Ethiopian monk

Monks are males who voluntarily retreat into solitary life or a communal life with other monks in order to achieve communion with God. They often make a vow of poverty, obedience and chastity and follow a strict set of rules. The 10th century theologian Symeon wrote: "He who is a monk walks forever with God alone." The goal of every monk as St. Paul put it is to "pay without ceasing" even during times of rest when the body may be asleep but the "heart is awake."

The word "monk" comes from the Latin word monachus , meaning "one who lives alone." The first monks were ascetics, some of whom lived for years in caves on nothing but bread and water. Over time, monks became men organized into religious communities where everyone was equal, but were led by abbots (monk leaders) and then priors. Friars are a kind of monk that traditionally have not lived in monasteries but have traveled around preaching, meeting and helping people and getting by by working and begging. Most are Franciscans or Dominicans. Some are Carmelites and Augustinians.

Nuns are similar to monks except they are females. The origin of the word nun is not clear. It may have been derived from the Sanskrit word nana ("mother"), the Latin term nonna ("child nurse"), Greek nanna ("aunt"), or Coptic nana ("good"). The word "habit" (nun’s clothes) comes from Latin habitus ("appearance" or 'dress").

Abbots are the superiors of abbeys of monks. The word abbot comes from the Armenian word abha , for “papa”. They typically wear a ring and a pectoral cross and dress in crowled robes, black for Benedictines and white for Cistercians (“black friars” and “white friars”).

In the Catholic Church becoming a monk or nun is often referred to as “taking holy orders,” a reference to the fact they obey orders or rules that govern their daily lives. Groups of monks are called holy orders. Members of these orders are not part of the regular church hierarchy of priests and bishops. Instead they are regarded as “living symbols of the holiness of the church.” Monasticism is arguably holds a higher position in the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to the Sacred Canons, all Bishops must be monks (not merely celibate), and feast days to monastic saints are an important tradition. Fasting and the pursuit of the spiritual life are strongly encouraged not only among monastics but also among the laity.

The religious life practiced by monks and nuns is not a sacrament, but rather a state of consecration to God, which is prepared for a noviate before the church, which receives them in the name of God. Candidates profess perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with other vows required by certain religious communities. The various monastic and religious orders are successors to the Church’s early communities of hermits.

Books: The Frontiers of Paradise: A Study of Monks and Monasteries by Peter Lev (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; Early Christian Art ; Early Christian Images ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images ; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar ; Saints' Books Library ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America ; Lives of the Saints:

Early Monks, Ascetics and Monasteries

Saint Anthony

Ascetic sects arose in early days of Christianity. They made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and headed to the deserts of Egypt to seek solitude and communion with God. Some lived for years in caves on nothing but bread and water. The most famous of these hermits was Paul of Thebes who reportedly lived for 112 years in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The word “hermit” is derived from the Greek word eremites , meaning “desert dweller.”

The “desert fathers.” who lived hermetic lives in caves of Egypt in the early centuries of Christianity laid the ground work for monks and nuns with their vows of celibacy and poverty. Modern studies of self-inflicted suffering in religious observances suggests there are two main purposes: 1) to gain mastery over some perceived weakness or fault, such as lust and desire; and 2) induce a trance-like state that is believed to bring one closer to the divine.

From Egypt monasticism spread to Syria and Asia Minor.Around 360, St. Basil established a great monastery near Neo-Caesarea in Pontus on the Black Sea. Later, from Egypt and Asia Minor monasticism spread to Italy and then parts of the European continent and Britain and Ireland. Over time some monasteries became quite wealthy: they owned huge amounts of land and even had armies of soldier monks to protects them.

