chapter
Monasticism, Christian
Pages 5

In Christian history, monasticism refers to very different attempts to establish ways of life that would mirror the ideals of the Gospel while bringing about more immediate union with God. The commonest form of Christian monasticism is a single-sex community in which the members renounce sexual activity and private property so as to dedicate themselves to prayer, study, manual labor, and ascetic practices. Homosexual activity has been a concern in Christian monasteries from the beginning. The earliest stories of desert monasticism warn against letting beautiful young men into the monastic enclosure. The earliest monastic “rules,” or constitutions, in western Europe prohibit monks from sharing beds or having tempting contacts in private. Monastic spiritual writers describe in detail how homoerotic desires might arise and how they should be resisted. The warnings, prohibitions, and counsels did not stop sexual activity within monastic houses. Medieval penitential codes and collections of church law consider many cases in which monks copulate with each other or with “boys,” and historical records relate a number of such cases. Although there is less evidence for lesbian activity, we do know of late medieval women’s houses in which there was sexual activity. Certainly the popular literature of Christian countries is filled with stories of homosexual monks and nuns. At present, many Catholic monasteries are being challenged to accept members who want to live in community as celibates but who also want to identify themselves as gay and lesbian. The response to these challenges has varied widely from house to house.