Monasticism (from Greek: monachos meaning “alone”) is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to devote one’s life fully to spiritual work. Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called monks or brothers (male), and nuns or sisters (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called monastics.
Monastics usually take religious vows of poverty and celibacy in order to dedicate themselves to a life of disciplined religious practice. They can be found in almost every religion and are known for their single-minded devotion to the religious life.
There are several specific categories of monastics including cenobites, hermits, anchorites, and hesychasts. Some monks live alone (Eremitic Monasticism) while others live in a community with like-minded people (Cenobitic Monasticism), whilst always maintaining some degree of physical separation from the masses. In the English language, a distinction is also made between monks and friars, the latter being members of mendicant orders.
A monk (Greek: μοναχός, monachos, Latin: monachus) specifies a person who leads the “monastic life,” whether in solitude or in a “monastery.” From early Church times, there has been a lively discussion of the meaning of the term monk (Greek: monos, “alone”), namely whether it denotes someone living alone/away from the rest of society, or someone celibate/focused on God alone.
Originally, monks were eremitic figures, living alone from the population to focus their time entirely on their religious pursuits. However, cenobitic orders of monks eventually developed, in which the monks lived together in communities. Thus, monasteries developed that were in a strange way oxymorons of sorts since they were “communities of loners,” those who wished to withdraw from the world… but not entirely. A monastery became the dwelling of one or more monks.
Types of Monks
Saint Benedict of Nursia identified four kinds of monks in his Rule of St Benedict, which are still used today:
- 1. The cenobites live in community in a monastery, serve God under a religious rule and do so under the leadership of an abbot (or in the case of a community of women, an abbess). Benedict points out in chapter 1.13 that they are the “strong kind,” which by logic of the context must mean the larger number rather than the better kind.
- 2. The hermits and anchorites have thorough experience as cenobites in a monastery. “They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert; self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God’s help to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.” Benedict himself twice lived for prolonged periods as a hermit, which may account for the comparative length of the characteristics of their life in this list.
- 3. The Sarabaites, censured by Benedict as the most detestable kind of monks, are pretenders that have no cenobitic experience, follow no rule and have no superior.
- 4. The Gyrovagues, censured by Benedict as worse than sarabaites, are wandering monks without stability in a particular monastery. (Chapter 1: Rule of Saint Benedict)
Eastern monasticism is found in three distinct forms: anchoritic (a solitary living in isolation), coenobitic (a community living and worshiping together under the direct rule of an abbot or abbess), and the “middle way” between the two, known as the skete (a community of individuals living separately but in close proximity to one another, who come together only on Sundays and feast days, working and praying the rest of the time in solitude, but under the direction of an elder). One normally enters a coenobitic community first, and only after testing and spiritual growth would one go on to the skete or, for the most advanced, become a solitary anchorite. However, one is not necessarily expected to join a skete or become a solitary; most monastics remain in the cenobuim the whole of their lives. The form of monastic life an individual embraces is considered to be his vocation; that is to say, it is dependent upon the will of God, and is revealed by grace.
From a religious point of view, the solitary life is a form of asceticism, wherein the hermit renounces worldly concerns and pleasures in order to come closer to the deity or deities they worship or revere. This practice appears also in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism. In the ascetic eremitic life, the hermit seeks solitude for meditation, contemplation, and prayer without the distractions of contact with human society, sex, or the need to maintain socially acceptable standards of cleanliness or dress. The ascetic discipline can also include a simplified diet and/or manual labor as a means of support.
“Mendicant orders” are religious orders which depend directly on begging, or the charity of the people for their livelihood. In principle they do not own property, either individually or collectively, and have taken a vow of poverty, in order that all their time and energy could be expended on religious work.
Christian mendicant orders spend their time preaching the Gospel and serving the poor. In the Middle Ages, the original mendicant orders of friars in the Church were the
- Franciscans (Friars Minor, commonly known as the Grey Friars), founded 1209
- Carmelites, (Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Carmel, commonly known as the White Friars), founded 1206–1214
- Dominicans (Order of Preachers, commonly called the Black Friars), founded 1215
- Augustinians (Hermits of St. Augustine, commonly called the Austin Friars), founded 1256
The Second Council of Lyons (1274) recognized these as the four “great” mendicant orders, and suppressed certain others. The Council of Trent loosened their property restrictions.
Among other orders are the:
- Discalced Carmelites
- Trinitarians (Order of the Most Blessed Trinity), founded 1193
- Mercedarians (Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy), founded 1218
- Servites (Order of Servants of Mary), founded 1233
- Minims (Hermits of St. Francis of Paola), founded 1436
- Capuchins (Order of Friars Minor Capuchin), established 1525
- Brotherhood of Saint Gregory (an Anglican order) founded 1969
Many religions have monastic groups, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism, although their expressions differ considerably.
