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Monasticism refers to the lifestyle of people who live in a religious community as they seek to mature spiritually and serve others. The origins of the term itself came from both Greek and Syrian forms of monos or monachos, which indicate singularity. In its earliest usage, the connotation was of a solitary ascetic life of religious devotion. In many circles, it was associated with those living a solitary life in a community of others seeking a similar solitary life. The primary example of this was the medieval monk who, while living in the community of a monastery, still had his own cell where he spent a good deal of time alone in prayer, meditation, and study. In Christian history, monastics were committed to what were known as the three counsels of perfection: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Both men and women pursue the monastic lifestyle, with the men usually known as monks or brothers, and the women as nuns or sisters. There are monastics in most major religious traditions. One of the most famous monks is the Dalai Lama, the head of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism. Buddha himself drew up a set of rules, or a lifestyle guide for those followers living together in religious communities over 2,500 years ago. According to Buddha, one could not be fully enlightened without embracing the monastic life, known as the Sangha. The rule or guide for Buddhist monasticism is known as the Patimokkha, which is comprised of 227 rules for monks and 311 rules for nuns. These monastic communities were intended to interact with the rest of their community by providing spiritual counsel and teaching for the community at large. This service to community beyond the walls of the monastery is a component of most monastic traditions. There are various expressions of Buddhist monasticism, often reflecting the geographical context. Beyond the Tibetan monks, the second most prominent Buddhist monastics would be the Shaolin priests of China. This form of Buddhist monasticism also became the form in Korea and Japan where it is also known as Zen Buddhism.
In the Hindu religion, Manu, the founder of Hinduism, taught that males of the three upper castes could retire to a life of reflection after rearing his family. These monks are known as sadhus, and are noticeable because of their saffron robes. The monastic life in Hinduism is much more solitary, and involves extreme renunciation by which the monk gives up almost all personal belongings, any contact with women (including eye contact), any money or valuables, and all personal relationships. By its nature, Hindu monasticism is almost exclusively a male practice.
Christian monastics are more familiar to those living in the West. Monasticism began in Christianity in the 4th century C.E. in Egypt and Asia Minor. The first monks and nuns were hermits, but very quickly Christian ascetics began to gather in monastic communities. In Egypt, Pachomius started one of the first Christian monastic communities on the Nile River around 320 C.E. In Asia Minor, Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea, started a monastic community in the mid- 4th century in the city to minister to the people there. From that point forward, monasticism became a very important feature in Christian spirituality.
In Western Europe, Benedict of Nursia introduced monasticism. In the early 6th century (529 C.E.), Benedict founded the monastery at Monte Cassino, which became the model for most of Western Christianity. To create a community of discipline and order, he authored his Rule, which became the foundation for all monastic orders to follow. In Benedict's Rule, he spelled out how the monk or nun would spend each and every day. He set aside seven times a day for prayer, which he considered the primary work of the monks. The Rule also spells out how monasteries should organize themselves, divide up the work, and relate to the rest of the world. In the West, monks and nuns were affiliated with various orders of monastics, each with unique ministries and ideals. The followers of Benedict came to be known as the Benedictines. Other groups developed in the Middle Ages based on Benedict's Rule, but in the 13th century a new model for monasticism arose in Western Europe. The growing population and struggle to survive left increasing numbers of the people in poverty. In Northern Italy, Francis of Assisi felt a call to minister to these people. Francis initiated what is known as mendicant monasticism. Mendicant, in this sense, refers to begging. The Franciscans were known as a begging order in that they begged for their daily sustenance and that of the impoverished they lived with. Mendicants did not believe in owning property and so they did not live in a monastery as such. Instead they lived out in the world, and were known as friars instead of monks. They worked hard at trying to alleviate the suffering faced by the poorest inhabitants of Europe of their time.
Another mendicant group was born in the 13th century as well. The Dominicans were founded by a Spaniard named Dominic in 1220. The Dominicans are known as the Order of Preachers, as Dominic traveled the countryside preaching and begging. He also became involved with the Church's suppression of those deemed heretical, especially in southern France. Because of this emphasis on preaching and teaching, the Dominic order became the predominant source of professors in the first universities of Europe. Monastic orders continued to develop throughout Europe. Currently there are well over 75 different orders in the Catholic Church. These include such groups as the Cistercians, Capuchins, Augustinians, Trappists, and Jesuits along with a number of women's orders such as the Carmelites and the Sisters of Mercy, which began as an order of nurses.
Eastern Orthodox monasticism played a very significant role in the culture of the Byzantine Empire.
Eastern Orthodox monks provided both spiritual and legal counsel throughout the Empire. There was always a very close bond between the leaders of the monasteries and the secular rulers in places like Constantinople. Monasticism in Eastern Christianity was never as divided as that found in Western Christianity. Distinctions separating orders were less important than in the West. Monks were free to roam and settle in monasteries wherever they might find themselves. Most monastic centers of Eastern Christianity were organized around the rule of Basil written in the mid-4th century. To this day, Eastern Orthodox monks still visit the most famous of their monasteries on top of Mount Athos in Greece.
Monasticism has played key roles throughout history. Most importantly, monks and nuns have been responsible for education and the preservation of ancient texts, nursing and hospitals, orphanages, and other social ministries throughout the world. Although overall numbers have dwindled, monasticism continues to have a vibrant and active ministry throughout the world in such places as Calcutta, India, and in the work of Mother Teresa's followers.