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A monastery is the habitation of monks. Originally: a hermit's cell. Christian monasteries are also called abbey, priory, charterhouse, friary, and preceptory , while the habitation of nuns is also called a convent.
The word monastery comes from the Greek "monasterion", from the root "monos" = one, or alone (originally all Christian monks were hermits).
In England the word monasterium was also applied to the habitation of a bishop and the cathedral clergy who lived apart from the lay community. Thus in English-language usage, cathedrals, which were never monasteries, developed names such as York Minster, and abbeys could likewise be termed "minster" such as Westminster Abbey. See the entry cathedral.
Christian cenobitic monasticism started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle Ages. But not everybody is fit for solitary life, and numerous cases of hermits losing their grips are reported.
The need for some form of organized spiritual guidance was obvious, and around 300 St. Anthony started to organize his many followers in what was to become the first Christian monastery. After Anthony, and on his advice, Saint Amun gathered up his solitaries into a single rule. Soon the Egyptian desert, especially around Nitria , which was called the "Holy City," abounded with similar institutions.
The idea caught on, and other places followed:
- Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisibis in Mesopotamia (~350), and from this monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China.
- Mar Saba organized the monks of the Judean Desert in a monastery close to Betlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monsteries of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
- St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.
Roman Catholic monasteries
A number of distinct monastic orders developed within Roman Catholicism. Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a system of individual Orders, per se.
- Augustinian canons ('The Black Canons'), which evolved from the Priests Canons who would normally work with the Bishop: now living together with him as monks under St. Augustine's rule
- Augustinian friars
- Benedictine monks ('The Black Monks'), founded by St. Benedict, stresses manual labor in a self-subsistent monastery.
- Carmelite friars ('The White Friars'), Contemplative Order
- Carthusian monks
- Cistercian monks ('The White Monks')
- Cluniac monks
- Dominican friars, ('The Black Friars'/'The Friars Preachers') Mendicant (preaching) order. They blend the active and the contemplative life: namely they practice contemplation, and go out to preach the fruits of that contemplation and encourage others to contemplate.
- Franciscan friars ('The Grey Friars'/'Friars Minor'), another Mendicant order, they were charged with preaching to the poor.
- Poor Clares
- Premonstratensian canons ('The White Canons')
- Tironensian monks ('The Grey Monks')
- Trinitarians ('The Red Friars')
- Christian Brothers
- Valliscaulian monks
- Visitation Sisters
- Knights Templar
- Knights Hospitaller
The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) is a religious order, having vows; but, it is not a monastic order, strictly speaking, as all its members live in the world.
Famous Catholic monasteries include:
Famous dissolved monasteries:
- Fountains Abbey
- Whitby Abbey
- Rievaulx Abbey
- Glastonbury Abbey
- Westminster Abbey
- Mont St Michel
- St Andrews Abbey
Orthodox Christian monasteries
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monks and nuns follow a similar ascetic discipline. Unlike Roman Catholics, there is only one form of monasticism for the Orthodox. Monastics, male or female, live lives away from the world, in order to pray for the world. They do not run hospitals and orphanages, they do not teach or care for the sick; it is expected for lay people to do these things to work out their own salvation. Monasteries can be very large or very small. The largest monasteries can hold many thousands of monks and are called lavras. Small monasteries are often called “sketes” and usually only have one elder and 2 or 3 disciples. There are higher levels to ascetic practice but the monks who practice these do not live in monasteries, but alone. When monks live together, work together, and pray together, following the directions of the abbot and the elder monks, this is called a cenobium. The idea behind this is when you put many men together, like rocks with sharp edges, their “sharpness” becomes worn away and they become smooth and polished.
One of the great centers of Orthodox monasticism is the Holy Mountain (also called Mt. Athos) in Greece, an isolated, self-governing peninsula approximately 20 miles long and 5 miles wide (similar to the Vatican, being a separate government), administered by the heads of the 20 major monasteries, and dotted with hundreds of smaller monasteries, sketes, and hesicaterons. Even today the population of the Holy Mountain numbers in the tens of thousands of monastics (men only) and cannot be visited except by men with special permission granted by both the Greek government and the government of the Holy Mountain itself.
Other famous Orthodox monasteries include:
- St Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
- Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, Russia
- Kievan monastery of the Caves, Ukraine
- Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
- Solovetsky Monastery, Russia
- Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, Russia
- Alexander Nevsky Lavra, St Petersburg
- Novodevichy Convent , Moscow
- Photographs of the 11-15th century monastery at Sant Miquel del Fai, in Spain
- Links to Coptic Orthodox Monasteries of Egypt and the world
- Dissolution of the Monasteries
- List of monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII of England
- Abbeys and priories in Scotland
- Abbeys and priories in Wales
- Abbeys and priories in England
- Abbeys and priories in Isle of Man
- Abbeys and priories in Northern Ireland
- Abbeys and priories in the Republic of Ireland
- Abbeys and priories in Bavaria
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