Both monasteries and modern intentional communities represent attempts to create parallel, alternative societies.  The bridges to the dominant surrounding society can vary, but normally they are removed from the center of the dominant society, often surrounded by walls or wilderness that form a rigid boundary between the two alternate modes of existence (however, urban-integrated monasteries and communities have always existed and some communities have deliberately sought to overcome their ‘island’ character).  As a result, initiation ceremonies become necessary rites of passage from one mode of living to another defined as a higher form of the former.  Both traditional communal forms of monasticism and modern intentional communities are thus predicated on the impulse to make a counter-culture.[1] 

This dynamic is apparent in the origins of Christian monasticism.[2]  Christian monasticism began not with the earliest Christian communities but in the fourth century.  The first time the term monk, or monachos in Greek, is employed is in 324, nearly three centuries after the founding of the church.[3]  It arose at a period of massive transformation within the Christian movement: Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had converted to Christianity a couple of decades prior and by throwing the weight of empire behind his new religion had changed that religion remarkably.  Rather than being a small, impoverished, and persecuted group of religious eccentrics, the Christians were lining the hallways of power, dressed in the finest robes, and preaching a modified gospel that massaged the original radical message into something more palpable for the masses.  And the masses came in droves: a stampede of new converts for it was now manifestly profitable in worldly terms to become a Christian.  The monks were those that felt the church had lost sight of transforming the world and had become transformed by it.  They marked their protest not by voice but by their feet: simultaneously in both Syria and Egypt, they left the confines of society to live alternative existences grounded in their perception of the radical spirit of the early church.  They were known as monachos (monks) in Egypt and îhîdāyâ in Syria, but both terms meant roughly the same thing: solitaries.  This ‘solitariness’ was in part physical—many of them lived alone, separated from the world—but moreso it connoted their mindframe: in a society that was now supposedly veering headlong toward an un-Christ-like Christianity, they would be undistracted and undivided in their devotion to Christ, they would be solitarily dedicated to God.  They sought a higher form of life, quite literally for the Stylites in Syria who lived on platforms in the sky, sort of primitive penthouses.  But, the crucible of the desert thus provided the backdrop for the most enduring form of alternative living the world has probably ever known.  Though many of the early monks were hermits, there also arose a variety of forms of communal living whose definition and purpose was found solely in relation to the norms of the era.  It was the formation of one of the original counter-cultures that over time would be co-opted and controlled by the very people whose presence prompted the initial reaction.  Yet, the original spirit of monasticism shares a similar DNA to the impulse behind most modern examples of intentional communities.  They are all predicated on a desire to live differently.

As an institution, monasticism has been far more successful in terms of longevity and scope than modern intentional communities.  Such an appraisal seems warranted: the dominant monastic mode is the coenobitic form (from the Greek bios=life and koinos=common).  As a model of alternative living, it has been most successful in human history, whether it is in the form of Benedict’s Rule in the Christian west or Basil’s rule in the Christian east, as well as its unrelated corollaries in the East: the Buddhist sangha, Hindu mathas, or the rich monastic traditions of Japan.  Coenobitic monasticism has been around for at least 2500 years, spread literally across the globe, and penetrated into the heart of multiple religious traditions.  The differences between and within the various forms are important, but they all follow the same pattern of attempting to forge a life in common.

Their equivalent in the modern intentional community environment is the commune whereby private property is limited and there are aspirations toward the common monastic goal of self-sufficiency.  Communes have generally been less successful.  While the ideal is still held in the highest esteem, most do not even last into the second year, let alone the second generation.  And when they do last, they tend to become more and more individualist over time; in other words, they become less and less coenobitic.  So the appraisal that monasticism has been a far more successful model than modern intentional communities seems safe.  However, perhaps we are not comparing the proper equivalents.  Perhaps the monastic model that is most fitting to the modern world is not the coenobitic model but a model that is now long lost, the lavra. 