Philo on 1st Century Ascetics in Egypt

In the A.D. 1st century, Philo of Alexandria wrote: “I. Having mentioned the Essenes, who in all respects selected for their admiration and for their especial adoption the practical course of life, and who excel in all, or what perhaps may be a less unpopular and invidious thing to say, in most of its parts, I will now proceed, in the regular order of my subject, to speak of those who have embraced the speculative life, and I will say what appears to me to be desirable to be said on the subject, not drawing any fictitious statements from my own head for the sake of improving the appearance of that side of the question which nearly all poets and essayists are much accustomed to do in the scarcity of good actions to extol, but with the greatest simplicity adhering strictly to the truth itself, to which I know well that even the most eloquent men do not keep close in their speeches. [Source: Philo of Alexandria, Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 355-369, \*/]

“Nevertheless we must make the endeavor and labor to attain to this virtue; for it is not right that the greatness of the virtue of the men should be a cause of silence to those who do not think it right that anything which is creditable should be suppressed in silence; but the deliberate intention of the philosopher is at once displayed from the appellation given to them: for with strict regard to etymology, they are called therapeutae and therapeutrides, either because they profess an art of medicine more excellent than that in general use in cities (for that only heals bodies, but the other heals souls which are under the mastery of terrible and almost incurable diseases, which pleasures and appetites, fears and griefs, and covetousness, and follies, and injustice, and all the rest of the innumerable multitude of other passions and vices, have inflicted upon them), or else because they have been instructed by nature and the sacred laws to serve the living God, who is superior to the good, and more simple than the one, and more ancient than the unity with whom, however, who is there of those who profess piety that we can possibly compare? Can we compare those who honor the elements, earth, water, air, and fire? to whom different nations have given names, calling fire Hephaestus, I imagine because of its kindling, and the air Hera, I imagine because of its being raised up, and raised aloft to a great height, and water Poseidon, probably because of its being drinkable, and the earth Demeter because it appears to be the mother of all plants and of all animals. \*/

“II. But since these men infect not only their fellow countrymen, but all that come near them with folly, let them remain uncovered, being mutilated in the most indispensable of all the outward senses, namely, sight. I am speaking here, not of the sight of the body, but of that of the soul, by which alone truth and falsehood are distinguished from one another. But the therapeutic sect of mankind, being continually taught to see without interruption, may well aim at obtaining a sight of the living God, and may pass by the sun, which is visible to the outward sense, and never leave this order which conducts to perfect happiness. But they who apply themselves to this kind of worship, not because they are influenced to do so by custom, nor by the advice or recommendation of any particular persons, but because they are carried away by a certain heavenly love, give way to enthusiasm, behaving like so many revelers in bacchanalian or corybantian mysteries, until they see the object which they have been earnestly desiring. \*/

“Then, because of their anxious desire for an immortal and blessed existence, thinking that their mortal life has already come to an end, they leave their possessions to their sons or daughters, or perhaps to other relations, giving them up their inheritance with willing cheerfulness: and those who know no relations give their property to their companions or friends, for it followed of necessity that those who have acquired the wealth which sees, as if ready prepared for them, should be willing to surrender that wealth which is blind to those who themselves also are still blind in their minds. \*/

John the Baptist in the Desert

“When, therefore, men abandon their property without being influenced by any predominant attraction, they flee without even turning their heads back again, deserting their brethren, their children, their wives, their parents, their numerous families, their affectionate bands of companions, their native lands in which they have been born and brought up, though long familiarity is a most attractive bond, and one very well able to allure any one. And they depart, not to another city as those do who entreat to be purchased from those who at present possess them, being either unfortunate or else worthless servants, and as such seeking a change of masters rather than endeavoring to procure freedom (for every city, even that which is under the happiest laws, is full of indescribable tumults, and disorders, and calamities, which no one would submit to who had been even for a moment under the influence of wisdom), but they take up their abode outside of walls, or gardens, or solitary lands, seeking for a desert place, not because of any ill-natured misanthropy to which they have learned to devote themselves, but because of the associations with people of wholly dissimilar dispositions to which they would otherwise be compelled, and which they know to be unprofitable and mischievous. \*/

“III. Now this class of persons may be met with in many places, for it was fitting that both Greece and the country of the barbarians should partake of whatever is perfectly good; and there is the greatest number of such men in Egypt, in every one of the districts, or nomes, as they are called, and especially around Alexandria; and from all quarters those who are the best of these therapeutae proceed on their pilgrimage to some most suitable place as if it were their country, which is beyond the Maereotic lake, lying in a somewhat level plain a little raised above the rest, being suitable for their purpose by reason of its safety and also of the fine temperature of the air. \*/

