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Monasticism Overview

...before Christian monasticism, there was in all the religions a universal phenomenon which resembled what we call monasticism. These special forms of life, not always similar, included essential elements of monastic life.

...what are the essential elements of this kind of life which we have defined by the general term "monastic"...?

The first thing that stands out is that these various forms of para-Christian monastic life have a tendency to set themselves apart, to separate themselves from the world in isolation from the rest of men. This isolation often has an exterior sign, a wall, a reserved enclosure, access to certain buildings being reserved to the ascetics. Yet frequently they insist rather on the cloister of the heart.

This separation from the world is indicated by a distinctive habit and a special way of cutting the hair. It is ratified by different rites of aggregation or initiation.

We also find ascetic practices such as celibacy, at least temporarily, and poverty understood as detachment. These practices are meant to encourage interior vigilance.

They do not insist very much on obedience which is considered to be the consequence of a general openness or availability developed through meditation. On the other hand great stress is placed on absolute docility to a spiritual master.

Finally, the third essential element: mystical aspiration that is to say a profound sense of the Absolute and a desire for communion with this absolute reality. This is perhaps the deepest foundation of the monastic life, for it is the source of a keen awareness of the radical insufficiency of this changing world. It is the driving power of the two other elements: separation from the world and ascetic practices.

We can now formulate a broad definition of monasticism: it is a manner of life having a spiritual goal which transcends the objectives of earthly life, the attainment of which is considered the one thing necessary...A HISTORY OF MONASTIC SPIRITUALITY by Luc Brésard, of the abbey of Citeaux

The term monastery (from Greek:(monastērion) denotes the buildings of a community of monastics (monks or nuns). Monasteries may vary greatly in size from a small dwelling accommodating only a hermit to vast complexes and estates housing thousands. In most religions, monasteries are governed by community rules that stipulate the gender of the inhabitants and require them to remain celibate and own little or no personal property. The degree to which life inside a particular monastery is socially separate from the surrounding populace can also vary widely; some religious traditions mandate isolation for purposes of contemplation removed from the everyday world, in which case members of the monastic community may spend most of their time isolated even from each other. Others are focused on interacting with the local communities in order to provide some service, such as teaching, medical care, or evangelism. Some monastic communties are only occupied seasonally, depending both on the traditions involved and the local weather, and people may be part of a monastic community for periods ranging from a few days at a time to almost an entire lifetime.

The life within the walls of a monastery may be supported in several ways: by manufacturing and selling goods, often agricultural products such as cheese, wine, beer, liquor, and jellies; by donations or alms; by rental or investment incomes; and by funds from other organizations within the religion which in the past has formed the traditional support of Monasteries. However, today Christian Monastics have updated and adapted themselves to modern society by offering computer services, accounting services, management as well as modern hospital administration in addition to running schools, colleges and universities.

The word monastery comes from the Greek "monasterion," from the root "monos" = alone (originally all Christian monks were hermits), and the suffix "-terion" = place for doing something. The earliest extant use of the term monastērion is by the first century C.E. Jewish philosopher Philo (On The Contemplative Life, ch. III).

A monastery may be an abbey (i.e., under the rule of an abbot), or a priory (under the rule of a prior), or conceivably a hermitage (the dwelling of a hermit). It may be a community of men (monks) or of women (nuns). A charterhouse is any monastery belonging to the Carthusian order. In Eastern Christianity a very small monastic community can be called a skete, and a very large or important monastery can be given the dignity of a lavra.

The communal life of a Christian monastery is called cenobitic, as opposed to the anchoretic (or anchoritic) life of an anchorite and the eremitic life of a hermit.

Buddhist monasteries are generally called vihara (Pali language). Viharas may be occupied by males or females. In Tibetan Buddhism, monasteries are often called gompa or lamaseries. The monks are sometimes (mistakenly) known as lamas. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, a monastery is called a wat.

Jains use the term vihara. In Hinduism monasteries are called matha, mandir or koil.

The history of monasticism predates Christianity by a considerable period of time. When the first Christian cenobites banded together in the desert in the fourth century C.E., Buddhist monasteries had been in existence for seven hundred years or more, and had [2] Scholar Robert Thurman suggests that "It is quite likely that (Buddhist monasticism) influenced West Asia, North Africa, and Europe through lending its institutional style to Manicheism and Aramaic and Egyptian Christianity."