The order of Buddhist monks and nuns was founded by Gautama Buddha during his lifetime over 2,500 years ago. Initially consisting only of males, the Buddhist monastic order grew to include females after the Buddha’s step-mother, Mahaprajapati, asked for and eventually received permission to live as an ordained practitioner. After the death of the Buddha, the Buddhist monastic order developed into a primarily cenobitic movement. The practice of living communally during the rainy season, required by the Buddha, gradually grew to encompass a settled monastic life centered on cenobium Most of the modern disciplinary rules followed by monks and nuns—the Patimokkha—govern in great detail, the proper methods for living in a community of monks or nuns. Within the sangha, the number of rules observed varies for monks and nuns: the nuns are expected to follow more rules than the monks.
Monks and nuns are expected to fulfill a variety of roles in the Buddhist community. They are expected to preserve the doctrine and discipline, provide a living example for the laity, and serve as a “field of merit” for lay followers. In return for the support of the laity, monks and nuns are expected to live an austere life focused on the study of Buddhist doctrine, the practice of meditation, and the observance of good moral character.
A monk, known as a Bhikkhu in Pali or Bhikshu in Sanskrit, first ordains as a Samanera (novice) for a year or more. Novices often ordain at a very young age, but generally no younger than eight. Samaneras live according to the Ten Precepts, but are not responsible for living by the full set of monastic rules. Higher ordination, conferring the status of a full Bhikkhu, is usually given only to men who are aged twenty or older. Nuns follow a similar progression, but are required to live as Samaneras for a longer periods of time—typically five years.
The disciplinary regulations for monks and nuns are intended to create a life that is simple and focused, rather than one of deprivation or severe asceticism. In most Buddhist lineages, celibacy is of primary importance in monastic discipline, being seen as being the preeminent factor in separating the life of a monk from that of a ‘householder’. Depending on the tradition and the strictness of observation, monastics may eat only one meal a day, provided either by direct donations of food from lay supporters, or from a monastery kitchen that is stocked (and possibly staffed) by donations from lay supporters.
Monasticism drew its origin from the examples of the Prophet Elijah and John the Baptist who both lived alone in the desert. Jesus himself dwelt in solitude in the desert for 40 days, and the Gospels record other times in which he retired for periods of solitary prayer. In the early church, individuals would live ascetic lives, though usually on the outskirts of civilization. Communities of virgins are also mentioned by early church authors, but again these communities were either located in towns, or near the edges of them.
Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle Ages. However, not everybody was fit for solitary life, and numerous cases of hermits becoming mentally unstable are reported. The need for some form of organized spiritual guidance was obvious, and around 300 C.E. Saint Anthony the Great started to organize his many followers in what was to become the first Christian monastery. Soon the Egyptian desert abounded with similar institutions.
The idea caught on, and other places followed:
- Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisibis in Mesopotamia (~350), and from this monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China.
- St. Sabbas the Sanctified organized the monks of the Judean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
- Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai was founded in the Sinai desert by order of Emperor Justinian.
The first famous Christian known to adopt the life in a desert was Saint Anthony of Egypt (251-356 C.E.). He lived alone as an anchorite in the Egyptian desert until he attracted a circle of followers, after which he retired further into the desert to escape the adulation of people. In his early practice, St. Anthony lived near the town and had an experienced ascetic give him advice; later, he went out into the desert for the sole purpose of pursuing God in solitude. As the idea of devoting one’s entire life to God grew, more and more monks joined him, even in the far desert. Under St. Anthony’s system, they each lived in isolation. Later, loose-knit communities began to be formed, coming together only on Sundays and major feast days for Holy Communion. These are referred to as sketes, named after the location in Egypt where this system began. The concept of monks all living together under one roof and under the rule of a single abbot is attributed to St. Pachomios (ca. 292 – 348), who lived in the beginning of the fourth century, and is referred to as coenobitic monasticism. At this same time, St. Pachomios’ sister became the first abbess of a monastery of women (convent). Christian monasticism spread throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. At its height it was not uncommon for coenobitic monasteries to house upwards of 30,000 monks.
As Christianity grew and diversified, so did the style of monasticism. In the East, monastic norms came to be regularized through the writings of St. Basil the Great (c. 330 – 379) and St. Theodore the Studite (c. 758-c. 826), coalescing more or less into the form in which it is still found today. In the West, there was initially some distrust of monasticism, due to fears of extremism previously observed in certain heretical groups, most notably Gnosticism. Largely through the writings of St. John Cassian (c. 360 – 433), monasticism came to be accepted in the West as well. Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – 547) set forth an early monastic rule in the west. In the beginning, Western monasticism followed much the same pattern as its Eastern forebears, but over time the traditions diversified.