Houses of 1st Century Ascetics in Egypt

Philo of Alexandria wrote: “For the houses built in the fields and the villages which surround it on all sides give it safety; and the admirable temperature of the air proceeds from the continual breezes which come from the lake which falls into the sea, and also from the sea itself in the neighborhood, the breezes from the sea being light, and those which proceed from the lake which falls into the sea being heavy, the mixture of which produces a most healthy atmosphere. [Source: Philo of Alexandria, Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 355-369, \*/]

Monestary of Saint Anthony, the oldest part dates to AD 256

“But the houses of these men thus congregated together are very plain, just giving shelter in respect of the two things most important to be provided against, the heat of the sun, and the cold from the open air; and they did not live near to one another as men do in cities, for immediate neighborhood to others would be a troublesome and unpleasant thing to men who have conceived an admiration for, and have determined to devote themselves to, solitude; and, on the other hand, they did not live very far from one another on account of the fellowship which they desire to cultivate, and because of the desirableness of being able to assist one another if they should be attacked by robbers. \*/

“And in every house there is a sacred shrine which is called the holy place, and the house in which they retire by themselves and perform all the mysteries of a holy life, bringing in nothing, neither meat, nor drink, nor anything else which is indispensable towards supplying the necessities of the body, but studying in that place the laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets, and hymns, and psalms, and all kinds of other things by reason of which knowledge and piety are increased and brought to perfection. \*/

“And there are two kinds of covering, one raiment and the other a house: we have already spoken of their houses, that they are not decorated with any ornaments, but run up in a hurry, being only made to answer such purposes as are absolutely necessary; and in like manner their raiment is of the most ordinary description, just stout enough to ward off cold and heat, being a cloak of some shaggy hide for winter, and a thin mantle or linen shawl in the summer; for in short they practice entire simplicity, looking upon falsehood as the foundation of pride, but truth is the origin of simplicity, and upon truth and falsehood as standing in the light of fountains, for from falsehood proceeds every variety of evil and wickedness, and from truth there flows every imaginable abundance of good things both human and divine. \*/

Practices of Pre-Christian Ascetics in Egypt

Philo of Alexandria wrote: “Therefore they always retain an imperishable recollection of God, so that not even in their dreams is any other subject ever presented to their eyes except the beauty of the divine virtues and of the divine powers. Therefore many persons speak in their sleep, divulging and publishing the celebrated doctrines of the sacred philosophy. And they are accustomed to pray twice a day, at morning and at evening; when the sun is rising entreating God that the happiness of the coming day may be real happiness, so that their minds may be filled with heavenly light, and when the sun is setting they pray that their soul, being entirely lightened and relieved of the burden of the outward senses, and of the appropriate object of these outward senses, may be able to trace out trust existing in its own consistory and council chamber. And the interval between morning and evening is by them devoted wholly to meditation on and to practice virtue, for they take up the sacred scriptures and philosophy concerning them, investigating the allegories as symbols of some secret meaning of nature, intended to be conveyed in those figurative expressions. [Source: Philo of Alexandria, Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 355-369, \*/]

“They have also writings of ancient men, who having been the founders of one sect or another, have left behind them many memorials of the allegorical system of writing and explanation, whom they take as a kind of model, and imitate the general fashion of their sect; so that they do not occupy themselves solely in contemplation, but they likewise compose psalms and hymns to God in every kind of meter and melody imaginable, which they of necessity arrange in more dignified rhythm. Therefore, during six days, each of these individuals, retiring into solitude by himself, philosophizes by himself in one of the places called monasteries, never going outside the threshold of the outer court, and indeed never even looking out. \*/

