of such a life style was the life of Saint Anthony. However, hermits, or the recluse, did not remain completely isolated. To be more precise, they attracted a great number of those who yearned for their spiritual guidance and leadership.
An ex-soldier of the Roman Army, Saint Pachomius the Great (292-346), built the first monastery in today’s sense of the word and gathered the scattered recluse into a monastic community. This type of monastic life as known by the Orthodox can be coenobitic (where all members of the community do things in common) or idiorrhytmic (in which the monks or nuns pray together liturgically, but work and eat individually or in small groups), as opposed to eremitic or solitary monasticism of the recluse, and it spread quickly to all corners of the Empire. Later on there developed a kind of a combination between the two whereby some monastic communities or monasteries also allowed hermitages to exist close to them.
The final shaping of the coenobitic monastic life owes a great deal to the writings of Saint Basil the Great. It was he who introduced monastic vows and a special rite for those entering monastic life.
From those days onwards, monastic vows were and are still taken upon entering monastic life. These are vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. Monasteries can never be mixed, but can either be male or female (convents) and headed by an elder chosen among the monks or nuns themselves (abbot, and abbess or mother-superior).
Western monasticism had taken the path of ‘pecialization’ with the aim of participating in missionary, pedagogical, scientific, theological, ecclesiastic and political undertakings and assignments, and this has lead to the establishment of numerous ‘monastic orders’. Orthodoxy recognized and still recognizes a single ‘monastic order’, and a single type of monastic attire: long black robe and a cylindrical head dress.
As time went on, Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium saw a rise in influence of monasticism and a custom was introduced in VI century whereby bishops were chosen and ordained only from monastic circles.
Monasticism has contributed a great deal in helping the Church maintain purity of Orthodox faith, in defending the holy icons, and in developing Orthodox mysticism. Coinciding with the sunset of Byzantium, but also of the Serbian Nemanych (Ser. Nemanjić) state, Serbian lands were greatly influenced by the mystical hesychastic movement that originally had its roots on Mount Athos. This movement renewed the foundations of Orthodox spirituality and contributed a great deal towards the survival of the Church during the period of Ottoman rule. Orthodoxy is still greatly influenced by hesychasm even today.
Ascetic literature that had its beginnings in monastic communities, and was based on the ascetic experience of countless monastics, always offered numerous models to those contemplating to tread the cross-bearing Christian path. Monasticism still lives on in all Orthodox Churches brilliantly witnessing the truths of Orthodox faith.