Background on the Historical Lavra

In the Encyclopedia of Community, which might qualify as the bible of the communal studies field, the entry on Monastic Communities states: “there are two kinds of monastic life—eremetic (hermit) and cenobitic (community).”[4]  Indeed, these were the two primary models that survived, but it is more helpful to see the monastic world as a spectrum between these two extremes.  In fact, the majority of monks in places like Palestine and early on in Egypt were neither coenobitic nor eremitic, but were a part of lavras.[5] 

Lavras were communities in which the monks lived in clusters surrounding a series of central building that included (normally), a church, a bakery, storage facilities, and perhaps a few other common buildings such as an infirmary or guest quarters.  The monks lived within walking distance of the central area, but showed a surprising degree of diversity and independence: some lived alone, others lived with two or three others and occasionally one would see homes of up to five people, usually under the direction of a spiritual elder.[6]  Each cell or house followed their own rule away from the central church and could even hold distinct theological perspectives, but they would come together one to three times throughout the week for common meals and worship; undoubtedly, they came together other times as well, but the primary paths converged at the core. 

The Greek term “lavra” (Λαύρα) meant in ancient Greek a passageway, lane, or a back alley.  However, it should not be seen as a lonely, empty path but a place of congregation.  When lavra was translated into Syriac as the model spread north, it was translated as Shouka (suq, in modern Arabic), which is a a marketplace, a vibrant and bustling place full of discussion, commerce, and social intercourse.[7]  So lexically the term meant something like a place where pathways connect, a sort of intersection of souls.  The fifth century monastic theologian Evagrius Ponticus gave a definition that seems to capture the broader picture: the lavra is a place “where the dwelling place is separate and distinct, but the common life accomplishes a single goal: divine love.”[8]

The origins of the lavra system in Egypt is a bit obscure but the first lavra in Palestine was founded by Chariton in 330CE, who was captured by bandits while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and decided to stay and found a community at the place of his captivity.  The pinnacle of the movement was in the sixth century with St. Sabbas (439- 532).  The most important primary sources are The Lives of the Monks of Palestine by Cyril of Scythopolis (6th century) and The Spiritual Meadow by John Moschus (d 619 or 634).  The period of decline begins in the seventh century and by the 9th century, there are none left in the traditional form.[9] 

Even at their peak, however, individual lavra communities never grew too large by coenobitic monastic standards: most were between a dozen to seventy people, though there are a couple of examples swelling to 150 individual monks.  The constraining factor, as with most things in the Middle East, was water: they needed to find unsettled places in the Judean desert that had an adequate water supply, which usually meant inhabiting fierce cliffs and ravines.  Many of the cells and houses were caves or structures built attached to the caves, which provided natural air conditioning as well as protection from the weather and robbers.  From above, they could almost appear almost as spiders with a network of paths leading to a central core.

The lavras were designed so that most of the formal interaction between the monks occurred in these shared core structures while the cells or houses were kept private.  The cells and houses were not too distant from the core: monks write about being able to hear their brethren’s singing and all could hear the talon striking the board in the central area to mark the time periods of the day.[10]  The central complexes varied from little more than a chapel and a common room to rather robust central facilities: one abbot known as Gerasimus created a model where the common areas were more far more instrumental and vibrant than the original lavras.  His form of lavra had a church, storeroom, and refectory as with others but it also had a kitchen, living quarters for staff including abbot’s quarters, and guest quarters. [11]  Regardless of the size and form of the core complex, there were always private zones and common zones with differing sets of rules applied to each area.  Herein lies one of the most the distinctive element of lavra versus coenobitic forms of monasticism: searching for a balance between individualization/privatization of life with the inherent value and advantages of a life in community.

The early monastic world, much like our own today, struggled with the question of community.  The earliest monks were the hermits, especially in the deserts of Egypt and the wilds of Syria.  They were fierce individualists, whose goal was to be “alone with the Alone.”[12]  Later monastic writers such as St. Basil the Great was so appalled by this form of religious life that he argued that being a hermit was not only unchristian (for how do you love one another when you are alone) but also inhuman, since to be human is to be social.[13]  For those of the second camp, a coenobium or life in common that sought uniformity in all areas of life—all the monks looked the same, prayed the same way, followed the same schedule, etc…—was the ideal.  In the midst of these extremes stood the lavra, which allowed for diversity of life with varied degrees of individualization and privacy yet sought to harness the resource advantages of communal life and the opportunity to practice Christian virtues with one another.  This diversity and individualization was apparent in many areas of life.

