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(mənăs`tĭsĭzəm, mō–), form of religious life, usually conducted in a community under a common rule. Monastic life is bound by ascetical practices expressed typically in the vows of celibacycelibacy
, voluntary refusal to enter the married state, with abstinence from sexual activity. It is one of the typically Christian forms of asceticism. In ancient Rome the vestal virgins were celibates, and successful monasticism has everywhere been accompanied by celibacy as
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, poverty, and obedience, called the evangelical counsels. Monasticism is traditionally of two kinds: the more usual form is known as the cenobitic, and is characterized by a completely communal style of life; the second kind, the eremitic, entails a hermit's life of almost unbroken solitude, and is now rare (see hermithermit
[Gr.,=desert], one who lives in solitude, especially from ascetic motives. Hermits are known in many cultures. Permanent solitude was common in ancient Christian asceticism; St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Simeon Stylites were noted hermits.
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Monasticism in general has played an important role in BuddhismBuddhism
, religion and philosophy founded in India c.525 B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha. There are over 300 million Buddhists worldwide. One of the great world religions, it is divided into two main schools: the Theravada or Hinayana in Sri Lanka and SE Asia, and
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 (including Tibetan BuddhismTibetan Buddhism,
form of Buddhism prevailing in the Tibet region of China, Bhutan, the state of Sikkim in India, Mongolia, and parts of Siberia and SW China. It has sometimes been called Lamaism, from the name of the Tibetan monks, the lamas [superior ones].
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), JainismJainism
[i.e., the religion of Jina], religious system of India practiced by about 5,000,000 persons. Jainism, Ajivika, and Buddhism arose in the 6th cent. B.C. as protests against the overdeveloped ritualism of Hinduism, particularly its sacrificial cults, and the authority of
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, IslamIslam
, [Arab.,=submission to God], world religion founded by the Prophet Muhammad. Founded in the 7th cent., Islam is the youngest of the three monotheistic world religions (with Judaism and Christianity). An adherent to Islam is a Muslim [Arab.,=one who submits].
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, and Christianity. Practitioners of monasticism in ancient times included the vestalvestal
, in Roman religion, priestess of Vesta. The vestals were first two, then four, then six in number. While still little girls, they were chosen from prominent Roman families to serve for 30 (originally 5) years, during which time they could not marry.
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 virgins of Rome, the Jewish EssenesEssenes
, members of a small Jewish religious order, originating in the 2d cent. B.C. The chief sources of information about the Essenes are Pliny the Elder, Philo's Quod omnius probus liber, Josephus' Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews,
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, the TherapeutaeTherapeutae
[Gr.,=worshipers], Jewish monastic order living on the shore of Lake Mareotis, Egypt, about the 1st cent. A.D. They led an ascetic life devoted to solitary prayer and study of the scriptures, gathering on the sabbath for study and a communal meal.
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 of Egypt, and the Peruvian virgins of the sun. The life of the ShakersShakers,
popular name for members of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, also called the Millennial Church. Members of the movement, who received their name from the trembling produced by religious emotion, were also known as Alethians.
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 had many analogies with monasticism. The ReformationReformation,
religious revolution that took place in Western Europe in the 16th cent. It arose from objections to doctrines and practices in the medieval church (see Roman Catholic Church) and ultimately led to the freedom of dissent (see Protestantism).
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 saw the sudden end of monasticism in the Protestant countries of Europe. The Oxford movementOxford movement,
religious movement begun in 1833 by Anglican clergymen at the Univ. of Oxford to renew the Church of England (see England, Church of) by reviving certain Roman Catholic doctrines and rituals.
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, however, reintroduced religious orders into the Church of England in the 19th cent., and after World War II renewed interest in monasticism led to the establishment of a Protestant monastery at Taizé, France.

Monasticism in the Eastern Church

Christian monasticism had its origin in the Egyptian deserts in the 3d–4th cent. with the anchorites, who sought perfection in the most extreme asceticismasceticism
, rejection of bodily pleasures through sustained self-denial and self-mortification, with the objective of strengthening spiritual life. Asceticism has been common in most major world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity: all of
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. Most famous of these hermits was St. AnthonyAnthony, Saint
, 251?–c.350, Egyptian hermit, called St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Anthony the Abbot. At the age of 20 he gave away his large inheritance and became a hermit.
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, who is called the father of monasticism. From among loose associations of these hermits, the monk St. Pachomius organized (c.320) the first cenobitic community. Somewhat similar was the laura—cells arranged into a monastic village, sometimes of very great size.

