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A monk (Greek monachos (μοναχός, derived from Greek monos, alone), in modern parlance also referred to as a "monastic", is a person who practices religious asceticism, the conditioning of mind and body in favor of the spirit, and does so living either alone or with any number of like-minded people, whilst always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose. The concept is ancient and can be seen in many religions and in philosophy.
In the Greek language the term can apply to men or women; but in modern English it is in use only for men, while nun is used for female monastics.
Although the term monachos-"monk" is of Christian origin, in the English language it tends to be used analogously or loosely also for ascetics from other religious or philosophical backgrounds.
The term "monk" is generic. In some religious or philosophical traditions it therefore may be considered interchangeable with other generic terms such as ascetic. However, being generic, it is not interchangeable with terms that denote particular kinds of monk, such as cenobite, hermit, anchorite, hesychast, solitary.
A monk (Greek: μοναχός, monachos, Latin: monachus) is a general term for a person that leads the "monastic life" in a "monastery".
Nowadays it tends to be wrongly assumed that it signifies a monk living in community, who is, however, merely a kind of monk, namely a cenobite.
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. The Western rule giver Benedict of Nursia understood it as meaning the latter, namely a celibate dedicated to God. This is evident from the fact that his list of the four kinds of monks includes hermits.
The four kinds of monks identified by Benedict of Nursia in chapter 1 of his Rule for Monks as well as in the Rule of the Master are the following:
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 ch. 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 characterics of their life in this list. 3. The serabites, 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.
In the English language, but not in German and French, a distinction is made between monks and friars, the latter being members of mendicant orders.
A monastery is the dwelling of one or more monks.
The term monastery is already used by the Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 BCE - 50 CE, 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 safeguards 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 … (Philo, On The Contemplative Life, ch. III).
Monasticism drew its origin from the examples of the Prophet Elias and John the Baptist who both lived alone in the desert. Jesus himself dwelt in solitude in the desert for forty 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.
The first famous Christian known to adopt the life in a desert was St. Anthony the Great (251 - 356), sometime in the latter part of the 3rd century. 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 men. In the beginning, St. Anthony had an experienced ascetic who gave him advice, but he also lived near the town. St. Anthony was the first to go 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 4th 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. St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – 547) set forth the very first 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.
History of Christian monasticism
In the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, monasticism holds a very special and important place. Far more common than in the Roman Catholic Church, the spiritual health of the Orthodox Church can be measured by the quality of its monks and nuns. Orthodox monastics separate themselves from the world in order to pray unceasingly for the world. They do not, in general, have as their primary purpose the running of social services, as is common in Western Christianity, but instead are concerned with attaining theosis, or union with God. However, care for the poor and needy has always been an obligation of monasticism, so Orthodox monasteries are not normally "cloistered" like some contemplative Western houses are, though the level of contact will vary from community to community. Orthodox hermits, on the other hand, have little or no contact with the outside world.
Orthodox monasticism does not have religious orders as are found in the West, nor do they have Rules in the same sense as the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, Eastern monastics study and draw inspiration from the writings of the Desert Fathers as well as other Church Fathers; probably the most influential of which are the Greater Asketikon and Lesser Asketikon of St. Basil the Great and the Philokalia, which was compiled by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. Hesychasm is of primary importance in the ascetical theology of the Orthodox Church.
Most communities are self-supporting, and the monastic's daily life is usually divided into three parts: (a) communal worship in the catholicon (the monastery's main church); (b) hard manual labour; and (c) private prayer, spiritual study, and rest when necessary. Meals are usually taken in common in a sizable dining hall known as a trapeza (refectory), at elongated refectory tables. Food is usually simple and is eaten in silence while one of the brethren reads aloud from the spiritual writings of the Holy Fathers. The monastic lifestyle takes a great deal of serious commitment and hard work, it forces the person to overcome their own flaws and weaknesses; those newcomers with romantic notions about this sort of lifestyle usually do not last more than a few days. Within the coenobitic community, all monks conform to a common way of living based on the traditions of that particular monastery. In struggling to attain this conformity, the monastic comes to realize his own shortcomings and is guided by his spiritual father in how to deal honestly with them. Attaining this level of self-discipline is perhaps the most difficult and painful accomplishment any human being can make; but the end goal, to become like an angel on earth (an "earthly angel and a heavenly man", as the church hymns put it), is the reason monastics are held in such high esteem. For this same reason, Bishops are almost always chosen from the ranks of monks.
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.
In general, Orthodox monastics have little or no contact with the outside world, including their own families. The purpose of the monastic life is union with God, the means is through leaving the world (i.e., the life of the passions). After tonsure, Orthodox monks and nuns are never permitted to cut their hair. The hair of the head and the beard remain uncut as a symbol of the vows they have taken, reminiscent of the Nazarites from the Old Testament. The Tonsure of monks is the token of a consecrated life, and symbolizes the cutting off of their self-will.
Monasticism in Eastern Christianity