Monasticism began in the East, and it is in the East that it continues to this day to have the strongest influence on the daily life of the local Christian communities.
The Early Church
The mystical and other-worldly nature of the Christian message very early laid the groundwork for the ascetical life. The example of the Old Testament Prophets, of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself, going into the wilderness to pray and fast set the example that was readily followed by the devout. In the early Christian literature evidence is found of individuals who embraced lives of celibacy and mortification for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, these individuals were not yet monks, as they had not renounced the world, but lived either in towns or near the outskirts of civilization. We also read of communities of virgins living a common life committed to celibacy and virtue. The accounts of some of these virgins are preserved in the martyrologies of the day.
The beginning of monasticism per-se comes right at the end of the Great Persecution of Diocletian, and the founder is Saint Anthony the Great (251 - 356). As a young man he heard the words of the Gospel read in church: If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me (Matthew 19:21). St. Anthony was among the Desert Fathers - those who left the world to seek God in the silence and seclusion of the Egyptian desert. Around him gathered many disciples, whom he guided in the spiritual life. These first monks were hermits, solitaries who battled temptation alone in the wilderness.
As time went on, monks began to congregate into closer communities. Saint Pachomius (ca. 292 - 348) is regarded as the founder of cenobitic monasticism, wherein all live the common life together in a single place under the direction of a single Abbot. The first such monastery was in Tabennisi, Egypt.
Saint Theodore of Egypt, the principle disciple of St. Pachomius, succeeded him as head of the monastic community at Tabennisi. He would later go on to found a third type of monastic institution, the skete, as a "middle road" between anchorites and cenobites. A skete is composed of individual monastic dwellings surrounding a common church. Each monk lives by himself, or with one or two others, coming together only on Sundays and feast days. The rest of the time they spend working and praying alone.
On this threefold foundation all subsequent Christian monasticism was built.