Cenobitic (or coenobitic) monasticism is a monastic tradition that stresses community life. Often in the West, the community belongs to a religious order and the life of the cenobitic monk is regulated by a religious rule, a collection of precepts. The older style of monasticism, to live as a hermit, is called eremitic; and a third form of monasticism, found primarily in the East, is the skete.
The English words "cenobite" and "cenobitic" are derived, via Latin, from the Greek words koinos (κοινός), "common", and bios (βίος), "life". The adjective can also be cenobiac (κοινοβιακός, koinobiakos). A group of monks living in community is often referred to as a "cenobium".
Cenobitic monasticism exists in various religions, though Buddhist and Christian cenobitic monasticism are the most prominent.
The organized version of Christian cenobitic monasticism is commonly thought to have started in Egypt in the 4th century AD. Christian monks of previous centuries were usually hermits, especially in the Middle East; this continued to be very common until the decline of Aramean Christianity in the Late Middle Ages. This form of solitary living, however, did not suit everyone. Some monks found the eremitic style to be too lonely and difficult; and if one was not spiritually prepared, the life could lead to mental breakdowns.
For this reason, organized monastic communities started to be created, so that monks could have more support in their spiritual struggle. While eremitic monks did have an element of socializing, since they would meet once a week to pray together, cenobitic monks came together for common prayer on a more regular basis. The cenobitic monks also practised more socializing because the monasteries where they lived were often located in or near inhabited villages. For example, the Bohairic version of the Life of Pachomius states that the monks of the monastery of Tabenna built a church for the villagers of the nearby town of the same name even "before they constructed one for themselves." This means that cenobitic monks did find themselves in contact with other people, including lay people, whereas the eremitic monks tried their best to keep to themselves, only meeting for prayer occasionally.
Cenobitic monks were also different from their eremitic predecessors and counterparts in their actual living arrangements. Whereas the eremitic monks ("hermits") lived alone in a monastery consisting of merely a hut or cave ("cell"), the cenobitic monks ("cenobites") lived together in monasteries comprising one or a complex of several buildings. In the case of the latter, each dwelling would house about twenty monks and within the house there were separate rooms or "cells" that would be inhabited by two or three monks. This structure of living for the cenobitic monks has been attributed to the same man that is usually hailed as the "father of cenobitic monasticism," St. Pachomius. Pachomius is thought to have got the idea for living quarters like these from the time he spent in the Roman army, because the style is very "reminiscent of army barracks."
Though Pachomius is often credited as the "father of cenobitic monasticism," it is more accurate to think of him as the "father of organized cenobitic monasticism" as he was the first monk to take smaller communal groups that often already existed and bring them together into a larger federation of monasteries.
The account of how Pachomius was given the idea to start a cenobitic monastery is found in Palladius of Galatia's "The Lausiac History" and says that an angel came to Pachomius to give him the idea. Though this is an interesting explanation for why he decided to initiate the cenobitic tradition, there are sources that indicate there were actually other communal monastic communities around at the same time as Pachomius, and possibly even before him. In fact, three of the nine monasteries that joined Pachomius' cenobitic federation were not founded by him, meaning he actually was not the first to have such an idea since these three "clearly had an independent origin."
Though he was not the first to implement communal monasticism, Pachomius is still an important part of cenobitic monastic history, since he was the first to bring separate monasteries together into a more organized structure. This is the reason why (as well as the fact that much hagiography and literature has been written about him) he has continued to be recognized as the father of the tradition.
Aside from the monasteries that joined Pachomius' federation of cenobitic monasteries, there were also other cenobitic Christian groups who decided not to join him. The Melitians and the Manichaeans are examples of these cenobitic groups.
Even before Pachomius had started on his path toward monastic communities, the Melitians as a group were already recruiting members. The Melitians were a heretical Christian sect founded by Meletius of Lycopolis They actually had "heard of Pachomius' monastic aspirations and tried to recruit him" to join their community.
As for Manichaeans, members of a religion founded by a man named Mani, some scholars believe they were the "pioneers of communal asceticism in Egypt," and not Pachomius and the Pachomians as has become the common thought. Mani, himself, was actually influenced to begin cenobitic monasticism from other groups, including Buddhists and Jewish-Christian Elkasites who were practising this tradition already.
The overall idea of cenobitic monasticism cannot be traced to a single source, however, as many have tried to do in calling Pachomius the "founder" of the tradition, but rather is thanks to the ideas and work of numerous groups, including the aforementioned Melitians, Manichaeans, Elkasites, Buddhists and, of course, the Pachomians.
The cenobitic monastic idea did not end with these early groups, though, but rather inspired future groups and individuals:
- Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisibis in Mesopotamia (~350), and from this monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China.
Mar Saba organized the monks of the Judean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
- St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.
- St. Bruno of Carthusia, prompted by the spectre of the damnation of the Good Doctor of Paris Cenodoxus founded a monastery just outside of Paris in the 11th Century.
In both the East and the West, cenobiticism established itself as the primary form of monasticism, with many foundations being richly endowed by rulers and nobles. The excessive acquisition of wealth and property led to several attempts at reform, such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the West and Saint Nilus of Sora in the East.