Uniformity was gradually wrought in Eastern monasticism by the rules of St. Basil the GreatBasil the Great, Saint
, c.330–379, Greek prelate, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, Doctor of the Church and one of the Four Fathers of the Greek Church. He was a brother of St. Gregory of Nyssa.
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. He favored the cenobitic style and stressed manual labor and obedience in opposition to the extravagances of much of early monasticism (see, e.g., Simeon Stylites, SaintSimeon Stylites, Saint
[Gr.,= of a pillar], d. 459?, Syrian hermit. He lived for more than 35 years on a small platform on top of a high pillar. He had many imitators (called stylites) and gained the reverence of the whole Christian world. Feast: Jan. 5.
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). Monasticism in the East has changed little since the 4th cent.; the monks devote their day to lengthy liturgies and simple work. They do not usually become priests and do not value learning. In contrast to the development in the West, Eastern monks do not belong to different orders with specialized functions; the monasteries or lauras are basically alike in nature and autonomous in organization (see Basilian monksBasilian monks
, monks primarily of the Eastern Church. They follow the Rule of St. Basil the Great, which has been universal among them since the 7th cent. They have no centralized government; the rule treats proper monastic living, not organization.
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). Mount Athos is the great center of monasticism in the Eastern Church.

Monasticism in the Western Church


The earliest Western forms of monasticism imitated those of the East. Western forms of monasticism spread with Christianity to Ireland, where the church was organized (6th cent.) around the monasteries, which served as centers. In Italy, St. BenedictBenedict, Saint
, d. c.547, Italian monk, called Benedict of Nursia, author of a rule for monks that became the basis of the Benedictine order, b. Norcia (E of Spoleto).
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 (6th cent.) began the work from which sprang the BenedictinesBenedictines,
religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, following the rule of St. Benedict [Lat. abbr.,=O.S.B.]. The first Benedictine monastery was at Monte Cassino, Italy, which came to be regarded as the symbolic center of Western monasticism. St.
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 and the more moderate monastic rule that gradually became universal in the West—even the Celtic foundations assimilating to the Benedictine practice. The role of monasticism in the development of the new civilization of the West is incalculable (see Boniface, SaintBoniface, Saint
, c.675–754?, English missionary monk and martyr, called the Apostle of Germany, b. Devonshire, England. His English name was Winfrid. He was educated in the monastery of Nursling, near Winchester.
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, d.754). Monasteries were islands of stability, and their inhabitants, almost alone, preserved learning in the West.

In the 10th cent. there began at Cluny a reform that affected all Europe (see Cluniac orderCluniac order
, medieval organization of Benedictines centered at the abbey of Cluny, France. Founded in 910 by the monk Berno and Count William of Aquitaine, the abbey's constitution provided it freedom from lay supervision and (after 1016) from jurisdiction of the local bishop.
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). Out of another reform arose the CisterciansCistercians
, monks of a Roman Catholic religious order founded (1098) by St. Robert, abbot of Molesme, in Cîteaux [Cistercium], Côte-d'Or dept., France. They reacted against Cluniac departures from the Rule of St. Benedict.
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 (12th cent.). The DominicansDominicans
, Roman Catholic religious order, founded by St. Dominic in 1216, officially named the Order of Preachers (O.P.). Although they began locally in evangelizing the Albigenses, before St. Dominic's death (1221) there were already eight national provinces.
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 and FranciscansFranciscans
, members of several Roman Catholic religious orders following the rule of St. Francis (approved by Honorius III, 1223). There are now three organizations of Franciscan friars: the Friars Minor [Lat. abbr., O.F.M.
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 (early 13th cent.) abandoned enclosure as a principle and with the other friarsfriar
[Lat. frater=brother], member of certain Roman Catholic religious orders, notably, the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians. Although a general form of address in the New Testament, since the 13th cent.
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 became a feature in the town life of Europe until the ReformationReformation,
religious revolution that took place in Western Europe in the 16th cent. It arose from objections to doctrines and practices in the medieval church (see Roman Catholic Church) and ultimately led to the freedom of dissent (see Protestantism).
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. Their energy gave the universities and schools definitive form, and they dominate the whole history of scholasticism. At this time such semimonastic groups as the BeghardsBeghards
, religious associations of men in Europe, organized similarly to the Beguines. They resembled a Franciscan group, with whom they were later often confused. Of unknown origin, they first appeared at Louvain in 1220 and soon spread throughout the Netherlands and into
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 and BeguinesBeguines
, religious associations of women in Europe, established in the 12th cent. The members, who took no vows and were not subject to the rules of any order, were usually housed in individual cottages and devoted themselves to charitable works; their community was called a
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 also began to appear all over Europe.

