Those living the monastic life are known by the generic terms monks (men) and nuns (women). In modern English, they are also known by the gender-neutral term "monastics." Monastics generally dwell in a monastery (monks) or a convent (nuns), whether they live there in a community (cenobites), or alone (hermits).
Monastic communities, broadly speaking, are organized into orders and congregations guided by a particular religious rule, such as the Rule of St Benedict or the Rule of St Augustine, and also serve the purpose of their own founder.
Currently the monastic life – also known as Consecrated life and "religious life" – is regulated by the respective Church law of those Christian denominations that recognize it (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, or the Lutheran Church). Once a Christian feels called to seek God in the monastic life, it needs to be established whether the vocation is as a member of a religious community or as a consecrated virgin, hermit or widow.
While many people think of the Christian monastic life (especially that of Catholic monks or nuns) as having "something to do with living in a religious community," its purpose is not communal living with like-minded Christians. Rather, the purpose is perpetual training that is meant to help those Christians who feel called to dedicate their life to God. This is in accordance with the perfect example given by Jesus and following his exhortation to "be ye perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect." This ideal, also called the state of perfection, is expressed everywhere that the things of God are sought above all other things. This can be seen, for example, in the Philokalia, a book of monastic writings.
A monk or nun is an individual who has made a public vow to observe not only the Ten Commandments and the law of their respective Church authority (as has every other Christian), but also the counsels of perfection (e.g., chastity, poverty and obedience) and the rules set by the founder of their particular religious order.
A Nazirite was a person voluntarily separated to the Lord, under a special vow.
The prophets of Israel were set apart to the Lord for the sake of a message of repentance. Some of them lived under extreme conditions, voluntarily separated or forced into seclusion because of the burden of their message. Other prophets were members of communities, schools mentioned occasionally in the Scriptures but about which there is much speculation and little known. The pre-Abrahamic prophets, Enoch and Melchizedek, and especially the Jewish prophets Elijah and his disciple Elisha are important to Christian monastic tradition. The most frequently cited "role-model" for the life of a hermit separated to the Lord, in whom the Nazarite and the prophet are believed to be combined in one person, is John the Baptist. John also had disciples who stayed with him and, as may be supposed, were taught by him and lived in a manner similar to his own.
But, the consummate prototype of all modern Christian monasticism, communal and solitary, is Jesus:
The first Christian communities lived in common, sharing everything, according to Acts of the Apostles.
Institutional Christian monasticism seems to have begun in the deserts in 3rd century Egypt as a kind of living martyrdom. Anthony of Egypt (251-356) is the best known of these early hermit-monks. Anthony the Great and Pachomius were early monastic innovators in Egypt, although Paul the Hermit is the first Christian historically known to have been living as a monk. Eastern Orthodoxy looks to Basil of Caesarea as a founding monastic legislator, as well to as the example of the Desert Fathers. Shortly after 360 AD Martin of Tours introduced monasticism to the west. Benedict of Nursia, who lived a century later, established the Rule that led to him being credited with the title of father of western monasticism. Scholars such as Lester K. Little attribute the rise of monasticism at this time to the immense changes in the church brought about by Constantine's legalization of Christianity. The subsequent transformation of Christianity into the main Roman religion ended the position of Christians as a small group that believed itself to be the godly elite. In response a new more advanced form of dedication was developed. The long-term "martyrdom" of the ascetic replaced the violent physical martyrdom of the persecutions. Others point to historical evidence that individuals were living the life later known as monasticism before the legalization of Christianity.In fact it is believed by the Carmelites that they were started by the Jewish prophet Elias.
The first efforts to create a proto-monastery were by Saint Macarius, who established individual groups of cells such as those at Kellia (founded in 328.) The intention was to bring together individual ascetics who, although pious, did not, like Saint Anthony, have the physical ability or skills to live a solitary existence in the desert . At Tabenna. in upper Egypt, sometime around 323 AD, Saint Pachomius, chose to mould his disciples into a more organized community in which the monks lived in individual huts or rooms (cellula in Latin,) but worked, ate, and worshipped in shared space. Guidelines for daily life were created, and separate monasteries were created for men and women. This method of monastic organization is called cenobitic or "community-based." All the principal monastic orders are cenobitic in nature. In Catholic theology, this community-based living is considered superior because of the obedience practiced and the accountability offered. The head of a monastery came to be known by the word for "Father;" - in Syriac, Abba; in English, "Abbot."
