Where do monks live? I know that they’re supposed to be a part of Christianity, but I’ve never seen them myself. Where are they?
Christian monks live in monasteries. Think of a monastery as a village designed for those who want to devote their lives to Christ. Most monasteries aim for self-sufficiency. So they tend to include small internal farms and economies alongside their religious space and living quarters.
So, monks live in monasteries.
And what is life like in a monastery?
Well, let’s find out, shall we?
What Do You Find in a Monastery?
Common features of a monastery include: chapels, living quarters, cloisters (open-air hallways), dining rooms, libraries, infirmaries, and bathing rooms. Many of the larger monasteries try to be self-sufficient, so these are liable to include things such as gardens, barns, breweries, and schools.
Are you a fan of Harry Potter? If you are, then you probably know what Hogwarts looks like. If you know what the castle looks like, then you have an idea of the general aesthetic of an abbey.
What Do Monks Do There?
Monks choose to live in a monastery so that they move closer to God. So they devote large amounts of time to prayer, ritual, and reading. During the course of their religious training here, they often produce writings which are later taken as guidance for the rest of the church.
They also work to maintain the monastery’s internal economy and facilities. Monks accomplish their goals by producing their own food and by offering charity to the community around them. In the modern age, many monastic communities have found ways to sell their goods and services online. In this way, they are able to financially support themselves.
Monastic communities keep their own rules which members are expected to follow. Common rules include that the monks relinquish their personal property and take vows of celibacy before entering. Isolation is also a common requirement in a monastery. People create monasteries to keep the inhabitants isolated from others. So the monastery often has rules which exist therein to held keep the monks isolated from each other as well.
How Did Christian Monasticism Begin?
Christian monasticism has its root in the Prophet Elijah, John the Baptist, and Christ. Each of these men spent time alone in the desert and became holier thereby. Some of the earliest Christians sought to emulate their example and retreated alone into the desert to do so.
Over time, the tendency for Christians to retreat alone into the wilderness grew in popularity. More people began doing so, and communities of such people had begun forming by the second century. Ascetics began to appear around this time.
An ascetic is a Christian stoic monk. They live singly, fast often, and keep a strict and limited diet. Oftentimes, they have a small trade which they use to support themselves, and their give away their excess belongings.
From Christian monasticism there arose religious hermits. The first known Christian hermit was St. Anthony of Egypt, who chose to live alone on a mountain in the third century.
Women would occasionally choose to live as hermits, but they lacked the fortitude to survive alone in the wilderness. People called these women anchoresses, and they lived isolated in purpose-built enclosures.
Thee women chose to be walled-in. The walls that surrounded them typically had a window or two through which food, water, and communion were passed.
After Christian monasticism had developed for a while, monks began to form communes. They started forming monasteries as we know them today, and the first was established in the early fourth century. It was from these monasteries that the Bible was reproduced most frequently.
Which Christians Have Monks?
Monasticism is most closely related to Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism. Some Protestant denominations have monks as well, but their role is small relative to the role of monks in the other divisions.
Of the various groups of Christians, the Eastern Orthodox esteem monasticism to the greatest extent. The Orthodox Church is managed by bishops, and the bishops are drawn from its monasteries. The church also differentiates monasticism into three types: eremitic (hermit-like), cenobitic (communal), and skete (small groups). Orthodox monks do not form orders. Moreover, progression is achieved by reading the writings of the Church Fathers and practicing their virtues.
The Roman Catholic Church esteems monks to a lesser extent. Its bishops are elevated priests, and the monks are subordinate to them. Monks in the Catholic Church form orders, and they often act in the pursuit of some social goal the church is pursuing.
Most Protestants reject monasticism. The ones that do not tend to undervalue it. The Lutheran Church is the Protestant sect which values monasticism most highly. This is because the Lutherans are the Protestants most similar to the Catholics, and the Catholics value monks. The Anglican Communion also maintains some monasteries.
As a general rule, Protestants begin to reject monks as they move further away from Catholicism.
What Are Some Famous Monasteries?
Monasteries are important insitutions of Chrisitan culture, and the list below addresses some of the more noteworthy ones.
- Mount Athos: This is the most famous monastery in the world, and it belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Mount Athos is an island mountain off the coast of northern Greece. Roughly 1500 monks live in the island’s 20 monasteries.
Of the island’s twenty monasteries, one is Russian, one is Bulgarian, one is Serbian and the other seventeen are Greek. Small groups of hermits also live on the island. The mountain is a common destination for pilgrims and tourists alike.
- Meteora: Have you seen the film Avatar? Some of the scenes in that movie show giant rocks which float over Pandora’s surface.
Earth has places which mimic that ascetic. People built the monastic complex of Meteora on top of such a place near Greece. The complex was constructed so the monks could have complete control over entry into their domain.
Their location allows them to protect their solitude. Although its downside is that people and goods can only be moved into it by means of a rope system.
- Saint Catherine’s Monastery: This settlement is located in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and is purported to be the oldest Christian monastery. It houses the largest monastic library in the world.
- Ostrog Monastery: This monastery is a popular tourist destination because of its incredible architecture. It began as a cave complex in the side of a mountain, and it has gradually developed to appear as though it were carved from the mountain itself.
In other words, it looks like Tolkien’s dwarves built it.
- Kiev Monastery of the Caves: If you ever see an image of an Orthodox Church in some piece of media, and if it looks like a castle of white and gold, then you’re probably looking at this monastery.
What Other Religions Have Monks?
- Buddhism exalts monasticism to a greater extent than any other religion. It is for this reason that the Dalai Lama is the most famous monastic title in the world. Buddhist monasteries often take a much more active role in governance that their Christian counterparts.
A key point of difference between Buddhist and Christian monasteries is that Buddhist monasteries own excess land. Historically, the monks’ ownership of land allowed them to keep serfs as farmers, and Buddhist societies began to resemble those of feudal Europe. Tibet was organized in this way at the time of Communist China’s invasion.
The feudal organization maintained by the land-owning monasteries often turned them into vassals of local lords. Favors given to them by these governors slowly transformed monastic leadership into a hereditary title.
- Hindus have also practiced monasticism and employed the same practices as their Buddhist counterparts. However, the power of Indian princes had a suppressing effect on them. So they never wielded the same authority as the Buddhist monks.
Hinduism has spawned several minor religions, and they tend to practice monasticism as well.
- Islam rejects monasticism. The religion is unique among the major religions in this regard. One of the premises of Islamic thought is that Islam was perfect in the time of Muhammad. So orthodox Muslims reject the advancement of religious knowledge, which is a a key part of a monastery’s work. Muslims often call such changes heretical; the name of the heresy of change is Bidah.
Some Muslims reject Islam’s prohibitions on monasticism and form orders. These people are called Sufis, and most Muslims believe them to be heretics. Sufis are found mostly in Turkey and Islamic countries located far from Arabia.