innermost spiritual sense of Orthodox Monasticism is revealed in joyful
mourning (gr. harmolipi). This paradoxical phrase denotes a spiritual
state in which a monk in his prayer grieves for the sins of the world
at at the same time experiences the regenerating spritual 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.)
Holy Service in Decani
life of prayer and obedience - Decani Monastery photo galleries
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 recognised as a profound mystery 2, 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.
A monastery in the forests of California, US
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 Church 6. 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.
A solitary hermitage in Mount Athos
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 frugality 9, 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.
St. Basil's Hermitage - near the Serb Monastery
of Hilandar on Athos
In the early days this exodus from the world did not involve a change
of place but a change of the way of life. A man does not reject God
and turns towards the world physicaly but spiritually, because God was
and is everywhere and fulfills everything, so in the same way 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 were fully aware that they did not come from it nor did they 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.
The brotherhood of the Athonite monastery of VATOPEDIOU
with their Abbot - Archimandrite EPHRAIM
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's
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.
Athonite monk - an icon of harmolypi (joyful mourning)
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 God 16.
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 centre of Orthodox monasticism.
A coenobitic monastery - refectory
The commonest 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 coenobitc Church 17. Thus the monastic coenobium is the most consistent
attempt to achieve this and an image of Church in small.
An Athonite coenobitic monastery of St Gregory -
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"
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.
Serbian Orthodox Monastery Manasija, eastern Serbia
All Christians are obliged to keep the Lord's commandments, but
this requires efforts. 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.
Sava's Orthodox Monastery near Betlehem, Israel
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
Chant of Serbian Orthodox
Monks from Kovilj Monastery
(traditional Serb-Byzantine chant)
Monastery of St. Atanasios of Meteora, Greece