Gathering of desert fathers

Gatherings of 1st Century Ascetics in Egypt

Philo of Alexandria wrote:“But on the seventh day they all come together as if to meet in a sacred assembly, and they sit down in order according to their ages with all becoming gravity, keeping their hands inside their garments, having their right hand between their chest and their dress, and the left hand down by their side, close to their flank; and then the eldest of them who has the most profound learning in their doctrines comes forward and speaks with steadfast look and with steadfast voice, with great powers of reasoning, and great prudence, not making an exhibition of his oratorical powers like the rhetoricians of old, or the sophists of the present day, but investigating with great pains, and explaining with minute accuracy the precise meaning of the laws, which sits, not indeed at the tips of their ears, but penetrates through their hearing into the soul, and remains there lastingly; and all the rest listen in silence to the praises which he bestows upon the law, showing their assent only by nods of the head, or the eager look of the eyes.

“And this common holy place to which they all come together on the seventh day is a twofold circuit, being separated partly into the apartment of the men, and partly into a chamber for the women, for women also, in accordance with the usual fashion there, form a part of the audience, having the same feelings of admiration as the men, and having adopted the same sect with equal deliberation and decision; and the wall which is between the houses rises from the ground three or four cubits upwards, like a battlement, and the upper portion rises upwards to the roof without any opening. on two accounts; first of all, in order that the modesty which is so becoming to the female sex may be preserved, and secondly, that the women may be easily able to comprehend what is said, being seated within earshot, since there is then nothing which can possibly intercept the voice of him who is speaking. \*/

“IV. And these expounders of the law, having first of all laid down temperance as a sort of foundation for the soul to rest upon, proceed to build up other virtues on this foundation, and no one of them may take any meat or drink before the setting of the sun, since they judge that the work of philosophizing is one which is worthy of the light, but that the care of the necessities of the body is suitable only to darkness, on which account they appropriate the day to the one occupation, and a brief portion of the night to the other; and some men, in whom there is implanted a more fervent desire of knowledge, can endure to cherish a recollection of their food for three days without even tasting it, and some men are so delighted, and enjoy themselves so exceedingly when regaled by wisdom which supplies them with her doctrines in all possible wealth and abundance, that they can even hold out twice as great a length of time, and will scarcely at the end of six days taste even necessary food, being accustomed, as they say that grasshoppers are, to feed on air, their song as I imagine, making their scarcity tolerable to them. \*/

“And they, looking upon the seventh day as one of perfect holiness and a most complete festival, have thought it worthy of a most especial honor, and on it, after taking due care of their soul, they tend their bodies also, giving them, just as they do to their cattle, a complete rest from their continual labors; and they eat nothing of a costly character, but plain bread and a seasoning of salt, which the more luxurious of them do further season with hyssop; and their drink is water from the spring; for they oppose those feelings which nature has made mistresses of the human race, namely, hunger and thirst, giving them nothing to flatter or humor them, but only such useful things as it is not possible to exist without. On this account they eat only so far as not to be hungry, and they drink just enough to escape from thirst, avoiding all satiety, as an enemy of and a plotter against both soul and body.” \*/

Agape feast in the Catacombs of Domitilla

Saint Anthony, Pachomius and St. Basil

Saint Anthony is credited with launching the greatest monastic movement in religious history. A healer, sufferer, pioneer of monasticism in Christianity, he promulgated celibacy and asceticism and spent most of his life praying and fasting in the desert, where it was said he was tempted many times by the devil, who often appeared dressed as a woman. There is now an Anonite order of monks.

St. Anthony was born in Egypt in 251. Following the admonitions of Matthew, he sold all of his possession, gave his money to the poor so the at he could find the treasure of heaven. He fled to the deserts of Egypt, where he took up an austere life. Others followed his example and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the mountains. Since the Middle Age St. Anthony has been acknowledged as the patron saint of domestic animals. The day of the saint is celebrated with bonfires in communities across Spain.

Pachomius founded first true monastery on Tabenna, an island in Nile, in A.D. 340. The difference between the monks here and their predecessors is that the monks associated with one another and performed daily chores and work in the fields in addition to praying, reading the scriptures and meditating.

