The monastic life as we know it—in which a man or woman leaves home and family to live a life of prayer hidden away from the world—first appeared in the 3rd century. Before then, those who felt called to a life of prayer and chastity simply lived out their calling at home.
In the 3rd century, however, two saints known as the Fathers of Monasticism were born.
St. Paul the Hermit (c. 230–343) lived in Thebes during the Decian persecution. For a short time he went into hiding, but soon was forced to flee from the city to avoid torture and death. He went to the desert and found that he loved the silence and solitude, which brought him closer to God. Paul spent nearly a hundred years as a hermit, passing away at the age of 113.
St. Anthony of the Desert (c. 251–356) was born to wealthy parents near Cairo. When, upon their deaths, he received his inheritance, he gave away all his possessions and went to the desert to live in asceticism. Many young men who heard of him sought him out in the desert, eager to be guided by him and emulate his example. Eventually, Anthony moved to get away from his community of followers, but received visits in his new abode.
As for the women who left home to dedicate their lives to God, St. Mary of Egypt (c. 344–421) was among the first, if not the first.
Mary left home when she was twelve years old and made her living in Alexandria as a prostitute for nearly twenty years. Eventually, she grew restless in Alexandria and sailed to Jerusalem. There, hunting for sinful prospects as before, she unexpectedly joined a procession going to venerate the Cross. Several times she was supernaturally, physically repelled from entering the church with the rest of the procession, which caused her to recognize her sin, repent, and convert. She then went to the desert to live in prayer and solitude.
The fathers and mothers of monasticism knew that beginning a new life in the desert was the first of many beginnings. As another great monastic father, St. Benedict, says, “Always we begin again.” Pursuing goodness is hard, and we frequently have to restart. The soothing aroma of the “We Begin Again” Scented Candle will encourage you in your holy efforts. Diffusing scents of eucalyptus and lavender, this relaxing candle is a bonus in prayer or home life. Available today at The Catholic Company!