Most of the world's great religions have some form of Religious Life or Monasticism. This article will be devoted exclusively to the concept and development of Religious Life in Christianity.
Religious Life is as old as Christianity. All Christians are called to a "religious life" in the sense that they accept and profess belief in the Triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, not only as a living reality but as something having supreme value in their lives. This profession of faith is not simply with one's lips but with one's whole being: with actions as well as with words - leading the committed Christian to witness, to worship, and to service in the name of Jesus Christ. Christian action follows from the power of the Divine Word found in the Scriptures and most especially in the Gospels. Christians, as disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ, whom they recognize as the Divine Son of God, are called to imitate his way of life, to "follow in his footsteps." Faith is not an automatic personal decision, but rather an invitation and call from God. It finds its visible expression in the Sacraments of Initiation, above all in Christian Baptism and in the personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord of my life. It involves the development of the interior life and a spirit of prayer. Moreover, this following of Christ is not to be done in isolation but in solidarity with all other Christians with the goal, according to St. Augustine, that they: "form one heart and one mind, on the way to God." Catholics believe that this unity is to be found in its most perfect earthly form in the Church that, although human and beset by human weaknesses, was founded by Jesus Christ who is its head and shepherd.
This being said, there has always been a group of Christians in the Church who have been called to follow Christ in a more formal way and as a lifetime pursuit. This is Religious Life in the strict sense of the term. The public profession of the Vows ("Evangelical Counsels") of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience is normally at the heart of Religious Life. Like every Christian vocation, Religious Life is a call to holiness, but a holiness to be worked out within the framework of an institute or community recognized by the Church. There is disagreement among Church historians as to when this formal or institutional Religious Life (also known as "Apostolic Life") first began, but most would agree that it began around the end of the great persecutions of the Christians by the Roman Empire in the first years of the fourth century, and formalized by the Edict of Milan (313 AD). At that time Christianity was recognized as a legitimate religion to be tolerated along with all other religions in the Empire (which, at its height, stretched from Spain to Iraq). The Age of the Martyrs was officially over. Along with the legalization of the Christian faith came a certain "acceptability" which could easily lead to an embracing of the values of secular society. The impulse of Religious Life may then have come about in part from a desire to withdraw from the world and its temptations in order to preserve a more faithful and austere (simple) way of following Christ.
St. Anthony of Egypt (d. 354) is regarded as the father of the Monastic (Religious) way of life. After hearing the Gospel passage about the rich young man (Mt. 19:16-22) he sold all of his possessions and withdrew to the desert to devote himself to prayer and manual labor - what St. Benedict would later call Ora et Labora. The biography of St. Anthony's life by St. Athanasius popularized this form of Christian living, leading others to follow his example. Anthony lived the life of a hermit or anchorite. Another Egyptian, St. Pachomius proposed the cenobitic or community form of Religious Life as a way to practice charity as well as prayer and work. The community way of life quickly predominated and became the customary way to live as a religious monk (male) or nun (female). St. Augustine (d. 430) was greatly inspired by the story of St. Anthony, which became an important influence in his conversion. He wrote a Rule (set of instructions) about how to live as a Religious, a Rule that would later be adopted by a wide variety of religious communities down to our own day. St. Augustine founded monasteries in North Africa, his birthplace, which would produce many of the most prominent Church leaders of the day. Another innovation for which Augustine was largely responsible was the so-called "clericalization" of Religious Life, where priests began to embrace a way of life that had initially been almost exclusively a lay movement.
The fall of the Roman Empire in the 6th century to groups of people migrating from Asia and known as "barbarians" as well as the subsequent conversion of the Middle East and North Africa to Islam ushered in a period of history popularly known in Europe - now the main bastion of Christianity - as the "Dark Ages", a time of political and cultural disorder. Religious or Monastic communities known as Monasteries became centers of order and culture during these troubled times. The most popular form of Religious Life was that developed by St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 547) who also wrote a Rule detailing a life centered in the authority of the Abbot and counseling a rigorous life of prayer centered in the Divine Office. This stable way of life seemed a remedy for the chaos of the times. The great ruler Charlemagne (d. 814) supported this Rule and ordered it to be followed by all the monasteries in his Kingdom. The various reforms of Benedictinism through the centuries including those originating in the monasteries of Cluny and Cîteaux showed that even the Religious Life could become corrupt and in need of reform. Indeed, it was those religious communities that were able to return to their original purpose and recapture their original inspirations that survived and continued to carry out their mission.
New forms of Religious Life, especially that form known as the Mendicants (i.e., "beggars") characterized the later Middle Ages, sometimes referred to as the "Age of Faith" because of the predominance of Christian thought and culture. This movement stressed that the religious (now known as friars) leave the monasteries and assume a more active presence in the world in order to carry the Christian message to cities and country alike. Its main proponents were St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and St. Dominic (d. 1221), each of whom founded their own communities. These were soon joined by the Augustinians (who found legal recognition in the "Grand Union" of 1256) and the Carmelites. These groups combined a commitment to common prayer in community with an active apostolate, ministering most especially to those in need. They also provided the intellectual leadership of the day, stressing the importance of learning and preaching. They were soon staffing the great centers of learning, the universities that were developing in new urban centers throughout Europe. It was also during this time that Religious communities developed the distinctive structure that most would adapt with local, regional, and general superiors. Since the early days of religious life, many communities and individuals as well had developed a distinctive form of dress (habit) to distinguish them from others as well as to symbolize something characteristic about their way of life.
The period after the Protestant Reformation, which split the unity of Western Christianity, saw the birth of new Religious communities and the revitalization of older ones, especially after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Some of these communities were specifically devoted to reform the Catholic Church from within, to counteract the advances of Protestantism, or to engage in missionary work in new fields such as the Americas and Asia. Among these groups, which tended to be active and missionary in nature, the most famous were the Jesuits. As time went on Religious communities undertook a vast array of charitable and educational activities, founding hospitals and schools, ministering to the young and old alike. Orders of religious women also flourished, each dedicated to its own special area of work. The great founders and reformers associated with this "Counter-Reformation," or better "Catholic Reformation," were Ignatius Loyola (Jesuits), Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross (Carmelites), and Luis de Leon (Augustinians). Other new religious communities included the Vincentians, Sulpicians, Redemptorists, Passionists, and Salesians - each with its own character and form of apostolate.
The Council of Trent and later Vatican I (1869-70) gave a distinctly juridical flavor to the Church, which was adopted by many Religious communities in their Constitutions, and which tended to follow Canon Law rather closely. It was not until Vatican II (1962-65) that major changes once again took place in religious communities. The Council Documents On the Church and On Religious Life encouraged a two-fold principle for reform: renewal (return to the sources: fidelity to the "charism" or original inspiration of the community) and adaptation (taking into account the real situation and needs of the world today in shaping one's Constitutions, way of life, and ministry). Some religious communities have been more successful than others at effecting this process, which in most cases has been challenging as well as rewarding. All religious communities suffered a loss of membership and decline in vocations following Vatican II. The vocational abundance of former times could no longer be taken for granted. But history has shown that religious communities go through a life cycle, and those that remain faithful to their identity while striving to carry out the evangelizing ministry of Christ will weather the storm, as they have in the past. Indeed, recent Church documents such as The Consecrated Life and Starting Afresh from Christ, while not minimizing the difficulties of this unique way of life based on faith in Jesus Christ and a desire to imitate Him, offer encouragement and hope to religious as a necessary and important part of the Christian family, and whose example of holiness and dedication to serving God's people in their need must forever continue as an essential element in Christian life.