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For other uses, see Monk (disambiguation).
A Roman Catholic monk
A Roman Catholic monk

A monk is a person who practices monasticism, adopting a strict religious and ascetic lifestyle, usually in community with others following the same path. The word comes from the Greek monachos (μοναχός), commonly translated as a solitary person, and by convention almost always refers to men (while the term nun is more commonly used to refer to female monastics), although it may be applied to women as well.

Monachos was a word invented in the late 3rd century to name the new phenomenon of men living solitary and ascetic lives in the Egyptian desert—the word literally translates as "the lonely one"—where thousands of Egyptians, mostly men, set out to the deserts of Nitria, southwest of the city of Alexandria, in order to imitate the life of St. Anthony, the first Christian monachos, or monk.

Monks usually live in a monastery following a single rule and governed by an abbot. Monasteries can be organized as Cenobiums, where all live together, pray together, and share everything; or they can be more disjointed with the monks only coming together for Sunday services. A monk who lives alone, away from society and sometimes also from all other monks, is called an Anchorite or Hesicaste (also called a hermit).

The female ascetic is usually called a nun and her residence, a convent. In the West, the word nunk has been coined by Catholic theologian Raimundo Panikkar to refer to a female renunciate leading the contemplative life of a monk.


Roman Catholic monks

In the Roman Catholic Church the process of becoming a monk is marked by several distinct stages, which may vary depending on the particular tradition, order, or monastery. A person requesting admission is known as a postulant. After a period of examination, during which they may live in the monastery without actually taking vows, they may be admitted as a novice. The novitiate may last for a number of years and include instruction in prayer and other subjects. After the novitiate, a monastic may pass through a series of temporary vows of increasing length (typically three to five years). Catholic monks call each other Brother unless ordained to the priesthood.

Female monastics (nuns) in the Catholic church are called Sister, except for their superior, who is called Mother. The duties of a nun usually lie in the areas of religious education, nursing or charitable service.

For Roman Catholics, Monasticism is essentially a lay vocation, and monks and nuns are not generally members of the clergy. However, since worship is a major part of the monastic life, there is a need for some monastics to be ordained. In several Western orders, there is a distinction between the choir monks (those who are or may become priests) and the lay brothers (who are occupied solely with manual labour and with the secular affairs of the monastery).

Eastern Orthodox Monks at prayer in their monastery church.
Eastern Orthodox Monks at prayer in their monastery church.

Eastern Orthodox monks

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. It has been said that it is for lay people to look up to monastics for the example of how to live their lives, while monastics look up to and emulate the Angels in obedience and humility. Orthodox monks lead very strict lives. It is their overriding purpose to pray for the world and the salvation of all mankind. Monks and nuns do not, in general, do social work or teach school, but leave this for lay people to work out their salvation. Monks are spiritual warriors using prayer and discipline in order to conquer their own shortcomings. It is for this reason that Bishops are almost always chosen from the ranks of monks.

The Schema worn by Orthodox 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 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).

A drawing. The Polystavrion is made of cord shaped into many crosses and worn over the Schema.
A drawing. The Polystavrion is made of cord shaped into many crosses and worn over the Schema.

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 deaconate 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.

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 religous 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 religous 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 distinguish feature of the monastic life among Anglicans is the most practice the so-called "mixed life." The keep the full round of liturgical and private worship, but 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 or any number of good causes.

Since the 1960's, there has been a sharp falling off in the numbers of religious in all 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 communites 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 communites 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 regared as a Melanesian virtue.

A Buddhist Monk in Sri Lanka
A Buddhist Monk in Sri Lanka

Buddhist monks

Main article at bhikkhu

The western term is often applied to Buddhist monastics in all traditions of Buddhism, also known by the Sanskrit and Pali terms bhikshu and bhikkhu. Tibetan Buddhist monks are sometimes known as lamas.

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