The Coptic Orthodox Church is also credited with the genesis of the monastic movement, which began during the latter part of the 3rd century and flourished in the 4th century under the example of St. Antony (251-356 A.D.), known as the father of all monks over the world. The monk essentially lives like an angel unceasingly lifting up prayers and praises to God – entails a life of asceticism consisting of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship, and purity of heart together with elements of manual labor. Monks strive to grow in spiritual virtues throughout their lives, starting by the virtue of celibacy.
All monastic forms started in the 4th century in Egypt. The three forms of monasticism, which took root in Egypt, are: anchoritism, semi-anchoritism and cenobitism. The Coptic Orthodox Church is known for its asceticism, not only because the monastic movement started there, but also because asceticism is a fundamental characteristic of its sacramental and liturgical life and worship.
Some Christians yearned for the anchoritic life and escaped to the desert. One such example of that is St. Paul the First Hermit, who lived in the desert more than 90 years (250-341 A.D.) without seeing a single man. Although there were others who preceded St. Antony the Great in the practice of monasticism, he is widely credited with its genesis because of the many who became his disciples, embraced it, and championed its development. St. Pachomius (290-348 A.D.) established the cenobitic system of monasticism because he found that the anchoritic system was not suitable for everyone seeking the monastic life. St. Shenouda the Archmandrite and Head of Anchorites (348-466 A.D.), embraced the anchoritic or hermitic life and he encouraged some of his monks to withdraw to the desert after a few years of cenobitic life. He was the spiritual father for 2200 monks and 1800 nuns. This movement attracted people from all over the world to come to the Egyptian desert to embrace and live the “angelic life” such as the Greeks, Romans, Cappadocians, Libyans, Syrians, Nubians, Ethiopians and many others.
The women’s monastic movement started side by side with that of men. Many Egyptian and foreign women were disguised in men’s garments to live an ascetic life in men’s monasteries, and they became pioneers in asceticism and spirituality. Later, monks contributed in the building of the nunneries. Many female leaders played effective roles, such as Abbess Sarah and Abbess Theodora.
At its climax, the number of monasteries reached as high up as in the hundreds besides the thousands of anchoritic cells and caves that are scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. Today, there are a number of Coptic monasteries outside the borders of the Egyptian desert. There are two in the U.S., two in Australia, one in Italy, one in Germany, and one in France.