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Institutionalized religious movement whose members are bound by vows to an ascetic life of prayer, meditation, or good works. Members of monastic orders (monks) are usually celibate, and they live apart from society either in a community of monks or nuns or as religious recluses. The earliest Christian monastic communities were founded in the deserts of Egypt, most notably by the hermit St. Anthony of Egypt (251–356). It was given its more familiar cenobitic form by St. Pachomius (c. 290–346). St. Basil the Great composed a very influential rule for the eastern church, and John Cassian (360–465) helped spread monasticism to western Europe. The Benedictine order, founded by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century, called for moderation of ascetic practices and established worship services at regular hours. Throughout the Middle Ages, monasticism played a vital role not only in spreading Christianity but also in preserving and adding to literature and learning. It underwent periodic reforms, notably by the Cluniacs in the 10th century and the Cistercians in the 12th century, and saw the founding of mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans. Monasticism has also been important in Eastern religions. In early Hindu times (c. 600–200 BC) there were hermits who lived in groups (ashrams), though they did not lead a strictly organized communal life. Jainism may be the first religion to have had an organized monastic life, which was characterized by extreme asceticism. Buddhist monks observe a moderate rule that avoids extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on monasticism, visit Britannica.com.