Christianity Knowledge Base

A monk is a person who practices asceticism, the conditioning of mind and body in favor of the spirit. The concept is very ancient and can be seen in many religions.

The term monk comes from the Greek monachos (μοναχός), commonly translated as a solitary person. In the Greek language, the term can apply to men or women, but in English, it usually applies only to men, while nun is more commonly used to refer to female monastics. Other terms such as hesychast, solitary, hermit, anchorite, ascetic are usually interchangeable with monk. Although ascetics existed in various religions prior to Christianity, the term “monk” is of Christian invention.

History of Monasticism in Christianity[]

Christian monasticism sees its origin in St John the Baptist who lived alone in the desert. The first Christian known to adopt this lifestyle was St Anthony the Great sometime in the latter part of the 3rd century. He lived alone as an anchorite until he attracted a circle of followers. As the idea of devoting one's entire life to God grew, more and more monks joined him in the desert. At first all lived as solitaries, then later, they formed loose knit communities, coming together only on Sundays for communion. The concept of monks all living together under one roof and following a single rule is attributed to St Pachomios who lived in the beginning of the 4th century. Christian monasticism spread throughout the Byzantine/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 has the style of monasticism.

Eastern Orthodox Monks[]

Main article: Caloyers

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, 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, run social services as is common in western Christianity, but leave such things to the laity. In many instances Orthodox monasteries are very cloistered, having little or no contact with the outside world. Most are self supporting and the monastic’s daily life is usually divided into 3 parts: Church services, hard labor, study and rest. It has been imagined by some that such a life is easy, but in fact, most novices do not last more than a few days under the strict and regimented lifestyle. 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 how to deal with them. Attaining this level of self discipline is perhaps the most difficult and painful accomplishments any human can make, but the end goal, to become like an angel on Earth, is why monastics are held in such high esteem. It is for this reason that Bishops are almost always chosen from the ranks of monks.


The Schema worn by Orthodox Monks.

In general, Orthodox monastics have little or no contact with the outside world, including their own families. Those wishing to join a monastery begin their lives as novices. Novices may or may not dress in the black inner robe (Isorassa or Ryassa) and wear the soft monastic hat (Skoufos), this being dependent on the abbot’s wishes. The isorassa and the skoufos are the first part of the Orthodox monastic "habit", of which there is only one general style (with a few slight regional variations over the centuries).

If a novice chooses to leave during the novitiate period, no penalty is incurred. When the abbot deems the novice ready, the novice is asked to join the monastery. If he accepts, he is tonsured in a formal service. He is given the outer robe (Exorassa) and the Brimless hat with a veil (klobuk-See Picture). He also wears a leather belt around his waist. His habit is usually black signifying that he is now dead to the world, and he receives a new name. He is now formally known as a Rassophor (or Ryassophor).

The next level for monastics takes place some years after the first tonsure when the abbot feels the monk has reached a level of discipline, dedication, and humility. Once again, in a formal service, the monk is elevated to the Schema, which is signified by the addition of certain symbolic pieces to his habit, one of which is the Schema. Another piece added is the Polystavrion or "Many Crosses" which is a kind of cord which wraps around the monk and has sewn into it many small crosses. Because of this addition he is now called Stavrophor. In addition, the abbot increases the monk’s prayer rule, allows a more strict personal ascetic practice, and gives the monk more responsibility.

Monks whose abbot feels they have reached a high level of excellence reach the final stage, called Megaloschemos or Great Schema. In some monastic traditions the Great Schema is only given to monks and nuns on their death bed, while in others they may be elevated after as little as 25 years of service. Eastern Orthodox monks (except novices) are always called Father even if they are not priests. Old monks are often called Gheronda or Elder out of respect for their dedication. Many (but not all) Orthodox seminaries are attached to monasteries, combining academic preparation for ordination with participation in the community's life of prayer. Bishops are often chosen from monastic clergy, whether from the monastery or from life in the world (see clerical celibacy). Monks who have been ordained to the priesthood are called hieromonk (priest-monk); monks who have been ordained to the diaconate are called hierodeacon (deacon-monk).

For the Orthodox, Mother is the correct term for nuns who have been tonsured to the rank of Stavrophore or higher. Novices and Rassophores are addressed as " Sister". Nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachai (the feminine plural of monachos), and their common living space, a monastery.

Roman Catholic Monks[]


A Roman Catholic monk

Catholic Monks in the Middle Ages[]

To become a monk, one had to first become an oblate or a novice. To become an oblate, one had to be given to the monastery by one's father. Then, if one was old enough, one could take their first vows and become a novice. Then, after several years, if the abbot (head of the monastery) allows, one could become a monk.

