The first thing you should know about monasticism, and a question which many are too timid to ask is: "What is a Monk?"

For many, even in the Catholic Church, monasticism is thought of as a thing of the past, and there is no idea that monastic communities serve all over the U.S. and the world. Popular images of monks tend to range from Friar Tuck (friars are not monks) to the Shaolin of China (who are not Christian), or romanticized images of monks often call up heroic hermits battling evil through esoteric knowledge. But what is a monk?

Possibly the moment when a young man stands before the Abbot and the monastic community and is asked, "What do you seek?" will give us a starting point. The answer given by the novice to be is "The mercy of God and fellowship in this community." The young man is then given the habit of the community, and if he perseveres, begins a lifelong journey of doing just that. Eventually making vows of stability, obedience, and conversion to the monastic way of life, he lives with the same group of men, praying, dining, learning and working with them until death. Of course, the life of the monk may take him away from the day to day life of the community to travel, obtain an advanced degree, or to become a pastor of a parish, but he always returns to his home, the monastery.

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. Additionally, this short DICTIONARY will add to the list below, and the DISCERNMENT RESOURCES section of this site will offer more information and steps in discernment.

Benedictine Basics

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).

THE 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.

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.

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.



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.

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

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


Monastic Vows

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.

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

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.


The Community

MONK: from the Greek monachos, meaning “alone” or “single.” A man who belongs to a monastery.

ABBOT: the leader of an abbey elected by members of the community either for a term or for life. At St. John’s Abbey, the abbot may serve until age 75 or for eight years, whichever is longer.

PRIOR: the leader of a priory; in monasteries led by an abbot/abbess. the one who ranks next to and assists the abbot.

SUBPRIOR: ranks next to prior.

FATHER: term used for ordained members of monastic communities of men.

BROTHER: the term St. Benedict uses for a community member; today used for a non-ordained member of monastic communities of men.

ABBEY: traditional term for a monastery of men or women headed by an abbot or abbess.

MONASTERY: main house of a community of monastic men or women. Sometimes “monastery” is used to designate the community who live together in such a building.

PRIORY: term used for a monastery that is not an abbey.

HABIT: distinctive clothing, derived from medieval dress, worn by a monk or nun as an outward sign of monastic life. For monks the habit consists of a tunic, belt, scapular, and hood. For nuns the habit consists of the veil, dress, belt, scapular, and coif.



    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.

    NOVICE: a member of a religious community who is in a probationary period prior to making profession. The period of the novitiate must be at least one year.

    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.

    JUNIOR: term used for monastic women and men in temporary profession.

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

      LITURGY OF THE HOURS: the times when Benedictines gather for recitation of the Psalms, singing of canticles and hymns, listening to readings from the scriptures or based on scripture, and prayers as a means of practicing the ancient Christian directive “to pray always” (I Thess. 5:17). St. Benedict set up eight times of prayer, known as “hours.” The day hours are Matins, Prime, Terce. Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. The night hour is Vigils. Since Vatican II the hours have changed in many monasteries. The Liturgy of the Hours is also known as the Divine Office and Opus Dei, or the “work of God.” At St. John’s Abbey, the hours are Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Vigils.

      LECTIO DIVINA: prayerful reading of scripture, from the Latin meaning “sacred reading,” is a distinctive aspect of Benedictine spirituality in which both the process of reading and the text read are sacred.

      MEDITATION: from the Latin meditatio. For Benedictines, meditation is an aspect of lectio divina that includes reflection on the Word of God in scripture, awareness of God’s loving activity in one’s life, pondering the beauties of creation and/or the expression of care and concern for others that moves one to deeper awareness of God’s presence. Meditation for early monastic men and women often manifested itself as continual repetition of a biblical phrase until it could be recited by heart and allowed one to be led by the spirit to contemplation. After the sixteenth century, the notion of meditation became a form of mental prayer focused on religious ideas and reflection on God.