Buddhist monasteries were known as vihara and emerged sometime around the fourth century B.C.E., from the practice of vassa, the retreat undertaken by Buddhist monks and nuns during the South Asian rainy season. In order to prevent wandering monks from disturbing new plant growth or becoming stranded in inclement weather, Buddhist monks and nuns were instructed to remain in a fixed location for the roughly three month period typically beginning in mid-July. Outside of the vassa period, monks and nuns both lived a migratory existence, wandering from town to town begging for food. These early fixed vassa retreats were held in pavilions and parks that had been donated to the sangha by wealthy supporters. Over the years, the custom of staying on property held in common by the sangha as a whole during the vassa retreat evolved into a more cenobitic lifestyle, in which monks and nuns resided year round in monasteries.

Near East

In the Near East, famous monastic communities were the Essenes in Judea and the Therapeutae in Egypt.[4]The earliest known Christian monastic communities consisted of groups of cells or huts collected about a common centre, which was usually the house of some hermit or anchorite famous for holiness or singular asceticism, but without any attempt at orderly arrangement. Such communities followed the precedents already established in the region. Eventually, organization was introduced in the groups of huts. They were arranged in lines like the tents in an encampment, or the houses in a street. From this arrangement these lines of single cells came to be known as Laurae, Laurai, "streets" or "lanes."

In the earliest age of Christian monasticism the ascetics were accustomed to live singly, independent of one another, not far from some village church, supporting themselves by the labour of their own hands, and distributing the surplus after the supply of their own scanty wants to the poor. Increasing religious fervor, aided by persecution, drove them farther and farther away from the civilization into mountain solitudes or lonely deserts. The deserts of Egypt swarmed with the "cells" or huts of these anchorites. Anthony the Great, who had retired to the Egyptian desert during the persecution of Maximian, 312 C.E., was the most celebrated among these monks for his austerities, sanctity, and power as an exorcist. His fame resulted in many followers collecting around him who imitating his asceticism in an attempt to imitate his sanctity. The deeper he withdrew into the wilderness, the more numerous his disciples became. They refused to be separated from him, and built their cells round that of their spiritual father. Thus arose the first monastic community, consisting of monks living each in his own little dwelling, united together under one superior. Anthony, as Johann August Wilhelm Neander remarks, "without any conscious design of his own, had become the founder of a new mode of living in common, Coenobitism."

The real founder of cenobitic (koinos, common, and bios, life) monasteries in the modern sense was Saint Pachomius, an Egyptian living in the beginning of the fourth century. The first community established by him was at Tabennae, an island of the Nile in Upper Egypt. Eight others were founded in the region during his lifetime, numbering 3000 monks. Within 50 years of his death his societies could claim 50,000 members. These coenobia resembled villages, peopled by a hard-working religious community, all of one gender.

The buildings were detached, small and of the humblest character. Each cell or hut, according to Sozomen (H.R. iii. 14), contained three monks. They took their chief meal in a common refectory or dining hall at 3 P.M., up to which hour they usually fasted. They ate in silence, with hoods so drawn over their faces that they could see nothing but what was on the table before them. The monks spent any time not devoted to religious services or study in manual labor.

Palladius, who visited the Egyptian monasteries about the close of the fourth century, found among the 300 members of the coenobium of Panopolis, under the Pachomian rule, 15 tailors, seven smiths, gour carpenters, 12 camel drivers and 15 tanners. Each separate community had its own steward, who was subject to a chief steward stationed at the head establishment. All the produce of the monks' labour was committed to him, and by him shipped to Alexandria. The money raised by the sale was expended in the purchase of stores for the support of the communities, and what was over was devoted to charity. Twice in the year the superiors of the several coenobia met at the chief monastery, under the presidency of an archimandrite ("the chief of the fold," from miandra, a sheepfold), and at the last meeting gave in reports of their administration for the year. The coenobia of Syria belonged to the Pachomian institution. Many details concerning those in the vicinity of Antioch derive from Saint John Chrysostom's writings. The monks lived in separate huts, kalbbia, forming a religious hamlet on the mountain side. They were subject to an abbot, and observed a common rule. (They had no refectory, but ate their common meal, of bread and water only, when the day's labour was over, reclining on strewn grass, sometimes out of doors.) Four times in the day they joined in prayers and psalms.

The necessity for defense from hostile attacks (for monastic houses tended to accumulate rich gifts), economy of space and convenience of access from one part of the community to another, by degrees dictated a more compact and orderly arrangement of the buildings of a monastic cenobium. Large piles of building were erected, with strong outside walls, capable of resisting the assaults of an enemy, within which all the necessary edifices were ranged round one or more open courtyards, usually surrounded with cloisters. The usual Eastern arrangement is exemplified in the plan of the convent of the Holy Laura, Mount Athos.
source: New World Encyclopedia
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