In the Christian tradition, religious Orders are associations of men or women who seek to lead a life of prayer and pious practices and who are devoted often to some specific form of service. Members usually bind themselves publicly, or sometimes privately, by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to lead a dedicated life.
In the Roman Catholic church these associations are of several types. The religious Orders, narrowly defined, include monastic Orders (of which the largest is the Benedictines), mendicant Orders or Friars (such as the Franciscans or Dominicans), and Canons Regular (Priests living in a community attached to a specific church). All of these make solemn vows and say office in choir. In general they all have their origin in the Middle Ages.
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Roman Catholic Orders of Nuns or Sisters are generally smaller but more numerous than those of their male counterparts and are devoted primarily to teaching. Some monastic communities are enclosed - the Monks or Nuns rarely leaving their monastery or convent - and devoted to the contemplative life.
In the Eastern church, where Monasticism had its beginnings, religious orders are not differentiated as they are in the West, and most Eastern Orthodox religious individuals are monastics.
Following the Reformation, monasticism disappeared in Protestant countries, but the influence of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century brought about the reestablishment of religious Orders among Anglicans (Episcopalians). A few other Protestant groups have also established religious Orders, among which the best known modern example is at Taize, France. Among the Eastern religions, Buddhism has a strong monastic tradition.
D Knowles, Christian Monasticism (1969) and From Pachomius to Ignatius: A Study in the Constitutional History of the Religious Orders (1966); A D McCoy, Holy Cross: A Century of Anglican Monasticism (1987); E A Wynn, Traditional Catholic Religious Orders (1987).
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