Monasticism represents a response to the invitation to follow Christ; and as such its asceticism involved a detachment from the world and its distractions. One of the goals of the renewal of monasticism in the Church has been to recover and re-claim, as much as possible, the original character, spirit, and charism of the Early Church.
We are called to a joyful sorrow that praises God with tears of joy and repentance. In the acceptance of our humanity, we are called to keep our rule of prayer, to pray constantly, and to be united with God, and to glorify God alone in all things and at all times. To rest in God and to live in God is the unremitting call. We align our wills as totally as we can with the will of God – which is our approach to theosis.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, monasticism is often called the ‘barometer of the spiritual life of the Church.’ So great has the influence of and appreciation for this way of life been, that its existence and status have been equated with those of the Church as a whole. As flourishes the monastic life, so flourishes the Church.
That so great an influence would be granted to the monastic life bespeaks something of the importance in which it is viewed by the Church. Monasticism is not just a ‘part’ of the greater scope of Orthodox life; it is the very centre and heart of the Church, in relation to which other aspects of her life are born and grow. The monastics (both men and women) are those who choose to follow with singular devotion and obedience the call of Christ, who live the life of the Church in a direct and immediate manner. They dedicate their entire life to God, by lifelong vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience. They are thus the models in which the Church sees her perfect icon: a communion of souls wholly living the life in Christ.
It is sometimes said that monasticism is ‘built in’ to humanity: that a nature which has been torn from the intimate communion with its Creator—the communion for which it was fashioned—naturally longs to return to that better state. The outward expressions of monasticism—the life set apart, the rigorous asceticism—are manifestations of that deep inward desire of the human soul to unite itself to God through Christ.
Christian monasticism took its practical roots in the early fourth century, though there were individuals and communities living austere, solitary and ascetic lives long before this time. Nonetheless, it was in this era that St Anthony of Egypt lived and had his story recorded by St Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in the classic text, the Life of St Antony of Egypt. This book recorded the saint’s departure into the solitary deserts of Egypt to live a life wholly devoted to God, modelled on a daily routine of prayer and manual labour born of the scriptural call to follow the Lord. And what St Anthony did for the solitary life, so did St Pachomius for the communal (after the Greek, cenobitic) monastic way. They were two manifestations of a life that spread throughout the Christian world like wildfire. Within the lifetimes of these two founders, thousands of men and women began fleeing the cities for the solitude of the desert, and the recognizable conception of the monastic life was born.
That life has continued throughout the whole of Christian history, giving rise to great saints—both men and women—who modelled a life of devotion to and union with Christ. And it continues today, in the ongoing monastic life of the Orthodox Church throughout the world. As it has been for over a thousand years, Mount Athos (the ‘Holy Mountain’) in Greece serves as the spiritual centre of Orthodox monasticism, which reaches into the furthest corners of the globe. In these monasteries, from the greatest lavra to the most humble of hermitages, the life of Christ continues to become, day by day, the life of man.
The innermost spiritual sense of Orthodox Monasticism is revealed in joyful mourning. This paradoxical phrase denotes a spiritual state in which a monk in his prayer grieves for the sins of the world and at the same time experiences the regenerating spiritual joy of Christ’s forgiveness and resurrection. A monk dies in order to live, he forgets himself in order to find his real self in God, he becomes ignorant of worldly knowledge in order to attain real spiritual wisdom which is given only to the humble ones. (Ed.)
With the development of monasticism in the Church there appeared a peculiar way of life, which however did not proclaim a new morality. The Church does not have one set of moral rules for the laity and another for monks, nor does it divide the faithful into classes according to their obligations towards God. The Christian life is the same for everyone. All Christians have in common that “their being and name is from Christ” 1. This means that the true Christian must ground his life and conduct in Christ, something which is hard to achieve in the world.
What is difficult in the world is approached with dedication in the monastic life. In his spiritual life the monk simply tries to do what every Christian should try to do: to live according to God’s commandments. The fundamental principles of monasticism are not different from those of the lives of all the faithful. This is especially apparent in the history of the early Church, before monasticism appeared.
In the tradition of the Church there is a clear preference for celibacy as opposed to the married state. This stance is not of course hostile to marriage, which is recognized as a profound mystery2, but simply indicates the practical obstacles marriage puts in the way of the pursuit of the spiritual life. For this reason, from the earliest days of Christianity many of the faithful chose celibacy. Thus Athenagoras the Confessor in the second century wrote: “You can find many men and women who remain unmarried all their lives in the hope of coming closer to God”3.
From the very beginning the Christian life has been associated with self denial and sacrifice: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”4. Christ calls on us to give ourselves totally to him: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”5.
Finally, fervent and unceasing prayer, obedience to the elders of the Church, brotherly love and humility, as well as all the essential virtues of the monastic life were cultivated by the members of the Church from its earliest days.
One cannot deny that the monk and the married man have different ways of life, but this does not alter their common responsibility towards God and His commandments. Every one of us has his own special gift within the one and indivisible body of Christ’s Church6. Every way of life, whether married or solitary, is equally subject to God’s absolute will. Hence no way of life can be taken as an excuse for ignoring or selectively responding to Christ’s call and His commandments. Both paths demand effort and determination.
St Chrysostom is particularly emphatic on this point: “You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities… Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence”7. Referring to the observance of particular commandments in the Gospels, he says: “Whoever is angry with his brother without cause, regardless of whether he is a layman or a monk, opposes God in the same way. And whoever looks at a woman lustfully, regardless of his status, commits the same sin”. In general, he observes that in giving His commandments Christ does not make distinction between people: “A man is not defined by whether he is a layman or a monk, but by the way he thinks”8.