This one community was so successful he was called in to help organize others, and by one count by the time he died in 346 there were thought to be 3,000 such communities dotting Egypt, especially the Thebaid. Within the span of the next generation this number increased to 7,000. From there monasticism quickly spread out first to Palestine and the Judean Desert, Syria, North Africa and eventually the rest of the Roman Empire.
Orthodox monasticism does not have Religious Orders as in the West, so there are no formal Monastic Rules (Regulae); rather, each monk and nun is encouraged to read all of the Holy Fathers and emulate their virtues. There is also no division between the "active" and "contemplative" life. Orthodox monastic life embraces both active and contemplative aspects.
There exist in the East three types of monasticism: eremitic, cenobitic, and the skete. The skete is a very small community, often of two or three under the direction of an Elder. They pray privately for most of the week, then come together on Sundays and Feast Days for communal prayer, thus combining aspects of both eremitic and coenobitic monasticism.
When a candidate wishes to embrace the monastic life, he will enter the monastery of his choice as a guest and ask to be received by the Hegumen (Abbot). After a period of at least three days the Hegumen may at his discretion clothe the candidate as a novice. There is no formal ceremony for the clothing of a novice; he (or she) would simply be given the Podraznik, belt and Skoufos.
After a period of about three years, the Hegumen may at his discretion Tonsure the novice as a Rassaphore monk, giving him the outer garment called the Rassa (Greek: Rason). A monk (or nun) may remain in this grade all the rest of his life, if he so chooses. But the Rite of Tonsure for the Rassaphore refers to the grade as that of the "Beginner," so it is intended that the monk will advance on to the next level. The Rassaphore is also given a klobuk which he wears in church and on formal occasions. In addition, Rassaphores will be given a prayer rope at their Tonsure.
The next rank, Stavrophore, is the grade that most Russian monks remain all their lives. The name Stavrophore means "cross-bearer," because when Tonsured into this grade the monastic is given a cross to wear at all times. This cross is called a Paramand—a wooden cross attached by ribbons to a square cloth embroidered with the Instruments of the Passion and the words, "I bear upon my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (). The Paramand is so called because it is worn under the Mantle (Greek: Mandyas; Slavonic: Mantya), which is a long cape, which completely covers the monk from neck to foot. Among the Russians, Stavrophores are also informally referred to as "mantle monks." At his Tonsure, a Stavrophore is given a wooden hand cross and a lit candle, as well as a prayer rope.
The highest rank of monasticism is the Great Schema (Greek: Megaloschemos; Slavonic: Schimnik). Attaining the level of Schemamonk is much more common among the Greeks than it is among the Russians, for whom it is normally reserved to hermits, or to very advanced monastics. The Schemamonk or Schemanun wears the same habit as the Rassaphore, but to it is added the Analavos (Slavonic: Analav) a garment shaped like a cross, covering the shoulders and coming down to the knees (or lower) in front and in back. This garment is roughly reminiscent of the scapular worn by some Roman Catholic orders, but it is finely embroidered with the Cross and instruments of the Passion (see illustration, above). The Klobuk worn by a Schemamonk is also embroidered with a red cross and other symbols. the Klobuk may be shaped differently, more rounded at the top, in which case it is referred to as a koukoulion. The skufia worn by a Schemamonk is also more intricately embroidered.
The central and unifying feature of Orthodox monasticism is Hesychasm, the practice of silence, and the concentrated saying of the Jesus Prayer. All ascetic practices and monastic humility is guided towards preparing the heart for theorea or the "divine vision" that comes from the union of the soul with God. It should be noted, however, that such union is not accomplished by any human activity. All an ascetic can do is prepare the ground; it is for God to cause the seed to grow and bear fruit.
Even before Saint Anthony the Great (the "father of monasticism") went out into the desert, there were Christians who devoted their lives to ascetic discipline and striving to lead an evangelical life (i.e., in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel). Communities of virgins who had consecrated themselves to Christ are found at least as far back as the 2nd century. There were also individual ascetics, known as the "devout," who usually lived not in the deserts but on the edge of inhabited places, still remaining in the world but practicing asceticism and striving for union with God. Saint Anthony was the first to specifically leave the world and live in the desert as a monk.
As monasticism spread in the East from the hermits living in the deserts of Egypt to Palestine, Syria, and on up into Asia Minor and beyond, the sayings (apophthegmata) and acts (praxeis) of the Desert Fathers came to be recorded and circulated, first among their fellow monastics and then among the laity as well.