For example, they did not have a common rule to guide their life, across different lavras in the same region or even among the population of a particular lavra.  Some communities met formally multiple times a week for meals in common and long church services; others hardly met in common at all, sometimes only in feast days.  One should see it as a sort of spectrum where some lavras functioned very closely to the coenobium model while others functioned practically like a collection of hermits.  The point is that the monks themselves decided where on that spectrum their community would place themselves and there was not one norm among the lavras.

While the amount of time dedicated to community varied, the primary energy in all the lavras would be dedicated to the private and individualized zones comprised of their cells and houses.  Typically, they would divide their days into the classic monastic tri-part: prayers and reading, work, and eating/peace (sleep).  However, the specific mix and form would differ between cells.  Some might wake up every morning before dawn for long prayers; some might have a more relaxed or informal schedule that depended on shorter prayers.  The spiritual exercises also differed.  For example, fasting was the central ascetic act of the period for monks.  All Christians and especially monks fasted to degrees that seem unimaginable to the modern world.  Gerasimus mentions it was normal to eat only bread, water, and dates within his Lavra.[14]  However, Moschus tells us of a monk who ate only once slice of bread every four days; another was content to eat only the holy bread on mass on Sunday.[15]  Unlike the coenobium where fasting was more or less uniform regardless of personal capability or aspirations, the mark of the lavra was its relative spiritual diversity. 

This diversity would have been apparent even to the casually observer.  Unlike the coenobium where the monastic habit would quickly identify a monk as belonging to a particular monastery, clothing was also not uniform or mandated.  Clothing always represents charged symbols that communicate social messages, but the monks were allowed to decide these messages for themselves.  St Sabbas, for example, wore regularly such tattered rags that he was frequently mistaken for a beggar.[16]  However, there were certain fashions and trends, so to speak: most of the monks in Palestine seemed to wear a sort of sleeveless tunic with a hood.  However, the point is that clothing was another area of diversity within the lavras.

The apparent diversity would also have been noticeable in the ethnicities of the monks of Palestine.  The monks tended to be from all over the Roman Empire: from Italy, Asia Minor, and throughout North Africa.  In fact, one of the earliest leaders, a man named Euthymius, had only one native Palestinian at his lavra but it was often that many different areas of the Roman Empire would be represented within the lavras of Palestine.[17]  Clearly, these were still all Christian males, so grandiose claims of progressive values are not appropriate, but its international flavor stood in stark contrast to the provinciality that marked monasticism in other areas and kinds.  Unarguably, the international character of the lavra monasteries was due to their location near Jerusalem, which was a beacon for pilgrims the world over.  But it also speaks to the genetic structure of the community that allowed for a diversity of practices and norms.  Much like today, the traditions and norms of life and faith varied across the empire.  If one were a faithful monk from Gaul who travelled to a coenobium in Palestine, he would be asked to forgo all that he knew to conform to the uniform practice of the monastery.  However, if he were part of a lavra, he could retain most of the traditions and practices that were familiar to him because most of his life was spent in his cell or house.  In fact, the literary record shows some signs that some houses within lavras were comprised of people from a certain region.[18]  Therefore, the structure of the lavra model fostered diversity within an overarching unity.

This diversity tended to foster the cross-pollination of ideas.  In the earliest lavra in Palestine, one of the monks could write in Greek, Latin, and Syriac and became a teacher to others.[19]  In fact, one interesting subgroup of the lavra population was immensely popular bishops and theologians who sought quietude in remote lavras, where their anonymity could be protected since they spent most of their time on their own.[20]  One can imagine a healthy and perhaps heated exchange on one of the lanes leading to the central church between a new young lavra resident from Egypt with an aging bishop from Rome about the proper way to divide up one’s prayers for the day or a myriad of other theological questions.  Once again, the structure of the lavra compared to the coenobium or the hermits fostered such an intellectually dynamic environment.  Unlike the coenobium where the spiritual life along with every other aspect of life was merely given to you, the proper way to live would be a point of discussion because each cell or house would be deciding the contours of their specific form for themselves.  Inevitably, debates would emerge that would foster reflection and experimentation.  By creating a diverse environment that fostered debate, the danger of division and schism would inevitably also rise—and, as will be apparent, it was precisely such a debate that contributed to the decline of the lavra system as a whole—but the structure of the lavra tended to encourage reflection, debate, and experimentation. 

