- Plural of monk
A monk (, monachos), 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.
EtymologyA monk (Old English munuc < Latin monachus < Ancient Greek μοναχός - monachos, "single, solitary" < μόνος (monos) "alone") is a general term for a person who leads the "monastic life" in a "monastery".
Nowadays it is often wrongly assumed that it signifies a monk living in community, who is merely one kind of monk, namely a cenobite (greek: κοινοβιακός).
From early Church times there has been a lively discussion of the meaning of the term monk (derived from 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The gyrovagues, censured by Benedict as worse than loubski, 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 distinction is also made between monks and Canons Regular.
- Main article: Monastery
A monastery is the dwelling of one or more monks.
The term monastery is already used by the Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 BC - 50 AD, 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 … (Philo, On The Contemplative Life, ch. III).
History of Christian monasticismMonasticism drew its origin from the examples of the Prophet Elias and John the Baptist who both lived alone in the desert, the desert having been regarded throughout Old Testament times as a place of spiritual renewal and return to God, whether for the benefit of the individual and as a representative of the community. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus of Nazareth subjected himself for forty days to physical and spiritual testing in the desert; 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 Pachomius (c. 292-348), who lived in the beginning of the 4th century, and is referred to as coenobitic monasticism. At this same time, St. Pachomius' 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.
Monasticism in Eastern Christianity
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.
Degrees of Christian Orthodox monasticismWithin Roman Catholicism, a monk is a member of a religious order who lives a communal life in a monastery, abbey, or priory under a monastic rule of life (such as the Rule of St. Benedict) and under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. St. Benedict of Nursia is considered to be the founder of western monasticism. He established the first monastic community in the west and authored the Rule of St. Benedict, which is the foundation for the Order of St. Benedict and all of its reforms such as the Cistercians and the Trappists.
The religious vows taken in the West were first developed by St. Benedict. These vows were three in number: obedience, conversion of life, and stability. Among later Western religious orders, these developed into the solemn vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. Obedience requires that monks are willing obey the Catholic Church, as represented by the superior. Chastity requires that since they were willing to dedicate their lives to God, they sacrificed the love between men and women and would not marry. Poverty requires they renounced any ownership of property or assets, to only those possess items that were allowed to them by their superior (such as a religious habit, shoes, a cloak, etc.), and to live meekly, sharing whatever they might have with the poor. To become a monk, one first must become a postulant, during which time the man lives at the monastery to evaluate whether he is called to become a monk. As a postulant, the man is not bound by any vows, and is free to leave the monastery at any time. If the postulant and the community agree that the postulant should become a monk, the man is received as a novice, at which time he is given his religious habit, and begins to participate more fully in the life of the monastery. Following a period as a novice, usually six months to a year, the novice is given the option to take the solemn vows, which can be renewed annually for a period of years. After a few years, the monk can make permanent vows, which are binding for life.
The monastic life generally consists of prayer in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office) and divine reading (lectio divina) and manual labor. Among most religious orders, monks live in simple, austere rooms called cells and come together daily to celebrate the Conventual Mass and to recite the Liturgy of the Hours. In most communities, the monks take their meals together in the refectory. While there is no vow of silence, many communities have a period of silence lasting from evening until the next morning and some others restrict talking to only when it is necessary for the monks to perform their work and during weekly recreation. Although the European term "monk" is often applied to Buddhism, the situation of Buddhist asceticism is different.
There is often a trial period prior to ordination, to see if a candidate wishes to become a Buddhist monk. If he does, he remains in the monastery; otherwise, he is free to leave.
In Theravada Buddhism, bhikkhu is the term for monk. Their disciplinary code is called the patimokkha, which is part of the larger Vinaya. They live lives of mendicancy, and go on a morning almsround (Pali: pindapata) every day. The local people give food for the monks to eat, though the monks are not permitted to positively ask for anything. The monks live in monasteries, and have an important function in traditional Asian society. Young boys can be ordained as samaneras. Both bhikkhus and samaneras eat only in the morning, and are not supposed to lead a luxurious life. Their rules forbid the use of money, although this rule is nowadays not kept by all monks. The monks are part of the Sangha, the third of the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the term 'Sangha' is in principle restricted to those who have achieved certain levels of understanding. They are therefore called 'community of the excellent ones' (Tibetan: mchog kyi tshogs); however, these in turn need not be monks (i.e., hold such vows).
Several Mahayana orders accept female practitioners as monks, instead of using the normal title of "nun", and they are considered equal to male ascetics in all respects.
The Bhikkhus are only allowed 4 items: a razor, a needle, an alms bowl and a water strainer. In Vajrayana Buddhism, monkhood is part of the system of 'vows of individual liberation'; these vows are taken in order to develop one's own personal ethical discipline. The monks and nuns form the (ordinary) sangha. As for the Vajrayana vows of individual liberation, there are four steps: A lay person may take the 5 vows called 'approaching virtue' (in Tibetan genyen ). The next step is to enter the monastic way of life (Tib. rabjung) which includes wearing monk's or nun's robes. After that, one can become a 'novice' (Pali samanera, Tib. getshül); the last and final step is to take all vows of the 'fully ordained monk' (gelong). This term 'gelong' (Tib. , in the female form gelongma) is the translation of Skt. bikshu (for women bikshuni) which is the equivalent of the Pali term bhikkhuni; bhikkhu is the word used in Theravada Buddhism (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand).
Chinese Buddhist monks have been traditionally and stereotypically linked with the practice of the Chinese martial arts or Kung fu, and monks are frequently important characters in martial arts films. This association is focused around the Shaolin Monastery. The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, traditionally credited as the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, is also claimed to have introduced Kung fu to the country. This latter claim has however been a source of much controversy (see Bodhidharma, the martial arts, and the disputed India connection).
In Thailand, it is common for boys to spend some time living as a monk in a monastery. Most stay for only a few years and then leave, but a number continue on in the ascetic life for the rest of their lives.
Vaishnava monksSimilar in appearance to Buddhist monks, 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 with its varnasrama society. This social scheme includes both monastic and lay stages meant for various persons in various stages of life as per their characteristics (guna) and work (karma).
ISKCON started as a predominantly monastic group but nowadays the majority of 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.
Brahmacari older than fifty years can become sannyasi. Sannyasa, a life of full dedication to spiritual pursuits, is the highest stage of life in the varnasrama society. It is permanent and one cannot give it up. A Sannyasi is given the title Swami. Older grihastha with grown-up children are traditionally expected to accept vanaprastha (celibate retired) life.
The role of monastic orders in Indian and now also Western society has to some extent been adapted over the years in accordance with ever-changing social structures.
Madhvaacharya (Madhvacharya), the Dwaita philosopher, established ashta matha (Eight Monasteries). 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 fourteen years. This ritual is called Paryaya.
- Monastic life and Monastery of Provence in France
- "Monk" article in Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)
- Monasticism Synopsis on Orthodox Church in America's Website (www.oca.org)
- An Orthodox novice Photo from Valaam Monastery, Russia
- A monk praying in his cell Photo from Valaam Monastery, Russia
- Tonsure to Stavrophore Photo from Valaam Monastery, Russia
- Hieroschemamonk Photo from Valaam Monastery, Russia
- A hermit in the wilderness Photo from Valaam Monastery, Russia
- Contemplative spirituality in the tradition of the medieval hermits who settled on Mount Carmel.
- Immaculate Heart of Mary's Hermitage - Website of a Hermit of Saint Bruno
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