Monasticism originated in Egypt when Saint Pachomious, a Copt from Upper Egypt, established the first communal living in the Monastery of St Anthony in the Red Sea, the oldest monastery in the world. This was in the 4th century AD.
It was during this time that Constantine accepted Christianity as the main Roman religion, therefore the end of persecution meant that martyrdom was no longer an option, instead, long-term monasticism became the common way for Christians to prove their love for God. For the monks, monasticism was the life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship and purity of heart. They had nothing in their minds, hearts and feelings except God alone. They lived the calm and quiet life, abiding in the Lord, detaching themselves from everything and everyone, to be attached to Him alone.
Monasticism took three main forms, all of which are still to be found in the Church today:
MonarchismThe anchorites or hermits lived in complete seclusion, only visiting the abbot when they needed counsel. Each hermit organized his own prayer, clothing, food and work. The first anchorite in the world was Saint Paul. He lived for eighty years in the Egyptian desert without seeing a single person. Some hermits entered into the inner deserts and settled there for tens of years, seeing no one. Saint Mary of Egypt was one of these, and is also considered as one of those hermits who are called ‘Pilgrims’, who had no specific cell but lived homeless, wandering in the wilderness.
The Coenobitic SystemUnder this system, founded by Saint Pachomius in Upper Egypt, the monks lived in a community inside the walls of the monastery, in association with each other, governed by an abbot and by rules. Even through this system Christian monasticism never lost its yearning for monarchism.
The Communal SystemThe communal system, or semi-eremitic life, is a form of monasticism that is mid-way between monarchism and the coenobitic system. The mode of Saint Anthony’s life as described by Saint Athanasius was actually semi-eremitic in essence, for the monks lived in separate caves or cells and assembled occasionally for the Divine Liturgy or spiritual meetings. Thus Saint Anthony prepared the way for the communal order. In the wildernesses of Nitria and Scetis the communal order was established by Saint Amoun and Saint Macarius the Great. There, the ascetics lived, not in absolute isolation, but in cells built at such a distance that they could neither see nor hear one another. They gathered for communal prayer on Saturdays and Sundays.
Currently, there are Coptic Orthodox monasteries in Egypt, America, Australia and Europe, all of which have been recognised at the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church. There are currently 33 Coptic monasteries with a total of more than 1,000 monks, and six convents with about 300 nuns. The largest monasteries, and most famous, are at Wadi Natroun about 60 miles northwest of Cairo.