I’ve been reading, lately, about the extreme self-denial, masochistic behaviors really, some of the early Christians imposed upon themselves believing they could atone for their inherent sinfulness and bring them closer to God. In the third century the apparent suffering of choice was to walk off into the desert without food or water in the hopes that denial of basic human needs would gain them a foot up toward heavenly rewards, which, I suspect, they were looking forward to sooner rather than later. There were other ascetics, the Stylites, who tied themselves atop pillars where some of them would stand for years (really!) while their muscles atrophied, hoping to be swept upward when the rapture happened.
Well, such extremes didn’t work for everyone. There were many men and women who wished to gain spiritual acceptance by denying the needs of the flesh but only up to a point. Monasticism provided opportunity to practice a humble, ascetic life of obedience, gain mutual support from their fellow monks or nuns and engage in service to community as they knew God would want them to do.
Such an organization required a rigid structure, though, rules to help everyone maintain the necessary austerity such a life demanded. There was little room for self-expression or individuality; thinking for oneself was pretty much out of the question. Even those faithful individuals not inclined toward the monastic life understood the sacred duties of denial and following the dictates of the church.
Such behavior, it’s been credibly suggested, can account, at least in part for the Dark Ages lasting for 1000 years.