The Christian Motive for Monasticism
As Archpriest Georges Florovsky explains, Jesus modeled all of the actions and qualities that the earliest monks tried to emulate. In a more generalized sense, then, monasticism started with Him.
First, Jesus went into the desert.
"When our Lord was about to begin his ministry, he went into the desert— eis tên herêmon. Our Lord had options but he selected— or rather, 'was lead by the Spirit', into the desert. It is obviously not a meaningless action, not a selection of type of place without significance. And there— in the desert— our Lord engages in spiritual combat, for he 'fasted forty days and forty nights'— nêsteusas hêmeras tessarakonta kai nyktastessarakonta hysteron epeinasen (Chapter 1 of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. X, the Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, p. 17ff.).
Second, Jesus lived life of perfection, almsgiving, prayer, fasting, charity.
"It is our Lord, not the monks, who injects the goal of perfection into the very fabric of early Christian thought. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:48) our Lord commands: 'Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect'— esesthe oun hymeis teleioi hôs ho patêr hymôn ho ouranios teleios estin (Chapter 1 of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. X, the Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, p. 25ff.).
Third, Jesus was the living example of a commitment to poverty and humility.
"Again it is our Lord who establishes the spiritual value of poverty. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (19:21) our Lord commands the rich man who has claimed he has kept all the commandments: 'If you will to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor... and come follow me'— ei theleis teleios einai, hypage pôlêson sou ta hyparchonta kai dos tois ptôchois, kai hexeis thêsauron en ouranois, kai deuro akolouthei moi (Chapter 1 of the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. X, the Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, p. 28ff.).
Thus, monks were motivated by the life of Christ, and nothing else.
Athanasius gives such a motive for Antony. One day Antony heard the Gospel exhortation, "If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me...” He did so and embarked on a life of asceticism “near his own house”. Then gradually he removed himself into the desert (Athanasius, Life of Antony, 2 & 3).
Thus Antony’s original purpose was to live the Gospel fully, and to do so he embraced a way of life known in the Church from the first century. Athanasius tells us that Antony apprenticed himself to an ascetic who lived near his village. As yet there were no monks living in the desert, and people practiced ascetical life close to their villages. Antony, then, became one of such ascetics (Athanasius, Life of Antony, 3; Athanasius says there were also women ascetics, dedicated virgins, living in their homes.) When he moved out into the desert, Antony merely created a new development in a form of life known in the Church since the Apostolic times.
Through several stages, Antony embraced the life of complete anachôrêsis (from anachôréô, meaning to retire, to withdraw, or place of retreat) towards the end of the third century. This was practiced in various ways by older ascetics; the Egyptians discovered that removing themselves some distance into the surrounding desert secured for them a better place of retreat. (One might add that along the banks of the Nile, where most villages in Egypt were, it was not possible to find a place at a distance from other houses, as most of the territory would be flooded yearly.) In this sense, the desert (erêmos) was also a practical place to find solitude and safety.
DISCOVERING THE ORIGINAL MONKS
The first monks were Egyptian peasants who were not completely Hellenized. And this fact influenced the way they understood and practiced their Christian religion. This context explains such things as their demonology, seeing spiritual combat literally in terms of physical struggles with demons. Also, their physical stamina made it possible for them to engage in a rigorous life of asceticism and penance (e.g. an average peasant would eat once a day, so fasting for two was no problem).
By the early part of the fourth century, Antony had many followers and imitators (while some men made themselves disciples of Antony, there were many others who probably were not: they embarked on the anchorite life on their own). As far as we know, these first desert dwellers were mostly Egyptian peasants.
Unfortunately, all of our sources for this time period have been filtered through the eyes of Greeks and Latins who joined the original monks towards the middle of the fourth century. These sources are of two kinds: (1) books written for outsiders, even when written by men who might have spent time in the desert (e.g. Historia Lausiaca by Palladius); and (2) books for monks themselves (e.g. collections of sayings like the Apophtegmata and Vitae Patrum).
A third source, the Life of Antony by Athanasius, is in a special category. First, because it may be dated to very close to the death of Antony, and has been written by somebody who knew him personally. Its original intended audience were some monks outside Egypt, but soon the book became a popular introduction not only to the person of Antony, but to desert monasticism in general.
Among others, the writings of Evagrius of Pontus have a special character and importance too. Evagrius was a Greek, a protégé of St. Basil and St. Gregory of Naziansus, whose deacon he was in Constantinople. Evagrius received a good education in paideia and philosophy. Having experienced a conversion from what was the life of a rather wordily cleric, he went to Egypt to Nitria then to Skete, where he became a disciple of Macarios the Younger. He himself became a celebrated abba, spiritual father and the author of many books on theology and on monastic “struggle”. He died in 399.
MONASTICISM IS NATURAL TO THE CHURCH
It is fair to say that there were some mistakes in early monasticism. A lack of proper training enabled some men to live their own interpretations of the Bible. The Apophtegmata shows traces of some practices that arose from a literal understanding of some biblical texts. For example, certain monks walked around naked in order to imitate the paradisiacal life of Adam and Eve. But this alone is certainly not enough to dismiss the entire institution of monasticism.
To prove this, there are far more stories of young anchorites seeking the advice of older, more experienced monks. The following story illustrates this point:
"Three fathers used to visit Antony every year, two would consult him about their thoughts and their salvation, the third always remained silent. After many years abba Antony asked him: 'You have been coming to me for so many years but you have asked nothing'. He answered: 'It is enough to look at you, abba'" (Antony 27, Alphabetikon. Quoted in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection [Cistercian Studies]).
Whether it was establishing colonies of hermits (with certain, albeit limited, contact with one another) or a strictly coenobitic life (which was established by Pachomius), institutional forms of monasticism settled, became more balanced, and were ready to receive novices from the Greek world. Thus, it can be said that monasticism was founded on the life of Jesus Christ, lived according to Sacred Scripture, and became a vital part of Sacred Tradition. It is therefore completely unwarranted and unfounded for Protestants and other secular scholars to denigrate and dismiss this institution based on a few bad examples. In fact, the opposite is true. Monasticism is a natural form in the life of the Church, and vital to it.