Spirituality for Today – June 2011 – Volume 15, Issue 11

A History of Christian Monasticism

By Rick Sheridan


Monasticism has a long history and is practiced by several Christian denominations. This article will focus on the historical and cultural aspects of Christian monasticism, along with a description of its greatest influences.

According to Purushotam and Singh (2009), monasticism is the religious practice in which one renounces worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one's life to spiritual work. Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called monks or brethren if they are male, and nuns or sisters if female. Both monks and nuns may also be called monastics.

A photo of a Monk in prayer

The first three sections will include: 1. The origins of Christian monastic movements. 2. The great medieval orders. 3. Western monasticism today. Those sections will include a brief review of several of the key influences, including: the desert monks, St. Antony, Joseph of Arimathea, St. Benedict, Celtic monasticism, the Benedictines, the Cluniacs, the Carthusians, Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians, the Augustinian Canons, The Military Orders - Knights Templar, Knights Hospitalers, The Rise of the friars – Dominicans and Franciscans, the medieval monastery, the Decline of monasticism with the Reformation and an overview of Western monasticism today.

The article will continue with some of the similarities among the different Christian denominations. The monastics from different faiths are often regulated by a specific set of religious rules to help hold themselves to a higher standard. Another similarity among the faiths is the simple dress and lifestyle (asceticism) embraced by the monks as a renunciation of the materialist lifestyle. Finally, many monastics attempt to reach a higher ideal and provide a living example for their laity.

I had the opportunity to spend a week at Gethsemani Abbey, one of the oldest and largest Trappist monasteries in Kentucky, in December of 2009. I participated in some of their daily routines and also had the opportunity to meet with Brother Patrick Hart, Thomas Merton's friend and former editor. I did a one-day visit to the Abbey of New Clairvaux, a Trappest congregation located in Vina, California, in March, 2011.

Article– The history of Christian monasticism arguably began as the early Christians began moving to the desert with a goal of growing closer to God, thus following the example of Christ, when he fasted for forty days in the wilderness of Judea.

According to Kaufman (2003), Monasticism was virtually unknown in Christianity until the end of the third century. Most of the early Christians continued to own private property after their conversion, and celibacy was not widely encouraged. Meanwhile there were aspects of Christianity dating back to the time of the apostles that emphasized asceticism, celibacy, poverty or moral perfection. Fasting was an accepted discipline in the early church. It also became more customary for older widows to remain single and focus their lives on prayer and church work.

This is widely considered to be the first wave of Christian monasticism. This was followed by a second wave when St. Benedict, established 12 small monastic communities around 500 A.D. A third wave or movement, included men such as Francis of Assisi (1181-1126 A.D.) who focused on ministry to the poor and was the inspiration for the Franciscan monks.

According to Jones (2009), for over 700 years, medieval monasteries in Europe were the spiritual, agricultural, educational, legal, and administrative centers of the areas in which they were located. The monastics following a daily routine of prayer, solitude, and physical labor, which included the hand copying of ancient texts. The monasteries also provided a refuge from the warfare and political oppression of Medieval Europe.

Western Monastic Influences

Early Influences

Some of the elements that would later be included in Christian monasticism can also be found in the early church as described in Acts. Qualities such as sharing possessions, ongoing fellowship, teaching and learning, and communal meals were all part of very early Christian practice, as is discussed in sections of Acts (such as Acts 4:32-37).

Anthony of Egypt (251-356)

St. Anthony (251-356), from Alexandria in Egypt, went into the desert at the age of fifteen and remained there, living a life of simple austerity for the next ninety years. Anthony became famous and numbers of young men decided to join him in the desert to learn from him and to attempt to follow his way of life. Through a biography written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Anthony's way of life became widely known and his influence spread beyond Egypt, and soon collections of hermits were establishing themselves in various places throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, (Jones, 2009).

Joseph of Arimathea

Medieval legend, at least, records that the first monastic settlement in the West was by Joseph of Arimathea in England at Glastonbury, in the first century (37 A.D. or 63 A.D., depending on the source).

St. Benedict – The Rule of Benedict

Much of Western monasticism as we know it today can be traced to a 6th-century Italian monk named St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-550). The little that we know about Benedict comes from St. Gregory the Great's Life of St. Benedict written around 593. According to Gregory, Benedict started his monastic career by living in solitude in a cave at Subiaco, Italy, 30 miles east of Rome, to escape the paganism he saw in Rome. In time, other monks asked him to be their leader, and he eventually started 12 monasteries of 12 monks each in the Subiaco area. Around 529, Benedict founded the monastery of Monte Cassino, Italy, about 80 miles south of Rome. Also around this time, Benedict wrote his famous Rule for monastic life. The Rule would be the basis for most Western monasticism for the next 1000 years, and is still an influence today, (Knowles, 1977).

