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What is a Monastery?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A monastery is a facility that houses a religious community of monks or nuns. Generally, it is designed to be self contained, so that the religious adherents inside could potentially live out their lives entirely inside the walls. By choosing to live in seclusion, the inhabitants can explore the nature of faith either alone or together, and these facilities often become repositories of religious knowledge and contemplation.

Numerous religions have a monastic aspect, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism. The monastic tradition of these religions often includes vows of poverty and service, with monks and nuns humbling themselves to the greater service of God. In some case, monasteries have a more hermetic aspect, in which there is little to no interaction between the residents as they explore faith privately. The original Greek root of the word, which means “to live alone” reflects this aspect of monastery culture. In other instances, it reflects a more communal lifestyle, and some community-oriented monasteries also perform service in the community.

Monastery life places a heavy emphasis on self reliance. Many have large gardens, and the monks and nuns may raise animals for fiber and food. A truly self-sustaining monastery will attend to all its needs from within its own walls; more commonly, they trade services such as tutoring or goods like artisanal cheese and hand-made weavings for food. Some also rely on the generosity of members of the community who may donate services, food, and supplies to the facility as part of their religious practice.

Many monasteries are quite old, and some have been running continuously for thousands of years. Some are open to visitors, and in fact welcome guests so that they can share their rich history and traditions. Before a person visits a monastery, it is conventional to contact the abbot or head to express his or her desire to visit, and it is polite to bring a gift, such as candles for the altar. The person will also be expected to observe religious and cultural mores while there.

Some people visit monasteries for extended periods of time to work, pray, and think about religion. People who wish to join a monastery, known as postulants, must commit to the monastery and the faith through a series of vows, and they will also typically be expected to dwell as trial monks or nuns for a set period of time before they can make final vows. This trial period allows both the facility to decide whether or not the postulant is a good fit, while he or she decides whether or not the monastery life will be suitable.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By cardsfan27 — On Jun 18, 2012

@titans62 - I really have to wonder how different a monastery is in real life as opposed to what is depicted in the media.

I know that people have the view that any monastery is a place where monks live and a place where people can simply come and visit if they are looking to to find themselves or find something.

However, this of course cannot possibly be the case as I see people that live in monasteries as living in a controlled environment that is probably distrustful of outside influences.

A monastery is a very serious place and a place that is pretty exclusive so I am wondering when this depiction in the media was created that makes monasteries look like places that are open to anyone that can come and go as they please.

By titans62 — On Jun 18, 2012

@TreeMan - You are absolutely correct. One cannot simply walk into a monastery and expect to visit and come as they go at their own will.

Unless one is looking to try and join the monastery they must get clearance to do so and have a good reason in which to go.

The elders or the abbot will not just let someone come in because they are curious and want to visit. These people that are looking to visit must have a good reason and business for being there otherwise their request will be denied.

I really feel like the perception of monasteries is a lot different in the media than what they actually are, as the places are more like private clubs that are reserved for people that are there to dedicate their lives to religion and not a place for tourists to simply walk around and explore.

By TreeMan — On Jun 17, 2012

@Emilski - You are correct in that the environment would be perfect, but to be honest I feel like that type of journey is a bit over stated in the media and that it does not occur as much as people think it does.

Most of the people that stay at monasteries are there to devote their lives to their religious way of life.

Most of the time visitors are welcome at these monasteries, but many are distrustful of letting outsiders into their inner circle and some even go as far as to try and separate themselves from outside influences and cut off interaction entirely.

If one is looking for a way to find themself they should really look to make a journey on their own unless they are looking for a radical change in their lives and their calling happens to be in a monastery.

By Emilski — On Jun 16, 2012

I have heard of people that have visited monasteries for extended periods of time to simply get away from the world and search for meaning.

I know I have heard a lot of people doing this as a way to try and find themselves and it seems to me like this would be the perfect type of environment in which to do so.

Usually monasteries are isolated away from the world and it would give people the perfect environment in which to search for meaning whether it be a spiritual or religious experience.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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