Among these earliest recorded accounts was the Paradise, by Palladius of Galatia, Bishop of Helenopolis (also known as the Lausiac History, after the prefect Lausus, to whom it was addressed). Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (whose Life of Saint Anthony the Great set the pattern for monastic hagiography), Saint Jerome, and other anonymous compilers were also responsible for setting down very influential accounts. Also of great importance are the writings surrounding the communities founded by Saint Pachomius, the father of coenobiticism, and his disciple Saint Theodore, the founder of the skete form of monasticism.
Among the first to set forth precepts for the monastic life was Saint Basil the Great, a man from a professional family who was educated in Caesarea, Constantinople, and Athens. Saint Basil visited colonies of hermits in Palestine and Egypt but was most strongly impressed by the organized communities developed under the guidance of Saint Pachomius. Saint Basil's ascetical writings set forth standards for well-disciplined community life and offered lessons in what became the ideal monastic virtue: humility.
Saint Basil wrote a series of guides for monastic life (the Lesser Asketikon the Greater Asketikon the Morals, etc.) which, while not "Rules" in the legalistic sense of later Western rules, provided firm indications of the importance of a single community of monks, living under the same roof, and under the guidance—and even discipline—of a strong abbot. His teachings set the model for Greek and Russian monasticism but had less influence in the Latin West.
Of great importance to the development of monasticism is the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. Here the Ladder of Divine Ascent was written by Saint John Climacus (c.600), a work of such importance that many Orthodox monasteries to this day read it publicly either during the Divine Services or in Trapeza during Great Lent.
At the height of the East Roman Empire, numerous great monasteries were established by the emperors, including the twenty "sovereign monasteries" on the Holy Mountain, an actual "monastic republic" wherein the entire country is devoted to bringing souls closer to God. In this milieu, the Philokalia was compiled.
As the Great Schism between East and West grew, conflict arose over misunderstandings about Hesychasm. Saint Gregory Palamas, bishop of Thessalonica, an experienced Athonite monk, defended Orthodox spirituality against the attacks of Barlaam of Calabria, and left numerous important works on the spiritual life.
Monastic centers thrive to this day in Greece, Russia, Romania, the Holy Land, and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, the Autonomous Monastic State of Mount Athos remaining the spiritual center of monasticism for Eastern Orthodox. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, a great renaissance of monasticism has occurred, and many previously empty or destroyed monastic communities have been reopened.
Monasticism continues to be very influential in the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to the Sacred Canons, all Bishops must be monks (not merely celibate), and feast days to Glorified monastic saints are an important part of the liturgical tradition of the church. Fasting, Hesychasm, and the pursuit of the spiritual life are strongly encouraged not only among monastics but also among the laity.
John Cassian began his monastic career at a monastery in Palestine and Egypt around 385 to study monastic practice there. In Egypt he had been attracted to the isolated life of hermits, which he considered the highest form of monasticism, yet the monasteries he founded were all organized monastic communities. About 410 he established two monasteries near Marseilles, one for men, one for women. In time these attracted a total of 5,000 monks and nuns. Most significant for the future development of monasticism were Cassian's Institutes, which provided a guide for monastic life and his Conferences, a collection of spiritual reflections.
Honoratus of Marseilles was a wealthy Gallo-Roman aristocrat, who after a pilgrimage to Egypt, founded the Monastery of Lérins, on an island lying off the modern city of Cannes. The monastery combined a community with isolated hermitages where older, spiritually-proven monks could live in isolation.
One Roman reaction to monasticism was expressed in the description of Lérins by Rutilius Namatianus, who served as prefect of Rome in 414:
Lérins became, in time, a center of monastic culture and learning, and many later monks and bishops would pass through Lérins in the early stages of their career. Honoratus was called to be Bishop of Arles and was succeeded in that post by another monk from Lérins. Lérins was aristocratic in character, as was its founder, and was closely tied to urban bishoprics.
Benedict of Nursia is the most influential of Western monks. He was educated in Rome but soon sought the life of a hermit in a cave at Subiaco, outside the city. He then attracted followers with whom he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino around 520, between Rome and Naples. His Rule is shorter than the Master's, somewhat less legalistic, but much more so than Eastern rules.
By the ninth century, largely under the inspiration of the Emperor Charlemagne, Benedict's Rule became the basic guide for Western monasticism.
The first non-Roman area to adopt monasticism was Ireland, which developed a unique form closely linked to traditional clan relations, a system that later spread to other parts of Europe, especially France.