By highlighting the relative diversity within the lavra system compared to the coenobium, it should not be taken that there was so much diversity that members of the community were relative strangers to one another and had little in common.  Far from it, they were (in the lexical meaning of the term), an intentional community: they came together in order to foster the spiritual life of each other and to share resources.  The lavra did not create the pressure-cooker social  environment of the close-knit coenobium, but the lavrateer (if we could coin a term for a monk in the lavra) still had to interact with his fellow man.  This part of communal life—the opportunity to share resources—marks a second hallmark of lavra life alongside its support of diversity. 

Much like the Egyptian desert and the Syrian wilderness where monasticism also took root, the Judean desert was (and is still today) an area of scarce resources.  If living in common had not been a spiritual mandate, it was also a practical concern.  However, unlike the coenobiums in the area that shared everything, the lavra residents had to think through the questions of which resources to share and why, for the default was not to share everything as it was in the coenobium.  In fact, the normative position was to keep things private and separate unless there was a compelling reason to centralize and communalize something.

In looking at the archeological record, they were quite smart about their decisions in this regard.  For example, bread was the staple of their existence.  Yet wood was scarce in the desert and building a fire for cooking it was time consuming.  They uniformly chose to share this task ,as archeologists have found a common bakery in which they would bake literally dozens of loafs at a time in nearly every lavra uncovered to date.  Furthermore, much like communities today buying in bulk, the lavras pooled their resources to buy grain; we see in the literature that it was sometimes a full-time job to pick up the grain from central markets and transport it to the lavras.[21]  Likewise, while there appears to be some common gardens for growing food, most of the gardens were small ones attached to individual cells and houses—after all, they were eating all but two or three meals a week there.  However, they shared gardening tools and storage buildings for seeds.[22]  They also shared books in central libraries[23] and took care of guests in shared common rooms.  In fact, many of the ancient lavras look like many modern cohousing structures.  The point is that there are clear signs that the leaders of the lavras thought through resource optimization in a way that simply was unnecessary in the coenobium. 

The efficient centralization and communalization of aspects of life also led to communal responsibilities for members of a lavra.  Sometimes these duties involved physical labor such as being a gardener in the central garden or caring for the common animals, but other times it would involve more clerical tasks, such as assigning work as needed and insuring supplies arrived for everyone on time.[24]  These jobs tended to rotate, sometimes on a yearly basis.  The picture that emerges is one where the lavrateers are interacting with one another at multiple levels throughout the week, not just during the common services and meals.  Their cell or house may have been their primary mode of existence but they were also regular participants of life in common, with all its inherent advantages.

In sum, in staking out a position midway between the hermits and the coenobium, the lavra model demanded reflection of its members concerning the core questions of existence at the time: first, the proper balance between communal and private life, a common uniform existence and individualized expressions.  Second, how to balance private consumption while optimizing communal resource use in an environment of limited resources.  The thesis of this essay is that, once again, these two questions have become the central dilemmas of our existential plight.  The lavra model could have been an important link between ancient monasticism and modern intentional communities, but it did not last.

