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  ‘Monasticism’ (from Greek monos ‘alone’) was coined to describe those Christian devotees who lived alone, struggling with themselves and supernatural powers, as John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth did. But the tradition stretches back to before the time of the Buddha and the Jain ascetics, being perfected in the legend of the god Siva, the perfect yogi. In all such communities (as indeed in Christian monasticism in later times), there was always a tendency to regard celibate religious life as superior to ordinary family life, no matter how devout the household. (Hinduism took a different path with the development of ashrams.) Another kind of monasticism, eremitism (from the Greek word for hermit) refers to solitary religious life; ‘monasticism’ properly describes life in a community.

St Antony of Egypt (?251-365) is credited with being the founder of Christian monasticism when in c.305 he organized his disciples and other hermits who had joined him in the desert into a community of hermits living under a common rule of life. This rule discouraged such bizarre austerities as sitting on the top of a pillar for years, and discouraged competitions of hardship. Pachomium ( (c. 290-346)) founded nine monasteries for men and two for women by the Nile, and these served as a model for later foundations. The sanctity of all such founders contrasted sharply with the worldliness of the church leaders who emerged when persecution of Christianity ceased in 312, and people alienated by the transformation of the Christian Church into a state religion, and by its growing affluence, seized the opportunity to ‘flee the world’. Similarly, since martyrdom was no longer available as a rapid route to heaven, many of those earnestly seeking salvation opted for the monastic life. Monasticism in all faiths has always been seen as an accelerated route to heaven or enlightenment.

Monastic life, in Christendom as elsewhere, offered women a degree of freedom and control over their lives that they could never have as someone\'s daughter, wife or mother. As the movement spread northwards and westwards, it became the vehicle both for evangelism and for development. In the 12th century, for example, Cistercian monasteries introduced commercial sheep farming in northern England; the Orthodox monasteries were oases of Christian culture among the tribes of Russia. As the Roman Empire declined in Europe, monks became the only people who could read, and preserved the classical heritage. In India and Asia, a cultural impact was made by Buddhist monks. Monasteries were also great patrons of the arts and their occupants were often a highly subversive element in both church and state, as can be seen in contemporary Sri Lanka.

In Eastern Christianity and Buddhism, each monastery is autonomous and adapts the Rule by democratic decision. In the West ‘orders’ were founded: organizations or movements following a distinctive Rule of Life, sometimes with their own liturgical variations and usually with their own special robes or ‘habit’. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, taken by all monks and nuns, the Order may prescribe additional vows. Benedict of Nursia ( (c. 480)- (c. 550)) imposed the rule of enclosure to stop the nomadic habits of monks of his day and create stable communities. Poverty meant holding possessions in common, so although Benedictine abbeys became wealthy, they used their wealth to adorn worship (the monks and nuns\' main preoccupation), to give hospitality and to succour the poor. The Cistercians and later the Trappists fled humankind and hospitality, combining worship and agriculture. The Dominicans, founded by St, Dominic (1170 - 1221), are a brotherhood dedicated to preaching, Dominic having devoted his life to winning back heretics. His contemporary, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), devoted himself to the service of the poor in a way emulated by Mother Teresa today, but hating organization and fund-raising. He rejected the order of ‘Little Brothers’ which he founded in 1209 and died a hermit. Another successful order was the Augustinian canons, who lived in smaller groups and have been described as ‘poor Benedictines’. Martin Luther belonged to a strict house of Augustinians and was educated by them.

When H. Workman concluded his magisterial work on monasticism (see below), he stated that there had been no innovations since the Friars and the Beguines (he did not count Ignatius Loyola\'s Society of Jesus with their special vow of obedience to the pope). Since Workman\'s time, however, Charles de Foucauld\'s Little Brothers of Jesus, George Macleod\'s Inoa Community and Mother Teresa\'s Missionaries of Charity have broken in new ground in Christian monasticism, while the French Reformed Taize Community has lifted liturgy to new heights. Other movements such as the Foculari and the Darmstadt Sisters have concentrated on reparations for the suffering caused by World War II, especially the Holocaust. The creation of the Ramakrishna mission, Sri Aurobindo\'s order, and other new ashrams in India and Europe show new life in the monastic practice of other religions, while the importance of Muslim brotherhoods in Egypt and elsewhere cannot be over-estimated. EMJ

Further reading H.B. Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal from the Earliest Times to the Coming of the Friars (1913); , Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers.



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