The earliest Monastic settlements in Ireland emerged at the end of the fifth century. The first identifiable founder of a monastery (if she was a real historical figure) was Saint Brigit, a saint who ranked with Saint Patrick as a major figure of the Irish church. The monastery at Kildare was a double monastery, with both men and women ruled by the Abbess, a pattern found in other monastic foundations.
Commonly Irish monasteries were established by grants of land to an abbot or abbess, who came from a local noble family. The monastery became the spiritual focus of the tribe or kin group. Successive abbots and abbesses were members of the founder’s family, a policy which kept the monastic lands under the jurisdiction of the family (and corresponded to Irish legal tradition, which only allowed the transfer of land within a family).
Ireland was a rural society of chieftans living in the countryside. There was no social place for urban leaders, such as bishops. In Irish monasteries the abbot (or abbess) was supreme, but in conformance to Christian tradition, bishops still had important sacramental roles to play (in the early Church the bishops were the ones who baptized new converts to bring them into the Church). In Ireland, the bishop frequently was subordinate to (or co-equal with) the abbot and sometimes resided in the monastery under the jurisdiction of the abbot.
Irish monasticism maintained the model of a monastic community while, like John Cassian, marking the contemplative life of the hermit as the highest form of monasticism. Saints' lives frequently tell of monks (and abbots) departing some distance from the monastery to live in isolation from the community.
Irish monastic rules specify a stern life of prayer and discipline in which prayer, poverty, and obedience are the central themes. Yet Irish monks did not fear pagan learning. Irish monks needed to learn a foreign language, Latin, which was the language of the Church. Thus they read Latin texts, both spiritual and secular, with an enthusiasm that their contemporaries on the continent lacked. By the end of the seventh century, Irish monastic schools were attracting students from England and from Europe.
Irish monasticism spread widely, first to Scotland and Northern England, then to Gaul and Italy. Columba and his followers established monasteries at Bangor, on the northeastern coast of Ireland, at Iona, an island north-west of Scotland, and at Lindisfarne, which was founded by Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona, at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria.
Columbanus, an abbot from a Leinster noble family, traveled to Gaul in the late 6th century with twelve companions. Columbanus and his followers spread the Irish model of monastic institutions established by noble families to the continent. A whole series of new rural monastic foundations on great rural estates under Irish influence sprang up, starting with Columbanus's foundations of Fontaines and Luxeuil, sponsored by the Frankish King Childebert II. After Childebert's death Columbanus traveled east to Metz, where Theudebert II allowed him to establish a new monastery among the semi-pagan Alemanni in what is now Switzerland. One of Columbanus's followers founded the monastery of St. Gall on the shores of Lake Constance, while Columbanus continued onward across the Alps to the kingdom of the Lombards in Italy. There King Agilulf and his wife Theodolinda granted Columbanus land in the mountains between Genoa and Milan, where he established the monastery of Bobbio.
The system broke down in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as religion began to change. Religion became far less a preserve of the religious elite. This was closely linked to the rise of mendicant orders such as the Franciscan friars, who were dedicated to spreading the word in public, not in closed monasteries. Religious behavior changed as common people began to take communion and actively participate in religion. The growing pressure of the nation states and monarchies also threatened the wealth and power of the orders.
The legacy of monasteries outside remains an important current in modern society. Max Weber compared the closeted and Puritan societies of the English Dissenters, who sparked much of the industrial revolution, to monastic orders. Many Utopian thinkers (starting with Thomas More) felt inspired by the common life of monks to apply it to the whole society (an example is the falansterium).
Modern universities have also attempted to emulate Christian monasticism. Even in the new world, universities are built in the gothic style of twelfth century monasteries. Communal meals, dormitory residences, elaborate rituals and dress all borrow heavily from the monastic tradition.
Today monasticism remains an important part of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican faith. Vatican II saw major changes to Catholic monasticism including allowing nuns and monks to shed their habits.
In the Middle Ages, monasteries conserved and copied ancient manuscripts in their scriptoria, their pharmacies stored and studied medicaments and they aided the development of agricultural techniques. The requirement of wine for the Mass led to the development of wine culture, as shown in the discovery of the méthode champenoise by Dom Perignon. Several liquors like Bénédictine and the Trappist beers were also developed in monasteries. Even today many monasteries and convents are locally renowned for their cooking specialties.
The status of monks as apart from secular life (at least theoretically) served a social function. Dethroned Visigothic kings were tonsured and sent to a monastery so that they could not claim the crown back. Monasteries became a place for second sons to live in celibacy so that the family inheritance went to the first son; in exchange the families donated to the monasteries. Some orders were favored by monarchs and rich families to keep and educate their maiden daughters before arranged marriage. This however did not bar seducers like the fictional Don Juan and the real Giacomo Casanova from assaulting convents and novices.