Christ’s commandments demand strictness of life that we often expect only from monks. The requirements of decent and sober behaviour, the condemnation of wealth and adoption of frugality9, the avoidance of idle talk and the call to show selfless love are not given only for monks, but for all the faithful.
Therefore, the rejection of worldly thinking is the duty not only of monks, but of all Christians. The faithful must not have a worldly mind, but sojourn as strangers and travellers with their minds fixed on God. Their home is not on earth, but in the kingdom of heaven: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come”10. The Church can be seen as a community in exodus. The world is its temporary home but the Church is bound for the kingdom of God. Just as the Israelites, freed from bondage in Egypt, journeyed towards Jerusalem through many trials and tribulations, so Christians, freed from the bondage of sin, journey through many trials and tribulations towards the kingdom of heaven.
In the early days this exodus from the world did not involve a change of place but a change of the way of life. Because God was and is everywhere and fulfills everything, the rejection of the world and turning towards God was not understood in physical sense but as a change of the way of life. This is especially clear in the lives of the early Christians. Although they lived in the world they did not belong to it: “In the world but not of the world”. And those who lived in chastity and poverty, which became later fundamental principles of the monastic life, did not abandon the world or take to the mountains.
Physical detachment from the world helps the soul to reject the worldly way of life. Experience shows that human salvation is harder to achieve in the world. As Basil the Great points out, living among men who do not care for the strict observance of God’s commandments is harmful. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to answer Christ’s call to take up one’s cross and follow Him within the bounds of worldly life. Seeing the multitude of sinners, one not only fails to see his own sins but also falls into temptation to believe that he has achieved something, because we tend to compare ourselves with those who are worse than we are. Furthermore, the hustle and bustle of everyday life distracts us from the remembrance of God. It does not only prevent us from feeling the joy of intense communion with God, but leads us to contempt and forgetfulness of the divine will.
This does not mean that detachment from the world guarantees salvation, but surely does help us a lot in our spiritual life. When someone devotes himself wholly to God and His will, nothing can stop him from being saved. St. Chrysostom says: “There is no obstacle to a worker striving for virtue, but men in office, and those who have a wife and children to look after, and servants to see to, and those in positions of authority can also take care to be virtuous”12.
Saint Simeon the New Theologian observes: “Living in a city does not prevent us from carrying out God’s commandments if we are zealous, and silence and solitude are of no benefit if we are slothful and neglectful” 13. Elsewhere he says that it is possible for all, not only monks but laymen too, to “eternally and continuously repent and weep and pray to God, and by these actions to acquire all the other virtues”14.
Orthodox monasticism has always been associated with stillness or silence, which is seen primarily as an internal rather than an external state. External silence is sought in order to attain inner stillness of mind more easily. This stillness is not a kind of inertia or inaction, but awakening and activation of the spiritual life. It is intense vigilance and total devotion to God. Living in a quiet place the monk succeeds in knowing himself better, fighting his passions more deeply and purifying his heart more fully, so as to be found worthy of beholding God.
The father of St Gregory Palamas, Constantine, lived a life of stillness as a senator and member of the imperial court in Constantinople. The essence of this kind of life is detachment from worldly passions and complete devotion to God. This is why St Gregory Palamas says that salvation in Christ is possible for all: “The farmer and the leather worker and the mason and the tailor and the weaver, and in general all those who earn their living with their hands and in the sweat of their brow, who cast out of their souls the desire for wealth, fame and comfort, are indeed blessed”15. In the same spirit St Nicolas Kavasilas observes that it is not necessary for someone to flee to the desert, eat unusual food, change his dress, ruin his health or attempt some other such thing in order to remain devoted to God16.
The monastic life, with its physical withdrawal from the world to the desert, began about the middle of the third century. This flight of Christians to the desert was partly caused by the harsh Roman persecutions of the time. The growth of monasticism, however, which began in the time of Constantine the Great, was largely due to the refusal of many Christians to adapt to the more worldly character of the now established Church, and their desire to lead a strictly Christian life. Thus monasticism developed simultaneously in various places in the southeast Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine, Sinai, Syria and Cyprus, and soon after reached Asia Minor and finally Europe. During the second millennium, however, Mount Athos appeared as the center of Orthodox monasticism.
The most common and safest form of the monastic life is the coenobitic communion. In the coenobitic monastery everything is shared: living quarters, food, work, prayer, common efforts, cares, struggles and achievements. The leader and spiritual father of the coenobium is the abbot. The exhortation to the abbot in the Charter of St Athanasius the Athonite is typical: “Take care that the brethren have everything in common. No one must own as much as a needle. Your body and soul shall be your own, and nothing else. Everything must be shared equally with love between all your spiritual children, brethren and fathers”.
The coenobium is the ideal Christian community, where no distinction is drawn between mine and yours, but everything is designed to cultivate a common attitude and a spirit of fraternity. In the coenobium the obedience of every monk to his abbot and his brotherhood, loving kindness, solidarity and hospitality are of the greatest importance. As St Theodore of Studium observes, the whole community of the faithful should in the final analysis be a coenobitic Church17. Thus the monastic coenobium is the most consistent attempt to achieve this and an image of Church in small.
In its “fuga mundi”, monasticism underlines the Church’s position as an “anti-community” within the world, and by its intense spiritual asceticism cultivates its eschatological spirit. The monastic life is described as “the angelic state”, in other words a state of life that while on earth follows the example of the life in heaven. Virginity and celibacy come within this framework, anticipating the condition of souls in the life to come, where “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”18.
Many see celibacy as a defining characteristic of monastic life. This does not mean, however, that celibacy is the most important aspect of the monastic life: it simply gives this distinctiveness to this way of life. All the other obligations, even the other two monastic vows of obedience and poverty, essentially concern all the faithful. Needless to say, all this takes on a special form in the monastic life, but that has no bearing on the essence of the matter.
