The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives


Religious Life

Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Religious Life Index

American Religious Life in Historical Perspective

Chapter 3

Comparative Religious Life

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology
Chicago, IL

There is so much to say about religious life in the Catholic Church that it must seem like an intrusion to talk about anything else.

But I think we can wait a bit before going on with our subject. There can be real profit in looking for a while at the equivalent of the religious life as it is practiced outside of Roman Catholicism, and has been, in same instances, for centuries before the time of Christ.

What we want, of course, is all the light available on the essence of the religious state. If we can find something analogous in other religious traditions, it may help us better to understand our own, especially since the Vatican Council has explicitly recommended this comparison of our review. In fact, the recommendation is closely tied in with the Church’s strong desire for greater interiority and a spirit of prayer as a means of advancing the Kingdom of Christ among peoples who do not yet, at least fully, enjoy the privileges of our Catholic faith.

Oriental Monasticism and the Religious Life

The first witness is in the Orient, every country of the Far East, where so far the message of Christ has scarcely been heard.

In its decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, the Vatican Council urges religious to be on the spot the moment the faith is established. They will give testimony to the Gospel if they assimilate the monastic traditions existing among the non-Christians as a means of engrafting the teaching of Christ on to the ancient tree of Oriental religion.

Right from the planting stage of the Church, the religious life should be carefully fostered. This not only offers precious and absolutely necessary assistance to missionary activity, but by a more inward consecration made to God in the Church, it also clearly manifests and signifies the inner nature of the Christian calling.
Religious institutes, thoroughly imbued with mystic treasures with which the Church’s religious tradition is adorned, collaborate in implanting the Church. They should strive to give expression to these mystic treasures and hand them on, according to the character and genius of each nation.
Let them carefully reflect on how Christian religious life might assimilate the ascetic and contemplative traditions, whose seeds were sometimes planted by God in ancient cultures already prior to the preaching of the Gospel. [1]

The implications are clear enough. Among the great prospects opening up to Catholic religious institutes is the call to help implant the good news of Christ among the nations of the Orient. To even hope to do this, let alone to succeed in the effort, religious communities must develop the mystic treasures of asceticism and contemplation. This is the language the East understands, as more than two thousand years of it religious history show.

We get some idea of what this means if we briefly examine the most widespread belief in Asia, Buddhism, to see what the Buddhists think a life of religious dedication should be—and what they expect of their Christian counterparts if any impression is to be made.

Buddha made monasticism an inseparable part of his creed, and the Triratna, or Three Jewels, which Gautama prescribed on his followers were, “I believe in the Buddha, in Dharma (law) and the Sangha (monastic order).” As originally conceived, the function of Buddhist monasticism is twofold: to provide suitable conditions for one’s personal development, and to teach the law to other people.

During Gautama’s lifetime, he was the head of the Order, and since his death no one has replaced him as universal superior of the brotherhood, not even a body of men or council with juridical authority to govern. However there may be, as in Burma, national heads of the Order elected by the monks. At first each school of Buddhist thought had a superior, and now each monastery (Vihara) within the sect has one, but his position is only one of honor, a primus inter pares, and not of real jurisdiction over the monk or Bhikshu. The latter is to obey the rules of the order and follow the common life through voluntary self-asceticism, although he may be dismissed for grave violations.

Men are normally admitted to the Order after the age of twenty, provided they are healthy and otherwise suitable. After a novitiate during which he shaves his head (which also applies to women), he receives the monastic robes, a new name, and agrees to keep the Rules of the Order---220 as they stand today---known as the Patimokkha, and accepted with slight modifications by all forms of Buddhism. However no vows are taken, and the monk may leave the Order upon notice when he wants to, either for a while or permanently.

Many men join the Order late in life, when their family duties are satisfied, or in middle-age, when they want to spend all or some of their remaining years in seeking the Buddhist release from suffering. In Burma, Thailand and Cambodia many boys spend part of their early years in a monastery, from several weeks to a decade or more. The purpose is to have them learn the sacred writings, and habits of discipline and morality not easily taught at home. One result of the practice is to instill a deep respect from childhood for the monastic way of life.

