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Monastiscism, the practice of living alone from society for religious purposes, began, in the Christian tradition, in the deserts of Egypt. By the 4th century, Saint Anthony of Egypt had established a primitive community in the eastern desert, which practiced extreme ascetism. A less several regime, or rule, was established in Cappadocia by Saint Basil the Great during the same century. From these seeds, the practice spread first through the Byzantine empire and the Orthodox Church, and then through the western, Roman Catholic, tradition.

Monasticism propagated Christianity, through example, as well as making the faith into a service to the people to whom it preached, as monasteries became centres of agriculture, learning and medicine.

The main monastic orders in the Western Church were the Benedictine, the Cistercians, the Dominicans, the Franciscans (both mendicant orders) and the Carmelites.