The monks in the Middle Ages lived in a monastery, similar to a modern boarding school. Most monasteries were shaped like a cross so they would remember Jesus Christ who died on a cross. The monastery had three vows, obedience, chastity and poverty, the evangelical counsels. Obedience meant that monks were willing to obey the Catholic Church, as represented by the abbot (head of the monastery), chastity meant that since they were willing to dedicate their lives to God, they sacrifice the love between men and women and would not marry; poverty meant they lived their lives of sharing, and shared all their possessions within the community and for the poor and would not hold back for themselves.

Monks grew their own food and shared their work in the monastery. Some of the more qualified monks were set to more challenging tasks, while others did mundane work according to their abilities. The monks spent on average about seven hours work every day, except, of course, Sundays, the day of rest.

Monks wore a plain brown or black cape and a cross on a chain around their neck; underneath, they wore a hair shirt to remind themselves of the suffering Jesus Christ had done for them. A man became a monk when they felt a holy call by God, that they wanted to dedicate their lives in God's service for the poor, and to know and love God better. There could be other reasons individuals felt called into the monastery, such as wanting to be educated, as the monasteries were some of the only places in the world where one was taught to read and write.

The monks called each other "brother" to symbolize their new brotherhood within their spiritual family. The monasteries usually had a strict timetable that they were required to adhere to. They grew their food for themselves and ate it in complete silence. The monks were not allowed to talk to each other anywhere, except in very special places. The monks even had a hospital for the sick and the brothers treated them well. Not a single woman was allowed past the walls of the monastery.

Anglican monks[]

A small but hugely influential aspect of Anglicanism is its religious orders of monks. Shortly after the beginning of the revival of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England, there was felt to be a need for a restoration of the contemplative life. In the 1840s, Anglican priest John Henry Newman established a community of men at Littlemore near Oxford. From then on, there have been (re-)established many communities of monks, friars and other religious communities for men in the Anglican Communion. There are Anglican Benedictines, Franciscans, Cistercians, Dominicans, as well as home grown orders such as the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, among many more in almost every Province of the Anglican Communion.

Anglican religious life at one time boasted hundreds of orders and communities, and thousands of religious. An important aspect of Anglican religious life is that most communities of both men and women lived their lives consecrated to God under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (or in Benedictine communinities, Stability, Conversion of Life, and Obedience) by practicing a mixed life of reciting the full eight services of the Breviary in choir, along with a daily Eucharist, plus service to the poor. The mixed life, combing aspects of the contemplative orders and the active orders remains to this day a hallmark of Anglican religious life.

Anglican monks proceed through their religious life first by responding to an inner call to the particular life. Then after councilling with his parish priest, the seeker makes a visit to a monastery and tests his vocation. Usually he must spend some time with the community as an aspirant, then he becomes a postulant, then novice, then come first profession, and usually life vows.

Some communities are contemplative, some active, but a distinguishing feature of the monastic life among Anglicans is that most practice the so-called "mixed life." They keep the full round of liturgical and private worship, but also usually have an active ministry of some sort in their immediate community. This activity could be anything from parish work to working with the homeless, retreats or any number of good causes.

Since the 1960s, there has been a sharp falling off in the numbers of religious in many parts of the Anglican Communion. 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 several thousand Anglican religious working today in approximately 200 communities around the world.

The most surprising growth has been in the Melanesian countries of the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. The Melanesian Brotherhood, founded at Tabalia, Guadalcanal, in 1925 by Ini Kopuria, is now the largest Anglican Community in the world with over 450 brothers in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. The Sisters of the Church, started by Mother Emily Ayckbown in England in 1870, has more sisters in the Solomons than all their other communities. The Community of the Sisters of Melanesia, started in 1980 by Sister Nesta Tiboe, is a growing community of women throughout the Solomon Islands. The Society of Saint Francis, founded as a union of various Franciscan orders in the 1920s, has experienced great growth in the Solomon Islands. Other communities of religious have been started by Anglicans in Papua New Guinea and in Vanuatu. Most Melanesian Anglican religious are in their early to mid 20s, making the average age 40 to 50 years younger than their brothers and sisters in other countries. This growth is especially surprising because celibacy was not traditionally regarded as a virtue in Melanesia.

Monks in other religions[]

The term "monk"is applied also to ascetics in Buddhism and Vaishnava (Hare Krishna), the situation of ordination is more complicated than that.

See also[]

  • Nun
  • Monasticism
  • Religious order
  • Buddhism
  • Christianity
  • Rule of St Benedict
  • Brother Cadfael — a famous recent fictional monk
  • Lay brothers
  • Bede
  • Brahmacharya
  • Sannyasi
  • Sea monk
  • Monkish

External links[]

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).