What Is Monasticism?

Coptic Monks. Getty Images

Monasticism is the religious practice of living apart from the world, usually secluded in a community of like-minded people, to avoid sin and grow closer to God.

The term comes from the Greek word monachos, which means a solitary person. Monks are of two types: eremitical, or solitary figures; and cenobitic, those who live in a family or community arrangement.

Early Monasticism

Christian monasticism got its start in Egypt and North Africa about 270 AD, with the desert fathers, hermits who went into the wilderness and gave up food and water to avoid temptation. One of the earliest recorded solitary monks was Abba Antony (251-356), who retreated to a ruined fort to pray and meditate. Abba Pacomias (292-346) of Egypt is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic or community monasteries.

In early monastic communities, each monk prayed, fasted, and worked on his own, but that began to change when Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, wrote a rule, or set of directions for the monks and nuns in his jurisdiction. In it, he stressed poverty and prayer as the foundations of monastic life. Augustine also included fasting and labor as Christian virtues. His rule was less detailed than others that would follow, but Benedict of Nursia (480-547), who also wrote a rule for monks and nuns, relied heavily on Augustine's ideas.

Monasticism spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, largely due to the work of Irish monks. By the Middle Ages, the Benedictine Rule, based on common sense and efficiency, had become widespread in Europe.

Communal monks worked hard to support their monastery. Often the land for the monastery was given to them because it was remote or thought to be poor for farming. With trial and error, monks perfected many agricultural innovations. They were also involved in such tasks as copying manuscripts of both the Bible and classical literature, providing education, and perfecting architecture and metal work. They cared for the sick and poor, and during the Dark Ages, preserved many books that would have been lost. The peaceful, cooperative fellowship inside the monastery often became an example for the society outside it.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, abuses began to set in. As politics dominated the Roman Catholic Church, kings and local rulers used monasteries as hotels while traveling, and expected to be fed and housed in royal fashion. Demanding rules were imposed on young monks and novice nuns; infractions were often punished with floggings.

Some monasteries became wealthy while others could not support themselves. As the political and economic landscape changed over the centuries, monasteries held less influence. Church reforms eventually moved monasteries back to their original intent as houses of prayer and meditation.

Present-Day Monasticism

Today, many Roman Catholic and Orthodox monasteries survive throughout the world, varying from cloistered communities where Trappist monks or nuns take a vow of silence, to teaching and charitable organizations that serve the sick and poor. Everyday life usually consists of several regularly scheduled prayer periods, meditation, and work projects to pay the community's bills.

Monasticism is often criticized as being unbiblical. Opponents say the Great Commission commands Christians to go into the world and evangelize. However, Augustine, Benedict, Basil and others insisted that separation from society, fasting, labor, and self-denial were only means to an end, and that end was to love God. The point of obeying the monastic rule was not performing works to gain merit from God, they said, but rather was done to remove worldly obstacles between the monk or nun and God.

Supporters of Christian monasticism stress Jesus Christ's teachings about wealth being a stumbling block for people. They claim John the Baptist's strict lifestyle as an example of self-denial and cite Jesus' fasting in the desert to defend fasting and a simple, restricted diet. Finally, they quote Matthew 16:24 as a reason for monastic humility and obedience: Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (NIV)


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Monasticism helped spread Christianity through a pagan world.

(Sources:,,, and A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson, Borders Books, 1976.)

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Zavada, Jack. "Monasticism." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). Monasticism. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "Monasticism." Learn Religions. (accessed March 30, 2023).