Rule of Benedict

Some of the main ideas:

  • Abolition of private property
  • Communal meetings of the abbot and the monks (later to be known as Chapter House)
  • Communal sleeping arrangements (dormitory style)
  • Division of the day into seven offices: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline.
  • Excommunication in degrees
  • Importance of manual labor
  • Silence enforced except at prescribed times (Chapter); Laughter, gossip forbidden
Celtic Monasticism

While "Roman" monasticism was thriving by the 6th century in places like Italy, France, and North Africa, another form of monasticism came out of Western Britain and Ireland – Celtic monasticism. According to Jones (2009), Celtic monasticism was more ascetic and disciplined than Roman monasticism, and tended to have less emphasis on the monastic community (monks often lived in individual cells). Celtic monasticism was also avidly evangelistic, sending out missionaries to Scotland, and parts of Europe. One of the most famous missionary journeys was that of St. Columba (c. 521-597), who established a monastery on the island of Iona, for the purpose of converting the Picts (Scotland). Celtic monasticism was also known for it's emphasis on learning, and on preserving the great works of the past. The most famous book of Celtic monasticism is the intricately illuminated Book of Kells, a copy of the Gospels dating to the 8th or 9th century. Celtic monasticism didn't follow the Benedictine Rule, nor did they view themselves as beholden to Rome.


The first and most influential of the medieval orders were the Benedictines, sometimes called the "Black Monks", after the color of their robes. This is the monastic order which grew out of the Rule of Benedict in the 6th century. Many of the great monasteries of the Middle Ages were Benedictine, such as Glastonbury and Canterbury in England. Fifty Popes have come from the Benedictine order. The Benedictine order included nuns as well as monks. Benedictine's experienced a steady decline, largely due to Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536-40. The order survives today, and it has at least 30 monasteries in the United States alone.

The Cluniacs

The Cluniacs were founded at Cluny in France in 910 A.D. by William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine. Like the later Knights Templar, the Clunaics were placed under direct jurisdiction of the Pope. As such, there was no local control of the order. The Cluniacs were known for their great focus on liturgy and meditation on scripture, and ornate churches. And while they ostensibly strictly followed the Rule of Benedict, they did not include manual work as part of a monk's daily routine. The Cluniacs were spectacularly successfully for the first 200 years of their existence – within 200 years of their founding, they had established over 2000 houses! As was the case with most mediaeval monastic orders, the Cluniacs became very prosperous in time, which tended to blur the initial ascetic zeal that existed at the foundation. Also, their excess of ritual may have helped lead to their eventual downfall. In the 12th century, for example, St. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke out strongly against the order. By the end of the 12th century, the Cluniacs were already in decline, (Jones, 2009).


St. Bruno founded the Carthusians (The Poor Brothers of God of the Charterhouse) as an ascetic order in 1084, probably in reaction to the excessive riches of the Cluniacs. The order, founded in Grande Chartreuse, France, stressed poverty, penance, silence, and manual work. Rather than basing their order on the Rule of Benedict, the Carthusians used the more ascetic desert monks as their role models. According to Jones (2009), Carthusians were introduced in England (1178) by Henry II as part of his penance for the death of Saint Thomas Becket. In England, the Chartreuse Houses were referred to as "Charter Houses".

Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians

The Cistercians helped encourage one of the major monastic reform movements of the Middle Ages. They were led by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) an influential religious figure of the 12th century. The Cistercians were founded in 1098 in Citeaux, France (Burgundy), by Saint Robert of Molesme. The Cistersians were founded on the ideal of returning to a strict interpretation of the Rule of Benedict, which the Cistercian leaders felt had been neglected by both Benedictines and Cluniacs. The order grew rapidly in both numbers and influence – within 200 years, they had over 740 communities. To better remove themselves from the secular world, they settled far from towns, often reclaiming inhospitable land. One important feature of life in a Cistercian monastery was the lay brothers, those attracted to the monastic life, but not wishing to live the strict life of a monk.

Under St. Bernard, rules were drawn up which forbade paintings, sculptures, precious metals etc. in Cistercian churches. As a result, Cistercian monasteries are among the least ornate of any monastic houses. Bernard was outspoken in his criticism of the ornate churches of the Cluniacs. He wrote a scathing indictment of the Cluniacs

Bernard, like St. Antony 900 years before, was said to have the power of healing. He is also remembered for being an avid advocate of the Crusades. He not only secured official recognition of the Knights Templar (Synod of Troyes, 1128), he is said to have almost single-handedly ordered the Second Crusade (1146). In 1830, St. Bernard was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope Pius VIII. Over time, the Cistercian abbeys in England became big producers of wool, which was sold overseas to weavers in Flanders and Florence. As such, the order became very rich. In the 17th century, an ascetic splinter group of the Cistercians was formed - the Trappists (which includes the monks in Gethsemeni in Kentucky).

