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(June 2012--γ)

The Angelic Path: An Outline of Orthodox Monasticism

Published by the St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Monastic Skete, Swartz Creek, MI 48473. Text from a translation by the Monastery of the Veil, Bussy-en-Othe, France.

If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hadst, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me [Mt 19:21].

† † †

From the beginning these words of Christ have been a clear call to all Christian monks that they have felt impelled to obey to the letter.

Although Christ lived and worked among men, participated in the functions of His day, counted women among His friends, and although He instituted no monastic order, monasticism may well be considered the sum and substance of His teaching. Once He had entered upon His mission, He had no family life—in fact, He denied blood relationships (Mt 12:48-50). He spent many hours in the wilderness in solitary communion with His Father. He said: If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Lk 14:26)

The advice of Jesus to the young man who sought a greater perfection, beyond that of following the ten commandments, was to sell all he had and to follow Him (Mt 19:21). Another man He challenged to follow Him without delay, without even taking time to attend to his father’s funeral (Lk 9:60). These are hard sayings for people in the world, but admirably suited to monks and nuns.

Let us here explain what we mean by "the world." St. Isaac the Syrian defines it as: "...the extension of a common name to distinct passions ... passions are a part of the current of the world. Where they have ceased, the world’s current has ceased." In other words, people in the world are held by the pull of their emotions into a vortex of preoccupations; they disperse and scatter abroad, as it were, their soul’s integrity, diversifying its primal simplicity."

The ideal of a life entirely given over to God can be found on many pages of the New Testament. St. Paul held virginity in high esteem and advocated it for those who could bear it (1 Cor 7:1, -7, -37, -40). We find many examples in Holy Scripture of men and women giving their lives unreservedly to God and to the service of the Church. In the first instance there were the Apostles and the Seventy and the women who followed and ministered unto Jesus; then there were the deacons and men like St. Luke and St. Barnabas, and women such as Dorcas and Phoebe, who worked with St. Paul. Nevertheless, it was only toward the beginning of the fourth century that Christian monasticism appeared as a definite institution.

The Development of Monasticism

Christian monasticism originated in the East, in the Egyptian desert. Following the official recognition of Christianity in 313 AD by the Roman Emperor St. Constantine, there arose the danger—which has not lessened with the passage of time—that men might confuse the earthly kingdom with the Heavenly Kingdom. Then, as now, it was the monks who kept alive the concept that the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Men, and women too, fearing that the lure of comfort and security would divert them from their search for unity with God, left all behind and made their way into the desert, at first singly, then in loosely formed groups. By the mid-fourth century there could already be distinguished the three forms of monastic life still found in the Orthodox Church today.

The Eremitic Life

The life of a hermit, who lives alone in a cell difficult of access, is entirely devoted to prayer and severe asceticism. The hermit’s prototype is St. Paul of Thebes, whose life was written by St. Jerome. St. Paul settled in the desert several years before St. Anthony (251-356), who is generally regarded as the father of monasticism. The story of the encounter of these two holy men, after long years of solitude, is one of the most touching in the history of the Desert Fathers. It is clear from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony that monasticism was already well known when St. Anthony, having previously entrusted the care of his orphaned sister to a group of virgins near Alexandria, entered the desert.

The Cenobitic Life

The cenobitic or community life, was first established by St. Pachomius of Tabennisi (c. 315-320), where men lived together under a common rule in a regularly constituted monastery. There were also communities of women following this same rule. It is this rule which was used to a great extent by St. Benedict in forming his monastic rule upon which all other Western monastic rules are based.

St. Basil the Great (329-379) was a strong advocate of the community life. Because of his two books, the Shorter and the Longer Rules, his influence in Orthodox monasticism is profound, although he did not found an order as such. Separate monastic "orders" or "congregations," as found in the Roman monastic tradition, are unknown in the Orthodox Church. Quite simply, all those who live in the monastic life are accepted as members of the great Brotherhood of Ascetics, and the same rule is used and the same habit is worn by both men and women, forming an integral and inseparable part of the Church’s Body. Very close to St. Basil stood his sister, St. Macrina, who founded a community for women in Cappadocia before her more illustrious brother founded his on the banks of the Iris.

