That so great an influence would be granted to the monastic life bespeaks something of the importance in which it is viewed by the Church. Monasticism is not just a 'part' of the greater scope of Orthodox life; it is the very centre and heart of the Church, in relation to which other aspects of her life are born and grow. The monastics (both men and women) are those who choose to follow with singular devotion and obedience the call of Christ, who live the life of the Church in a direct and immediate manner. They are thus the models in which the Church sees her perfect icon: a communion of souls wholly living the life in Christ.
It is sometimes said that monasticism is 'built in' to humanity: that a nature which has been torn from the intimate communion with its Creator—the communion for which it was fashioned—naturally longs to return to that better state. The outward expressions of monasticism—the life set apart, the rigorous asceticism—are manifestations of that deep inward desire of the human soul to unite itself to God through Christ.
Christian monasticism took its practical roots in the early fourth century, though there were individuals and communities living austere, solitary and ascetic lives long before this time. Nonetheless, it was in this era that St Anthony of Egypt lived and had his story recorded by St Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in the classic text, the Life of St Antony of Egypt. This book recorded the saint's departure into the solitary deserts of Egypt to live a life wholly devoted to God, modelled on a daily routine of prayer and manual labour born of the scriptural call to follow the Lord. And what St Anthony did for the solitary life, so did St Pachomius for the communal (after the Greek, cenobitic) monastic way. They were two manifestations of a life that spread throughout the Christian world like wildfire. Within the lifetimes of these two founders, thousands of men and women began fleeing the cities for the solitude of the desert, and the recognizable conception of the monastic life was born.
That life has continued throughout the whole of Christian history, giving rise to great saints—both men and women—who modelled a life of devotion to and union with Christ. And it continues today, in the ongoing monastic life of the Orthodox Church throughout the world. As it has been for over a thousand years, Mount Athos (the 'Holy Mountain') in Greece serves as the spiritual centre of Orthodox monasticism, which reaches into the furthest corners of the globe. In these monasteries, from the greatest lavra to the most humble of hermitages, the life of Christ continues to become, day by day, the life of man.