All Christians are obliged to keep the Lord’s commandments, but this requires effort. Fallen human nature, enslaved by its passions is reluctant to fulfill this obligation. It seeks pleasure and avoids the pain involved in fighting the passions and selfishness. The monastic life is so arranged as to facilitate this work. On the other hand the worldly life, particularly in our secular society, makes it harder to be an ascetic. The problem for the Christian in the world is that he is called upon to reach the same goal under adverse conditions.
The tonsure, with cutting of hair, is called a “second baptism”19. Baptism, however, is one and the same for all members of the Church. It is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The tonsure does not repeat, but renews and activates the grace of the baptism. The monastic vows are essentially not different from those taken at baptism, with the exception of the vow of celibacy. Furthermore, hair is also cut during baptism.
The monastic life points the way to perfection. However, the whole Church is called to perfection. All the faithful, both laymen and monks, are called to become perfect following the divine example: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”20. But while the monk affirms the radical nature of the Christian life, the layman is content to regard it conventionally. The conventional morality of the layman on the one hand and the radical morality of the monk on the other create a dialectical differentiation that takes the form of a dialectical antithesis.
St Maximus the Confessor, in contrasting the monastic with the worldly life, observes that a layman’s successes are a monk’s failures, and vice versa: “The achievements of the worldly are failures for monks; and the achievements of monks are failures for the worldly. When the monk is exposed to what the world sees as success- wealth, fame, power, pleasure, good health and many children, he is destroyed. And when a worldly man finds himself in the state desired by monks—poverty, humility, weakness, self restraint, mortification and suchlike, he considers it a disaster. Indeed, in such despair many may consider hanging themselves, and some have actually done so”21.
Of course the comparison here is between the perfect monk and the very worldly Christian. However, in more usual circumstances within the Church the same things will naturally function differently, but this difference could never reach diametrical opposition. Thus for example, wealth and fame cannot be seen as equally destructive for monks and laymen. These things are always bad for monks, because they conflict with the way of life the monks have chosen. For laymen, however, wealth and fame may be beneficial, even though they involve grave risks. The existence of the family, and of the wider secular society with its various needs and demands, not only justify but sometimes make it necessary to accumulate wealth or assume office. Those things that may unite in the world divide in the monastic life. The ultimate unifier is Christ Himself.
The Christian life does not depend only on human effort but primarily on God’s grace. Ascetic exercises in all their forms and degrees aim at nothing more than preparing man to harmonise his will with that of God and receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. This harmonisation attains its highest expression and perfection in prayer. “In true prayer we enter into and dwell in the Divine Being by the power of the Holy Spirit”22. This leads man to his archetype and makes him a true person in the likeness of his Creator.
The grace of the Christian life is not to be found in its outward forms. It is not found in ascetic exercises, fasts, vigils and mortification of the flesh. Indeed, when these excercises are practiced without discernment they become abhorrent. This repulsiveness is no longer confined to their external form but comes to characterise their inner content. They become abhorrent not only because outwardly they appear as a denial of life, contempt for material things or self-abandonment, but also because they mortify the spirit, encourage pride and cultivate self justification.
The Christian life is not a denial but an affirmation. It is not death, but life. And it is not only affirmation and life, but the only true affirmation and the only true life. It is the true affirmation because if goes beyond all possibility of denial and the only true life because it conquers death. The negative appearance of the Christian life in its outward forms is due precisely to its attempt to stand beyond all human denial. Since there is no human affirmation that does not end in denial, and no worldly life that does not end in death, the Church takes its stand and reveals its life after accepting every human denial and affirming every form of earthly death.
The power of the Christian life lies in the hope of resurrection, and the goal of ascetic striving is to partake in the resurrection. The monastic life, as the angelic and heavenly life lived in time, is the foreknowledge and foretaste of eternal life. Its aim is not to cast off the human element, but clothe oneself with incorruptibility and immortality: “For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life”23.
There are sighing and tears produced by the presence of sin, as well as the suffering to be free of the passions and regain a pure heart. These things demand ascetic struggles, and undoubtedly have a negative form, since they aim at humility. They are exhausting and painful, because they are concerned with states and habits that have become second nature. It is however precisely through this abasement, self purification, that man clears the way for God’s grace to appear and to act within his heart. God does not manifest Himself to an impure heart.
Monks are the “guardians”. They choose to constrain their bodily needs in order to attain the spiritual freedom offered by Christ. They tie themselves down in death’s realm in order to experience more intensely the hope of the life to come. They reconcile themselves with space, where man is worn down and annihilated, feel it as their body, transform it into the Church and orientate it towards the kingdom of God.
The monk’s journey to perfection is gradual and is connected with successive renunciations, which can be summarised in three. The first renunciation involves completely abandoning the world. This is not limited to things, but includes people and parents. The second is renunciation of the individual will, and the third is freedom from pride, which is identified with liberation from the sway of the world24.
These successive renunciations have a positive, not a negative meaning. They permit a man to fully open up and be perfected “in the image and likeness” of God. When man is freed from the world and from himself, he expands without limits. He becomes a true person, which “encloses” within himself the whole of humanity as Christ himself does. That is why, on the moral plane, the Christian is called upon to love all human beings, even his enemies. Then God Himself comes and dwells within him, and the man arrives to the fullness of his theanthropic being25. Here we can see the greatness of the human person, and can understand the superhuman struggles needed for his perfection.
The life of monasticism is the life of perpetual spiritual ascent. While the world goes on its earthbound way, and the faithful with their obligations and distractions of the world try to stay within the institutional limits of the church tradition, monasticism goes the other direction and soars. It rejects any kind of compromise and seeks the absolute. It launches itself from this world and heads for the kingdom of God. This is in essence the goal of the Church itself.