After two centuries of decline, the 16th cent. saw a monastic revival with the founding of the Jesuits (see Jesus, Society ofJesus, Society of,
religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Its members are called Jesuits. St. Ignatius of Loyola, its founder, named it Compañia de Jesús [Span.,=(military) company of Jesus]; in Latin it is Societas Jesu (abbr. S.J.).
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). In the 18th cent. anticlericalism among European governments succeeded in suppressing the Jesuits and in causing another general decline in monasticism. Since the 19th cent., the number of religious orders has been steadily increasing. The Paulists and the Sisters of Charity of Mother Seton are examples of new American communities.

Modern Communities

Monks are attached to their monastery, subordinate chiefly to their abbot, and are typically Benedictine; the Cistercians are a class of Benedictines, and the TrappistsTrappists,
popular name for an order of Roman Catholic monks, officially (since 1892) the Reformed Cistercians or Cistercians of the Stricter Observance. They perpetuate the reform begun at La Trappe, Orne dept., France, by Armand de Rancé (c.1660).
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 are a division of the Cistercians. The CarthusiansCarthusians
, small order of monks of the Roman Catholic Church [Lat. abbr.,=O. Cart.]. It was established by St. Bruno at La Grande Chartreuse (see Chartreuse, Grande) in France in 1084.
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, of a quasi-hermit type, are the only non-Benedictine monks of the West. Canons regular are priests living in a community usually attached to a church; such have been the Lateran canons, the religious of the Alpine pass of St. Bernard, the Premonstratensians, and the old Austin canons (see AugustiniansAugustinians,
religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. The name derives from the Rule of St. Augustine (5th cent.?), which established rules for monastic observance and common religious life. The canons regular, made up of ordained clergy, adopted this rule in the 11th cent.
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). The rest of the religious orders are highly centralized systems and usually have their work outside their house. The friars are the oldest of this type, chiefly Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and CarmelitesCarmelites
, Roman Catholic order of mendicant friars. Originally a group of hermits, apparently European, living on Mt. Carmel in Palestine, their supervision was undertaken (c.1150) by St. Berthold. In 1238 they moved to Cyprus, and thence to Western Europe. St. Simon Stock (d.
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. Clerks regular are represented principally by the Jesuits, the largest single order in the church today. The communities of priests loosely called ecclesiastical congregations number more than 50; they include the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, the Redemptorists, the Vincentians, and Maryknoll. Religious institutes are separate organizations of unordained persons who have taken vows and who are engaged mostly in teaching, as, notably, the Christian Brothers, founded by St. John Baptist de la Salle. Secular institutes (officially recognized since 1947) are organizations of laymen bound by religious promises; they wear no special garb and, except for special purposes, live separately and hold conventional jobs in the world.

Roman Catholic communities of women are generally smaller and more numerous—there are more than 1,000. There are enclosed nuns following the rule of most orders of monks and friars; they are called second orders. Most Roman Catholic women's communities are devoted to teaching or charitable work; many of them are tertiaries (see tertiarytertiary
, in the Roman Catholic Church, member of a third order. The third orders are chiefly supplements of the friars—Franciscans (the most numerous), Dominicans, and Carmelites.
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The term contemplative is ordinarily applied to the life of monks and nuns who are enclosed, i.e., who rarely leave the monastery or convent in which they live and work, but many unenclosed religious also lead contemplative lives. There are also monastic orders of men and women in the Anglican Church.


See L. Bouyer, The Meaning of the Monastic Life (1955); T. Merton, The Silent Life (1957); D. Knowles, The Monastic Order in England (2d ed. 1963) and Christian Monasticism (1969); C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (1984); S. Evangelisti, Nuns: A History of Convent Life, 1450–1700 (2008).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a socioreligious movement whose members assume a number of obligations. They vow to “retreat from the world,” renounce all property and kinship and social ties, practice restraint (obligatory celibacy), and submit to strict discipline. In addition, monks bind themselves to the monastery (in most cases) and promise to obey its rules. The core of the monastic ethic is prayer and meditation on the divine.

