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Concerning Monasticism and Monasteries


In the first period of the Christian Church almost all the faithful led pure and holy lives as the Gospel requires. We find that many of the faithful aspired to the most lofty ascetic endeavors. Some would voluntarily renounce their possessions and distribute them among the poor. Others, such as the Mother of God, St. John the Forerunner, the Apostles Paul, John, and James took vows of virginity and devoted their time to continual prayer, fasting, abstinence and labor. They did not separate themselves from the world though, and lived with the rest of mankind. Such people came to be called ascetics, or those who undertook a special discipline (in Greek, askesis) in order to "train" for the Kingdom of Heaven.

From the third century when as a consequence of the swift expansion of Christianity the strictness of life among Christians began to weaken, ascetics began to withdraw to live in deserts and mountains. There, far from the world and its temptations, they led a severe life of spiritual asceticism. These ascetics who left the world were called anchorites or hermits. Thus the foundations were laid for monasticism, far from the temptations of the world.

Monastic life is a way of life which is only for a few, select persons, who have a calling, an irrepressible inner desire for the monastic life, by which they consecrate themselves entirely to the service of God. As the Lord Himself stated, "He that is able to accept it, let him accept it" (Matt. 19:12).

St. Athanasius says, "There are two forms and states of life. One is the usual life for mankind, married life; the other is the angelic and apostolic life of which there is no higher, virginity or the monastic state." The Venerable Nilus of Sora says, "The monk is an angel, and his business is mercy, peace and the sacrifice of praise."

Those entering the monastic path of life must have a resolute will "to renounce the world" and to deny themselves all earthly interests so as to develop within themselves the powers of spiritual life. In all things they must fulfill the will of their spiritual guide, renounce all possessions and even give up their old name. The monk takes upon himself a voluntary martyrdom - a life of self-renunciation, far from the world, and filled with labor and deprivation.

Monasticism in and of itself is not the goal, but it is the most effective means of attaining the highest spiritual life. The aim of monasticism is the attainment of moral and spiritual strength in order to save the soul. The monastic life is the greatest ascetic endeavor in the spiritual service for the world. The monk upholds the world, prays for the world and spiritually nourishes it and represents it; that is, he performs the ascetic feat of prayerful intercession for the world.

The birthplace of monasticism is Egypt, and the father and founder was St. Anthony the Great. St. Anthony established eremetical monasticism, a discipline in which each monk lived separately from the others in a hut or cave, giving himself over to fasting, prayer, and labor to support himself and the poor by plaiting baskets and rope. All were placed under one leader or elder, called an abba or father, for guidance.

During St. Anthony's lifetime another form of monastic life also began to develop. The ascetics gathered into one community where each would work according to his strength and talents for the general welfare, and all were subject to one rule. Such communities were called coenobia or monasteries. The abbots of monasteries began to be called abbots or archimandrites. The founder of communal monasticism is considered to be Pachomius the Great.

From Egypt monasticism quickly spread into Asia, Palestine, Syria and finally to Europe. In Russia monasticism came almost simultaneously with the acceptance of Christianity. The founders of monasticism in Russia were Sts. Anthony and Theodosius of the Kiev-Caves monastery.

Large monasteries with many hundreds of monastics came to be called lavras. Each monastery had its order of life, its rule or monastic typikon. Every monk was obliged to fulfill various tasks which, according to the typikon, were called obediences. Monastics can be either male or female, both having exactly the same rules. Women's monasteries (convents) have existed from ancient times.

Those who desire to enter the monastic life must first undergo a trial period to test their strength before they give irrevocable vows. Those undergoing this preparatory testing are called novices. If after a long testing period they prove capable of becoming monastics, then they are partially garbed in the robes of a monastic with the initial service of profession. At this stage they are called rassophore monks having the right to wear the rasa and kamilavka, so that they might still be more confirmed upon their chosen path to become full monks or nuns.

The full monastic profession comprises two degrees, the lesser and greater form, little schema and great schema. Upon entering monasticism itself, the rite of the profession to the lesser schema is performed in which the monk or nun gives the initial vows and is given a new name. When the moment arrives for the tonsure, thrice the monk gives the abbot the scissors as a sign of his firm decision. When the abbot receives the scissors for the third time from the hand of the person to be tonsured, he then with thanksgiving to God cuts a piece of hair of the person, in the name of the Most-holy Trinity, consecrating him utterly to the service of God.