The Semi-Eremitic Life

The semi-eremitic (also known as skete) life, or middle way, is based upon a loosely knit group of small settlements, each practicing asceticism independently, though under the direction of an abbot, the first of whom was Ammon of Nitria. Their focal point is, as it is for all forms of monastic life, the Holy Eucharist, for which they regularly assemble.

The pinnacle of Orthodox monasticism, where all three forms of monastic life coexist to this day, is Mount Athos, the "Holy Mountain," with its over 1,000 years of uninterrupted spiritual activity. It alone gave the Church 26 patriarchs and 144 bishops. All Orthodox countries are represented there, the monks living in their own monasteries or grouped in one or another of the great Lavras, or as hermits.

"There is a great richness of forms of the spiritual life to be found within the bounds of Orthodoxy, but monasticism remains the most classical. One could say broadly that Eastern monasticism was exclusively contemplative, if the distinction between the two ways, active and contemplative, had in the East the same meaning as in the West. In fact, for an Eastern monk, the two ways are inseparable. The one cannot be exercised without the other. Interior prayer receives the name of spiritual activity. If the monks occupy themselves with physical labors, it is above all with an ascetic end in view." [From "Sermons and Addresses of the Metropolitan Philaret, Moscow," 1844, Part II, p. 87].

As we have said, monasticism originated in Egypt, but by degrees its leadership shifted to Palestine where it flowered under St. Euthymius the Great (d. 472) and especially under his disciple St. Sabbas (d. 532) who greatly influenced the monastic rule; at the end of the 8th century, it shifted to Constantinople where St. Theodore was abbot of the great and influential monastery of Studium, founded in 463. To this age belongs the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, founded by Emperor Justinian in 560, which is still functioning, harboring a great treasure of manuscripts and holy icons which escaped the ravages of the iconoclastic wars.

With time, there developed in all Orthodox countries a rich and distinctive monastic tradition. Each could boast of important spiritual centers which spread their light over all the Orthodox world. Foremost among them were the Kiev Caves Lavra and Optina Monastery in Russia, Mount Athos and Patmos in Greece, Tismana and Neamtu in Romania, and Ochrid in Serbia. There were countless monasteries, convents and hermitages in these countries in pre-communist times.

Monasticism has always been regarded as a voluntary form of martyrdom. It developed and blossomed forth in the 4th century, after the bloody persecution of Christians had dwindled. During the communist rule, monastic life, like all church life, was stifled, In these places there came to be thousands of unknown martyrs, crowding prisons and concentration camps. It is calculated that in Russia alone more people died for their faith in the first 30 years since the Revolution than died in the first 300 years of Christianity. There seems to have been a balance between the cessation of persecution and the growth of monasticism. If this is so, then we should be seeing in the Free World a resurgence of monastic vocations, especially of the more ascetic form.

Although the emphasis in Orthodox monasticism has always been on spiritual activity aimed above all at union with God in complete renunciation of this present world, it would be incorrect to imply, as some do, that Eastern monks care nothing for the needs of others and have had little or no influence upon the course of events. In the East as in the West, it was the monks, sometimes hidden in caves, who kept the torch of civilization burning during the dark ages of barbaric incursions. And later, it was in the cloister that Christian and national culture was kept alive during the many centuries of Tartar and Moslem-Turkish invasions and occupations, a trial which their Western brethren were spared. Many bishops (all Orthodox bishops are monks) played leading roles in their countries’ state councils, as for example St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who was also a great mystic. There was also St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392), one of Russia’s greatest saints, and many others up to the present day, such as Patriarch Miron Christea who was regent (1927-1930) for the young king of Romania. They advised, admonished, encouraged or opposed their princes when necessary.

Although Orthodox monks never played such spectacular roles as did the Abbots of Cluny at one time, nevertheless, throughout history their influence was considerable. In the Byzantine Empire they were powerful in quelling heresies and fighting immoralities. None were more active in this battle than St. John Chrysostom (d. 407). Later, in the Russian Empire, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (d. 1783) was similarly renowned.

