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.)
Monastery, Kosovo-Serbia, - a nun in prayer
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, mortifcation 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.
Like a fortress on its centuries long sentry
Monastery of Simonopetra Mount Athos - Greece
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
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.
Serbian Monastery Hilandar - Mount Athos
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.
An Orthodox church on Santorini island, Greece
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. It 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"
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
A call to pray
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 world 24.
Naum Monastery at Ochid Lake, FYR Macedonia
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
being 25. 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 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 to 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.
The ladder of divine ascent
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
The monks always sought seclusion from the world
Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro
the top of this spiritual ladder are the "fools for Christ's
sake", as the Apostle Paul calls himself and the other apostles
27, 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
God 29. Only when man rejects pride can he defeat the world and devote
himself to God 30.
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 held up as examples to be imiated, 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.
Georgios I. Mantzarides Professor of the Theological
School Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (abridged text from the
book Images of Athos by monk Chariton)
The Spiritual Heart of the Church
LIFE IN THE EASTERN ORTHODOX CHURCH
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Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogia 1, PG91, 665C.
2 See Eph. 5, 32
3 Presbeia 33. Also see Justin, Confession 1, 15, 6.
4 Mk.8, 34.
5 Mt 10, 37
6 "Each has his own specia/ gift from God, one of one kind and
one of another" I Cor. 7, 7
7 Pros piston patera (To the faithful father) 3, 14, PG47, 372- 74.
8 Ibid 373.
9 "If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.
I Tim 6,8.
10 Heb. 13, 14.
11 See Oroi kata platos (Monastic rules in full) 6, PG 31, 925A.
12 Catechism 7, 28, ed A. Wenger, "Sources Chritiennes' vol.50,
Paris 21970m 0,243,
13 Catechism 12, 132-5, ed B. Krivocheine, "Sources Chritiennes'
vol.l04, Paris 1964, p.374.
14 Catechism 5, 122-5, ed B. Knvocheine, "Sources Chritiennes".
voL96, Paris 1963, p.386.
15 Homily 15, PG151, 180 BC.
16 See On the life in Chnst 6, PG150, 660A
17 See Letter 53,PG99, 1264CD.
18 Mt. 22, 30
19 See Service for the Little Habit. The Greater Prayer-Book, p. 192.
20 Mt. 5, 48.
21 Maximos the Confessor, On love 3,85,PG90, 1044A.
22 Archimandrite Sophrony, Ascetic practice and theory, Essex, Eng/and
1996, p.26. 23 2 Cor. 5,4. 24 See Stage 2, PG88, 657A. For a comparison
of the patristic tradition on the three stages of renunciation see the
book by Archimandrite Sophrony, Asceticism and Contemptation, p.26f.
25 See Archimandrite Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He is, Essex,
England 31996, p.389.
26 See Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan of MountAthos, Essex, England
7/995, p.572 Also Asceticism and Contemptation, p.42.
27 1 Cor. 4, l0
28 The Elder Paisios, Letters, Souroti, Thessaloni 1994, p.235. 29 Jn.
5, 44. 30 See Archimandrite Sophrony, Asceticism and Contemptation,