In Church tradition this path is pictured as a ladder leading to heaven. Not everyone manages to reach the top of this spiritual ladder. Many are to be found on the first rungs. Others rise higher. There are also those who fall from a higher or a lower rung. The important thing is not the height reached, but the unceasing struggle to rise ever higher. Most important of all, this ascent is achieved through ever increasing humility, that is through ever increasing descent. “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”, was the word of God to Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. When man descends into the hell of his inner struggle having God within him, then he is lifted up and finds the fullness of being26.
At the top of this spiritual ladder are the “fools for Christ’s sake”, as the Apostle Paul calls himself and the other apostles27, or “the fools for Christ’s sake”, who “play the madman for the love of Christ and mock the vanity of the world”28. Seeking after glory among men, says Christ, obstructs belief in God29. Only when man rejects pride can he defeat the world and devote himself to God.
In the lives of monks the Christian sees examples of men who took their Christian faith seriously and committed themselves to the path which everyone is called by Christ to follow. Not all of them attained perfection, but they all tried, and all rose to a certain height. Not all possessed the same talent, but all strove as good and faithful servants. They are not to be held up as examples to be imitated, especially by laymen. They are however valuable signposts on the road to perfection, which is common for all and has its climax in the perfectness of God.
This article was taken from Saint Anthony Greek Orthodox Monastery’s site http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org/monasticism.php
The Importance of Monasticism for Orthodoxy Today
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48). Obedient to her Divine Founder, the Church of Christ has sought for almost 2000 years to attain what cannot be attained without the grace of God’s ideal of perfection given by the Lord in his Sermon on the Mount and underlying the great Christian ascetic tradition. This tradition, which has produced a great assembly of holy ascetics, did not appear overnight but became a fruit of ages-long development and refinement of its forms and norms. The progressive nature in which the ascetic tradition developed is attested to in the passage of the Gospel in which the Lord, relieving his disciples from some traditional forms of asceticism during his ministry on earth, points to the time when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast (Mt. 9:15). It is equally doubtless that the typology of Christian asceticism is rooted in the pre-Christian religious culture and not only in that of the Old Testament. In some sense, we can speak about one typology of asceticism built on some common human religious experience.
The specifics of Christian asceticism probably need to be found precisely in a synthesis of various ascetical traditions of religious and religious-philosophical origin – the synthesis which became possible through the closeness between the biblical idea of the image of God in man and the idea of becoming like God voiced in the Platonic religious-philosophical tradition. The ascetic theology emerging at the junction of doctrine and ascetical practice is strongly dependent also on anthropology as it acquires a particular overtone depending on the tradition of thinking standing behind the anthropological views of a particular author (biblical, Stoic or Platonic). Even the very notion of ascesis, let alone other borrowings, goes back to a great extent to the Stoic favourite theme of ἄσκησις ἀρετῆς (‘exercise in virtue’), though in its origin it belongs to the sphere of gymnastics.
This paper, however, is not about the theory of Christian ascesis, nor is it about the history of ascetical teachings but about the importance that the church estate – for which ascesis is a principal way of life, one can say ‘profession’ – has for Orthodoxy today. I mean monasticism.
But before moving to the discussion of this special matter, I would like to dwell on three fundamental points characteristic of Christian asceticism in essence, whatever the age or estate in which and by which it is exercised. First of all, every manifestation of asceticism in the Church is subject to the aim of bringing people closer to God, making them like God, training our nature for virtue and preparing it for a meeting with God which takes place, according to the economy of our salvation, in Jesus Christ. Thus, any manifestation of asceticism in Christianity cannot be viewed as an aim in itself or self-value (as, say, the ideal of passionlessness – ἀπάθεια in Stoicism) but it is to be viewed only as a means, as μέθοδος, and using this means, endless generations of Christians transform through God’s grace the human nature with its inclination to evil to become the beneficial vessels of the Word (Gradual, Tone 6).
Secondly, ascesis, not being an aim in itself, is at the same time an integral part and invariable companion of spiritual life as it affects equally the physical and spiritual spheres. The basic opposition in Christian ascetical tradition is not between body and spirit, not between the material and the immaterial as it is in various dualistic systems (Platonism, Manichaeism, some trends of Gnosticism, etc.) but between life according to the flesh (κατὰ σάρκα) and life according to the spirit (cf. Rom. 8:1-8off). While a life according to the flesh implies the imposition on oneself of some restrictions out of fear of punishment and is furnished with a system of bans (do not murder, to not commit adultery, do not desire… etc.), a life according to the spirit implies an inner urge for perfection in God motivated by the love of Him. In this context, every form of ascesis acquires a positive and creative meaning, not restricting one’s freedom according to the flesh but offering the ways of finding true freedom according to the spirit, tested by thousands of experiences.
And the third point stems from the first and second ones: it is the purely individual nature of ascetic work defining the measure of accomplishment considering the spiritual need of the individual in his growth into the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:13). The point is not absolute independence of Christians from one another in their ascetical practice, as it is impossible to hand down the living experience of the Church, which is the Tradition proper, Παράδοσις, without teaching and discipleship, without St. Paul’s I urge you to imitate me as I imitate Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). The point is that any ascetical norm, be it abstention in all its manifestations, the work of prayer both in public and in private or accomplishments reflected in monastic vows, is positive only if related to the general dynamic of a Christian’s spiritual growth and his acquirement of the mind of Christ (1 cor. 2:16) and his adoption of the main law of Christian life – the law of love. This dilemma is pointed in Christ’s parable about ten maidens in which interpreters, beginning from Chrysostom, clearly see oil as mercy or love of men, that is, effective Christian love. Without attaining it, an ascetic, even if he has reached great ascetic heights, remains only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1).