Shortly after the Oxford Movement began to advocate restoring catholic faith and practice to the Church of England (see Anglo-Catholicism), there was felt to be a need for a restoration of the monastic life. Anglican priest John Henry Newman established a community of men at Littlemore near Oxford in the 1840s. From then forward, there have been many communities of monks, friars, sisters, and nuns established within the Anglican Communion. In 1848, Mother Priscilla Lydia Sellon founded the Anglican Sisters of Charity and became the first woman to take religious vows within the Anglican Communion since the Reformation. In October 1850 the first building specifically built for the purpose of housing an Anglican Sisterhood was consecrated at Abbeymere in Plymouth. It housed several schools for the destitute, a laundry, printing press and soup kitchen. From the 1840s and throughout the following one hundred years, religious orders for both men and women proliferated in the UK and the United States, as well as in various countries of Africa, Asia, Canada, India and the Pacific.
Some Anglican religious communities are contemplative, some active, but a distinguishing feature of the monastic life among Anglicans is that most practice the so-called "mixed life," a combination of a life of contemplative prayer with active service. Anglican religious life closely mirrors that of Roman Catholicism. Like Roman Catholic religious, Anglican religious also take the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Religious communities live together under a common rule, reciting the Divine Office and celebrating the Eucharist daily.
In the early 20th century when the Anglo-Catholic Movement was at its height, the Anglican Communion had hundreds of orders and communities, and thousands of religious. However, since the 1960s there has been a sharp falling off in the numbers of religious in many parts of the Anglican Communion, most notably in the United Kingdom and the United States. Many once large and international communities have been reduced to a single convent or monastery comprised of elderly men or women. In the last few decades of the 20th century, novices have for most communities been few and far between. Some orders and communities have already become extinct. There are however, still thousands of Anglican religious working today in religious communities around the world. While vocations remain few in some areas, Anglican religious communties are experiencing exponential growth in Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
In other Lutheran traditions "The Congregation of the Servants of Christ" was established at St. Augustine's House in Oxford, Michigan, in 1958 when some other men joined Father Arthur Kreinheder in observing the monastic life and offices of prayer. These men and others came and went over the years. The community has always remained small; at times the only member was Father Arthur. During the 35 years of its existence over 25 men tested their vocations to monastic life by living at the house for some time, from a few months to many years, but at Father Arthur's death in 1989 only one permanent resident remained. At the beginning of 2006, there are 2 permanent professed members and 2 long-term guests. Strong ties remain with this community and their brothers in Sweden (Östanbäck monastery) and in Germany (Priory of St. Wigbert). In Germany, Communität Casteller Ring is a Lutheran Benedictine community for women.
In Lutheran Sweden, religious life for women had been established already in 1954, when Sister Marianne Nordström made her profession through contacts with The Order of the Holy Paraclete and Mother Margaret Cope (1886-1961) at St Hilda’s Priory, Whitby, Yorkshire.
The Community of the Sisterhood Emmanuel was founded in 1973 in Makak - in the Centre Province by Mother Marie, one of the first female Pastors of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. In 1975 she moved the community to the present site- at Agyati in Bafut. It has 10 finally consecrated Sisters, four in simple vows and a handfull of others in formation. The Sisters are trained in strong collaboration with the sister Institutes of the Catholic Church. They say that one of their charisms is ecumenism. The Sisterhood Emmanuel is the only Presbyterian Monastery in Cameroon.
In 1999 an independent Protestant order was founded named The Knights of Prayer Monastic Order. The community maintains several monks in its Portland, Oregon, cloister and has an international network of associated lay people. It is not affiliated with any particular congregation.
In 1944 Roger Schütz, a pastor of the Swiss Reformed Church, founded a small religious brotherhood in France which became known as the Taizé Community. Although he was partly inspired by the hope of reviving monasticism in the Protestant tradition, the brotherhood was interdenominational, accepting Roman Catholic brothers, and is thus an ecumenical rather than a specifically Protestant community.
The Order of Ecumenical Franciscans is a religious order of men and women devoted to following the examples of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare of Assisi in their life and understanding of the Christian gospel: sharing a love for creation and those who have been marginalized. It includes members of many different denominations, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and a range of Protestant traditions. The Order understands its charism to include not only ecumenical efforts and the traditional emphases of the Franciscans in general, but also to help to develop relationships between the various Franciscan orders.
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