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Monastic Orders.

Vatican City Nuns

Monastic orders may include both monks and nuns.

Photo: Getty Images

Major Religious Orders of Monks and Nuns

Monastic orders are groups of men or women who dedicate themselves to God and live in an isolated community or alone. Typically, monks and cloistered nuns practice an ascetic lifestyle, wearing plain clothing or robes, eating simple food, praying and meditating several times a day, and taking vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience.Monks are divided into two types, eremitic, who are solitary hermits, and cenobitic, who live together in community.In third and fourth century Egypt, hermits were of two types: anchorites, who went into the desert and stayed in one place, and hermits who remained solitary but roamed about.

Hermits would gather together for prayer, which eventually led to the founding of monasteries, places where a group of monks would live together. One of the first rules, or set of instructions for monks, was written by Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430), a bishop of the early church in North Africa.

Other rules followed, written by Basil of Caesurea (330-379), Benedict of Nursia (480-543), and Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Basil is considered the founder of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, Benedict the founder of western monasticism.

A monastery usually has an abbot, from the Aramaic word “abba,” or father, who is the organization’s spiritual leader; a prior, who is second in command; and deans, who each supervise ten monks.

Following are the major monastic orders, each of which may have dozens of sub-orders:


Founded in 1244, this order follows the Rule of Augustine. Martin Luther was an Augustinian, but was a friar, not a monk. Friars have pastoral duties in the outside world; monks are cloistered in a monastery. Augustinians wear black robes, symbolizing death to the world, and include both men and women (nuns).


Founded in 356, these monks and nuns follow the Rule of Basil the Great. This order is primarily Eastern Orthodox. Nuns work in schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations.


Benedict founded the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy about 540, although technically he did not begin a separate order. Monasteries following the Benedictine Rule spread to England, much of Europe, then to North and South America. Benedictines also include nuns. The order is involved in education and missionary work.


Founded in 1247, the Carmelites include friars, nuns, and lay people. They follow the rule of Albert Avogadro, which includes poverty, chastity, obedience, manual labor, and silence for much of the day. Carmelites practice contemplation and meditation. Famous Carmelites include the mysticsJohn of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux.


An eremitical order founded in 1084, this group consists of 24 houses on three continents, dedicated to contemplation. Except for daily mass and a Sunday meal, much of their time is spent in their room (cell). Visits are limited to family or relatives once or twice a year. Each house is self-supporting, but sales of an herb-based green liqueur called Chartreuse, made in France, help finance the order.


Founded by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), this order has two branches, Cistercians of the Common Observance and Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappist). In following the rule of Benedict, the Strict Observance houses abstain from meat and take a vow of silence. The 20th century Trappist monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating were largely responsible for the rebirth of contemplative prayer among Catholic laity.


This Catholic “Order of Preachers” founded by Dominic about 1206 follows the rule of Augustine. Consecrated members live in community and take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Women may live cloistered in a monastery as nuns or may be apostolic sisters who work in schools, hospitals and social settings. The order also has lay members.


Founded by Francis of Assisi about 1209, Franciscans include three orders: Friars Minor; Poor Clares, or nuns; and a third order of lay people. Friars are further divided into Friars Minor Conventual and Friars Minor Capuchin. The Conventual branch owns some property (monasteries, churches, schools), while the Capuchins closely follow the rule of Francis. The order includes priests, brothers, and nuns who wear brown robes.


Also known as the Premonstratensians, this order was founded by Norbert in the early 12th century in western Europe. It includes Catholic priests, brothers, and sisters. They profess poverty, celibacy and obedience and divide their time between contemplation in their community and work in the outside world.(Sources:,, and


Jack Zavada, a career writer and contributor for, is host to a Christian website for singles. Never married, Jack feels that the hard-won lessons he has learned may help other Christian singles make sense of their lives. His articles and ebooks offer great hope and encouragement. To contact him or for more information, visit Jack’s Bio Page.


Franciscan Monks

Franciscan monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel.

Photo: Getty Images

What Is Monasticism?


Monasticism is the religious practice of living apart from the world, usually secluded in a community of like-minded people, to avoid sinand grow closer to God.The term comes from the Greek word monachos, which means a solitary person. Monks are of two types: eremitical, or solitary figures; and cenobitic, those who live in a family or community arrangement.

Early Monasticism:

Christian monasticism got its start in Egypt and North Africa about 270 AD, with the desert fathers, hermits who went into the wilderness and gave up food and water to avoid temptation. One of the earliest recorded solitary monks was Abba Antony (251-356), who retreated to a ruined fort to pray and meditate. Abba Pacomias (292-346) of Egypt is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic or community monasteries.

In early monastic communities, each monk prayed,fasted, and worked on his own, but that began to change when Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, wrote a rule, or set of directions for the monks and nuns in his jurisdiction. In it, he stressed poverty and prayer as the foundations of monastic life. Augustine also included fasting and labor as Christian virtues. His rule was less detailed than others that would follow, but Benedict of Nursia (480-547), who also wrote a rule for monks and nuns, relied heavily on Augustine’s ideas.

Monasticism spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, largely due to the work of Irish monks. By the Middle Ages, the Benedictine Rule, based on common sense and efficiency, had become widespread in Europe.

Communal monks worked hard to support their monastery. Often the land for the monastery was given to them because it was remote or thought to be poor for farming. With trial and error, monks perfected many agricultural innovations. They were also involved in such tasks as copying manuscripts of both the Bible and classical literature, providing education, and perfecting architecture and metal work. They cared for the sick and poor, and during the Dark Ages, preserved many books that would have been lost. The peaceful, cooperative fellowship inside the monastery often became an example for the society outside it.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, abuses began to set in. As politics dominated the Roman Catholic Church, kings and local rulers used monasteries as hotels while traveling, and expected to be fed and housed in royal fashion. Demanding rules were imposed on young monks and novice nuns; infractions were often punished with floggings.

Some monasteries became wealthy while others could not support themselves. As the political and economic landscape changed over the centuries, monasteries held less influence. Church reforms eventually moved monasteries back to their original intent as houses of prayer and meditation.

Present-Day Monasticism:

Today, many Roman Catholic and Orthodox monasteries survive throughout the world, varying from cloistered communities where monks or nuns take a vow of silence, to teaching and charitable organizations that serve the sick and poor. Everyday life usually consists of several regularly scheduled prayer periods, meditation, and work projects to pay the community’s bills.

Monasticism is often criticized as being unbiblical. Opponents say the Great Commissioncommands Christians to go into the world and evangelize. However, Augustine, Benedict, Basil and others insisted that separation from society, fasting, labor, and self-denial were only means to an end, and that end was to love God. The point of obeying the monastic rule was not performing works to gain merit from God, they said, but rather was done to remove worldly obstacles between the monk or nun and God.

Supporters of Christian monasticism stress Jesus Christ‘s teachings about wealth being a stumbling block for people. They claim John the Baptist‘s strict lifestyle as an example of self-denial and cite Jesus’ fasting in the desert to defend fasting and a simple, restricted diet. Finally, they quote Matthew 16:24 as a reason for monastic humility and obedience: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (NIV)


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Monasticism helped spread Christianity through a pagan world.(Sources:, and A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson, Borders Books, 1976.)


Jack Zavada, a career writer and contributor for, is host to a Christian website for singles. Never married, Jack feels that the hard-won lessons he has learned may help other Christian singles make sense of their lives. His articles and ebooks offer great hope and encouragement. To contact him or for more information, visit Jack’s Bio Page.

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