Christian monasticism is motivated by a desire to seek God through Christ by a life of asceticism and prayer; Christian monks and nuns believe themselves to have a personal call from God to lead the monastic life on a permanent basis. The two main forms of monastic life are the eremitical or hermit life, and the cenobitical or common life. It involves celibacy and a certain amount of seclusion from the world, normally including the renunciation of private property. Prayer, reading, and work form the basis of monks' and nuns' daily life. Their main duty is to offer praise to God within the confines of the monastery; in cenobitic monasticism the liturgy, and particularly the Divine Office, came to play a central part in monastic prayer. Monastic work may take any form; traditionally it includes agriculture, scholarship, and teaching.
The roots of monasticism probably lie in the ascetical movements of the early Church. Its development in Egypt (among the ‘Desert Fathers’) in the 4th cent. was of special importance: St Antony and St Pachomius are seen as the forerunners of the eremitical and cenobitical life respectively. Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor also saw a rapid development of monasticism. In the W., E. monastic tradition became important as its literature became known in the 5th cent. John Cassian, as well as the Regula Magistri, influenced St Benedict, who wrote his Rule for cenobitic monasteries in the early 6th cent. By the 9th cent. it was dominant in W. Europe (see Benedictine Order). The new forms of religious life which began in the W. in the Middle Ages (canons regular and mendicant friars) borrowed many of their institutions from monasticism. In the 16th cent. monastic life disappeared in the Reformed Churches, but it continued in RC countries until the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests. A revival took place in the mid-19th cent. in many European countries, and monasticism spread to N. America and Australia. In the 20th cent. it began to take root in Africa, Asia, and South America.
Monasticism also flourished in the Byzantine Empire. It spread with Christianity to the Slav countries; there were monasteries in Kiev in the 11th cent., and a flourishing monastic life around Moscow in the 14th. A 19th-cent. revival of Russian monasticism continued until 1917. A special place in Orthodox monasticism is held by Mt Athos, where there are monks from all the Orthodox Churches.
See also Carthusian Order; Cistercian Order; Cluny; and Religious orders in Anglicanism.