A certain hierarchy of advancement is provided for those who make the Sangha their career. Beginning as a novice (Samarena), the monk dedicates himself as Bhikshu. After a time he becomes an ancient (Thera), and if he perseveres for twenty years, a great elder or Mahathera. In practice the distinctions are quite nominal except for an increased reverence from the people, and within the monastery from the monks.

Begging is a common custom, following the example of Gautama who went around with a bowl in his hand asking for a donation of rice. Depending on the locality, individual poverty is often strictly interpreted, allowing for three robes, a waistcloth, begging bowl, razor, water, strainer and needle. However, this depends on the relative wealth of the people of the district, and even the strictest monks often have other belongings. But the monasteries, by contrast, are wealthy landowners, in some areas owning upwards of a third of the arable land.

Begging has not only economic value, but according to some of the best commentators, it also has a deep moral significance, which even ascetical writers are at pains to explain. One benefit is to teach the beggar humility, and another is to make the donor accumulate the merit of self-denial.

Both have a great social value when they are understood in their proper bearings, and what is most strongly emphasized in the monk’s life is this social meaning, and not necessarily its economic importance. For if it were necessary to support themselves by some other means, the monastery authorities would soon have found a way for it. But on account of its educative value, begging has been selected for the monks to be the chief method of maintaining themselves physically. [2]

On certain days the monks may go out in large groups, forming a long line and walking slowly in the streets, crying, “Ho.” Each monk carries a bowl, in which people are to place money or rice. More often the monks go out in small companies of four or five. They wear broad-brimmed hats that permit the monk to see only a few feet ahead, and not even recognize who gives them a donation. This is done on purpose.

The donor is not to know who the beggar is, nor does the beggar observe who the donor is. The deed of charity is to be practiced altogether free from personal relationships. When the latter are present, the deed is apt to lose its spiritual sense. It is just an act of favoritism, that is, it harbors in it on one side the feeling of personal superiority and on the other the degrading consciousness of subserviency. [3]

Corresponding to their second purpose, the monasteries are to communicate their possessions. As expressed by the Buddha, “There are two kinds of gifts, the gift of material things and the gift of the law. Of these two, the gift of the law (Dharma) is preeminent.” For centuries the monks have followed this counsel, yet without striving to make converts; rather their intention is to share with others the method and practices they have found useful in the attainment of spiritual enlightenment.

Until modern times, the Bhikshus were the ordinary schoolmasters for the children, and thus inculcated principles of morality and Buddhist ethics in their young charges. Since the secularization of the schools in many countries and, in China and North Vietnam, since their appropriation by the Communists, this essential function of the monasteries is gradually removed, with comparable changes effected in the monastic life itself.

Gautama himself admitted women to the Buddhist Order, who are called Bhikkunis or nuns. In the early centuries, in India, they had their own monasteries, completely subject to the men; but as their status declined they practically ceased to exist in community life and became instead laywomen disciples (Sila-Upasika) in countries of Hinayana Buddhism. They often lead austere lives and particularly in Burma and Ceylon have been pioneers in social service fields.

It should be noted that the Bhikshu may be considered a monk, friar or religious, although strictly speaking he is none of these; but he is not a priest, except in the broad sense of leading prayers and assisting with such ritual as the offering of incense or the burning of candles.

Circumstances differ, and Buddhist monasticism varies considerably in different countries. The most difference is found between Hinayana monasticism, mainly as just described, and the Mahayana Order in China, Japan, and Korea, along with extreme adaptations in Tibet and Outer Mongolia.

When Buddhism was first introduced into China, the Chinese were long unfavorable to the implications of monastic life and after they admitted the Sangha it was basically changed in the process. Japan followed the lead of China, and in both countries the monastic concept was tailored to fit the national pattern. The basic difference was the creation of the bonzes in Japan and the incorporation of ancestor worship into Chinese monasticism.

