Published by Pemptousia Partnership, June 16, 2015
By Prof. Georgios Mantzaridis
Christian 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 the more easily and perfectly to attain inner stillness. This stillness is not the same as inertia or inaction, but awakening and activation of the spiritual life. It is intense vigilance and total devotion to God. Withdrawing to a quiet place and examining himself there, 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint Nikolaos 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 spatial 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.
The evolution of Athonite monasticism followed the same general lines as that of eastern monasticism. Today Mount Athos, with its eremitical, communal and cenobitic monastic life, preserves all the main forms that Christian monasticism has taken throughout its long history.
The commonest and safest form of the monastic life is the cenobitic. This form is now followed by all twenty of the monasteries on Mount Athos. In the cenobitic monastery everything is shared: habitation, food, work, prayer, effort, cares, struggles and achievements. The leader and spiritual father of the cenobium is the abbot. The exhortation to the abbot in the Charter of Saint 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 cenobium 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 brotherliness. In the cenobium the obedience of every monk to the abbot and to brotherhood, loving kindness, solidarity and hospitality are of the greatest importance. As Saint Theodore of Studium observes, the whole community of the faithful should in the final analysis be a cenobitc Church17. This is anyway enjoined by the cenobitic spirit of the Orthodox Church, and the monastic cenobium is the most consistent attempt to achieve this.
The dependencies of the twenty holy monasteries of Mount Athos are the kathismata (“seats”), the kellia (cells), the kalyves (huts), the twelve sketes and the hesychasteria. In all the dependencies the monastic life has a more solitary and quietist character.
The kathismata are closely linked to the monasteries and are used by the brethren for greater solitude. The kellia and kalyves, which are small monastic complexes, are occupied by small groups of monks who lead a life of quietism, practice obedience to their elder and live by farming or handicrafts.
On Mount Athos there are twelve sketes, also dependent on monasteries. The sketes, which can be seen as corresponding to the ancient lavras, possess a common church, the Kyriakon, and are administered by a prior. The sketes are also dedicated to the quietist life but with a social dimension. Hospitality does not normally concern the individual cottages of the skete, but is the responsibility of the prior and his assistants.
Lastly, the life of complete solitude is practised in the hesychasteria, or true hermitages. These are found in remote spots on the Athos peninsula and particularly at its tip. The hermits were the original nucleus around which the first monastic communities grew, and even after the rise of communal and cenobitic monasticism the hermits continued to be the most charismatic personalities in the body of the Church. However, the cenobia and the monastic communities had already begun to be places of preparation for future hermits. Indeed, the Council of Trullo, in its 41st Canon, ruled that a three-year stay in a monastery was a prerequisite for those wishing to become hermits. Today, too, the hermits of Mount Athos live either in monasteries or in kellia and kalyves under obedience to an elder for several years before taking up the completely solitary life in the wilderness.
In its flight from the world, 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 the defining characteristic of the monastic life. This view also expresses that of the early Church as to the nature of the Christian life and the universal application of the Gospel commandments. This does not mean, however, that celibacy is the most important aspect of the monastic life; it is simply what gives this life its distinctiveness. 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 work. Fallen human nature, enslaved by its passions is reluctant to fulfil 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.
~Orthodox Christian Network (OCN), https://myocn.net/the-monastic-life-the-way-of-perfection/.
- Homily15, PG151, 180 BC.
- See On the life in Christ 6, PG150, 660A.
- See Letter 53, PG99, 1264CD.
- ML 22, 30.