AskDefine | Define monasteries

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  1. Plural of monastery

Extensive Definition

This article concerns the buildings occupied by monastics.
For the life inside monasteries and its historical roots see Monasticism.
For monastic communities see Religious orders.
For the hamlet in the South-west of England see The Friary.
For the school in the Lichfield, Staffordshire see The Friary School.
Monastery (plural: Monasteries), a term derived from the Greek word μοναστήριον (monastērion, from μόνος - monos "alone"), denotes the building, or complex of buildings, that houses a room reserved for prayer (e.g. an oratory) as well as the domestic quarters and workplace(s) of monastics, whether monks or nuns, and whether living in community or alone (hermits).
Many religions and philosophies have monastic traditions, in which individuals commit themselves to a religious life and live apart from secular society in a monastery.
The earliest extant use of the term monastērion is by the first century CE Jewish philosopher Philo (On The Contemplative Life, ch. III).
Monasteries may vary greatly in size – a small dwelling accommodating only a hermit, or in the case of communities anything from a single building housing only a one senior and two or three junior monks or nuns, to vast complexes and estates housing tens or hundreds.
In English usage, the term monastery is generally used to denote the buildings of a community of male monastics (monks), while convent tends to be used for the buildings accommodating female monastics (nuns). The term nunnery for the latter is outmoded. Various religions, however, use these terms, and a number of other terms as well, in rather technical and specific ways. Usage can vary extensively by language, as English speakers try to choose the most appropriate translation for foreign institutions and organizations.
In most religions the life inside monasteries is governed by community rules that stipulates the gender of the inhabitants and requires them to remain celibate and own little or no personal property. The degree to which life inside a particular monastery is socially separate from the surrounding populace can also vary widely; some religious traditions mandate isolation for purposes of contemplation removed from the everyday world, in which case members of the monastic community may spend most of their time isolated even from each other. Others are focused on interacting with the local communities in order to provide some service, such as teaching, medical care, or evangelism. Some monastic communties are only occupied seasonally, depending both on the traditions involved and the local weather, and people may be part of a monastic community for periods ranging from a few days at a time to almost an entire lifetime.
The life within the walls of a monastery may be supported in several ways: by manufacturing and selling goods, often agricultural products such as cheese, wine, beer, liquor, and jellies; by donations or alms; by rental or investment incomes; and by funds from other organizations within the religion which in the past has formed the traditional support of Monasteries. However, today Christian Monastics have updated and adapted themselves to modern society by offering computer services, accounting services, management as well as modern hospital administration in addition to running schools, colleges and universities.
For a discussion of the history and development of the life inside monasteries see monasticism and abbey.


The word monastery comes from the Greek μοναστήριον "monasterion", from the root "monos" = alone (originally all Christian monks were hermits), and the suffix "-terion" = place for doing something. For early usage, contemporary with the birth of the Christian Church, see Philo, On the Contemplative Life III.25.
In England the word monastery was also applied to the habitation of a bishop and the cathedral clergy who lived apart from the lay community. Most cathedrals were not monasteries, and were served by canons secular, which were communal but not monastic. However some were run by monastic orders, such as York Minster. Westminster Abbey was for a short time a cathedral, and was a Benedictine monastery until the Reformation, and its Chapter preserves elements of the Benedictine tradition. See the entry cathedral. They are also to be distinguished from collegiate churches, such as St George's Chapel, Windsor.

Terms for monasteries

In most of this article, the term monastery is used generically to refer to any of a number of types of religious community. In the Roman Catholic religion and to some extent in certain other branches of Christianity, there is a somewhat more specific definition of the term and many related terms.
Buddhist monasteries are generally called vihara (Pali language). Viharas may be occupied by males or females, and in keeping with common English usage, a vihara populated by females may often be called a nunnery or a convent. However, vihara can also refer to a temple. In Tibetan Buddhism, monasteries are often called gompa. In Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, a monastery is called a wat.
A monastery may be an abbey (i.e., under the rule of an abbot), or a priory (under the rule of a prior), or conceivably a hermitage (the dwelling of a hermit). It may be a community of men (monks) or of women (nuns). A charterhouse is any monastery belonging to the Carthusian order. In Eastern Christianity a very small monastic community can be called a skete, and a very large or important monastery can be given the dignity of a lavra.
The great communal life of a Christian monastery is called cenobitic, as opposed to the anchoretic (or anchoritic) life of an anchorite and the eremitic life of a hermit.
In Hinduism monasteries are called matha, mandir, koil, or most commonly an ashram.
Jains use the Buddhist term vihara