Moreover there are thousands of female bonzes in Japan. They sometimes live in separate convent temples or they share the same monastery with the men, although living in quarters of their own. With head shaved and dressed like the monks, they perform their own religious services, engage in meditation, and do some outside activity, although less than the men. Until recently the monastic vocation was regarded as an honorable career for the daughters of the aristocracy. Their typical routine within the convent is much like that of the monk. At some convents the first chanting service begins a four-thirty, followed by breakfast, and various duties about the temple. After a second service at eleven, there is a midday meal, and a third service in the evening after supper. In China, Japan and Korea, the bonzes may be equally considered monks or priests, and nuns or priestesses, although the respective duties of different bonzes will vary, according to age, rank, sect and sex.

Since the Communist invasion in China, Vietnam and Tibet, Buddhist monasticism has been drastically changed. Some Buddhist institutions have been allowed to function provided they cooperate. According to the “Land Reform Laws” the monks may keep as much land as they can cultivate to meet a predetermined quota of crops. Failure to meet the quota means forfeiture of land. City monasteries are required to undertake certain manufacturing industries. In Tibet, the head of the country’s monastic order was driven into exile, and the quasi-religious administration of the country by the monks was abolished.

As religious in America and Europe are renewing their institutes, and as their eyes are looking eastward to bring Christ to the other half of the world, they can profit from an appraisal of what the Oriental respects in those among his own people who claim to be living lives of dedication and what he expects of anyone else who claims to be doing the same.

Religious Life in Eastern Orthodoxy

The second witness to stimulate the zeal of religious men and women is the monastic tradition in the Eastern Christian Churches separated from Rome.

It is common knowledge by now that Pope John convoked the Vatican Council originally as a hopeful prelude to a reunion between Rome and the dissident Christian Churches of the East. All the signs indicate that the prospects are brighter than they have been for nine hundred years.

Nothing is better calculated to win the sympathies of Eastern Christians than an understanding of what they stand for. If this understanding is also reflected in similarity of practice and attitude, mutual affection will grow and the reunion of East and West will be only a matter of -- hopefully short -- time.

The Vatican Council knew this and, therefore, enshrined it prominently in its decree on Ecumenism. The Orthodox, Catholics were told, have two treasures of the Christian religion in common with us: the Sacraments and the religious life.

These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments and above all, by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with us in closest intimacy. Therefore some worship in common, given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not only possible but to be encouraged.
Moreover, in the East are found the riches of those spiritual traditions which are given expression especially in monastic life.
There from the glorious times of the holy Fathers, monastic spirituality flourished which then later flowed over into the Western world, and there provided the source from which Latin monastic life took its rise and has drawn fresh vigor ever since.
Catholics therefore are earnestly recommended to avail themselves of the spiritual riches of the Eastern Fathers which lift up the whole man to the contemplation of the divine. [4]

Once again, only closer to home, the lesson is unmistakable. As Catholics and the Orthodox move closer together, it behooves us to know more about what we have in common with them and do all we can to increase this sense of kinship between us. For religious this should mean a greater appreciation of the Eastern monastic tradition and an honest self-appraisal to make sure the East is no disappointed in what it sees in us.

Monasticism is an essential feature of Eastern Orthodoxy. Yet its concept is quite different from the religious life in the West, where a great variety of rules and apostolic needs have produced a corresponding variety of communities dedicated to following the Christian counsels. Harnack once remarked that an Orthodox monastery is the most perfect relic of the fourth century left in the world. Its spirit and ideals are still those which St. Benedict founded and developed in Europe, but which the Orthodox have inherited from St. Basil and retained practically unchanged.

With rare exception, Orthodox monks do not engage in teaching, preaching, or the ministry. That is the concern of the bishops and secular (white) clergy, as distinct from the black clergy in monasteries, who are only a small fraction of the total monastic population. Practically all of them follow the Rule of St. Basil; the monastery on Mt. Sinai and some others in Lebanon and on the Red Sea prefer the Rule of St. Anthony the Hermit.

Each monastery (laura) is independent of all the rest, with no ultimate superior like a provincial or general; although most lauras are under the jurisdiction of the local Metropolitan or even the Patriarch. However daughter monasteries (kellia) are subject to the abbot of their parent laura. The abbot (Hegumenos) is elected by his own monks, approved by the metropolitan, enthroned in a special ceremony and governs for life in cenobitic monasteries.

