Cenobites are religious who, by contrast with hermits or anchorites, live their life in common. In precise usage, however, "cenobite" (Gr. κοινός, common, and βίος, life) is limited to members of monastic communities whose lives are spent primarily in the monastic cenobium and not in apostolic work of a kind that leads the religious outside. Thus among contemporary religious, the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Oriental monks are properly termed cenobites; and religious of orders such as the Carthusian, Camaldolese, and Valambrosians, may be called cenobites because their life consists of a blend of the eremitic and cenobitic lives. Though the early hermits of the East occasionally convened for common worship, the religious life in common actually had its origin at the beginning of the 4th century with the monasteries of St. Pachomius, where the essential features of cenobitism were established: life together according to a rule under the supervision of a recognized religious superior. In the East, the Pachomian type of monasticism gave way in the course of the 5th century to that of St. Basil, who replaced the militarism of Pachomius with a more domestic spirit and corrected the overemphasis on manual labor by carefully subordinating work to prayer. In the West, after a century and a half of experiment (400–550) based on various Eastern precedents, the Rule of St. Benedict appeared and, in the course of the next two centuries, replaced virtually every vestige of earlier forms of monasticism. Whereas the cenobitic rules of the period of experiment had often emulated the most striking and excessive elements of Eastern asceticism, the cenobitism of St. Benedict developed the discretionary spirit of St. Basil, strengthening it with a wisdom derived from Roman governmental experience. St. Benedict contributed to the cenobitic institution especially by his emphasis on stability, the vow and virtue that binds the monk to one particular community, and in his development of St. Basil's ideal of the monastery as a family under the abbot as a father and representative of Christ. The Rule of St. Benedict outlines a form of cenobitism that has proved remarkably durable. Among the monks of the West, it has never been replaced, while all the newer institutions, which for the most part have been directed to some kind of specific apostolic work, have not strayed far from the spirit of St. Benedict in those aspects of their lives that have remained cenobitic.
Bibliography: h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 2.2:3047–3248. j. olphe–galliard, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 2:404–416.