A religious order is an organisation whose members have made a vow or solemn promise to devote their lives to the pursuit of certain religious purposes. Typically a member of a religious order lives together with other members of the order in a community whose way of life conforms to distinctive religious principles. These principles, known as the Rule of the Order, will often be principles laid down by, or embodied in the life of, the founder of the order. Most religious orders are international in the sense that communities of their members are to be found in many countries, and the different communities, wherever they may be in the world, are subject to the authority of a single individual, the head of the order.
Religious orders may be distinguished from one another in many different ways, for example:
- according to their specific aims - a religious order may be devoted, e.g., to caring for the sick, to helping the poor, to teaching, or to religious contemplation. An order whose members are dedicated to religious contemplation (usually largely carried out through prayer) may be described as a contemplative order.
- according to the specific principles which guide or shape the way of life of its members - e.g., one religious order may follow the Rule of St. Benedict (principally the Benedictine Order, but including other Orders that follow the Rule of St. Benedict), while another may follow the Rule of St. Augustine - the Augustinian Order, properly so called, is only one.
- according to the way in which the order maintains itself in existence - e.g., the members may work to support themselves or they may be dependent on alms or charitable donations. An order which is dependent on alms or charitable donations may be described as a mendicant order.
- according to the way in which the order is organised - e.g., in some orders the members have vowed to live their entire lives within one and the same community, whereas in others members may be moved between different communities. An order of the former type, i.e., one whose members have committed themselves to living within a particular community (e.g., a particular monastery or a particular convent) may be described as a monastic order. A monastic order whose members are bound not only to live within a particular community but to have no contact with the world outside this community (e.g., by going outside the walls of the monastery or convent) may be described as an enclosed order.
Different words may be used to refer to, or to describe, the members of the different types of religious orders. Thus, strictly speaking, a male member of a monastic religious order is a monk, while a male member of a mendicant order is a friar - though nowadays the word monk is often used loosely to refer to a male member of any type of religious order. A female member of a religious order, of whatever type, is a nun. A member of an enclosed order may be described as cloistered.
The residence of a community of monks is usually referred to as a monastery, while the residence of a community of nuns is usually referred to as a convent. Do not use the word nunnery to refer to the residence of a community of nuns: it is felt by some to have a pejorative sense - in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was used as a slang euphemism for 'a brothel'. This is perhaps referred to in Hamlet's taunt of Ophelia:
- "Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" (Hamlet, III i 125).
Religious orders are to be found in many of the world's religions - e.g., in Buddhism and in many Christian denominations. However, the religious orders which are best known in Europe are the various orders within the Roman Catholic church. For more information about some of these religious orders see Augustinian Order, Benedictine Order, Carmelite Order, Cistercian Order. Dominican Order, Franciscan Order, Salesian Order, Trappist Order, Society of Jesus (Jesuits).
- See also Holy Orders - a term which overlaps with, but does not mean the same as, religious orders.