Of the thousand or more Orthodox monasteries scattered throughout Europe and Asia, the most famous is the monastic republic on the Holy Mountain, Athos, at the northernmost of the three peninsulas that jut from the Chalcis in Greece. There are twenty monasteries on the mountain, eleven following the cenobitic rule and nine the idiorrhythmic. The word cenobite is derived the Greek Koinos (common) and bics (Life): idiorrhythmic comes from idios (one’s own) and rhythmos (fashion or mode).

The cenobitic rule insists on perfect obedience to the abbot, elected for life by monks who have been in religion at least six years. He is spiritual master of the community, but has the assistance of others in external administration. Monks receive property, clothing and food from the abbot; they eat their meals in common.

Idiorrhythmic monasteries first appeared in the fifteenth century and are directed by two annually changed trustees, elected from the ten or fifteen senior monks, whose decisions they enforce. A spiritual father (pneumatikos) has charge of the interior life of the monks. Individual members retain their property, eat meals in their own cells, which may be two or three rooms, and are left to their own judgment on matters of austerity. The cenobites consider the idiorrhythmic rule lax; but they are answered that personal initiative in the spiritual life is not stifled under the broader discipline. Actually the cenobitic are more austere and cater to a more hardy type of ascetic.

Before entering one of the monasteries on Athos, a man “from the world” visits several and chooses one, at which he presents his application. He must be at least eighteen, a member in good standing of the Orthodox Church and entering without coercion. After about three years of probation, he has the option of remaining a “beginner” without vows, or seeking advancement by taking the four vows of stability, obedience, poverty and chastity. In token of his new status, he receives a first name identical in initial with the rejected Christian name. The new name is that of a deceased saint, who serves as an inspiration; the surname is that of the monastery. Religious on this level are called “monks of the little habit.” Those who seek greater perfection may do so after years of experience, to become “monks of the great habit,” with duties of more prayer, stricter fasting, and more severe discipline.

The monks on Mount Athos are generally called from bed at eleven at night for an hour’s private prayer, and later in the small hours for Matins and the chanting of communal hymns. There are two meals a day, with household duties interrupted by regular community prayers. Supper and Compline are between six and seven. Monks are to occupy the stalls assigned to them, and are regularly checked by the abbot to note any absentee.

Two characteristic practices in Orthodox monasteries are the keeping of liturgical vigils and fasts. There are more than fifty vigils a year, which call for continuous services throughout the evening, night and following morning. Fasting varies between the cenobitic and idiorrhythmic rule. One meal without oil is taken about noon in the coenobia on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year; and two meals on other days. No meat is served, but fish is allowed. The idiorrhythmic rule requires abstinence from cheese, butter and meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, with a stricter diet during the season of Lent, which begins on Quinquagesima Sunday, and on certain fast days before the great feasts of the year.

The general principles of Orthodox monasticism apply equally to men and women, except that before the Russian revolution “unenclosed” nuns were practically unknown. Now they engage in active works of mercy among the sick and indigent. The same change has affected some monasteries of men, who were pressured by the government and public opinion to undertake teaching in schools, conducting agricultural colleges, preaching missions and otherwise becoming involved in secular affairs. However, the number of monks and nuns who have made the turnover is fractional, and one of the major tensions they experience is the conflict of ancient ideals with the increased demands, often under severe sanction from civil authorities, to abandon what the Fathers of Eastern monasticism call the “angelic life” of separation from the world and contemplation of God.

There are many things that religious in the West can learn from the monasticism of the East. But nothing more forcefully than the price that a religious should be willing to pay to remain faithful to his life of communion with God. Specialists in Eastern Studies say that Orthodox monasteries have been outstanding in their passive resistance to Communism. They consider themselves the providential means that God will use to restore a lost Christianity to His people.

The Catholic Church would like to see her own religious prepare themselves to help in this restoration.


Chapter 3: Comparative Religious Life

  1. Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, 18.

  2. Daisetz T. Suzuki, The Teaching of a Zen Buddhist Monk, p. 17.

  3. Ibid., p. 17.

  4. Decree on Ecumenism, 15.

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of