Holy men and women have long played an important role in Indian culture and religious traditions. As a result, there are a variety of Hindu terms used to denote religious mendicants. The most famous terms are “Yogis” (those who practice Yoga), “Gurus” (those who dispel spiritual darkness), “Sadhus” (medicants), “Swamis” (Spiritual Masters), “Rishis” (Seers), and “Sannyasis” (Renunciates). The number of these terms is a sign of the importance of holy men and women in Indian life even today.
Sadhus and Swamis occupy a unique and important place in Hindu society. Vedic textual data suggests that asceticism in India—in forms similar to that practiced by sadhus today—dates back to 1700 B.C.E.. Thus, the present-day sadhus of India likely represent the oldest continuous tradition of monastic mystical practice in the world.
Traditionally, becoming a Sannyasi or Sadhu was the fourth and highest stage (asrama) in life in classical Hinduism when men, usually over sixty, would renounce the world, undergoing a ritual death (and symbolic rebirth), in the pursuit of moksha. At least three preconditions needed to be fulfilled before one could take this vow of renunciation—one needed to have completed one’s duties to family and ancestors, one’s hair should have turned gray, and one should have ensured a grandson to continue the obligatory family rituals.
It is estimated that there are several million sadhus in India today. Along with bestowing religious instruction and blessings to lay people, sadhus are often called upon to adjudicate disputes between individuals or to intervene in conflicts within families. Sadhus are also considered to be living embodiments of the divine, and images of what human life, in the Hindu view, is truly about—religious illumination and liberation from the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). It is also thought that the austere practices of the sadhus help to burn off their karma and that of the community at large. Thus seen as benefiting society, many people help support sadhus with donations. Thus, by and large, sadhus are still widely respected, revered and even feared, especially for their curses. However, reverence of sadhus in India is by no means universal. Indeed, sadhus have often been seen with a certain degree of suspicion, particularly amongst the urban populations of India. In popular pilgrimage cities, posing as a ‘sadhu’ can be a means of acquiring income for beggars who could hardly be considered ‘devout’. Some sadhus fake holy status to gain respect but they are normally discovered by true sadhus.
Madhvaacharya (Madhva), the Dvaita Vedanta philosopher, established ashta matha (Eight Monastries). He appointed a monk (called swamiji or swamigalu in local parlance) for each matha or monastery who has the right to worship Lord Krishna by rotation. Each matha’s swamiji gets a chance to worship after 14 years. This ritual is called Paryaya.
Monks from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), or Hare Krishnas as they are popularly known, are the best known Vaishnava monks outside India. They are a common sight in many places around the world. Their appearance—simple saffron dhoti, shaved head with sikha, Tulasi neckbeads and tilaka markings—and social customs (sadhana) date back many thousands of years to the Vedic era. ISKCON started as a predominantly monastic group but nowadays the majority of its members live as lay persons. Many of them, however, spent some time as monks. New persons joining ISKCON as full-time members (living in its centers) first undergo a three-month Bhakta training, which includes learning the basics of brahmacari (monastic) life. After that they can decide if they prefer to continue as monks or as married Grihasthas. A Brahmachari older than fifty years can become sannyasi, which is a permanent decision that one cannot give up.
The religion of Jainism has two branches (Digambara and Shevtambara) with different views of monasticism. Digambara monks do not wear clothing but they do not consider themselves to be nude since they see themselves wearing the environment. Digambaras believe that ascetic practice represents a refusal to give in to the body’s demands for comfort and private property. Digambara ascetics have only two possessions: a peacock feather broom and a water gourd. They also believe that women are unable to obtain moksha.
The Shvetambaras are the other main Jain lineage. Svetambaras, unlike Digambaras, neither believe that ascetics must practice nudity, nor do they believe that women are unable to obtain liberation. Shvetambaras are commonly seen wearing face masks so that they do not accidentally breathe in and kill small creatures.
The existence of ascetic individuals and groups in Judaism preceeds the rise of Christianity as an organized religion. Jewish groups such as the Essenes and the Nazirites, were famous for their monastic discipline, as were the Therapeutae of ancient Egypt. The New Testament itself, describes the ascetic behavior of John the Baptist who lived in the wilderness, a forerunner of Christian monasticism.
The term monastery was used by the Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 B.C.E.–50 C.E., resident in Alexandria, Egypt) in his description of the life of the Therapeutae and Therapeutides, people with common religious aspirations who then were dwelling on a low-lying hill above the Mareotic Lake near Alexandria in houses at a distance of each other that safeguarded both solitude and security (cf. On the Contemplative Life ch. III, in the Loeb Classical Library edition see §25).