The Decline of the Lavra

The reasons for the decline of the lavra system are many, including the Islamic conquest of the area,[25] but one of the most important is that over time, the ecclesiastical authorities slowly sought to co-opt the monastic movement and employ its ranks as a sort of theological army in support of their positions in church debates.  The coenobitic monasteries with their uniformity under a charismatic and powerful leader proved far more easy to control than the decentralized and diverse lavras.[26]  One sees evidence for this in sixth century legal code of the Roman emperor Justinian, who demanded that all monks sleep in common dormitory so that they could be more easily monitored by those in authority.[27]  At the same time, Lavras in Palestine were engaged in heated theological debates with each other that divided the movement; at one point, a debate about the interpretation of the early theologian Origen’s view of the afterlife led to people of the New Lavra attacking the monks of the Great Lavra with knives.[28]  So there was also some internal dissection (pun intended).  Nevertheless, with ecclesiastical backing behind the coenobiums, pressure from the Islamic invasions, and internal dissent, the lavras gradually were converted to coenobium or withered away, so by the ninth century they were largely gone.  There are still some monastic forms that bear reflection of the original lavras such as the sketes of present-day Mt. Athos, but the peak of the lavra movement was clearly in the fourth through seventh centuries.


[1] See Romila Thapar, "Renunciation: The Making of a Counter-Culture?" in Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, ed. Romila Thapar (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1978) 83.

[2] The dynamic is also apparent in Hindu and Buddhist monasticism, though those stories are beyond the scope of this paper.

[3] The first known use of the word monachos appears in a legal notice on a papyrus dated to 324.  Its first use in a church writer is Eusebius of Caesarea in his commentary on the Psalms written sometime in the early 330s.  See E.A. Judge, “The Earliest Use of Monachos for ‘Monk’ (P. Coll. Youtie 77) and the Origins of Monasticism,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 20 (1977) 72-89 and also Francoise Morard, “Encore Quelques Reflexions Sur Monachos,” Vigiliae Christianae 34 (1980) 395-401.

[4] Van A. Reidhead, “Monasticism” in The Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World, edited by Karen Christensen and David Levinson (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publication, 2003) 931.

[5] The best modern sources on the lavra model are: Yizhar Hirschfeld, The Judean Desert Monasteries in the Byzantine Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Derwas J. Chitty, The Desert a City (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966); John Binns, Ascetic Ambassadors of Christ: The Monasteries of Palestine, 314-631 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).  A brief but helpful introduction can be found in Edward G. Matthews Jr. “Lavra” in The Encyclopedia of Monasticism, E.W. Johnston, ed. (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000) 746-7.

[6] Hirshfield, 180 has the average distance between cells being 35 meters and most living alone as he discusses on page 177, but some living in a cluster of caves, as he discusses on page 187.

[7] See Chitty, 15.

[8] Ecclesiastical History, I.21

[9] To add an element of confusion, however, the term lavra comes to be re-appropriated in the rest of the Eastern Orthodox world as a sort of honorific title for coenobitic monasteries such as the Great Lavra of Mt. Athos and the Kiev Lavra, but these do not follow the original model so shouldn’t be confused with the subject of this essay. 

[10] Edward G Matthews, “Lavra” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, 746-7.

[11] Hirschfeld, 13. Andrew T. Crislip studies in depth the medical facilities in the lavras in his book, From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism & the Transformation of Health Care in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005).

[12] This phrase is neoplatonic in origin but was used by Athanasius in his description of St Anthony the Great, the first monk, in his Vita.

[13] See Basil’s Regulae fusius tractatae. The Long Rules, 3.1.

[14] See Vita Gerasimus, 2,3; Hirschfeld, 82.

[15] See Spiritual Meadow, 9: 2860A, 42: 2896C; Hirschfeld, 82.

[16] Chitty, 116.

[17] Hirschfeld, 12-3.

[18] See Hirschfeld, 187.

[19] See Chitty, 85.

[20] Chitty, 113.

[21] See Hirschfeld, 83-4.

[22] Hirschfeld, 96.

[23] Hirschfeld, 96.

[24] This was the job of the steward (oikonomos). See Hirschfeld, 73.

[25] See Hirschfeld, 17.  The monasteries became effectively cut off from the center of power in Constantinople and the flood of pilgrims that often provided resources and new recruits tricked to a stream.

[26] In the earlier periods, the strength of the personalities of Sabbas and Euthymius show that it was possible to have strong leadership connected to the central church authority. 

[27] See Justinian, Novella, CXXIII, 36.

[28] See the summary of the controversy in Elizabeth Clark, The Origenist Controversy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).