Is it possible to use the words monk and friar interchangeably? Aren’t they the same thing? They dress the same, don’t they? Well, no, no, and sort of. Their histories are quite different, for one, but so are their missions. If you are familiar with the New Testament Bible story about Jesus’s visit to Martha and Mary’s house you might find the simplest different between the two:
In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it is not to be taken from her.’
~ Luke 10: 38-42
In this comparison, the monks are represented by Mary, attending to Jesus, and the friars would be represented by Martha, taking care of the earthly. This is a little unfair to the friars, however. The friars understood themselves to be following directly in the footsteps of the Apostles as represented in the Acts of the Apostles. So, in the end this is too simple a comparison. The best way to start is to first consider the monk and his heritage then the friar and his.
Back in the days of Early Christianity, after the apostles, after the Bible had been arranged, certain individuals practiced a strict asceticism: they lived without luxuries, ate extremely humble diets and prayed. This prayer became a form of deep contemplative prayer–in some extremes it seemed to share more in common with Buddhism than with what most lay people would identify as Christian prayer. (For an example see the pseudo-heretic Evagrius Ponticus–pseudo-, because those who were sufficiently adept and wise could use him, but otherwise his doctrine was regarded as too dangerous–his book The Praktikos is about prayer and available today from Cistercian Press.)
The practice of deep contemplative prayer was not for the newly initiated. It required growth and practice to reach that spiritual state. There were two types of people who practiced prayer in this way: the Desert Fathers and many of the early ascetic Church Fathers–both came from a Hellenistic tradition (this is the classical Greek educational program, very well-rounded and philosophical, very literate). The primary difference between the two was simple: the Desert Fathers withdrew from other people and daily comforts to live in caves in the deserts of Egypt, while many of the Church Fathers in this category were church officials and could not withdraw entirely while they had their flock to attend. In the case of the Desert Fathers, disciples were drawn to them and instead of something more in the line of a hermitage and solitary isolation with God, it became congregation of sorts, or a proto-monastery. But, this tradition was born in the Hellenistic regions of the Roman world where, even after Constantine’s conversion and construction of Constantinople, the dominant and learned language remained Greek.
Enter John Cassian. John Cassian would introduce the practice to the West and Latin-speaking parts of the kingdom. In doing this, his audience shifted from the Hellenistic peoples of the Eastern Roman empire to the largely Latin-speaking and in some regions far less-learned, newly absorbed peoples of Europe. In short, people who were not ready for all of the hallmark rigors of eastern (Christian) ascetic living and deep contemplative prayer. Many of his audience were only freshly converted. Cassian would introduce a program that moved more gradually with the end goal being the sort of prayer he had known among eastern Christians.
From Cassian, the west learned to recreate the desert metaphorically as opposed to the city in early monasteries. The idea of withdrawal and individual prayer with God was emphasized even among the lay people. As was obedience. (In this he differs from Augustine who called for it necessary to maintain a harmonious community. Cassian identifies obedience as a requisite step in humility and self-abasement to reach the spiritual plane that was the goal in one’s communion with God.) Cassian would found a handful of French monastic communities that would balance Augustine and Cassian. This dual-influence would leave a strong mark upon Benedict of Nursia.
Monasticism would be taken to a new level in the West with Benedict. He wrote one of the earliest monastic Rules: the Rule of St. Benedict. In it, he organizes the monastic community, calling for regular hours of prayer–around the clock–laying out the roles that must be filled and dictating the manner in which the community must spend its time. As with Cassian and Augustine this serves a specific purpose of bringing one to a higher spiritual state and contemplation of God. But, Benedict writes the Rule with an understanding that those who are newly welcomed into the community are not ready for that. Rule is really a beginner’s guide, which in the hands and mind of the spiritually adept and longtime practitioners transforms itself into something more profound and is transcended.
The Benedictine model will emerge from the Carolingian age as the dominant practice and even later reformers would do so with an eye looking backwards to [their perception of Benedict’s] original intent with the Rule. Reformers argued that the monastic experience had become too fat, wealthy and worldly, losing sight of its spiritual goals. As a result the Cistercians will emerge from the fold of the Benedictines with the aim of reinstating the Rule and the ideal of that higher communal plane with God and community divorced from worldly distractions.
So, where do the friars come in? Well, they come in in Italy. But, a better question is, when do they come in? The Desert Fathers, Augustine and John Cassian lived in the 4th century (Cassian died in the 5th); Benedict of Nursia was born at the end of the 5th century and died in the 6th. (There are other Rules written in this era, too.) The Cistercians are not founded until the close of the 11th century. It is not until the 12th century that Francis of Assisi and Dominic of Castile would form their orders of preaching friars (coming from the Latin word fratres, meaning brother, which had wider usage than friar or fra).
The timing was directly related to a new understanding of salvation for the laity and also simultaneously a new revival of Apostolic Living. This idea was tied to the ministry and care-taking of the flock by the Apostles as seen in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of the New Testament. The actions of Christ in the Gospels were also of particular influence. This new movement was thus tied to public ministry and ministering to the poor, sick and outcast. The friars themselves emphasized preaching, poverty and prayer. This movement was not without controversy. The poverty threatened some of the established monasteries and cathedrals–implicating their abbots and bishops–and the itinerant nature of the friars led to many pretenders who not only preached poverty but often also advocated violence against the wealthy, including officials of the Church.
While the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, were founded on the basis of preaching and emphasized no personal property within the community, the Franciscans emphasized poverty as much as preaching and service. This tendency lead them to eat only what they could beg. (The further removed from Francis, the more difficult it was to determine how poor and homeless the order could or should be, creating many off-shoot orders of Franciscans.) Both were motivated to play an active role among the lay people. While they still believed in community, it was not a community withdrawn from the world. And, while they still believed in contemplation it was not of the kind that required long hours of isolation. The Franciscans, for example, pioneered contemplative practices like the Stations of the Cross, the original existing in Jerusalem, but modified for churches in Europe that required walking and meditating on Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection; while the Dominicans provided the Rosary, a string of fifty beads denoting series of Hail Mary prayers repeated in decades to eliminate distractions and allow one to contemplate on the mysteries of Christ’s life. In the hands of the friars, these devotions allowed for some of the same deep contemplation sought after by the monks in their withdrawn communities, they also provided the lay peoples with the opportunity to seek a similar level of prayer. In this era, the Daily Office of the monks (the prayers recited through the day and night) was also modified for lay use and itself became a popular devotional practice among literate lay peoples.
After introducing him in my title, it is only fair to point out that Friar Tuck is not really a specific example of any of the above, however. He is one of those individual hermits who lived in (relative) poverty and preached to the people who lived around him, in this case, outlaws of the forest–a highly realistic character, who probably would have irritated the Church hierarchy in England and been regarded as borderline heretical by many church figures, though far less so by the people to whom he administered. He is an example of that type of preacher that is inspired by the Apostolic Life and the saintly founders of the preaching orders.