Paradoxically, the same law of love making up the central pivot in the life of one church organism consolidates at certain times the ascetic work of individual members of this body into one devotional or ascetic burst aimed to oppose a certain spiritual or even material threat, like the mobilization of all vital resources that takes place in a human body struggling with an illness or in face of a threat. It is precisely how the present order of long and short fasts has been formed. This is how the Church fullness normally reacted to various dangers and disasters. This is how people impelled God and his saints towards mercy and beneficial help at the hardest moments of history. It is in this vein that we should consider the emergence of various monastic rules which used to gather together their followers into a brotherhood strong spiritually precisely in their unity and solidarity.
At this point we have come close to the main part of the paper in which we will speak about monasticism as the highest state of Christian perfection and a ministry of the Church and about some problems of monasticism today.
Monasticism as the highest stage in Christian perfection
The only goal of Christian growth is the mysterious meeting with God and entering into communion with God. There are different ways however that lead to this height. One of them, more gentle and long, is marriage, while the other, more steep and short, is monasticism. The life of the Baptist and some of the apostles of Christ as well as some episodes from the Gospel and letters of St. Paul suggest a possibility for an early achievement of this goal in celibacy. Indeed, the ministry of the Saviour on earth, too, could be carried out only if it was free from everyday family chores. During the taking of monastic vows, the Gospel is read, made up of two passages which contain the whole ‘philosophy’ of monastic life:
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me… Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Mt. 10:37-38; 11:28-30).
The desire ‘to be perfect’ includes the condition that one should ‘give all his possessions to the poor and then follow Me’ (cf. Mt. 19:16-22). Each Christian is called to a life of virtue but only a monk is obliged to seek perfection with all his heart. Each Christian is called to live according to the Gospel, but only a monk embodied the gospel’s ideal most radically by seeking to imitate Christ in everything. Each Christian gives in baptism a vow of faithfulness to God, but only a monk promises to God to follow the way of absolute non-possession, chastity and obedience. Each Christian is called to repent but only a monk’s lament should become a continued and everyday accomplishment. While the Lord commands a family man to be chaste in marriage, not to commit adultery, nor to look at women with desire, He demands from a monk to be absolutely lonely and to abstain absolutely from matrimony. While the Lord orders a lay person not to accumulate treasures on the earth but to be concerned in the first place for the Kingdom of God, a monk must reject every earthly possession altogether and have nothing of his own but give whatever is his own and his own self to God. While a lay person is commanded ‘not to love this world and whatever in the world’, a monk is called to reject the world fully and to hate it.
Therefore, monasticism appears to be the most radical form of following Christ’s call to perfection, selflessness and carrying the cross. Monasticism is a beneficial yoke of Christ, taken by a monk on himself voluntarily. It is the fullest imitation of the One Who is meek and humble in the heart and for Whom a monk gives up his parents, relatives and the entire world.
This yoke of Christ is expressed most clearly in the following vows pronounced by a person in the face of the Church before he or she assumes ‘the angelic image’:
- to stay in a monastery and hold fast until the last breath;
- to preserve oneself in virginity, chastity and reverence;
- to obey the abbot and all the brethren in Christ;
- to remain until death in non-possession and voluntary poverty in coenobitic life for the sake of Christ;
- to accept all the rules of monastic life, the rules of holy fathers and orders of the abbot;
- to be ready to endure every inconvenience and sorrow of the monastic life for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom.
One’s taking of these vows marks one’s entering a new life full of various feats and struggles.
The vow of virginity is not reduced to corporal chastity but also includes the protection of one’s thoughts and heart from impure feelings. ‘Chastity’ (Greek σωφροσύνη) means literarily ‘sanity’, when one in all one’s actions and thoughts is guided by wisdom coming from above, which is Christ Himself – the Logos of God.
Non-possession means that one rejects any attempt to seek richness and temporal benefits. A monk possesses only that which is necessary for life, while giving the rest to the poor and being never attached to anything temporal so that his mind may be always free from any concern for things vain and temporal but be busy with the concern for the salvation of himself and his neighbours. ‘Steps’ and other monuments of ascetical writings speak of the virtue of pilgrim’s journey when a monk understands that there is no permanent city for him here, on the earth, and seeks a city to come because his spiritual homeland is the Heavenly Jerusalem, and it is to this city that his mental eye is directed.
Obedience has a special importance. It is the feat difficult to understand and accept for the modern man, while it constitutes the very essence of monastic work. Obedience lies in the basis of monasticism. Archimandrite Sophronius Sakharov, a great modern ascetic, writes: ‘Monasticism is first of all the purity of the mind. Without obedience it is impossible to attain it, and for this reason, there is no monasticism without obedience. A disobedient person is not a monk in the true sense of this word. God’s great gifts including even the perfection of a martyr are quite possible outside monasticism as well, but the purity of the mind is a special gift given to monks, unknown on other paths, and this condition can be attained by a monk only through the feat of obedience’.
Obedience to a spiritually experienced guide helps or a monk understand the science of monasticism. Only the one who has passed this school can later become a guide for the next generation of monks.
‘Obedience is the grave of one’s own will and the resurrection of humbleness’, says St. John Climacus, ‘An obedient one, like a dead one, will not contradict or judge either in good things or what may seem evil to him; for the responsibility for everything is borne by the one who piously deadened his soul’.
Prayer is the most important occupation of a monk, which supports him in observing the vows he has given; it is his spiritual weapon. For this reason, the monastic rules assign daily rounds of various prayers in church, in his cells, prayers common and individual. A monk, being constantly in prayer, should take communion as frequently as possible in order to become united with the divine nature of Christ and to live already here, on earth, the life of the age to come.
The inner mood of a monk should be closely bound up with repentance and lament. In the very beginning of his tonsure to the minor schema, the father superior, calling the tonsured one who has humbled himself down to the ground, says: Wise God as the Father Who loves his children, looking at your humbleness and sincere repentance, accepts you like a prodigal son who repents and comes to bow before him wholeheartedly.
