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Christianity / Organization / Monasticism /
Greek: monachos

Coptic monks in Wadi Natrun, Egypt.
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Coptic monks in Wadi Natrun, Egypt.

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Greek Orthodox monks serving in the monastery of St. Catherine on Sinai, Egypt.

In Christianity, a male person living in a monastery or as a hermit, usually permanently in celibacy, often separate from society. A monk aims at the highest and purest form of worship through religious asceticism. The lifestyle of a monk is regulated by the system called monasticism.
Monks are found in many other religions too, but due to this encyclopaedia's geographical scope, those are beyond Contents.
The word comes from Greek monachos, "living alone". From this, the different aspects of the word can be derived, both in terms of living separated from society and living in celibacy (though this meaning does not correspond with the original etymology). The term can by definition be used for women as well, but this is very rare. Other terms are hesychast, solitary, hermit, anchorite and ascetic.
St. Benedict defined early in the 6th century 3 guiding principles for a monk or nun: obedience, poverty and chastity.
A monk has to give vows: of celibacy, poverty and obedience under specific laws. These laws are decided upon by counsels of religious leaders. A person bound by such vows is known as a religious, from Latin religare, "to bind".
There is an important distinction between monks living in community with other monks, known as cenobitic monasticism, and hermits. Still, many monasteries have been built around the location of a hermit, and taken an identity related to the hermit's activities. The first known Christian monk was St. Anthony in the second half of the 3rd century. He began as a hermit in the Eastern Desert in Egypt, but his activities draw attention from others, and a simple forms of cenobitic monasticism would develop around him while he still was alive.
Monasteries in the Eastern Orthodox Church are very much separated from societies, organized into self supporting units. They do not run social services, but concentrates instead on deep prayers for the benefit of the world. Monks here have their day divided in 3: church services; hard labour; study and rest. Each monastery has its own regulations and customs. There exists a central principle of conformity for all living in a monastery.
In Orthodox churches, one begins as a novice. A novice can leave the monastery, and there is no penalty for this. After some time, the novice will be informed that he is ready to pass through a formal service, in which he is given his new robe. While there are some variations, this generally involves a cassock (usually black), a brimless hat and leather belt.
Across the Christian world, the similarities outnumber the differences between monks of different churches.
Unlike the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church is noted for its many orders, each with its own unique identity. Already as a minor one can enter a monastery, as an oblate. First at maturity, he becomes a novice. While still being a novice, he can leave the monastery, and if doing so he will receive no penalty. After a few years, the novice will be informed that he is ready to pass through a formal service, in which he is given his new robe, which is either black of brown. When black colour, it indicates that the monk now is dead to the world. The monk is also given a new name. But this is only the first level.
A monk's rise in the monastic hierarchy is basically similar between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. When, after few years later, the monk has reached a high level of discipline, dedication and humility he can pass through a new ceremony by which he is to receive certain symbolic pieces to his habit. Certain new regulations to his daily activities are added, involving more responsibility and a stricter discipline.
In some monasteries, there is one more level, while in others this is only given to the monk on their death bed.
In Orthodox churches, bishops are very often chosen from the ranks of the monks, a reflecting the high respect that monasticism enjoys in those churches.

By Tore Kjeilen