Although they functioned primarily as communities of prayer, Orthodox monasteries also engaged in charitable activities: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and caring for the sick. Many of them grew very large, comprising several hundred or even thousand monks or nuns. Some had vast estates which they farmed. While this occasionally tended towards excessive wealth and had to be curtailed, it enabled these prosperous monasteries to rescue whole regions from famine.

Where do Orthodox Monks and Nuns Come From?

Orthodox monks and nuns come from all walks and manner of life. In former times the greater number were of peasant stock, but at the same time many a great name lay hidden under the humble black habit and the new Christian name received at tonsure. Certainly there were to be found many unlettered and uncultured monks, because the cloister was and is open to all, regardless of social rank or education. But if one reads the daily offices and grasps their scriptural and theological wealth, and if one hears the readings from the Holy Fathers—all of which are the monk’s daily fare, one begins to think twice about the intellectual superiority of their critics. It must not be forgotten that it was the monks who translated these services and writings into their native tongues, a continuing labor in which nuns also take part.

There are also spiritual writings that are unique to each nation—the beauty of which is unsurpassed in secular compositions—but which are little known outside the cloister. In monasteries were painted world famous icons and from them came exquisite embroideries and priceless illuminated manuscripts. All were written, painted and worked anonymously for the greater glory of God, reflecting humility, which is the keynote of all Christian monasticism.

The Monastic Daily Life

The devotional pattern of the monastic day is based upon the words of the Psalmist: Seven times a day do I praise Thee because of Thy righteous judgments. (Pss 1 19:64). Consequently, there are seven praises (lauds) in each 24-hour cycle. These are arranged as follows: 1)Midnight Office; 2) Matins together with 3) First Hour; 4) Third and Sixth Hours; 5)Ninth Hour; 6) Vespers and 7) Compline. They are called praises or lauds because they mirror the Saviour’s redemptive work for mankind, as well as various events in His divine life and in the life of the Holy Apostles and the Church. Let us examine each:

1) The Midnight Office is said at or after midnight and is a reminder of the Resurrection which took place "early in the morning," and also of the Second Coming, the hour of which no man knows (Mark 13:33, 35). It likewise recalls the parable of the bridegroom who came at midnight and the five foolish virgins whose lamps had gone out: Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. (Mt 25:13).

2) This is followed by Matins which ends at dawn, reflecting the dawn of our salvation,

3) The First Hour is then read, praising the beginning of the new day in which we join our hymns to those of the angels, together bringing them before God.

4) The Third and Sixth Hours are read before the Divine Liturgy, In the Third Hour the death of our Lord was plotted; also at this hour the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles. The Sixth Hour commemorates the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord. If there is no Liturgy, the Typica is read which gives a sketch of the Liturgy.

5 & 6) In the evening the Ninth Hour is read. Its prayers recall the hour in which the Lord laid down His life for the redemption of the world. Without pause there begins the service of Vespers which tells of the creation, of God’s love for the world, of man’s fall into sin, his expulsion from paradise and of the Redeemer’s coming upon earth,

7) Before retiring, Compline is sung, bringing thanks for the coming of night with its rest and the remembrance of death for which we must always be prepared. This is followed by evening prayers.

Within the framework of this daily cycle flows the monk’s life so that it may be filled with holiness, with grace from above, and hope of eternal blessedness, whatever his task—be it manual or intellectual work or the practice of hesychasm towards which all monastic life is directed.

The Stages of Monastic Life

The person, man or woman, who enters monastic life, tries to leave his or her old self behind, with all the old joys and sorrows, virtues and sins, and starts a new life, seeking to find a new relationship to all things and people in Christ, to Whom he vows his life. The taking of the monastic vow and habit are but a repetition and amplification of the baptismal vows.

