Monastic Glossary

Below, you will find brief definitions of common terms in Benedictine monasticism, categorized into major themes: Benedictine basics, profession, vows, community, formation, and prayer. Of course, there is always much more to learn about monasticism. Among the many ways to develop a fuller understanding of the monastic life and the calling to monasticism, making a VOCATION VISIT is one of the best steps. 

ABBOT: the boss monk or the good shepherd of the flock. All monks committed to the community for life elect the abbot by secret ballot from among their number. He has almost all administrative and spiritual power in the community. So when a monk vows obedience, the abbot is The Man. The word “abbot” comes from the Aramaic abba, father, the word Jesus used when he taught his disciples to pray.


BENEDICT OF NURSIA: (ca. 480-545) author of the most widely used Western monastic rule, the Rule of Saint Benedict, and founder of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. His life was written by Pope St. Gregory the Great, who recounts the story of the young St. Benedict fleeing the corruption of Rome to become a hermit. In time, others who heard of his holiness came to join St. Benedict, and he became the founder of monasteries. Gregory reports several miracles worked by St. Benedict, many of which parallel the miracles of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings).


BENEDICTINE: n. a person who has made monastic profession according to The Rule of St. Benedict; adj. a person, institution, or spirituality inspired by The Rule of St. Benedict.


CANDIDATE: a man who has expressed interest in joining the community, has been screened by a committee of monks, and now runs for election. Less figuratively, the abbot allows a candidate to live, pray and work with the community for several months. If he still wants to join, he applies for admission and the monks vote on whether or not to accept him. A positive vote and he becomes a novice.


CONFRERE: a monastic colleague, comrade or just another monk


CONVERSATIO MORUM: a Latin expression for living the monastic way of life, as expressed and understood in a particular monastery. Conversatio is part of the three-fold promise made by a novice in monastic profession. Conversatio encompasses celibacy and sharing of material goods and implies a willingness to undergo change and the challenges of growing in the spiritual life.


FATHER: a monk who has been ordained a priest—at Saint John’s, about two-thirds of us


BROTHER: a monk who has not been ordained a priest. Since monks often use “family” as a metaphor for their community, they are all brothers with a small “b.” How can you tell if a monk is a Father or a Brother? Ask him.


FIRST PROFESSION: a term used by Benedictine men for the temporary (usually three years) monastic profession.


JUNIOR MONK: still under the direction of the director of formation, he continues study of monasticism and theology and works in community enterprises. After three years he decides whether he wants to make lifetime vows, or he asks to extend his temporary vows. The community decides by vote whether to accept him into full monkhood.


JUNIORATE: the stage of initial monastic formation between temporary and final or solemn monastic profession.


MONASTIC FORMATION: the process of instruction and initiation into the monastic way of life. Initial formation prepares the newcomer for monastic profession, and ongoing or lifelong formation deepens monastic life.


MONASTIC PROFESSION: a formal, public commitment to the monastic way of life through the promise of stability, conversatio morum, and obedience according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Following the novitiate, monastics make a temporary profession for at least three years, after which they may make solemn profession.


MONK: a man who commits himself to live with a community of like-minded men at Saint John’s under the Rule of Benedict. His purpose: seeking God. His means: living with these men in obedience to their abbot and one another.


NOVICE: a man in monastic boot camp. Not in vows yet, the novice lives in the novitiate under the guidance of the director of formation and prays, works and plays with the community for a year. He learns through classes, lectures, experience and reflection about life in this monastery and about himself. If after a year he decides that this community is for him, and the community decides by vote that he is for it, he professes temporary vows for one to three years (sometimes longer) and becomes a junior monk.


NOVITIATE: describes both the probationary time of discerning a call to community life, and the space set aside for the novices to study, engage in recreation and interact with the novice director and other novices.


OBEDIENCE: from the Latin words ob, meaning “to” or “intentionally,” and audiens, meaning “listening” Obedience is the virtue of listening to God so as to carry out God’s loving will, which can be sought in reflection on the scriptures, in the directives of the monastic leader, in mutual exchanges with community members, in the teachings of the Church, in the demands of ministry, and in all one’s relationships. Obedience is one aspect of the three-fold promise of profession.


ORA ET LABORA: from the Latin, meaning, “worship and work;” a motto often seen across entranceways to Benedictine monasteries and attributed to St. Benedict. In fact, he never used the phrase; it originated in a book about Benedictine life written by the nineteenth century German abbot, Maurus Wolter.


ORDER OF SAINT BENEDICT (O.S.B.): describes the mainstream of the Benedictine monastic tradition. At Saint John’s Abbey, it is also used as the corporate name of the monastery.


PRIOR: a kind of vice-abbot, as in vice-president. Saint Benedict was wary of priors and thought they were liable to get proud and arrogant; so he makes them completely dependent on the abbot for tenure and delegated power. The prior takes the abbot’s place when the latter is absent.


RULE OF ST. BENEDICT: sixth century guide for the monastic way of life written by St. Benedict of Nursia. It is still used by Benedictine men and women throughout the world, as well as the Camaldolese, the Cistercians, and the Trappists.


SOLEMN PROFESSION: term used by Benedictine men for the final and lifetime monastic profession.


STABILITY: commitment made to a particular monastic community, part of the three-fold promise of monastic profession.