Monasticism, also monachism, mode of life practiced by persons who have abandoned the world for religious reasons and devote their lives, either separately or in community, to spiritual perfection. The vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience under which they live are termed the evangelical counsels. A person bound by such vows is known as a religious (Latin religare, “to bind”). A man who belongs to a monastic order is also called a monk.
Forms of monasticism existed long before the birth of Jesus Christ. Among the Hindus, the laws of Manu provide that, after the rearing of a family, members of the three upper castes may retire to a hermit life and seek truth in contemplation. Buddha created a monastic order, for which he drew up a set of rules that contain many analogies with the rules that were later instituted by Christian religious orders (see Buddhism: Monastic Life). Among the Greeks the members of the Orphic brotherhood and the followers of Pythagoras showed marked tendencies toward the practice of monasticism. Among the Jews the communities of the Essenes had many of the characteristics of religious orders. Later, among the followers of Islam, some communities of Sufis settled in monasteries as early as the 8th century ad(see Dervish; Sufism).
The first Christian hermits seem to have established themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, where in pre-Christian times the Therapeutae, an order of Jewish ascetics, had been established. Not long afterward the desert regions of Upper Egypt became a retreat for those who fled from the persecutions of the Christians so frequent in the Roman Empire during the 3rd century, and for those who found the vices of the world intolerable. The earliest form of Christian monasticism was, probably, that of the anchorites or hermits; a later development is found in the pillar saints, called Stylites, who spent most of their time on the tops of pillars in order to separate themselves from the world and to mortify the flesh. After a time, however, the necessities of the religious life itself led to modifications. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common exercise of religious duties, the early hermits had an aggregation of separate cells called laura, to which they could retire after their communal duties had been discharged. From the union of the common life with personal solitude is derived the name cenobite (Greek koinos bios,”common life”), by which a certain class of monks is distinguished.
St. Anthony, who embraced solitude, established himself at Alexandria, and the fame of his sanctity, as well as his gentleness and learning, drew many disciples to him. Most of his followers accompanied him when he retired to the desert. One of his disciples, St. Pachomius, who established a great monastery on an island in the Nile River, is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic manner of living. Pachomius drew up for his subjects a monastic rule, the first regulations of the kind on record. Many thousands of disciples flocked to him, and he founded several other monasteries for men and one for women under the direction of his sister. All of these houses recognized the authority of a single superior, an abbot or archimandrite. They constitute the original type of the religious order.
The cenobitic form of monasticism was first introduced into the West at Rome and in Northern Italy by St. Athanasius, in central North Africa by St. Augustine, and in Gaul by St. Martin of Tours. The religious revival effected by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the 6th century gave Western monasticism its permanent form.
Typical of Western monasticism were the abbeys, self-contained communities of monks ruled by an abbot or of nuns ruled by an abbess. Within the abbey walls were the abbey church, the dormitory, the refectory, or dining hall, and the guest house for travelers. The buildings enclosed a large courtyard that was usually surrounded by a cloister, or sheltered arcade. The abbeys of the Middle Ages were peaceful retreats for scholars and were the chief centers of Christian piety and learning. One of the oldest and greatest of the medieval abbeys was Monte Cassino, founded by St. Benedict in 529.
Of monastic orders of the West, among the most prominent are the Benedictines, Carthusians, Cistercians, and Premonstratensians.