The person receiving the lesser schema is dressed with the paraman, a small, square cloth with a depiction of the Cross of the Lord and the instruments of His Passion, the cassock and belt, and the mantia, a long pleated cloak, without sleeves. Upon his head is placed the klobuk or kamilavka, with a long veil. Into his hands a prayer rope is entrusted (chotki, in Russian; kommskini, in Greek), which is a black string of knots for counting prayers and prostrations. All of these garments have a symbolic significance and remind the monastic of his promises. At the conclusion of the ceremony the newly tonsured monk is given a cross and a candle, which he holds throughout the Liturgy until Communion.

The monks who take on the Great Schema give even stricter vows. Again one's name is changed. There are also changes in the garments. Instead of the paraman the person is dressed in the analav, a special cloth like a scapular with crosses and inscriptions, and instead of the klobuk the person receives the koukoulion, a rounded helmet with a veil that covers the shoulders.

Among the Russians, it is customary to call "schemniks" only those monks who have attained the Great Schema.

If a monk is elevated to the rank of abbot, then he is granted a staff as a symbol of his authority over the brethren, a symbol of his lawful position as a director over monks. When an igumen is elevated to the rank of archimandrite, he is vested with a mantia having "tablets" or pectorals. The tablets are rectangular sections from red or green cloth which are sewn onto the front of the mantia, two at the top and two at the bottom. They symbolize the fact that the archimandrite will guide the brethren according to the commandments of God. In addition the archimandrite receives the palitsa and miter. Usually bishops are chosen from the ranks of the archimandrites.

Many monastics have been true angels in the flesh who have shone forth as lights for the Church of Christ. Despite the fact that monks have separated themselves from the world in order to attain moral perfection, they exert a great and beneficial effect upon those living in the world. In addition to helping in the spiritual needs of their neighbors, monks do not hesitate to serve the temporal needs of those around them when the opportunities arise. In obtaining their own sustenance they divide their food with others. Among the monasteries there are those hospices which take in, feed, and provide rest for travellers. Often monasteries distribute alms for other locations, those in prisons, those suffering from famine and other misfortunes. But the primary service the monks provide for society is their perpetual prayer for the Church, their country, the living, and the dead.

St. Theophan the Recluse says, "Monasticism is a sacrifice to God from society; it devotes itself to God and comprises its defense. The monasteries are especially noted for church services which are orderly, complete, and lengthy. The Church is manifest there vested in all Her beauty." Truly monasteries are inexhaustible sources of edification for the laity.

In the middle ages monasteries provided a great service by being centers of learning and science and disseminators of Christian enlightenment.

Monasteries are the best expression in a nation of the strength and power of the religious and moral spirit of a people.

In Russia, Greece, and other Orthodox countries the people loved monasteries. When a new monastery was founded, the people would begin to settle next to it, forming a village. Sometimes these villages would grow into great cities.

On Pilgrimage

The love for monasteries and the holy places evoked among Orthodox people the custom of pilgrimage. In times when Orthodox countries flourished, many people, both men and women, old and young, with packs on their backs, a staff in hand, and a prayer on their lips walked patiently in all seasons of the year from one monastery to another. They often brought their troubles there and within the walls of a monastery found help, comfort and consolation. Many undertook pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Palestine and other distant places.

Our forefathers in the spirit were aware that monasteries were the seed-bed of faith and spiritual enlightenment, and were the bulwark of orthodoxy, without which the Orthodox empires of old could not even have existed.

Orthodoxy, in the form of the Church, was the basis of Russian unity, which was a fruit of the religious unity. Orthodoxy established Russian literature, historical studies, and the religious and ethical law. Without Orthodoxy there would have been no Russian civilization.

Foolishness For
The Sake Of Christ

We have yet to consider one form of the ascetic Christian life, the so-called foolishness for the sake of Christ.

The fool-for-Christ set for himself the task of battling within himself the root of all sin, pride. In order to accomplish this he took on an unusual style of life, appearing as someone bereft of his mental faculties, thus bringing upon himself the ridicule of others. In addition he exposed the evil in the world through metaphorical and symbolic words and actions. He took this ascetic endeavor upon himself in order to humble himself and to also more effectively influence others, since most people respond to the usual ordinary sermon with indifference. The spiritual feat of foolishness for Christ was especially widespread in Russia.

The Lord blessed Orthodox lands by sending unto them many ascetics, righteous men and women who instructed the people in struggle, patience, and submission to the will of God. The Russian Orthodox peoples endured their hardships with patience and hope in the mercy of God. Thus the long-suffering and humble soul of the Russian Orthodox nation was cultivated and given the strength for the most difficult, heroic labors in the name of righteousness and love of God.

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