The Cistercians were wiped out in England by Henry VIII, and in France by the French Revolution. However, there are still a few thousand Cistercian monks around the world today.

The Military Orders – Knights Templar, Knights Hospitalers

The crusades of the early 12th centuries played a large role in founding and encouraging these two groups. The Knights Templar was founded in 1119 A.D., to protect pilgrim routes to the Holy Lands. The operated out of what they believed were the ruins of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem (hence the name, Knights Templar. The Templars received the backing of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (who some people believe was involved in their founding), and they became nominal Cistercians (1128). Over time, these warrior monks became key figures in the Crusades (one source estimates that over 20,000 Knights Templar were killed in the Crusades). The Templars were notable for the fact that they answered only to the Pope, and not to any local ecclesiastical authority.

Eventually, the Templars established local offices (called Temples) throughout Western Christendom. Always innovative, they started what is considered by many to be the first European banking system, and it was their involvement as bankers that eventually led to their downfall. By the early 1300s, King Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Paris Temple. In 1307, he charged the order with heresy. Charges eventually brought against the Templars included that postulants were required to deny Christ and spit on the cross, and that the Templars worshiped a mysterious head named "Baphomet" (perhaps a mangling of "Mohammed"?) These charges were never proved, except in confessions received under torture at the hands of the Inquisition.

The Council of Vienne in 1312 officially dissolved the order, giving most of their property to a similar order, named the Hospitalers (see below). The final part of the saga of the Knights Templar occurred in 1314, when Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay was burned alive, after recanting of an earlier con-fession.

After the Templars were dissolved, the French crown received cancellation of all debts owed to the Templars, as well as much of their monetary wealth. At their peak in the 13th century, it is estimated that the Templars owned 9000 castles and manor houses.

A similar group of warrior monks were formed in c.. 1110, originally to man hospitals in the Holy Lands – The Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitalers. Like the aforementioned canons, the Hospitalers operated under the Rule of St. Augustine. The Hospitalers started out in Jerusalem, then moved to Acre (1187), Cyprus (1291), Rhodes (1310) and finally Malta (1530). They were forced out of Malta in 1798 by Napolean I, but still exist today as the Knights of Malta.


The last great monastic movement of the Middle Ages was that of the mendicant friars, monks dedicated to a life of poverty, and often existing only on handouts as they roamed around the countryside. Two orders of friars are particularly notable, the Dominicans and the Franciscans.

The founder of the Domincans, St Dominic was born Domingo de Guzman at Calaruega, Castile, in 1170. He eventually became an Augustinian canon and adopted a life of poverty. Dominic devoted most of the latter part of his life preaching against and trying to convert the "heretic" Cathars in the Languedoc area of France. At the time of Dominic's death in 1221, there were 60 Dominican monasteries. By 1237, there were over 300. In 1233, the Dominicans were given the task of running the courts of the Inquisition, a task which they took to with great ferocity and effectiveness for the next several hundred years. Famous Dominicans of the Middle Ages included St. Thomas Aquinas, and Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain in the time of Columbus, (Purushotam & Singh, 2009).


The second group of mendicant friars that arose during the 13th century was the Franciscans. The Franciscans were founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226), the son of a wealthy merchant. In 1206, Francis gave up his wealth and embraced a life of poverty and service to the poor. He founded the Franciscan order in 1209/10. The Order was officially sanctioned by Pope Innocent III in 1210, after Francis wallowed in the mud with some pigs to prove his humility to the Pope, (Jones, 2009). The Franciscans originally had no formal monastic houses, and lived a life of absolute poverty.

There were many similarities between the Domincans and the Francsicans – even though there was great rivalry between the two orders in the Middle Ages. Both were primarily devoted to the laity – healing the sick, "saving" the heretics, acting as missionaries. Both orders served as Inquisitors, during the darkest days of the Inquisition. Both orders were dedicated to the ideal of monastic poverty. And both Orders answered only to the Pope. Perhaps the main difference between the two was the great emphasis that the Dominicans put on the study of logic and theology – the better to combat the arguments of heretics! St. Francis, on the other hand, put little emphasis on "book learning," (Knowles, 1977).

The Medieval Monastery

The monastic day was divided into seven "hours" by the Rule of Benedict (opus dei, or the "time of God"). While the names assigned to these hours, and the times they were practiced differed slightly from order to order, from country to country, and from season to season, a generic list of the daily rule follows:

Vigils – early morning (typically 2:00 a.m.)
Lauds ("praises") – first light
Prime – sunrise
Terce – around 9:00 a.m.
Sext/nones – noon
Vespers – 4:30
Compline – dusk (to "complete" the hours); afterwards, the monks retired to bed

The hours were typically celebrated in the monastic church (see next section), in the monk's choir, a set of facing chairs at the top of the cross in a typical abbey church. Prayers, and recitation of the Psalms (often sung in Plain Chant) were the order of the day. Mass typically occurred only on Sundays, often being proceeded by a grand procession of the monks into the abbey church.

