Monastic Orders of Monks and Nuns in Major Religions

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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 Caesarea (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 laypeople. 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 mystics John 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 communally 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 laypeople. 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.


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Zavada, Jack. "Monastic Orders of Monks and Nuns in Major Religions." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). Monastic Orders of Monks and Nuns in Major Religions. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "Monastic Orders of Monks and Nuns in Major Religions." Learn Religions. (accessed March 23, 2023).