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An abbey (from Latin abbatia, derived from Syriac abba, "father"), or nunnery, is a Christian monastery or convent, under the government of an Abbot or an Abbess, who serves as the spiritual father or mother of the community. The term can also refer to an establishment which has long ceased to function as an abbey, but continues to carry the nameā€”in some cases for centuries (for example, see Westminster Abbey below).



The earliest known Christian monastic communities (see Monasticism) consisted of groups of cells or huts collected about a common center, which was usually the house of some hermit or anchorite famous for holiness or singular asceticism, but without any attempt at orderly arrangement. This arrangement probably followed the example set in part by the Essenes in Judea.

In the earliest age of Christian monasticism the ascetics were accustomed to live singly, independent of one another, not far from some village church, supporting themselves by the labour of their own hands, and distributing the surplus after the supply of their own scanty wants to the poor. Increasing religious fervour, aided by persecution, drove them farther and farther away from the civilization into mountain solitudes or lonely deserts. The deserts of Egypt swarmed with the "cells" or huts of these anchorites. Anthony the Great, who had retired to the Egyptian Thebaid during the persecution of Maximian, AD 312, was the most celebrated among them for his austerities, his sanctity, and his power as an exorcist. His fame collected round him a host of followers imitating his asceticism in an attempt to imitate his sanctity. The deeper he withdrew into the wilderness, the more numerous his disciples became. They refused to be separated from him, and built their cells round that of their spiritual father. Thus arose the first monastic community, consisting of anchorites living each in his own little dwelling, united together under one superior. Anthony, as Johann August Wilhelm Neander remarks,[1] "without any conscious design of his own, had become the founder of a new mode of living in common, Coenobitism." By degrees order was introduced in the groups of huts. They were arranged in lines like the tents in an encampment, or the houses in a street. From this arrangement these lines of single cells came to be known as Laurae, Laurai, "streets" or "lanes."

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