Depending on the order, the waking moments not spent following the seven "hours" might be spent in study, or manual work (most orders except the Carthusians and Cluniacs). Also, monks typically met together every day for a meeting known as the Chapter. At Chapter, the abbot presided over the Order, discussing news of the day, dealing with disciplinary problems, etc.

Monasteries were often self-contained small cities that provided everything the community needed for day-to-day activities. The heart of the monastery was the abbey church, which was typically laid out on an east-west axis (long part of the cross), with the transepts (short part of the cross) going north-south at the east end. This was the area used by the monks for reciting the daily hours (the monk's choir). In England, the nave (western end of long arm) was often used by local people to worship. In Cistercian abbey churches, the nave was used by lay-brothers. Monks typically slept in a common dormitory called a dorter, and had meals in common in the refectory. Silence was typically observed during meals, with a single reader intoning from the Lives of the Saints, the Church Fathers and the Bible.

The Decline of Monasticism

The reasons for the decline and fall of monasticism as a major force in Western Christendom are many and varied. This section will examine some of them in roughly chronological order.

The Black Death

The Black Death, the Medieval name for either bubonic or pneumonic plague, raged through Europe from 1347 to 1351. Various estimates of the death toll range from one quarter to one third of the population of Europe. The monasteries were not immune from this pandemic. St. Albans in Britain, for example, lost almost 50 monks and an abbot during this period. Many monasteries never fully recovered from the devastation of the Plague. One factor that contributed to this was that monasticism in Europe was already in decline before the Plague hit.

The Reformation

Many religious scholars would agree that the greatest contributor to the downfall of monasticism in the Middle Ages was the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, a former monk himself, wrote assertively against his former profession. And Henry VIII of England, in a short four year period, wiped out 800 monasteries. According to Jones (2009), Martin Luther strongly rejected the notion that monks were "holier" than normal Christians. And he added another reason for rejecting monasticism – he felt that it smacked of salvation by works.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries

In the period from 1527-1529, King Henry VIII of England sought an annulment from the pope of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After he was refused, Henry led the passage of the Acts of Supremacy in1534, which established the Church of England with the King at its head. A side-effect of this action was that monasticism was entirely wiped out from England within six years.

Protestant Monks

While in general, Protestants disapproved of the monastic ideal, there were a few curious exceptions. One was a group called the Seventh Day German Baptists, who built a medieval-style monastery in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County in 1732. Founded by a German mystic named Conrad Beissel, the faith incorporated such diverse elements of theology as Anabaptist, Dunkard, Rosicrucian, Catholic, Mystic, and Jewish.

The French Revolution

While monasticism was essentially wiped out in England in the 16th century by Henry VIII, it took until the late 18th century for a similar event to happen in France – this time, the catalyst was the French Revolution. The French government during the Revolution confiscated most church property, and priests and bishops were required to swear an oath to the new order or face dismissal (Civil Constitution of 1790). Also in 1790, the Cistercian and Cluniac orders were suppressed.

Western Monasticism Today

There are various estimates of the number of Western monastics in the world today. Mayeul de Dreuille in his book From East to West: A History of Monasticism estimates that there are 17,525 monks in the Roman Catholic Church today, and 25,820 nuns/sisters. Interestingly enough, the United States has been an especially fertile ground for modern day monastics – the Benedictines, for example, have 30 monasteries in the United States. So the monastic ideal has hardly disappeared. However, unlike in the Middle Ages when monasticism had a large impact on the legal, governmental, educational, and spiritual lives of the people in the areas in which monasteries were located (and on Europe itself), today monasteries and their inhabitants tend to be rather low key. Modern monasteries are often connected to schools or hospitals, and are often focused on charity as their main raison

Despite the similarities, there are some philosophical differences even within a single faith. According to Merton (1951), Penance and asceticism are not ends in themselves, and monks should be more than 'pious athletes.' This attitude was somewhat radical for Gethsemani Abbey, where Thomas Merton lived, which had been founded by Melleray, as a strict Trappist congregation. This author had the opportunity of spending a week at Gethsemani Abbey in December, 2009, and participate in parts of their daily routine.


In the 2,000-year-old history of the Christian Church, monasticism had a long period as a key means of expression. From the 6th century, when the Rule of Benedict was written, until the 16th and 18th centuries, when the monasteries were suppressed in England and France, monasticism was often considered to be one of the highest forms of Christianity. Even today there are many Christian monasteries that share values that are highly regarded by many members of society. Many of these monasteries welcome visitors to visit and share in their special ways of worship.


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