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.