Buddhist monasteries

By the time Christian cenobites emerged in the 4th century AD, Buddhist monasteries had been in existence for seven hundred years or more, and had spread deep into the Persian empire. Thurman says "It is quite likely that (Buddhist monasticism) influenced West Asia, North Africa, and Europe through lending its institutional style to Manicheism and Aramaic and Egyptian Christianity."
Buddhist monasteries, known as vihara, emerged sometime around the fourth century BC, from the practice of vassa, the retreat undertaken by Buddhist monks and nuns during the South Asian rainy season. In order to prevent wandering monks from disturbing new plant growth or becoming stranded in inclement weather, Buddhist monks and nuns were instructed to remain in a fixed location for the roughly three month period typically beginning in mid-July. Outside of the vassa period, monks and nuns both lived a migratory existence, wandering from town to town begging for food. These early fixed vassa retreats were held in pavilions and parks that had been donated to the sangha by wealthy supporters. Over the years, the custom of staying on property held in common by the sangha as a whole during the vassa retreat evolved into a more cenobitic lifestyle, in which monks and nuns resided year round in monasteries.
In India, Buddhist monasteries gradually developed into centers of learning where philosophical principles were developed and debated; this tradition is currently preserved by monastic universities of Vajrayana Buddhists, as well as religious schools and universities founded by religious orders across the Buddhist world. In modern times, living a settled life in a monastery setting has become the most common lifestyle for Buddhist monks and nuns across the globe.
Whereas early monasteries are considered to have been held in common by the entire sangha, in later years this tradition diverged in a number of countries. Despite vinaya prohibitions on possessing wealth, many monasteries became large land owners, much like monasteries in medieval Christian Europe. In China, peasant families worked monastic-owned land in exchange for paying a portion of their yearly crop to the resident monks in the monastery, just as they would to a feudal landlord. In Sri Lanka and Tibet, the ownership of a monastery often became vested in a single monk, who would often keep the property within the family by passing it on to a nephew who ordained as a monk. In Japan, where civil authorities required Buddhist monks to marry, being the head of a temple or monastery sometimes became a hereditary position, passed from father to son over many generations.
Forest monasteries – most commonly found in the Theravada traditions of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka – are monasteries dedicated primarily to the study of Buddhist meditation, rather than scholarship or ceremonial duties. Forest monasteries often function like early Christian monasteries, with small groups of monks living an essentially hermit-like life gathered loosely around a respected elder teacher. While the wandering lifestyle practiced by the Buddha and his disciples continues to be the ideal model for forest tradition monks in Thailand and elsewhere, practical concerns- including shrinking wilderness areas, lack of access to lay supporters, dangerous wildlife, and dangerous border conflicts- dictate that more and more 'meditation' monks live in monasteries, rather than wandering.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are sometimes known as lamaseries and the monks are sometimes (mistakenly) known as lamas.
Some famous Buddhist monasteries include: A further list of Buddhist monasteries is available at the list of Buddhist temples

Christian monasteries

Main article: Christian monasticism
Traditionally, it is often said Christian monasticism started in Egypt. However, St. John the Baptist may be said to have been the first Christian monk, albeit he was Jewish in a time when Christianity and Hebrewism were one and the same. After St. Anthony founded his group the practice later continued on into Abyssinia (Ethiopia). According to tradition, in the 3rd century St. Anthony was the first Christian to adopt this lifestyle. After a short while others followed. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits seldom encountering other people. But because of the extreme difficulty of the solitary life, many monks failed, either returning to their previous lives, or becoming spiritually deluded.
A transitional form of monasticism was later created by Saint Amun in which “solitary” monks lived close enough to one another to offer mutual support as well as gathering together on Sundays for common services.
It was St. Pachomios who developed the idea of having monks live together and worship together under the same roof (Coenobitic Monasticism). Soon the Egyptian desert blossomed with monasteries, especially around Nitria, which was called the "Holy City”. Estimates are the upwards of 50,000 monks lived in this area at any one time.
Hermitism never died out though, but was reserved only for those advanced monks who had worked out their problems within a cenobitic monastery.
The idea caught on, and other places followed:

