A monk is a person who practices monasticism, adopting a strict religious and ascetic lifestyle, usually in community with others following the same path. The word comes from the Greek monachos (μοναχός), commonly translated as a solitary person and can apply to either men or women. It should be noted, however, that monachos is a word that had to be forged especially to name the then new phenomenon of men living solitarily in the Egyptian desert. The phenomenon came to an abrupt rise in the 3rd century AD, when thousands of Egyptians, mostly men, set out to the deserts of Nitria, southwest of the city of Alexandria, in order to imitate the life of St. Anthony, the first Christian monk.
Monks usually live in a monastery following a single rule and governed by an Abbot. Monasteries can be organized as Cenobiums, where all live together, pray together, and share everything; or they can be more disjointed with the monks only coming together for Sunday services. A monk who lives alone, away from society and sometimes also from all other monks, is called an Anchorite or Hesicaste (also called a hermit).
Catholic monks call each other Brother unless ordained to the priesthood. Eastern Orthodox monks (except novices) are always called Father even if they are not priests. Old monks are often called Gheronda or Elder out of respect for their dedication. Female monastics (nuns) in the Catholic church are called Sister, except for their superior, who is called Mother. For the Orthodox, Mother is the correct term for all nuns except novices.
The process of becoming a monk is marked by several distinct stages, which may vary depending on the particular tradition, order, or monastery. A person requesting admission is known as a postulant. After a period of examination, during which they may live in the monastery without actually taking vows, they may be admitted as a novice. The novitiate may last for a number of years and include instruction in prayer and other subjects. After the novitiate, a monastic may pass through a series of temporary vows of increasing length (typically three to five years). In Orthodox practice, a monastic who has taken temporary vows is known as a rassophor (or ryassophor), which denotes that they now wear the ryassa or monastic cloak. After temporary vows, the monastic makes their final vows, sometimes know as their profession, which commit them to the monastery for life. In Orthodoxy, this step is known as stavrophor (from the Greek stavros, cross) or the little schema, and includes the service of tonsuring. There is an additional stage of monasticism in Orthodoxy which is not found elsewhere, that of the Great Schema, which involves additional commitment to a life of seclusion and strict ascetism.
Monasticism is essentially as a lay vocation , and monks and nuns are not generally members of the clergy. However, since worship is a major part of the monastic life, there is a need for some monastics to be ordained. In several Western orders, there is a distincion between the choir monks (those who are or may become priests) and the lay brothers (who are occupied solely with manual labour and with the secular affairs of the monastery). In Orthodoxy, the analagous distinction is between heiromonk (priest-monk) and monk.
In the English language the female ascetic is usually called a nun and her residence, a convent. In the West, the word nunk has been coined by Catholic theologian Raimundo Panikkar to refer to a female renunciate leading the contemplative life of a monk. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the duties of a nun usually lie in the areas of religious education, nursing or charitable service; but in the Traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachoi, and their common living space, a monastery.
Monks in popular fiction and video games are often represented (or stereotyped) as martial artists. While there have been militant monastic orders at various points in history (Buddhist monks of the Shaolin temple are a well-known example and probably form the basis for this stereotype), these are the exception and not the norm.
- A synopsis of Orthodox monasticism
- bhikkhu (Buddhist monk)
- religious order
- Pachomius — early example of monastic organizer
- Rule of St Benedict
- Brother Cadfael — a famous recent fictional monk
- Lay brothers