An early form of monastic organization. Although the monastic ideal began primarily as a flight from the world in search of inwardness, recollection, and a life hidden in God, the dangers of solitude and its temptations quickly became apparent. The gathering of hermits into loosely knit groups with a free and personal relationship to a spiritual father, the abbot, did not eliminate these dangers. Gradually a tendency toward communal institutions became manifest since these provided a material and spiritual support for the interior life.
St. Pachomius. The earliest communal monastic foundation was located in the Thebaid (northern Egypt), where St. pachomius organized large communities with heads and deputy heads. They were federated into a congregation whose superior had authority over all the houses and whose members met in two annual chapters. Well-organized and financially remunerative work was combined with silence to frame and support prayer; and this was regulated partly as a common exercise and partly house by house; spiritual instructions followed a similar plan. The asceticism was reasonable; and though the discipline of the individual will was its essential goal, nevertheless the system left scope for personal initiative. The charismatic gifts of the founder were not stabilized in juridical structure, and after his death tendencies to disintegration manifested themselves; some of his imitators, such as Shenoute, had to resort to outright violence to maintain order. But the first rules created remarkably balanced formula that exercised a profound influence, especially in the West. In the East, basilian monasticism is an independent initiative; in it the common life is based on sociological and ecclesiastical considerations.
Lower Egypt. The ideal of solitude indulged by hermits in lower Egypt was tempered by the proximity of other cells, the meeting every Sunday for the Office, and the moral authority of the elders. It is here that the term coenobium and the classification of the monks into different kinds are encountered. These distinctions must not be absolutized or made into antithetical categories. They existed side by side, and the same monk passed from one category into another.
In 5th-century Palestine the laura was a synthesis; it had an organized center where the young monks were trained and isolated cells for the full-fledged monks who maintained regular relations with the community. These institutions did not prevent the monks, among whom there were saints, from passing from one community to another with a freedom that may surprise the legal-minded men in the West.
A return to the strict Basilian conception, actualized on the scale of large communities, can be seen in the Studite reform of the late 8th century. But this was never an absolute ideal in the East, where order did not eliminate charism. Colonies of hermits and lauras (not to be identified with the Palestinian lauras) remained licit. The price of this liberty was idiorythmia, or a type of monastic independence that tolerated the retention of some private property and called only for limited obedience; it became an abuse in the 14th century, beginning at Mt. athos. It gradually spread and was finally legitimized.
In the West, the strict cenobitic rule instituted by St. benedict became the norm, and the reformers always saw in it the touchstone of observance. There is nothing contradictory in recognizing that this has been combined through the centuries with an aspiration to solitude, for inwardness and sociability complement each other. In modern religious congregations, cenobitism has been assimilated into centralized juridical structures that render pointless the notion of stability, understood as a bond to a certain definite house.
See Also: cenobites; hermits.
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. olphegalliard, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 2:404–416. c. lialine and p. doyére, ibid. 4:936–982, s.v. érémitisme. a. plÉ, ed., Communal Life (The Religious Life 8; Westminster, Md.1957).