A monk assumes the feat of repentance not because he is more sinful than other people but because he chooses repentance for himself as a way of life. St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of monasticism as the way of lament: The monk (Syr. abila, lit. ‘lamenting’) is he who, in hope for future blessings, spends all days of his life in hunger and thirst. The monk he who dwells outside of the world and always prays to God to give him future blessings. The treasure of a monk is consolation found in lament…
In this continued grief a monk also finds a spiritual joy born from lament and repentance. In the chapter about ‘the joy-creating lament’, St. John Climacus says, Take effort to hold on the blissful and joyful sorrow of sacred tenderness and do not stop training yourself for this work until it puts you beyond all the earthly things and present you pure to Christ. He who clothed oneself in a blessed and beneficial lament as a conjugal vestment has learnt the spiritual laugh of the soul. Thinking about the ability of tenderness, I amaze at how lament and the so-called sorrow contain joy and merriment, like honey is contained in a cell… This tenderness is truly a gift of the Lord… because God gives consolation to those who grieve in the heart in a mysterious way.
Consolation is sent down from God Himself Whom a monk serves by the whole of his life. Addressing a novice in the end of the tonsure, the father superior says: May all-generous God accept and embrace and protect and may that wall be firm in the face of an enemy…, lying down and standing up together with you, pleasing and cheering your heart with the consolation of His Holy Spirit.
Monasticism, unlike marriage, is a destiny of the chosen not in the sense that they are better than others but in the sense that they feel called and have taste for loneliness. If a person has no need to stay alone, if he is bored by being one on one with himself and with God, if he always needs something external to fill him, if he does not like to pray and is incapable of being engulfed in the element of prayer and coming closer to God through prayer, he should not take monastic vows.
In many respects it is much more difficult to live in the world. Monasticism is a ‘narrow path’ in the sense that one has to reject many things which belong to ordinary people by right. And monastics reject many external things for the sake of finding things internal. But I do not think that monasticism is higher than marriage or it is more conducive to the attainment of sanctity than marriage. Any path chosen by one, if one seeks God, is difficult because it is ‘a narrow door’. If one seeks to live according to the gospel, one will always encounter obstacles and will have to always surmount them. Monastic life, like a life in marriage, is given for one to realize one’s inner potential as fully as possible. It is given to find the Kingdom of God which can become a destiny for each of us after death, but we can partake of it by experience already here, on earth.
In the early Church, monasticism developed gradually. There were groups of ascetics who took the vow of celibacy. Some of them went to deserts, while other remained to live in cities. They set themselves as their principal aim to carry out spiritual work on themselves. This is what the Old Testament describes as ‘walking before God’ when the whole life of a person is directed to God, when every deed and word is devoted to God.
There is no contradiction between not only monasticism and marriage but also between monasticism and a life in the world. St. Isaac the Syrian says that ‘the world’ is a totality of passions. And a monk retreats from such a ‘world’, not the world as God’s creation, but the fallen and sinful world steeped in vices. He retreats not because he hates the world but because he disdains it, because outside the world he can accumulate in himself the spiritual potential which he will eventually realize in the service of people. St. Siluan of Mount Athos says, ‘Many accuse monks of wasting their bread, but the prayer they lift up for people is much more valuable than many things people do in the world for the benefit of their neighbours’.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said, ‘Seek the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved’. Retreating to desert for five, ten, twenty and thirty years, hermits acquired ‘the spirit of peace’ – the inner peace which those who live in the world are lacking so much. But then they returned to people in order to share this peace with them. And really, thousands of people were saved around such ascetics. Of course, there were a great deal of ascetics who retreated from the world never to come back to it, who died in obscurity, but it does not mean that their feat was in vain, because the prayers they lifted up for their neighbours helped many. Having attained sanctity, they became intercessors and protectors for thousands who were saved by their prayers.
Monasticism as a church ministry
In this relationship between monasticism and the Church we begin to discern a special importance of monasticism for the whole Body of the Church along with other church ministries. It has turned out that a monk does not choose the thorny path full of temptation for his own sake. The spiritual richness he has accumulated will nourish dozens, hundreds and thousands of people, thus building the Body of Christ not only through sacraments and instruction as it is done in the ministry of Priesthood but through the example of the whole life of a monk who dedicates himself wholly to the service of God and people.
A testimony to this is the very monastic tonsure which is commonly ranked among the rites, though early church authors (Dionysius the Areopagite, Theodore the Studite) called them sacraments and included them in the list of other essential church mysteries.
Indeed, the initiation to monasticism is a grace-giving and mysterious beginning of a new life of a person in his service of the Church. There are some analogies with other sacraments, Baptism, Priesthood, Marriage and even Chrismation. The first and the closest analogy is that tonsure culminates in the partaking of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, thus being filled with grace. A person taking monastic vows is given forgiveness for all the sins he committed before; he renounces his former life and pronounces vows of faithfulness to Christ; he throws off his secular clothes to be clothed in a new vestment. Being born anew, he voluntarily becomes an infant in order to attain into the whole measure of the age of Christ (Eph. 4:13).
The tonsure takes place in the midst of the community and for the community which is the image of the whole Church of Christ. In this respect, the first question asked by the farther superior is characteristic: Have you come, brother, bowing before the holy altar and before this holy community? (that is, before a concrete monastic community?).
A new member’s entry into a brotherhood involves a new name to be given to him. The customs of changing one’s name in taking monastic vows is very old, going back in its essence to the Old Testament custom of one’s changing the name as a token of obedience (2 Kings 23:34; 24:17). From the moment of tonsure, the life of a monk does not belong to him; it belongs to God and to His Holy Church (in the person of the community). A monk is voluntarily cut off from his own will, which steps back before the will of God and the will of the church supreme authorities (in the person of the father superior). The rejection of all that belongs to him in favour of things common is another manifestation of the fullness of the gospel’s ideal embodied in the monastic community.