At first there were no stages along the monastic path; there were no postulants or novices but simply monks. Today, however, monastics generally progress from one stage to another: the postulant looks forward to becoming a novice, the novice to receiving the habit and going on to full profession—which may take years or which he may never reach. There is no prescribed time period for each stage, but at least three years must elapse before full profession. The intermittent stages may even be dispensed within certain cases; in communist times, for example, where the normal flow of monastic life is impossible. There is also no obligation to advance from one stage to the next; should a novice not feel ready or not wish to progress for reasons of humility, he/she is free to remain in the monastery as he is. Monks who become priests are called hieromonks; this does not affect their monastic status.

1) Novice. One begins as a postulant who may be permitted, after three months or so, to wear a portion of the habit (tunic and belt), which is regarded as a tacit expression of his/her determination to abide in the monastic life of asceticism, subject to the approval of the abbot (abbess). In becoming a novice, the aspirant receives in addition to the tunic (podriasnik) and belt, the monastic head covering, called "skoufos" for men and "apostolnik" for women.

2) Rassophore. When the superior thinks fit, the novice may ask to receive the rassa or habit, an over-garment with wide sleeves and reaching to the ankles, and also the monastic head covering with veil (in Russian—klobuk; in Greek—kamelos). This portion of the habit is given with the appropriate rite in church by a hieromonk. The new monk or nun takes no vows at this time, but should a rassophore leave the monastery and wish to marry, he or she must receive written permission of the bishop, without which he could incur excommunication.

3) Stavrophor, from the Greek "stavros" (cross) and "phoro" (to wear), so called because the monk/nun wears a wooden cross on the chest tied under the habit to a paramanydas or paraman. The paraman is a small square piece of fabric embroidered with representations of the Cross, spear, reed, sponge, the pillar of scourging, Adam’ s skull and the cock which crowed at the time of Peter’s denial. At the same time he/she receives the mandyas or mantia, a flowing cloak without hood, which reaches to the ground in long narrow pleats, and which is worn only in church. This profession takes place according to an impressive and solemn rite; the vows are made before a hieromonk. The profession is made publicly in church and the vows of Stability, Obedience, Poverty and Chastity are given by the candidate before he/she receives the tonsure, the paraman and mantia which are new added to the habit. The officiating priest bestows a new name upon the monk in recognition of the beginning of his new life. The monk does not choose this name himself but accepts it as his first act of obedience.

The Orthodox attitude towards monasticism is best summed up in the collect of the Prodigal Son with which the ceremony of profession opens:

Make haste to open Thy fatherly arms

Unto me who have wasted my life like the prodigal.

Despise not a heart now grown poor

O Saviour Who hast before Thine eyes

The boundless riches of Thy mercies.

For unto Thee, O Lord, in compunction do I cry:

O Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee...

(Here the monk is a penitent)

And the verse which is sung during the clothing part of the ceremony:

My soul shall rejoice in the Lord

for He hath put on me the garment of salvation;

And with the tunic of gladness hath He clothed me.

He hath put upon me a crown as upon a bride groom,

And as a bride hath he adorned me...

(Here the monk is the betrothed of God)

4) Megaloschema, from the Greek "megas" (great) and "schema" (habit), or in Russian, "skhmnik." The difference between the Stavrophor and the Megaloschemos lies in the degree of asceticism which, for the latter, is very strict and not something of which everyone is capable. In addition to the habit of the Stavrophor, the Megaloschemos wears the analovos which is rather like the Western scapular in shape, although there is no symbolic or historical connection between them. The analovos is embroidered with the cross which the monk is to take up daily in following Christ. The same representation figures on the koukoulion, a thimble-shaped kamelos. These are given according to a rite, similar to that of stavrophor, in which the original vows are repeated with yet greater solemnity. These two rites are also referred to respectively as the receiving of the Little and the Great Habits.

The distinctive color of the monastic raiment is black which symbolizes that the second Baptism is more laborious than the first whose symbolic color is white; for the second is a baptism of repentance, which will end only with the end of this present deceitful life.

