This morning’s homily on EWTN, Fr. Antony mentioned that people in general don’t know the different religious designations’ distinctions, so I thought I would try to explain it. Let’s see how I do:
A monk (from Greek: μοναχός, monachos, “single, solitary”) is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or with any number of other monks. A monk may be a person who decided to dedicate his life to serving all other living beings, or to be an ascetic who voluntarily chooses to leave mainstream society and live his life in prayer and contemplation. The concept is ancient and can be seen in many religions and in philosophy.
In the Greek language the term can apply to women, but in modern English it is mainly in use for men. Meanwhile, nun is typically used for female monastics.
Although the term monachos (“monk”) is of Christian origin, in the English language it tends to be used analogously or loosely also for both male and female ascetics from other religious or philosophical backgrounds.
The term monk is generic and in some religious or philosophical traditions it therefore may be considered interchangeable with other terms such as ascetic. However, being generic, it is not interchangeable with terms that denote particular kinds of monk, such as friar, cenobite, hermit, anchorite.
Friars are different from monks in that they are called to live the evangelical counsels (vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) in service to a community, rather than through cloistered asceticism and devotion. Whereas monks live in a self-sufficient community, friars work among laypeople and are supported by donations or other charitable support. A monk or nun makes their vows and commits to a particular community in a particular place. Friars commit to a community spread across a wider geographical area known as a province, and so they will typically move around, spending time in different houses of the community within his province.
Cenobites typically live in communities, hermits typically live in solitude, anchorites live in a hut attached to a church building.
The term mendicant (from Latin: mendicans, “begging”) refers to begging or relying on charitable donations, and is most widely used for religious followers or ascetics who rely exclusively on charity to survive.
We’re probably most familiar with contemplatives, who spend their lives in thought about God, and prayer.