William M Johnston. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

The “idea of monasticism” invites a misconception, because monasticism is not an idea but a practice. It is a discipline of life, encapsulated in a vow to obey a rule. Monasticism is not a theory about the good life, and still less an escape from practicality, but rather a commitment to live according to a rule handed down from a founder. In its classical Western form deriving from St. Benedict (c. 480-547), a rule directs a monastic to spend a lifetime in one cloister under one abbot following one routine. This secluded way of life begets institutions, some of them highly complex, and these in turn nurture the kind of inner life that in the early twenty-first century is called “spirituality.” Monastic orthopraxy regulates behavior through conformity to a rule, and contrasts with doctrinal orthodoxy that regulates belief through a magisterium or teaching office. Implausible though it may seem, a rule shields monastics from obsession with theorizing. Day in and day out, monastics live an ethos that others may merely preach. To this extent Christian monasticism resembles Rabbinic Judaism. Both pivot on obeying rules, and both tend to disregard niceties of belief. A crucial difference pertains, however. Whereas Jews affirm that the mandates of Torah come from God, Christians acknowledge that any rule comes from a human lawgiver.


As a mode of life that vows obedience to a rule, monasticism originated not in the Near East but in India with Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha (c. 563-c. 483 B.C.E.). His rule or vinaya governed conduct of life initially for the Buddha’s community or sangha of immediate followers. Nine months of the year they wandered, but during the three months of the monsoon they settled in a vihara or monastery. Eventually the Buddha delivered a separate rule for women. Parallel phenomena coexisted within Jainism and Hinduism. Christian monasticism emerged six or seven centuries later in the deserts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Although Rabbinic Judaism (together with Islam) repudiates asceticism, Jewish precedents for Christian extremism emerged in a wanderer such as John the Baptist (c. 7 B.C.E.-c. 27C.E.) or in the Qumran community. Christian ascetics of whom little is known roved the deserts of Syria and Egypt. The lifestyle of these spiritual “athletes” crystallized in figures such as Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356) and Pachomius (c.290-346). Experience as a soldier equipped Pachomius to write a rule for, as it were, an army-camp of ascetics. By mid-fourth century in Egypt, hermits living alone or in loose groups practiced eremitical monasticism, while desert fathers and mothers living in community practiced cenobitical monasticism. The head of a consecrated community was called anabba (father) or amma (mother). From the start monks were copying manuscripts, as they would continue to do for the next twelve centuries. Eastern desert monasticism passed to France through fourth-century intermediaries such as Martin of Tours (c. 316-400), Hilary of Poitiers (401-449), and above all John Cassian of Marseilles (360-435). Epitomized in the disputed figure of St. Patrick (c. 385-461), an Englishman who may have dwelt at Cassian’s houses near Marseilles, Irish monasticism emerged in the mid-fifth century through contact with France. In sixth-and seventh-century Ireland, an island that had never known Roman cities, an abbot ruled as a kind of tribal chieftain who outranked bishops. No amount of asceticism could, however, prevent Celtic monasticism from collapsing in the Viking raids of the ninth century.

By 450, Eastern Christian monasticism was coalescing not just in the desert but also in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, while its Western counterpart kept spreading in self-sufficient rural communities. Monastics lived in an enclosure or cloister that fenced a church, a refectory, a library, dormitories, and subsistence farming. Monasticism produced vastly more varieties in Western Europe than anywhere else. Proliferation of types—notably during two periods, one from 1100 to 1250 and the other from 1520 to 1700—complicates the task of classifying Western monasticism. Fundamental differences separate cloistered orders who, at least until the thirteenth century, preferred to dwell in the country and Mendicant friars who, in the wake of St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), frequented cities and towns preaching and begging for alms. Stemming from the Black Monks, who only in the seventeenth century acquired the name of Benedictines, other rural orders were the Carthusians (founded 1084) and the Cistercians (founded 1098). Following the example of the Franciscan friars (organized 1209), thirteenth-century Mendicants came to include three other orders: the Dominicans (organized 1215), who preached against heresy; the Carmelites (organized by the pope in 1247) who originated as hermits on Mount Carmel in Palestine; and the Augustinian Friars (organized by the pope in 1256), whose most famous member was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Whereas the pre-1200 Benedictines had cultivated son-to-father obedience to an abbot, Mendicants cultivated sibling-to-sibling relations to one another. Excelling all these in martial vigor were the warrior monks of Crusader Palestine, including the Knights Templar (who emerged c. 1119 and were dissolved in 1312) and the Knights Hospitaller (who emerged c. 1080 and in 1530 took the name Knights of Malta).

A second crucial distinction differentiates contemplative orders founded before 1215 from post-Reformation active orders and congregations such as the Jesuits (founded 1540) or Oratorians (founded 1575). The latter comprise not monastics but clerks regular: priests who follow a rule while ministering in the world. Having no lay brothers, the Jesuits and Oratorians are not monastics, and neither are the numerous post-1520 female teaching or nursing congregations such as the Ursulines (founded 1535) or Sisters of Charity (founded 1633). Nevertheless, from 1298 until the early 1970s, canon law obliged women’s congregations in solemn vows to stay cloistered.

A third distinction pertains to Eastern and Western Christianity. In contrast to Western organizational fecundity, Eastern Christian monasticism functions under just one rule: that ascribed to St. Basil the Great (329-379). As a result, Eastern Christian monasticism has upheld one model through sixteen centuries, while Western monasticism has initiated reforms in nearly every generation. To be sure, monastic reform means not launching a fresh departure but rather attempting to install a better version of the past. In Western Christianity the idea of monasticism implies constant renewal in quest of a founder’s vision or “source experience.”

Buddhist monasticism differs structurally from Christian or Hindu forms. When the Buddha founded his religion, he conceived it solely as a monasticism. Lay Buddhism emerged after his lifetime and in Asia still presupposes proximity to a sangha. In Christianity and Hinduism, by way of contrast, monasticism competes with many other embodiments of the religion. This means that at least until the late twentieth century, classification of types of Buddhist monasticism amounts to classification of the religion as a whole, whereas classification of Christian monasticism does not. Three major types of Buddhism stand out: (1) In Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, Theravada or the “Way of the Elders” claims to descend directly from the historical Buddha. It offers to individual monastics rules for working out during this or later lifetimes gradual passage to enlightenment. (2) In India and then in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, Mahayana emerged at least six to eight centuries after the historical Buddha, and the first three of those countries generated numerous schools of thought and practice, each with its own ritual, texts, and lineage of masters. Some schools promised enlightenment to laypeople and not just to monastics, while innovative “pure land” leaders in Japan such as Shinran (1173-1262) discarded monasticism. (3) Starting in the eighth century, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana fostered many sects or schools in Northern India, Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia. Under the leadership of the present Dalai Lama (1935-), leader of the Gelukpa school, Tibetan Buddhism has spread throughout the world. Many non-Buddhists in the early twenty-first century mistakenly regard Tibetan forms as synonymous with Buddhism per se. This misperception overlooks the dozens of schools of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana that thrive throughout Asia and increasingly in the West.

Twentieth-Century Changes

Asian Buddhism enforces the vinaya strictly, not least because that is what the historical Buddha did. In order to promote meditation, traditional Asian Buddhism imposes a life of renunciation—including dietary restrictions, memorization of texts, and attendance at ceremonies—with a stringency that Western adepts often evade. In consequence monastic rigor is diminishing among new Buddhists in North America, Europe, and Australia. Many so-called Western Buddhists appear intent to de-monasticize their religion. As a countertrend, since the 1960s Buddhist and Christian monastics have delighted in comparing their ways of life. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) and the Dalai Lama helped to initiate joint scholarly meetings and other intermonastic encounters.

In Eastern Christianity, monastics retain authority not least because most bishops come from their ranks. Moreover, liturgies remain quintessentially monastic through use of chant, an unhurried pace, and lay adherence to monastic rules for fasting. Characteristically, Eastern Christianity boasts a “monastic republic” of male monasteries on the Holy Mountain of Athos—the easternmost arm of the Chalcidice Peninsula in northeastern Greece. In order to uphold an autonomy that excludes women, the Holy Mountain enjoys exemption from laws of Greece and of the European Community. No Western monastic site—and least of all the rebuilt Monte Cassino south of Rome—so resoundingly epitomizes the idea of Western monasticism as Mount Athos does for the Eastern idea. As the English classicist Graham Speake explains, that idea entails a process of inner transformation known as theosis, whereby the image of God nurtured in each adept gradually transfigures, indeed divinizes him or her, in body, mind, and spirit.

The prestige of Western monasticism once stood equally high. The period of medieval history from 700 to 1050 is frequently labeled the “Monastic Era,” and the reforms inaugurated by monastic popes such as Gregory VII (1020-1085; ruled as pope 1073-1085) can be viewed as having imposed on all priests the practice of celibacy previously reserved to monastics. Needless to say, Roman Catholic monastics no longer command such attention. To be sure, in Europe pilgrimages to monastic centers such as Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain or the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa in southern Poland draw hundreds of thousands, as do celebrations for youth sponsored by the ecumenical monastery of Taizé, founded in Burgundy during the 1940s. Nevertheless, apart from pilgrimages, the institutions of contemplative monasticism engage only a tiny minority of Western Christians, while the spirituality that developed there wins ever-greater admiration.

Meanwhile, gender studies has transformed the understanding of the idea of monasticism. This scholarly revolution can make it embarrassing to read master historians such as the Benedictines’ David Knowles (1896-1974) or Jean Leclercq (1911-1993), who too often wrote as though all monastics were male. Since the 1970s researchers have reclaimed phenomena as diverse as the Desert Mothers of fourth-century Egypt, double houses of male and female monastics in twelfth-century France and England, and the rather widespread acknowledgement before 1100 of the spiritual equality of women and men. The Benedictine Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) has come to be hailed widely as one of the most original Christian writers ever. Many have come to deplore the pronouncement of Pope Boniface VIII (c. 1235-1303; ruled as pope 1294-1303) in 1298 that placed under enclosure all women in solemn vows. The constraint remained in force until the early 1970s. As the American historian Jo Ann Kay McNamara and the English philosopher Grace Jantzen, among others, show, almost everywhere in the West women monastics have proven to be at least as creative as men. At first nearly every branch of Eastern Christianity fostered autonomous houses for women, but many of these communities withered under Islamic occupation. In Theravada Buddhism and in Tibetan Buddhism, by way of contrast, a millennium ago women lost permission to receive the highest ordination as nuns (bhikkuni), while in Mahayana countries such as China, Japan, and, above all, Korea nuns have held their own.

Monasticism as the Institutional Matrix of Spirituality

During the last decades of the twentieth century, postmodernists began to conflate the idea of monasticism with that of spirituality. The latter word means a process of inner transformation in the presence of God such as Christian monastics pioneered from the fourth century onward. In the twelfth century the Latin word spiritualitas came into use among Cistercians to denote the presence of the Holy Spirit within a monastic. Both the adjective spiritual and the noun mysticism sprouted in seventeenth-century France to describe inner religious experience of monastics and laity alike. But only in the 1920s did Roman Catholic theologians of asceticism adopt the noun spiritualité to denote anyone’s experience of the divine within. Although many Eastern Christian monastics hesitate to apply this Latin-derived word to the process of inner re-conditioning that they call theosis (i.e., divinization), no one doubts that it was monastics in East and West who propounded what has come to be called “spirituality.” The years of postmodernity of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in the West saw treasures from seventeen centuries of monastic interiority exit the cloister and invade the mainstream of religious publishing—for example, in the series The Classics of Western Spirituality published since the 1970s by the Paulist Press.

The Dutch literary scholar M. B. Pranger calls into question postmodern infatuation with spirituality by contrasting its eclecticism with the monotony of textual memory within pre-1200 monasteries. The practice of lectio divina invited a monastic to nestle inside a text as if it were a cloister, where the mind encountered memories of other scriptural passages. Across a lifetime of rereading the same texts, a monastic recalled previous acts of remembering, as each act of memory condensed previous ones into an eternal moment. Thus lectio divina called into being a community of monastic reciters of the same texts, above all of the psalms, the Gospels, and the Rule of St. Benedict. Naturally, no medieval author could have imagined the popularity that monastic writings rooted in centuries of lectio divina would attract at the turn of the twenty-first century. Mass marketing undermines the idea of monasticism as a life spent in a reciting community ruminating on a few texts.

Postmodernity has enlarged the community of readers of monastic texts to include nearly everyone who pursues a spiritual quest. Just as Western Buddhists are de-monasticizing the practice of Buddhism, so the “Spirituality Revolution” among Christians in Europe, North America, and Australia is de-monasticizing the legacy of Christian interiority. The very idea of monasticism as lifelong commitment to a rule is being diluted. At a time when texts of monastic origin are read more widely than ever before, consumers of these distillations of the cloistered life probably understand less of the idea of monasticism (i.e., of religious orthopraxy) than ever before. In response to the postmonastic ethos of the early twenty-first century, the idea of spirituality is being de-institutionalized, while texts by monastics are being spiritualized. Scholars such as M.B. Pranger, Marilyn Dunn, Frank Senn, and Kees Waaijman are laboring to re-insert the study of Christian spirituality into a monastic context, where obedience to a rule governs all.