A mendicant is someone who relies on charity and goodwill for survival, soliciting donations of money, food, and supplies from generous members of the public. Basically, a mendicant is a beggar, except that the word “mendicant” does not have the negative associations linked with begging, and mendicants are usually members of religious orders or religious ascetics who have taken a vow of poverty. This is in sharp contrast with true beggars, who generally do not choose a life of poverty for themselves.
The mendicant tradition in many religions is ancient. Mendicants exist in most religions for several reasons. The first is that many religions have a tradition of charity and almsgiving, and therefore, devout individuals need to have subjects for their charity. Many religions also reserve a special place for ascetics who devote their lives to religious contemplation, and pious individuals may receive special praise for supporting members of their own religion who have taken vows of poverty. Mendicants, therefore, are an important part of religious practice.
When someone becomes a mendicant, he or she takes a vow of poverty, agreeing to own no property behind basic garments and a begging bowl, and in some religions, even a begging bowl is forbidden. Any property which the mendicant controls is typically given to the Church or Temple when this vow is taken, and mendicants also agree to give up any claims on inheritance. Once a mendicant has taken vows, he or she may live with other mendicants in a monastery, or he or she may become a wanderer, traveling to talk about religion and faith. Other mendicants may choose to live in seclusion to contemplate religious issues.
Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam all have a place for mendicants, and many have specific times of the year when mendicants are supposed to be celebrated and supported. In Christianity, several mendicant orders including the Franciscans and the Carmelites are alive and well all over the world, relying on charity as they have done for centuries. Some of these Christian mendicant orders are allowed to maintain living quarters in common, although the property usually officially belongs to the Church.
Becoming a mendicant is a profound expression of religious faith. As a general rule, rejecting the life of a mendicant after embracing it is frowned upon, making this choice a lifetime decision for the religious faithful. The mendicant life certainly isn't for everyone; relying on charity can be very difficult, especially for people who are used to orderly lives and access to a wide variety of goods and services.