St. Basil (358-64) composed monastic rule and is regarded as founder of the Christian monastic movement. Around 360, he established a great monastery near Neo-Caesarea in Pontus on the Black Sea and established the creed that a monk must not only live for himself but must also help his fellow man. He discouraged extreme asterism and established schools, hospitals, hospices and orphanages in conjunction with his monasteries.

Cassiodorus was a 6th century monk who established a monastery called the Vivarium and insisted that making books was an essential part of a monk’s life.


Paromeos Monastery, found in 326

Monasteries are places where monks live, pray and work. Unlike Christian churches, which are often hierarchical institutions that emphasize community worship and social service, monasteries are generally democratic and anti-authoritarian institutions run for monks by monks, who keep the monastery going with donations and money earned from their work.

Monasteries are not communal places for ordinary people to worship; they are self-contained communities set aside for people who have decided to devote themselves entirely to God. Each monastery has traditionally had choirs, where monks chanted and prayed; altars where Mass could be performed; open places where Sunday processions could be held; cloisters, where monks worked and studied; a refractory, where the monks ate

Most monasteries are divided into abbeys and priories, of which the abbey church is the central building. It in turn is surrounded by other buildings which include prayer rooms, libraries, schoolrooms, rooms for religious objects, cells or dormitories where the monks live, and often an infirmary that treated the sick and aged, an inn for travelers, workshops, and alms houses for the poor. Within the monastery compound have traditionally been fields and gardens for growing crops and herbariums are providing medicinal plants.

Monasteries have traditionally played a role in helping to educate people, providing medical care and giving orphans places to live. Over time some monasteries became quite wealthy: they owned huge amounts of land and even had armies of soldier monks to protects them. Through gifts and patronage some were able to mass great wealth and property. Some large monasteries resemble estates or college campuses. Others are like modest villages. Only some are open to the public.

Monks and Scholarship

Monks have traditionally said prayers and devoted their time to learning and engaging is some kind of work activity. They have developed music, copied manuscripts, written theological treatises, built abbeys, brought innovation to architecture, music and art, founded the first European universities, and clarified arguments in theology and philosophy For many centuries monks were practicably the only people who could read and write. They also developed the finest schools in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne brought the monk Alcuin from England to set up an education system in the Holy Roman Empire.

Monks have helped to preserve ancient civilization by copying ancient Greek and Roman texts many of which they obtained through their connections with Jewish and Muslim scholars. We can thank medieval monks for the fact we can read Plato, Aristotle and Pliny and the Bible today. If they didn't copy these works by hand there is a good chance that would have been lost. Most of the historical information we know is based on the written word. That is why we no virtually nothing about Druids, who had no written language, and we know tons about the Greeks who did.

Almost every monastery has a library. One monk went as far as saying that a "monastery without a library was like a castle without an armory.” In addition to the Holy Scriptures, a monastery library often has works by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Roger Bacon and Augustine. Some have even had an "inter-library loan" that allowed the secular public to check out books. For the most part however monastery libraries have been very security conscious—just think of how valuable the books were based on all the time and work that went into copying each manuscript by hand. Some monasteries had their books chained so they wouldn't be taken and others recited special curses directed at those who defaced or stole them. [Source: Daniel Boorstein, “The Discoverers”]

Manuscripts and Monks

Many monasteries had a scriptorium, where scribes copied books by hand. They used a quill and ink and were free to copy any books they wanted to since there were no royalty payments or copyright laws in the Middle Ages. Historian Daniel Boorstein wrote "the book was not expected to be, nor dared be, a vehicle for new ideas carrying messages from contemporary to contemporary. Instead it was device to preserve and amplify the treasured revolving funds of literary works." [Source: Daniel Boorstein, “The Discoverers”]

The scribes labored for hours at their copying tasks. On monk described their duty as "not of his own free will but under compulsion, bound by fetters, just as a runaway and fugitive has to be bound." One abbot motivated his scribes by telling them the story of a monk who was saved from damnation when God saw his huge folio of manuscripts and told him each letter he wrote would give him absolution for one sin. When his sins and letters were tallied up he made it into heaven by just one letter.

Monks working at monasteries in Germany, Bulgaria and Italy produced manuscripts of "unexcelled beauty." The most expensive Flemish manuscript ever sold at auction is the Book of Hours, illuminated around 1505 with 67 full page miniatures, which sold a Christies auction in July 1999 for $13.4 million.

Monk Life

Monks chose a life of prayer and “joyful” self-denial so they could live religious life to the full. Many monks have traditionally believed that "idleness is the enemy of the soul.” They stay busy by praying, doing manual labor, studying, fasting and observing silence. Sometimes their only relief from their Spartan regimen is a weekly walk around the monastery.

Franciscan monks in Jerusalem

Monks have their own cultures and generally follow strict codes of behavior established by their founders. Traditionally monks followed an austere life and renounced all personal possessions. Some monks vow to give up all possessions other than their sandals, their robes and own a handful of personal items. Their hair is short to symbolize the renunciation of the worldly life. They also are supposed to eat only simple foods.

Monks typically follow a strict code which includes refraining from drugs, alcohol, entertainment, dancing, swearing, stealing, lying, sacrilegious acts, sex, and making money. Some monks take vows of silence, which strictly limits when and to whom they can talk. In many places even touching a woman is taboo. Offenses can result in a reprimand, suspension or expulsion from the monastery.

Why would anyone want to be a monk? Most monks will tell you that they are emulating Jesus and early Christians like St. Paul and serving God and their fellow man by renouncing worldly pleasures and devoting themselves to prayer, good deeds and work. Monks who enter monasteries first serve as postulants and then novices, a kind of testing period that usually lasts a few years. After that they make their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. After this they are declared professionals, on the basis that they have made a profession a faith.

In 10th century Cluny monks got around their vow of silence using hand signals and gestures: “It soon emerged that some monks using their in-house sign language were as chatty, garrulous, and prone to gossip as they would have been if they were allowed to speak.”

Monk Daily Routine

Greek Orthodox monk at Galaktofrofousa monastery in Cyprus

The daily routine of monks varies from sect to sect, but the patterns are similar: most monks wake up early, live simply, do chores around the monastery and spend many hours meditating and praying.

Most monasteries are connected with the Catholic church. In accordance with Catholics rules, monks are required to chant the canonical hours, fixed forms of prayer that Catholic priests are required to recite everyday. These consists of vigils (late night) matins and lauds (before sunrise), prime (at sunrise), tierce (morning), sext (noon time), none (afternoon), vespers (evening), and compline (night). These prayers are delivered as chants such as Gregorian chats.

Monks have traditionally followed a regimented routine that often began before dawn, sometimes as early as 2:00 or 3:00am. Daily prayers were said at strictly set times (the first clocks were developed so there was no confusion about these times). Between the prayers monks read scriptures, ate meals, and performed their chores and duties. There was often little time for socializing and relaxing except during meals.

Monk Duties

The life of a monk is not all quiet meditation, teaching, praying and studying. Monks sometimes perform blessings and baptisms although these are usually performed by priests. In some places, monks are called in to offer advice and consul to people who are depressed, contemplating suicide or suffer from mental illness. They also help reform juvenile delinquents and cure drugs addicts of their affliction.

Monks have traditionally taught reading and writing to young girls and boys, and morals, philosophy and theology to older students. They also the help the poor by providing medical care, setting up soup kitchens and delivering food to needy people.

These days many monks and nuns work in monastery and nunnery run schools. Many monasteries are having difficulty recruiting enough new monks to keep their facilities going. Their schools are often staffed by lay people, some of whom are not even Catholics. Some monks work a parish priests. Many monasteries make money by leasing out their land to farmers or timber companies. Some are nearly bankrupt after making bad investments.

Monk Attire and Haircuts

Monks have traditionally worn or habit, or tunic, covered by a scapular, a sleeveless and often hooded overall or cape that protects the habit. There are often winter scapulars made of thick cloth and summer scapulars made of thin cloth. Some habits have deep pockets which monks can use to store their stuff. Many monks were a cross pendant. Different orders wear habits with different styles and colors.

Different ordered have different ways of vesting or securing their robes. Benedictines wear a belt with a piece or rope or leather attached to it. Many orders wear rope belts that have knots that represent the vows they have taken

In the old days some monks shaved their heads with a tonsured fringe. Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp, as a sign of religious devotion or humility. The term originates from the Latin word tōnsūra (meaning "clipping" or "shearing") and referred to a specific practice in medieval Catholicism, abandoned by papal order in 1972. he Roman, or St. Peter’s, tonsure involved the shaving either of the whole head, with the exception of a fringe of hair supposed to symbolize the crown of thorns, or of a small round area at the crown of the head. In the Greek (Eastern, or St. Paul’s) tonsure the whole head was shaved, but the more recent practice in the Eastern church has considered the tonsure adequate when the hair is merely shorn close. [Source: Wikipedia, Encylopedia Britannica]


Priests reportedly are men and celibate because Jesus's apostles were men and reportedly celibate. However there is a reference in the Gospel Matthew to Peter having a mother-in-law, which implies he had a wife. Many scholars believe that Paul, who encouraged Christians to be celibate, had a wife that he divorced before his conversion at the age of 40.

In A.D. 306 the regional Council of Elvira in Spain decreed that all priests and bishops, married or not, should be celibate. The Qunisext Council in 692 highlighted the split between Eastern and Western churches and concluded only bishops need to abstain from sex. The second Latheran Council in 1139 abolished clerical marriage and established the Roman Catholic church’s official position on celibacy. Throughout history there have been many example of priests and popes giving in to the temptations of the flesh. In 1525 Reformation leader Martin Luther renounced his celibacy vow, and married an ex-nun.

Origen castrating himself

Celibacy is said to have it roots in the belief that abstaining from sex was en expression of commitment to church and worries that offspring might try to claim church property. Some historians have suggested that the Catholic Church insisted that priests be celibate to remove the temptation of seeking favors for their families. The method didn't always work: the word "nepotism" is derived from "nephews," who priests favored instead.

Castration and Celibate Marriages

For many centuries men castrated themselves to resist sexual temptation. "There be eunuchs," reads a passage in the Gospel of St. Matthew, "which have made themselves the better to enter the kingdom of heaven." A sect of eunuchs founded by Church Father Origen (A.D. 185?-254) persisted into the 20th century.

Celibate marriages were common among devout Christian men in the 2nd to 6th century. Alexandrian Ammonious was forced to marry in the 3rd century. He coerced his wife to move into the Egyptian desert with him and live in a separate huts. They ate only bread and water and never took their clothes off. Gregory, the bishop Tours in the 3rd century, married a woman who wanted to remain a virgin after marriage and convinced her husband to pledge to the same. The couple reportedly remained virgins until their deaths. They were buried side by side in separate tombs which reportedly moved together and became one in the middle of the night.

During this period "spiritual marriages" between priests and virgins (agapeta) were also common. Among those who had their doubts about these unions was St. Jerome, who once wrote, "From what source has this plague of 'dearly beloved sisters' found its way into the church? They live in the same house with their male friends; they occupy the same room, often the same beds]; yet they call us suspicious if we think that anything is wrong." Leontius, the bishop of Antioch, had himself castrated so he could keep his agapeta and remain above suspicion. Irish monks and nuns shared the same houses until the end of the 6th century.


Cisterian nuns

Nuns have traditionally lived in communities and taken vows similar to those of monks and followed similar rules, performed similar duties and followed a similar daily routine. Nunneries are run by abbesses, female equivalent of abbots.

Some nuns refer to themselves as "brides of Christ." They even wore wedding rings to symbolize their union with him.

Nuns usually wear a full length, long sleeve dress that often covers heavy underskirts and is designed to hide a woman’s sexuality. These garments are often very hot in the summer and wearing them is regarded as an act of penitence. Most orders of nuns wear some kind of head covering. Some nuns cut their hair short so men will not find them attractive.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.