Monastic life in Western Medieval Europe

The life of prayer and communal living was one of rigorous schedules and self sacrifice. Prayer was their work, and the Office prayers took up much of a monk's waking hours - Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, daily Mass, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. In between prayers, monks were allowed to sit in the cloister and work on their projects of writing, copying, or decorating books. These would have been assigned based on a monk's abilities and interests. The non-scholastic types were assigned to physical labor of varying degrees.
The main meal of the day took place around noon, often taken at a refectory table, and consisted of the most simple and bland foods i.e. poached fish, boiled oats. Anything tastier, which appeared on occasion, was criticised. While they ate, scripture would be read from a pulpit above them. Since no other words were allowed to be spoken, monks developed communicative gestures. Abbotts and notable guests were honored with a seat at the high table, while everyone else sat perpendicular to that in the order of seniority. This practice remained when monasteries became universities after the first millennium, and can still be seen at Oxford University and Cambridge University.
Monasteries were important contributors to the surrounding community. They were centers of intellectual progression and education. They welcomed aspiring priests to come study and learn, allowing them even to challenge doctrine in dialogue with superiors. The earliest forms of musical notation are attributed to a monk named Notker of St Gall, and was spread to musicians throughout Europe by way of the interconnected monasteries. Since monasteries offered respite for weary pilgrim travelers, monks were obligated also to care for their injuries or emotional needs. Over time, lay people started to make pilgrimages to monasteries instead of just using them as a stop over. By this time, they had sizable libraries which were sort of a tourist attraction. Families would also donate a son in return for blessings. During the plagues, monks helped to till the fields and provide food for the sick.
A Warming House is a common part of a medieval monastery, where monks went to warm themselves. It was often the only room in the monastery where a fire was lit.

Orthodox Christian monasteries

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, both monks and nuns follow a similar ascetic discipline, and even their religious habit is the same (though nuns wear an extra veil, called the apostolnik). Unlike Roman Catholic monasticism, the Orthodox do not have separate religious orders, but there is one form of monasticism throughout the Orthodox Church. Monastics, male or female, live lives away from the world, in order to pray for the world. They do not normally run hospitals and orphanages, they do not consider teaching or caring for the sick a part of their vocation, though they are obligated by Christian charity to provide help when needed.
Monasteries can be very large or very small. There are three types of monastic houses in the Orthodox Church:
  • When monks live together, work together, and pray together, following the directions of an abbot and the elder monks, this is called a cenobium. The concept of the cenobitic life is that when many men (or women) live together in a monastic context, like rocks with sharp edges, their “sharpness” becomes worn away and they become smooth and polished. The largest monasteries can hold many thousands of monks and are called lavras. In the cenobium the daily office, work and meals are all done in common.
  • Sketes are small monastic establishments which usually consist of one elder and 2 or 3 disciples. In the skete most prayer and work are done in private, coming together on Sundays and feast days. Thus, skete life has elements of both solitude and community, and for this reason is called the "middle way".
  • The highest level of asceticism is practiced by monks who do not live in monastic communities, but in solitude, as hermits.
One of the great centers of Orthodox monasticism is the Holy Mountain (also called Mt. Athos) in Greece, an isolated, self-governing peninsula approximately long and 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.
The leading monasteries of the Holy Mountain are:
Other famous Orthodox monasteries include:

Eastern (Oriental Orthodox) monasteries

The Oriental Orthodox Churches, distinguished by their Myaphisite beliefs consist of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (whose Patriarch, is considered first among equals for the following churches), as well as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Indian Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. The now extinct Caucasian Albanian Church also fell under this group.
St. Anthony's (Deir Mar Antonios) is the oldest monastery in the world and under the patronage of the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Latin Catholic and Eastern Catholic monasticism

