A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or with any number of monks, while always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose. The concept is ancient and can be seen in many religions and in philosophy. In the Greek language the term can apply to men or women; but in modern English it is in use only for men, while nun is used for female monastic.
Although the term monachos (“monk”) is of Christian origin, in the English language it tends to be used analogously or loosely also for both male and female ascetics from other religious or philosophical backgrounds.
The term monk is generic and in some religious or philosophical traditions it therefore may be considered interchangeable with other terms such as ascetic. However, being generic, it is not interchangeable with terms that denote particular kinds of monk, such as cenobite, hermit, anchorite, hesychast, solitary.
The first famous Christian known to adopt the life in a desert was St. Anthony the Great (251-356). Anthony lived alone as an anchorite in the Egyptian desert until he attracted a circle of followers, after which he retired further into the desert to escape the adulation of men. He is said by St. Athanasius in his Life of Anthony to have been the first to go out into the desert for the sole purpose of pursuing God in solitude.
As the idea of devoting one's entire life to God grew, more and more monks joined him, even in the far desert. Under St. Anthony's system, they each lived in isolation. Later, loose-knit communities began to be formed, coming together only on Sundays and major feast days for Holy Communion. The concept of monks all living together under one roof and under the rule of a single person — that is, monasticism as such — is attributed to St Pachomius. At this same time, St. Pachomius' sister became the first woman to lead a monastery of women, or convent. Christian monasticism spread throughout the... [continues]
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