- In each house there is a consecrated room which is called a sanctuary or closet (monastērion), and closeted (monoumenoi) in this they are initiated into the mysteries of the sanctified life. They take nothing into it, either drink or food or any other of the things necessary for the needs of the body, but laws and oracles delivered through the mouth of prophets, and hymns and anything else which fosters and perfects knowledge and piety. They keep the memory of God alive and never forget it … Twice every day they pray, at dawn and at eventide … The interval between early morning and evening is spent entirely in spiritual exercise. They read the holy scriptures and seek wisdom from their ancestral philosophy … For six days they seek wisdom by themselves in solitude in the closets (monastēriois) mentioned above … But every seventh day they meet together as for a general assembly … (in a) common sanctuary.
Islam forbids the practice of monasticism. In Sunni Islam, one example is Uthman bin Maz’oon; one of the companions of Muhammad. He was married to Khawlah bint Hakim, both being two of the earliest converts to Islam. There is a Sunni narration that, out of religious devotion, Uthman bin Maz’oon decided to dedicate himself to night prayers and take a vow of chastity from his wife. His wife got upset and spoke to Muhammad about this. Muhammad reminded Uthman that he himself, as the Prophet, also had a family life, and that Uthman had a responsibility to his family and should not adopt monasticism as a form of religious practice.
Muhammad told his companions to ease their burden and avoid excess. According to some Sunni hadiths, in a message to some companions who wanted to put an end to their sexual life, pray all night long or fast continuously, Muhammad said: “Do not do that! Fast on some days and eat on others. Sleep part of the night, and stand in prayer another part. For your body has rights upon you, your eyes have a right upon you, your wife has a right upon you, your guest has a right upon you.” Muhammad once exclaimed, repeating it three times: “Woe to those who exaggerate [who are too strict]!” And, on another occasion, Muhammad said:
“Moderation, moderation! For only with moderation will you succeed.”
Monasticism is also mentioned in four places in the following verses of Qur’an:
Then We caused Our messengers to follow in their footsteps; and We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow, and gave him the Gospel, and placed compassion and mercy in the hearts of those who followed him. But monasticism they invented – We ordained it not for them – only seeking Allah’s pleasure, and they observed it not with right observance. So We give those of them who believe their reward, but many of them are evil-livers.
- —Qur’an Verse 27, Surah Al-Hadid (chapter 57)
They have taken as lords beside Allah their rabbis and their monks and the Messiah son of Mary, when they were bidden to worship only One God. There is no god save Him. Be He glorified from all that they ascribe as partner (unto Him)!
- —Qur’an Verse 31, Surah Al-Tawba (chapter 9)
O ye who believe! Lo! many of the (Jewish) rabbis and the (Christian) monks devour the wealth of mankind wantonly and debar (men) from the way of Allah. They who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah, unto them give tidings (O Muhammad) of a painful doom
- —Qur’an Verse 34, Surah Al-Tawba (chapter 9)
Thou wilt find the most vehement of mankind in hostility to those who believe (to be) the Jews and the idolaters. And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud.
- —Qur’an Verse 82, Surah Al-Maeda (chapter 5)
Manichaeism had two types of followers, the auditors, and the elect. The elect lived apart from the auditors to concentrate on reducing the material influences of the world. They did this through strict celibacy, poverty, teaching, and preaching. Therefore the elect were probably at least partially monastic.
Sikhism specifically forbids the practice of monasticism. Hence there are no Sikh monks or brotherhoods.
Some Sufi orders of Islam are mendicant ascetics who have taken the vow of poverty. Though some of them are beggars by choice, others work in regular professions such as the Egyptian Qadirites who are fishermen. There are also various dervish brotherhoods who trace their origins from various Muslim saints and teachers, especially Ali and Abu Bakr. They live in monastic conditions, similar to Christian monk brotherhoods.
Yungdrung Bön is believed to have a rich monastic history. Bön monastaries exist today, however, the monks there practice Bön-Buddhism.
- Brooke, Christopher Nugent Lawrence. The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages. HiddenSpring, 2003. ISBN 9781587680182
- Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780195162233
- Johnston, William M. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Monasticism. 2 vols. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000. ISBN 9781579580902
- Lawrence, C.H. Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (3rd Edition) Longman, 2003. ISBN 9780582404274
- Plaiss, Mark. The Inner Room: A Journey into Lay Monasticism. Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 2003. ISBN 9780867164817
- Sloan, Karen E. Flirting With Monasticism: Finding God on Ancient Paths. IVP Books, 2006. ISBN 9780830836024
- Wijayaratna, Mohan. Buddhist Monastic Life: According to the Texts of the Theravada Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 9780521367080
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia