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Monasticism in Western Christianity
Roman Catholic Monks
Within Roman Catholicism, a monk is a member of a religious order who lives a communal life in a monastery, abbey, or priory under a monastic rule of life (such as the Rule of St. Benedict) and under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. St. Benedict of Nursia is considered to be the founder of western monasticism. He established the first monastic community in the west and authored the Rule of St. Benedict, which is the foundation for the Order of St. Benedict and all of its reforms such as the Cistercians and the Trappists.
The religious vows taken in the West were first developed by St. Benedict. These vows were three in number: obedience, conversion of life, and stability. Among later Western religious orders, these developed into the solemn vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. Obedience requires that monks are willing to obey the Catholic Church, as represented by the superior. Chastity requires that since they were willing to dedicate their lives to God, they sacrificed the love between men and women and would not marry. Poverty requires they renounced any ownership of property or assets, except for items that were allowed to them by their superior (such as a religious habit, shoes, a cloak, etc.), and to live meekly, sharing whatever they might have with the poor.
To become a monk, one first must become a postulant, during which time the man lives at the monastery to evaluate whether he is called to become a monk. As a postulant, the man is not bound by any vows, and is free to leave the monastery at any time. If the postulant and the community agree that the postulant should become a monk, the man is received as a novice, at which time he is given his religious habit, and begins to participate more fully in the life of the monastery. Following a period as a novice, usually six months to a year, the novice is given the option to take the solemn vows, which can be renewed annually for a period of years. After a few years, the monk can make permanent vows, which are binding for life.
The monastic life generally consists of prayer in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office) and divine reading (lectio divina) and manual labor. Among most religious orders, monks live in simple, austere rooms called cells and come together daily to celebrate the Conventual Mass and to recite the Liturgy of the Hours. In most communities, the monks take their meals together in the refectory. While there is no vow of silence, many communities have a period of silence lasting from evening until the next morning and some others restrict talking to only when it is necessary for the monks to perform their work and during weekly recreation.
Monks who have been or will be ordained into Holy Orders as priests or deacons, are referred to as choir monks, as they have the obligation to recite the entire Divine Office daily in choir. Those monks who are not ordained into Holy Orders are referred to as lay brothers. In most monastic communities today, little distinction exists between the lay brothers and the choir monks. However, historically, the roles of the two groups of monks within the monastery differed. The work of the choir monks was considered to be prayer, chanting the seven hours of the Divine Office and celebrating the Mass daily whereas the lay brothers provided for the material needs of the community by growing food, preparing meals, maintaining the monastery and the grounds. This distinction arose historically because generally those monks who could read Latin typically became choir monks, while those monks who were illiterate or could not read Latin became lay brothers. Since the lay brothers could not recite the Divine Office in Latin, they would instead pray easily memorizable prayers such as the Our Father or the Hail Mary as many as 150 times per day. Since the Second Vatican Council, the distinction between choir monks and lay brothers have become less important, as the council allowed the Divine Office to be said in the vernacular language, effectively opening participation to all of the monks.
Within western monasticism, it is important to differentiate between monks and friars. Monks generally live a contemplative life of prayer confined within a cloistered monastery while friars usually engage in an active ministry of service to the outside community. The monastic orders include all Benedictines (the Order of Saint Benedict and its later reforms including the Cistercians and the Trappists) and the Carthusians, who do not follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Orders of friars include the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians. Although the Canons Regular, such as the Norbertines, live in community, they are neither monks nor friars as they are characterized by their clerical state and not by any monastic vows.