A number of distinct monastic orders developed within Roman Catholicism (Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a system of individual Orders, per se).
Dissolved Communities and Famous Dissolved Monasteries:
The last years of the 18th century marked in the Christian Church the beginnings of growth of monasticism among Protestant denominations. The centrus of the this movement was in the United States and Canada beginning with the Shaker Church, which was founded in England and then moved to the United States. In the 19th century many of these monastic societies were founded as Utopian communities based on the monastic model in many cases. Aside from the Shakers, there were the Amanna, the Anabaptists et al. Many did allow marriage but most had a policy of celibacy and communal life in which members shared all things communally and disavowed personal ownership. In the 19th century monasticism was revived in the Church of England, leading to the foundation of such institutions as the House of the Resurrection, Mirfield (Community of the Resurrection), Nashdom Abbey (Benedictine), Cleeve Priory (Community of the Glorious Ascension) and Ewell Monastery (Cistercian), Benedictine orders,Franciscan orders and the Orders of the Holy Cross, Order of St. Helena. Other Prostestant Christian denominations also engage in Monastacism. In the 1960s, expermental monastic groups were formed in which both men and women were members of the same house and also were permitted to be married and have children--these were operated on a communal form. The Jewish Kibutz is a form of monasticsm operating on a communal basis.

Hindu monasteries

In Hinduism, monks have existed for a long time, and with them, their respective monasteries, called mathas. Most famous among them are the chatur-amnaya mathas established by Adi Shankara, Ashta matha (Eight monasteries) of Udupi founded by Madhvacharya (Madhwa acharya) a dwaitha philosopher.

Recent trends

In the second half of the twentieth century, Fr. Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk from the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Trappist, Kentucky, tried to reform Catholic monasticism. Father Merton saw the monastic as little more than a slave of the Church and its orders, requiring Monastics to do back-breaking work with no pay other than the food they ate and the clothing on their back.
The number of dedicated monastics in any religion has waxed and waned due to many factors. There have been Christian monasteries such as "The Cappadocian Caves" that used to shelter upwards of 50,000 monks, or St Pantelaimon's on the "Holy Mountain" in Greece, which had 30,000 in its heyday. Today those numbers have dwindled considerably. Currently the monasteries containing the largest numbers are Buddhist: Drepung Monastery in Tibet housed around 15,000 monks prior to the Chinese invasion. Today its relocated monastery in India houses around 8,000 - nearly four times the current monastic population of the entire Holy Mountain.
On the other hand, there are those among monastic leaders that are critical of monasteries that are too large. Such become institutions and lose that intensity of spiritual training that can better be handled when an elder has only 2 or 3 disciples. There are on the Holy Mountain areas such as the Skete of St Anne, which could be considered one entity but is in fact many small "Sketes" (monastic houses containing one elder and 2 or 3 disciples) who come together in one church for services.
Additionally, there is a growing Christian neo-monasticism, particularly among evangelical Christians. Established upon at least some of the customary monastic principles, they have attracted many who seek to live in relationship with other, or who seek to live in an intentionally-focused lifestyle, such as a focus upon simplicity or pacifism. Some include rites, novitiate-periods which a newly interested person can test out living, sharing of resources, while others are more pragmatic, providing a sense of family in addition to a place to live.
monasteries in Afrikaans: Klooster
monasteries in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Mynster
monasteries in Bulgarian: Манастир
monasteries in Catalan: Monestir
monasteries in Czech: Klášter
monasteries in Danish: Kloster
monasteries in German: Kloster
monasteries in Esperanto: Monaĥejo
monasteries in Spanish: Monasterio
monasteries in Estonian: Klooster
monasteries in Persian: صومعه
monasteries in Finnish: Luostari
monasteries in French: Monastère
monasteries in Hebrew: מנזר
monasteries in Hindi: मठ
monasteries in Croatian: Manastir
monasteries in Hungarian: Kolostor
monasteries in Italian: Monastero
monasteries in Latin: Monasterium
monasteries in Limburgan: Kloaster
monasteries in Lithuanian: Vienuolynas
monasteries in Latvian: Klosteris
monasteries in Dutch: Klooster
monasteries in Norwegian: Kloster
monasteries in Narom: Monastéthe
monasteries in Polish: Klasztor
monasteries in Portuguese: Convento
monasteries in Russian: Монастырь
monasteries in Slovak: Monastier
monasteries in Slovenian: Samostan
monasteries in Serbian: Манастир
monasteries in Swedish: Kloster
monasteries in Chinese: 修道院
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