Assuming monasticism, a person assumes the responsibility not only before himself but also before those who will look to him, trying to find in him spiritual support. St. Isaac the Syrian says, A monk in the whole of his image and in all his deeds should be an edifying model for everyone who sees him so that, because of his virtues shining forth like rays, even the enemies of the truth looking at him may even involuntarily admit that Christians have a firm and unshakable hope for salvation… For monastic life is a praise of the Church of Christ.
The life of a monk does not belong to him but to God and the Church. A monk justifies his calling only if his life brings forth fruits for both God and the Church. A monk is beneficial for God if he continually works on himself and, progressing spiritually, comes ‘from strength to strength’. He is beneficial for the Church if he conveys to people the spiritual experience he has gained or is gaining to share it eventually with the weak members of the Church or simply to pray for people.
The monastic task is to listen attentively to the will of God and to bring one’s own will as close as possible to the will of God. A monk is the one who voluntarily abandons his own will, putting all his life in the hands of God. The communication of God’s will to church members, whether it is done verbally and individually or through the example of the life of a monastic community in the spirit of brotherly love and peace of Christ, is the fulfilment of the prophetic ministry in the Church.
Choosing only few Christians to carry out this ministry and calling them to live a special life, the Lord through them and in them maintains His Church in sanctity, soundness, meekness and love. If all the disciples of Christ are called to be the salt of the earth, if this world still stands thanks to Christians, monasticism represents the salt of Christianity, the quintessence of the Gospel’s way of thinking which does not allow Christianity to be demoralized and to yield to the pernicious impact of the surrounding world.
On some problems of modern monasticism
In this ecclesiological dimension of monasticism, those who embark on this path bear a great responsibility since it is responsibility before the whole Church. Truly blessed is the monk who manifests to people the beauty and magnificence of life in Christ, and woe be to the monk whose way of life serves as a temptation for the faithful.
According to the Church Tradition, monastic vows are taken by one once and for all, and according to the canonical rules of the Church, even the monk who has taken off his monastic vestments and married continues to be regarded as monk but a monk who has fallen and who lives in sin. In this sense, monastic vows place on a person the obligations which are even greater than marital vows. The Church can recognize a marriage as invalid for a number of reasons and she even gives her blessing to the innocent party to inter into a new marriage, but no ‘dis-tonsure’ is recognized by the church canons.
Monasticism cannot take place as a sacrament of the church and as a church ministry if a person takes monastic vows against his will and out of obedience to another person or in too early an age out of one’s folly or under the influence of the mood or enthusiasm which will pass later to leave the person before the choice of whether to return to the world or become a bad monk when you remain such only not to violate the vows while feeling no joy or inspiration but feeling ‘chained to the oar’ and cursing your fate.
In Russian monasticism today, this happens because of the two serious failures: a rash decision to take monastic vows or absence of teachers experienced in spiritual work.
The examples I have encountered in my life have reaffirmed my conviction that the decision on tonsure can be made only after a very sober and serious reflection, only after one has been profoundly strengthened in his desire to live a monastic life and only after one has become sure that it is one’s calling from God, only one has been tested by a long temptation. As long as one has even a shadow of doubt, one should not assume monasticism. The error can have fateful consequences because, after taking monastic vows and then realizing that monasticism is beyond one’s power, one is seldom capable of returning to a normal life. He remains spiritually traumatized and morally maimed to the rest of his life.
On the monastic path, just as in a marriage, there may be ups and downs. The initial admiration at monastic life tends to be replaced by disappointment and habit. To survive these hard times a monk needs only an experienced spiritual teacher who himself was tempted and able to help those who are being tempted (Heb. 2:18). The power of monasticism lies precisely in the succession of spiritual guidance which, like the apostolic succession, comes from the early Christian times as spiritual experience has been handed down from a teacher to a disciple and then the disciple himself becomes a teacher who will hand down his experience to his own disciples.
In the history of Christian sanctity, there are great many examples when monastic experience was handed down from a teacher to a disciple. St. Simeon the New Theologian was a disciple of St. Simeon the Righteous. Having received from his teacher profound knowledge of ascetical and mystical life, he wrote it down and handed it down to his own disciples. Nicetas Stephatus, who wrote ‘The Life’ of Simeon the New Theologian, was his closest disciple. And naturally Nicetas Stephatus himself had disciples. The uninterrupted chain in the succession of spiritual experience has continued from old times to our day. Even in the Soviet time this chain was not broken in the Russian Orthodox Church, though it was weakened since spiritually experienced guides, starets, were a great rarity at the time but they still existed.
Today the number of monasteries in the Russian Orthodox Church has exceeded 800, but not every one of them can boast of having a spiritually experienced teacher. It is understandable, since it takes decades for spiritual leader to grow and for them to grow, there must be a lasting monastic tradition. Spiritual directors themselves must be disciples of experienced teachers. And what can a young abbot teach equally young monks unaccustomed to obedience if he himself has not been through a long school of obedience?
A way out of this situation may be as follows: just as in antiquity, people of the conscious age were not baptized without due catechization and were not tonsured until they reached spiritual maturity, a person should undergo a long preparation before taking monastic vows. Tonsure should become not the beginning of a monastic life but a certain result of a long temptation as it should reconfirm that a person is ready for monasticism, that his desire to become a monk was not hasty and that it was his own desire, not that of another person who tried to coerce him into monasticism.
