Monasticism describes the life of the monastic. The term “monastic” derives from “monad” which is “a unit of one”. That is, a monastic, (monk or nun) is someone who lives alone. Originally that is what monastics were: solitary people who had withdrawn to the desert to seek God and to live out the gospel with a more intense life style than they had previously pursued as “average” Christians. They wanted to pursue a life of prayer and dedication to God. This involved contemplation, asceticism and silence and solitude.
The earliest monastics were the “desert fathers”, people who lived in the 4th century in the Egyptian desert. These were mostly individuals who reacted to the formation of a state church after the roman emperor declared Christianity his religion. These “monks” lived alone and had only limited contact with either other monks or normal Christians.
In later centuries monks began to live in colonies, or communities, called monasteries. This movement slowly began to be organized, a process that was greatly aided by the promulgation of “monastic rules”. The most influential and widespread rule was the set of guidelines developed by Benedict, and became known as the Benedictine rule.
In the monastery the residents would live a life of prayer and work. Usually the monastery would produce some commodity that could be sold and thus made them self sustaining. Some monastic groups though saw value in not having any possessions and consequently would survive by receiving gifts and alms. In nearly all cases though a monastic would take vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience”. With time monasteries would form around both groups of males and groups of females. Some members of the communities would be secluded and not see visitors and would not leave the monastery. These individuals would be said to be cloistered.
European monasteries in the middle ages became centers of learning and study as well as devotion. The monastic tradition is often credited with the preservation of learning and culture prior to the 13th century. After the 13th century the process of urbanization led to the formation of universities and the centers of study and knowledge shifted to these institutions.
Throughout the church age some members of the monastic community had unusually intense and productive spiritual experiences. These individuals are usually referred to as mystics in the church (see mysticism).