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Monasticism

Twentieth-century Changes

Asian Buddhism enforces the vinaya strictly, not least because that is what the historical Buddha did. In order to promote meditation, traditional Asian Buddhism imposes a life of renunciation—including dietary restrictions, memorization of texts, and attendance at ceremonies—with a stringency that Western adepts often evade. In consequence monastic rigor is diminishing among new Buddhists in North America, Europe, and Australia. Many so-called Western Buddhists appear intent to de-monasticize their religion. As a countertrend, since the 1960s Buddhist and Christian monastics have delighted in comparing their ways of life. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968) and the Dalai Lama helped to initiate joint scholarly meetings and other intermonastic encounters.

In Eastern Christianity, monastics retain authority not least because most bishops come from their ranks. Moreover, liturgies remain quintessentially monastic through use of chant, an unhurried pace, and lay adherence to monastic rules for fasting. Characteristically, Eastern Christianity boasts a "monastic republic" of male monasteries on the Holy Mountain of Athos—the easternmost arm of the Chalcidice Peninsula in northeastern Greece. In order to uphold an autonomy that excludes women, the Holy Mountain enjoys exemption from laws of Greece and of the European Community. No Western monastic site—and least of all the rebuilt Monte Cassino south of Rome—so resoundingly epitomizes the idea of Western Cloister inside monastery on Mount Athos. Mount Athos enjoys status as a separate political division from the rest of Greece, allowing its collection of monasteries to legally exclude women from the peninsula. No female has been allowed in the community since the eleventh century. © DAVE G. HOUSER/CORBIS monasticism as Mount Athos does for the Eastern idea. As the English classicist Graham Speake explains, that idea entails a process of inner transformation known as theosis, whereby the image of God nurtured in each adept gradually transfigures, indeed divinizes him or her, in body, mind, and spirit.

The prestige of Western monasticism once stood equally high. The period of medieval history from 700 to 1050 is frequently labeled the "Monastic Era," and the reforms inaugurated by monastic popes such as Gregory VII (1020–1085; ruled as pope 1073–1085) can be viewed as having imposed on all priests the practice of celibacy previously reserved to monastics. Needless to say, Roman Catholic monastics no longer command such attention. To be sure, in Europe pilgrimages to monastic centers such as Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain or the shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa in southern Poland draw hundreds of thousands, as do celebrations for youth sponsored by the ecumenical monastery of Taizé, founded in Burgundy during the 1940s. Nevertheless, apart from pilgrimages, the institutions of contemplative monasticism engage only a tiny minority of Western Christians, while the spirituality that developed there wins ever-greater admiration.

Meanwhile, gender studies has transformed the understanding of the idea of monasticism. This scholarly revolution can make it embarrassing to read master historians such as the Benedictines' David Knowles (1896–1974) or Jean Leclercq (1911–1993), who too often wrote as though all monastics were male. Since the 1970s researchers have reclaimed phenomena as diverse as the Desert Mothers of fourth-century Egypt, double houses of male and female monastics in twelfth-century France and England, and the rather widespread acknowledgement before 1100 of the spiritual equality of women and men. The Benedictine Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) has come to be hailed widely as one of the most original Christian writers ever. Many have come to deplore the pronouncement of Pope Boniface VIII (c. 1235–1303; ruled as pope 1294–1303) in 1298 that placed under enclosure all women in solemn vows. The constraint remained in force until the early 1970s. As the American historian Jo Ann Kay McNamara and the English philosopher Grace Jantzen, among others, show, almost everywhere in the West women monastics have proven to be at least as creative as men. At first nearly every branch of Eastern Christianity fostered autonomous houses for women, but many of these communities withered under Islamic occupation. In Theravada Buddhism and in Tibetan Buddhism, by way of contrast, a millennium ago women lost permission to receive the highest ordination as nuns (bhikkuni), while in Mahayana countries such as China, Japan, and, above all, Korea nuns have held their own.

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