The establishment of a monastery should involve the availability of a spiritually experienced leader. It should not be a situation in which such-and-such nun is assigned to act as abbess with ‘a cross placed on her as befits her office’ only because the monastery is standing there but there is no one else who can lead it. A monastery should be opened because there is an experienced spiritual guide around whom a new brotherhood has gathered.
Deeply rooted spiritual work and the feat of obedience to which a monk is called can help to heal another widely-spread illness of today’s monasticism – the ardour for condemning so uncharacteristic of monasticism. Without having an adequate theological training or a spiritual vision of the essence of church problems, monks begin to present their own inventions as the voice of the Church, coming into confrontation with the supreme church authorities. The voice of monastic communities can be considered the voice of the Church only if it sounds in unison with the voice of the supreme church authorities.
The practice of early ordination of monks to priesthood with granting them broad powers of spiritual guidance is senseless. Before they become strong in the struggle with their own thoughts, before they have learnt genuine obedience and humbleness, young ‘starets’ begin to subdue those who come to them, involving themselves in every twist and turn of their lives. It is appropriate to remind them of the word of the Saviour: You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Mt. 7:5).
It appears more reasonable to use the practice of the Athonite monasteries in which the number priest-monks in a monastery is very limited, while most of the brethren live all their monastery life as ordinary monks who fulfil the most important tasks in the monastery. Among such was St. Siluan of Mount Athos, who was a long-standing economic father of St. Panteleimon’s Monastery without being ordained to priesthood. And the present Administrator of the Holy Mount has no priestly rank. He wears a small cross and holds the Administrator’s staff as befits his office and is called ‘starets’ only in respect for his age.
There is a special stratum among the monastics who have to live outside the monastery walls due to their line of work or in obedience to the supreme authorities. These are parish priest-monks, teachers at theological schools, staff of diocesan and Synodal departments. Their monastic path is especially difficult, for their task is to turn their ordinary home into a monastic cell, while the surrounding world with all its temptations should become a desert for them. For them, monasticism is first of all a path of inner work, and they cannot always rely on their spiritual guide. But if they always look at the image of Christ and do not miss opportunities for retreat and prayer and for being nourished by the spiritual meal of holy fathers and teachers of asceticism, they can well establish themselves as monastics. A serious blunder is made by those who assume tonsure for the sake of church career. In the modern practice of the Russian Orthodox Church, only a monk can become a bishop. This leads to the situation where people with career aspirations assume monasticism to reach the church heights. But only few reach these heights because there are many monks but few bishops. Monasticism can be assumed only if a person is wholly oriented toward God and is ready to give his life to God and to go through the narrow door. Monasticism is the utter expression of this ‘narrow’ path about which the Lord says in Mt. 7:13 and Lk. 13:24. It is a path of reaching the inner heights, the path of internal findings with external losses. But the assumption of tonsure for the sake of career corrupts the very essence of monasticism.
It is inadmissible to assume monasticism in obedience. Regrettably, often a person at some stage of his life cannot decide whether he should take up monasticism or enter into a marriage. Lacking his own inner power to make an independent decision, he goes to starets for an answer. This approach is vicious. A person should make every important decision himself or herself and to appeal to starets only for a blessing for the implementation of this decision.
The first Christian martyrs were ready to die for the name of Christ, wishing to imitate Him in everything up to accepting death. They became the first saints to be venerated by the Church for their uncompromising stand and faithfulness to Christ. After the persecution was over, it was bloodless martyrs – hermits who escaped from the world to serve God alone – who became the ardent fulfillers of the Gospel. The opposition between the monastic way and the Church was overcome in history since the Church realized the importance of monasticism while monastics sought to dedicate themselves to the Church. In the Orthodox awareness imbued as it is with symbolism and imagery, monastic communities always remain an image of the Church in which it is possible to this day to realize the early Christian ideal in which everything is in common possession and every one occupies his or her own place and obedience is filled with mutual love between the one who orders and the one who fulfils the order, in which tears bring joy in the Holy Spirit, in which Christ is present in every sigh and every thought of a monastic.
Monasticism is called to carry out a special ministry in the Church. But this ministry can be realized only if monasticism becomes a way of perfection and transformation of a person’s life, changing it in the most radical way. Monasticism which wishes to become truly ecclesiastical is subject to the words said by Christ about Himself: Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (Jn. 12:24). In imitation of Christ, a monk follows the way of extreme exhaustion in order to serve the neighbour as far as possible so that he may lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13) and that the devil in his heart may be defeated.
Monasticism remains today an integral part of church life. A great deal of the most difficult and necessary church tasks are fulfilled by monks and nuns. But monasticism becomes a true sacrament of the Church only if it overcomes all the dangers that lie in wait for it in the present era.
At a time when Christianity is attacked by the godless world, when young souls are overwhelmed with doubts because they do not have any support from the customs of devotion, the sanctity and purity of monastic life should become a beacon that will direct all those who swim in the sea of life, both those who are in the Church and who are yet coming to her. For this a monk needs to hear the voice of God and to dedicate his whole self to God. For this he has to come to hate himself and to love his enemy. For this he needs to purify his heart and give Christ Himself an opportunity to work in it. Following this way, monasticism will render a priceless service to the whole Church of Christ.
 This closeness was effected in the depth of the Alexandrian theology beginning from Philo to Origen. See, Festugiere P. Divinisation du chrétien // Vie Spirituelle. 1939; J. Daniélou «La mystique d’Origène» // Daniélou J. Origène. P., 1948. P. 287
 St. Paul himself repeatedly conveys the reality of spiritual life through sports metaphors of running (δρόμος) and wrestling (ἀγών) (Gal. 2: 2; Phil. 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:7). However, he uses the verb ἀσκέω in some trite meaning ‘to train oneself, to try (to do something)’ as it is conveyed by the author of the Acts, only ones in his apology to Lysias (Act. 24:16).