The Monastic Rule

The Rule or "Typicon" governing Orthodox monastic life is based upon that of St. Basil the Great, which he synthesized from the tradition of the early Desert Fathers. This Rule was later adapted by various great fathers of monasticism throughout the centuries: St. Sabbas the Sanctified in the 5th century, St. John Climacus in the 6th century, St. Theodore the Studite at the end of the 8th century, and others. It likewise provided the foundation for the great Athonite tradition which evolved in the 10th-14th centuries, and the revival of monasticism in Russia and Moldavia in the late 18th century under the inspiration of St. Paisius Velichkovsky. Today St. Basil’s Rule remains an important part of the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church.

The monastic Rule is too complex to be expounded here in any detail. Basically, its purpose is to safeguard the monk in his daily life, helping him, through obedience, to keep unceasing vigil within his soul and thereby guiding him into a union of heart and spirit through which is acquired, as far as this is possible in this world, union with God.

Effort without discipline leads nowhere. It is only by patient and deliberate striving that the soul can hope to perfect itself and come closer to God. Therefore, the keeping of the monastic Rule is very important, whether it concerns the eremitic or the cenobitic life, and the monastic benefits from it to the degree that he or she is obedient to its precepts. Of necessity, the Rule is more complex for the cenobitic life where it must regulate the services read in common as well as order a community life with all the different characters and diverse backgrounds of the individuals gathered under the same roof.

A monastery or convent is a community of monks or nuns living under a common rule and governed by an abbot (abbess) or superior chosen from among the professed monks. He rules like a loving father over his children, often assisted by a council of monks to whom he delegates certain responsibilities.

Monks work for their livelihood and the common upkeep of the monastery—in the fields and gardens, painting and carving icons, making church vestments, translating or writing and printing books on the spiritual life. Apart from its life of prayer, which remains at all times its essential focus, a monastery may harbor—as circumstances dictate—the sick, the aged, the orphaned and homeless, or perform any work of Christian charity. It is customary for a monastery to have a guest house in which the pilgrim can stay three nights free of charge. Although Orthodox monks are not cloistered, as monastics are in some Western orders, monks and visitors only mix at certain times and in designated places. The great schema monks lead a more strictly secluded life.

The Elder or "Starets"

We shall briefly describe here the position of elder ("starets" in Russian) which, although rarely encountered today, is frequently mentioned in Orthodox literature. Properly understood, eldership is not a position or rank but a gift granted by God to those of exceptional spiritual caliber and therefore not limited necessarily to monks. Eldership cannot be taken upon oneself; an elder is one recognized by others as possessing outstanding spiritual discernment and wisdom, someone to whom both monastics and lay people come for guidance. The elder, or eldress, must not be confused with the hermit, although frequently an elder will have spent time in the eremitic life before blossoming forth with the gift of eldership.

The Monastic’s Service to the World

Monks are often accused of egotism because they concentrate upon the salvation of their own souls. This is putting the accent in the wrong place: the monk seeks the ways of perfection, directing all his strength towards following Christ. The monk’s ideal is entirely to forget himself, to "lose his life," and to truly worship God and love Him with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind, and his neighbor as himself. (Mt 22:37).

But where does this "angelic life," as monasticism is called (by virtue of its aspiration to imitate the angels who are always praising and magnifying God), touch the outside world, the earth, the earthly?

In many ways. A monastery is primarily a center of prayer, and prayer is something the world has always needed, never more so than today when people are so busy and find it difficult to give proper time to prayer. The monk prays not only for himself but for everybody, living and dead. Just as a soldier is a specialist in war, the monk is a specialist in prayer. Therefore, as V. Lossky writes: "the spiritual work of a monk living in a community or a hermit withdrawn from the world, retains all its worth for the entire universe even though it remains hidden from the sight of all."

The monastery gate is always open wide to all of man’s needs, ready with comfort and sustenance—both spiritual and physical—for anyone who may knock at its door, saint or sinner. The monk sees in every man the image of Him Who said: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me. (Mt 25:40).

The man of the world may look upon the man of the cloister with misgiving, somehow feeling him to be a living reproach to worldliness, an unnatural man, almost inhuman. This is far from true. The monk is simply a man who has laid all aside, completely and for good, to follow Christ wherever He may lead.