Brief History of Religious Orders

Originally (during the 10th century) those belonging to a religious order (monks) lived communally in isolated seclusion in order to pursue religious devotions. This made for a generally unproductive life, as little information was disseminated to the rest of mankind. It is important to realise that a life of study is worthless unless the knowledge gained from such study has been passed on to one's fellow-man.

The term monk was subsequently used for those who led a semi-secluded life in a religious congregation under a fixed rule.

Monks lived in a monastery. Monasticism was a withdrawal from the world to achieve through asceticism or the exercises of self-abnegation the contemplation or love necessary for full union with God. The extent to which poverty was practised has varied widely. Canons differed from monks only in that they took no vow of poverty.

Although the practice of monastic orders in the past was to obtain vows of chastity, obedience and poverty from participants, the extent to which any of these vows were practised varied considerably. It can therefore be readily understood that these vows were not truly in line with what was essential for their purposes, and combined with the frailty of man's nature, deviations from the original concept were commonplace, and even accepted practice.

Monks were not always known for their chastity, sobriety and modesty, so the guidelines for conduct were obviously inadequate. Such deprivatory rules exist to this day in many religious orders, with no more success than in days of old.

Obviously a somewhat different approach is called for.

In the 12th century times called for the organisation of military religious orders and several were founded at that time - the Knights Templar, who were warriors who took the traditional vows and protected Christian pilgrims on the road to the Holy Places.

They were very active in Europe and the Middle East for 200 years, becoming a very efficient financial and business group, supported by the Pope and European leaders.

Disagreements however ended in charges of heresy and witchcraft and the execution of 120 of its leaders in France and the dissolving of the Order. It does remain today however as an underground organisation. Its assets were transferred to another order, the Knights Hospitalers, founded around the same time, but for hospital or hostelry work. It was only at a later stage that armed knights were included in the order. As the Knights of Rhodes, they ruled that island for 200 years, then Malta for a further two centuries, becoming the Knights of Malta, until the Protestant Reformation suppressed their activities and gave away their assets. As the Knights of St John they still exist as a sovereign order within the Roman Catholic Church but few take monastic vows and their work is primarily in hospitals.

© COPYRIGHT 1987 Milson Macleod

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© Dr Milson Macleod Jan 2000

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