Great zeal, fervent faith, and unity prevailed among the first Christians. They were ready to witness Christ unto death. But with time, especially following the official recognition of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Edict of Milan, in 313 a.d.), the high ideals which singled out the early Christians, started to weaken. Men and women who feared that the lure of comfort and security could divert them from their search for unity with God, left all behind and made their way into the desert, at first singly, then in loosely formed groups.
Christian monasticism originated in Egypt. (St Paul of Thebes - Jan. 15; St Anthony the Great - Jan. 17; St Macarius the Great - Jan. 19; St Pachomius the Great - May 15; St Onuphrius the Great - June 12.) From Egypt it spread to Palestine, Asia Minor and the West.
In the Holy Land monasticism flowered in the fourth and fifth centuries, under St Chariton the Confessor (Sept. 28), St Euthymius the Great (Jan. 20) and especially under his disciple, St Sabbas the Sanctified (Dec. 5). To this age belong the Monastery of Studion in Constantinople (founded in 463) and St Catherine's on Mt Sinai (founded by Emperor Justinian the Great in 560), which is still functioning, harboring a great treasure of manuscripts and holy icons which escaped the ravages of the iconoclastic persecutions.
With time, there developed in all Orthodox countries a rich and distinctive monastic tradition. Each could boast of important spiritual centers which spread their light over all the Orthodox world. Foremost among them were the monasteries of: Mount Athos; Patmos in Greece; the Kiev-Cave Lavra; the St Sergius-Trinity Lavra; the Optina Hermitage in Russia; the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria; the Tismana and Neantu in Romania; the Ochrid, Studenitsa and Zica in Serbia.
By the seventh century Palestine had many individual ascetics living in caves and deserts, and boasted numerous monasteries and convents. History tells us that the Mount of Olives alone had over 70 Armenian convents of all sizes scattered about it. The invasions of the Persians (614), Arabs (638), and the Crusaders (1099) eventually left the Holy Land devastated, and most of the monasteries and convents in ruins. The eighteenth century sees the beginning of restoration of some of the monasteries, and this work continued into the twentieth.
Today, besides the Lavra of St Sabbas the Sanctified, known locally as Mar-Saba (which was never destroyed), stand the monasteries: near Bethlehem - St Theodosius the Great; in Wadi-Kelt - St George the Hozebite; near Jericho - St Gerasim on the Jordan; on the Mountain of Temptations; on the River Jordan - St John the Baptist (presently closed, because it is in the buffer zone between Israel and Jordan); and in Jerusalem -- the Monastery of the Cross (never fully destroyed). Unfortunately, the brotherhood in all but the Lavra numbers only two or three monks.
Nevertheless, monasticism in the Holy Land continues, inspired by examples of the ascetics who labored here before.
The Mount of Olives Convent of the Ascension of Our Lord owes its existence to Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) and Igumen Parthenius. Father Antonin bought land on the summit of the Mount of Olives and in 1870 built the church of Ascension with a bell tower 64 meters (approximately 200 feet) in height. Simultaneously, cisterns were dug, gardens planted, quarters for pilgrims erected and excavations started. continue reading >>
The church of Saint Mary Magdalene is situated on the slope of the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane and is one of the most easily recognizable landmarks of Jerusalem. This striking example of Russian architecture was built in the Muscovite style with golden onion domes or cupolas. It was built as a memorial to Empress Maria Alexandrovna by her son the Russian Czar Alexander III and his brothers. continue reading >>
Wildly beautiful, with sheer white cliffs and a lush green valley, Wadi Faran is the site of the very first monastery established in the Judean desert. St. Chariton, an ascetic from the third century, found this place an ideal site for prayer and contemplation. Historians now say that this valley may even have been visited by Our Lord Jesus Christ. continue reading >>