Monasticism first emerged as a Buddhist institution in India around the middle of the first millennium B.C. (All Buddhist priests are monks.) It was believed that a Buddhist could achieve Nirvana only by renouncing all earthly ties and by living in utter poverty. Monasticism became widespread in India by the first centuries of the Common Era and later became common in China, Japan, Tibet (Lamaist monasticism), and other countries in Southeast Asia and the Far East.

Christian monasticism originated in the third and fourth centuries. (In the Orthodox Church monks are also referred to as the Black Clergy.) The first monks were hermits. From the fourth and fifth centuries communities of monks (monasteries) prevailed. Still later, in ancient Rus’, it was common for Orthodox monks to wander, making only brief stops at monasteries.

Christian monasticism became particularly important during the Middle Ages. In addition to religious fanaticism, socioeconomic factors contributed to the rise of monasticism. As long as the principle of primogeniture prevailed, the monastic life was in many instances the only occupation open to the younger sons of feudal lords. Many of them assumed supervisory positions in the monasteries, and their way of life often differed little from that of secular nobles. However, most of the monks came from social strata other than the nobility, chiefly the peasantry. Lacking the means of subsistence, they remained close to the lower classes. To a significant degree, this explains the participation of monks in medieval heretical movements. In capitalist countries part of the monastic stratum (especially nuns) consists of kinless, disinherited, and sometimes déclassé elements, as well as representatives of the petit bourgeois intelligentsia who are dissatisfied with their way of life.

Initiation into the Christian monastic life was accompanied by the rite of tonsure. To symbolize his full “retreat from the world,” the tonsured initiate assumed a new name and received special vestments. In reality, however, the renunciation of the “sinful world” by the monks (especially the elite) was generally a sham. The life of the monks did not even approach the asceticism that they preached. In their struggle against feudal exploitation the common people vigorously attacked the monks, accusing them of parasitism and debauchery. Humanists and leading Enlightenment thinkers throughout Europe exposed the vices and ignorance of the monks.

The Catholic Church created the greatest variety of monastic organizations. Among the numerous monastic orders, religious orders of knights, and mendicant orders, the Jesuits became particularly important. In Western Europe the Catholic Church has always endeavored to influence ideology, politics, learning, education, and other aspects of life through the monastic organizations. The Catholic monastic stratum has been an extremely important supporter of the papacy. Contemporary monasticism, like the church as a whole, is being modernized, and the way of life in the monasteries and convents is changing.

The role of the monks in contemporary Oriental countries is unique. With the intensification of the anti-imperialist struggle, Buddhist and Lamaist monks, who are active in public life, have often joined the progressive forces in their countries.

The Protestant churches do not have monastic organizations. In literature the Muslim dervishes are often described as monks, but this is incorrect. Because they do not take vows of celibacy, the dervishes can leave the cloister, marry, and return to their families.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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While he is directly critical of the work on early monasticism by Wilson, Ohnuma, Mabbet, Cole, Tsomo, Spiro, Young, and others (his sustained criticism [pp.
They delve into the new monasticism's focus on interspirituality --its borrowing from several faith traditions despite its heavily Catholic influence, as well as central concepts like the importance of dialogue, the need for spiritual mentorship, the value of new monastic communities, and meditations on vocation.
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Throughout, we learn that Christian silence has never been simple, particularly within the supposedly silent Christian tradition of monasticism. While the Carthusians, living in cells, are silent almost without exception, another medieval religious order--the Dominicans--quickly became known as the Order of Preachers, and carry the acronym O.R next to their names to this day.
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Each proposition adds either an affective and/or an aesthetic aspect to discourse on Sri Lankan monasticism. The propositions are: 1) that ideas about appropriate monastic behaviour and "good monks" are "determined by and within local communities of monastics and lay Buddhists"; 2) that concepts of reform, decline, and revival should be seen as examples of "strategies of legitimation"--i.e., legitimating distinct visions of the monastic sangha; 3) that the bonds that draw lay patrons and members of the sangha together involve affective bonds and collectively held aesthetic standards; and 4) that emotions as cultural judgements of people and institutions play a part in the building and maintaining of Buddhist institutions (xxii-xxiv).