The Angelic Path – An Outline of Orthodox Monasticism

Part 1 of a three-part series from the journal, Orthodox America.

Part 2 | Part 3

“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hadst, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me” (Matt. 19:21).

From the beginning these words of Christ have been a clear call to all Christian monks that they have felt impelled to obey to the letter.

Although Christ lived and worked among men, participated in the functions of His day, counted women among His friends, and although He instituted no monastic order, monasticism may well be considered the sum and substance of His teaching. Once He had entered upon His mission, He had no family life–in fact, He denied blood relationships (Matt. 12:48-50). He spent many hours in the wilderness in solitary communion with His Father. He said: If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The advice of Jesus to the young man who sought a greater perfection, beyond that of following the ten commandments, was to sell all he had and to follow Him (Matt. 19:21). Another man He challenged to follow Him without delay, without even taking time to attend to his father’s funeral (Luke 9:60). These are hard sayings for people in the world, but admirably suited to monks and nuns.

Let us here explain what we mean by “the world”. St. Isaac the Syrian defines it as:

“…the extension of a common name to distinct passions … passions are a part of the current of the world. Where they have ceased, the world’s current has ceased.” In other words, people in the world are held by the pull of their emotions into a vortex of preoccupations; they disperse and scatter abroad, as it were, their soul’s integrity, diversifying its primal simplicity.”

The ideal of a life entirely given over to God can be found on many pages of the New Testament. St. Paul held virginity in high esteem and advocated it for those who could bear it (I Cor. 7: 1, 7, 37, 40). We find many examples in Holy Scripture of men and women giving their lives unreservedly to God and to the service of the Church. In the first instance there were the Apostles and the Seventy and the women who followed and ministered unto Jesus; then there were the deacons and men like St. Luke and St. Barnabas, and women such as Dorcas and Phoebe, who worked with St. Paul. Nevertheless, it was only toward the beginning of the fourth century that Christian monasticism appeared as a definite institution.

The Development of Monasticism

Christian monasticism originated in the East in the Egyptian desert. Following the official recognition of Christianity in 313 AD by the Roman Emperor St. Constantine, there arose the danger–which has not lessened with the passage of time–that men might confuse the earthly kingdom with the Heavenly Kingdom. Then, as now, it was the monks who kept alive the concept that the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Men, and women too, fearing that the lure of comfort and security would divert them from their search for unity with God, left all behind and made their way into the desert, at first singly, then in loosely formed groups. By the mid-fourth century there could already be distinguished the three forms of monastic life still found in the Orthodox Church today.

An artist’s depiction of a hermit monk in the Russian Northern Thebaid.

The Eremitic Life

The life of a hermit, who lives alone in a cell difficult of access, is entirely devoted to prayer and severe asceticism. The hermit’s prototype is St. Paul of Thebes, whose life was written by St. Jerome. St. Paul settled in the desert several years before St. Anthony (251-356) who is generally regarded as the father of monasticism. The story of the encounter of these two holy men after long years of solitude, is one of the most touching in the history of the Desert Fathers. It is clear from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony that monasticism was already well known when St. Anthony, having previously entrusted the care of his orphaned sister to a group of virgins near Alexandria, entered the desert.

Monks at trapeza stand for the blessing of a meal. — Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville NY. (Photo by Ralph H. Sidway for the North American Thebaid)


The Cenobitic Life

The cenobitic or community life, was first established by St. Pachomius of Tabennisi (c. 315-320), where men lived together under a common rule in a regularly constituted monastery. There were also communities of women following this same rule. It is this rule which was used to a great extent by St. Benedict in forming his monastic rule upon which all other Western monastic rules are based. St. Basil the Great (329-379) was a strong advocate of the community life. Because of his two books, the Shorter and the Longer Rules, his influence in Orthodox monasticism is profound, although he did not found an order as such. Separate monastic “orders” or “congregations” as found in the Roman monastic tradition, are unknown in the Orthodox Church. Quite simply, all those who live in the monastic life are accepted as members of the great Brotherhood of Ascetics, and the same rule is used and the same habit is worn by both men and women, forming an integral and inseparable part of the Church’s Body. Very close to St. Basil stood his sister, St. Macrina, who founded a community for women in Cappadocia before her more illustrious brother founded his on the banks of the Iris.

The Semi-Eremitic Life

The semi-eremitic (also known as skete) life, or middle way, is based upon a loosely knit group of small settlements, each practicing asceticism independently, through under the direction of an abbot, the first of whom was Ammon of Nitria. Their focal point is, as it is for all forms of monastic life, the Holy Eucharist, for which they regularly assemble.

The pinnacle of Orthodox monasticism, where all three forms of monastic life coexist to this day, is Mount Athos, the “Holy Mountain,” with its 1,000 years of uninterrupted spiritual activity. It alone gave the Church 26 patriarchs and 144 bishops. All Orthodox countries are represented there, the monks living in their own monasteries or grouped in one or another of the great Lavras, or as hermits.

“There is a great richness of forms of the spiritual life to be found within the bounds of Orthodoxy, but monasticism remains the most classical …. One could say broadly that Eastern monasticism was exclusively contemplative, if the distinction between the two ways, active and contemplative, had in the East the same meaning as in the West. In fact, for an Eastern monk the two ways are inseparable. The one cannot be exercised without the other …. Interior prayer receives the name of spiritual activity …. If the monks occupy themselves…with physical labors, it is above all with an ascetic end in view.” [1]

As we have said, monasticism originated in Egypt, but by degrees its leadership shifted to Palestine where it flowered under St. Euthymius the Great (d. 472) and especially under his disciple St. Sabbas (d. 532) who greatly influenced the monastic rule; at the end of the 8th century it shifted to Constantinople where St. Theodore was abbot of the great and influential monastery of Studium, founded in 463. To this age belongs the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, founded by Emperor Justinian in 560, which is still functioning, harboring a great treasure of manuscripts and holy icons which escaped the ravages of the iconoclastic wars.

With time, there developed in all Orthodox countries a rich and distinctive monastic tradition. Each could boast of important spiritual centers which spread their light over all the Orthodox world. Foremost among them were the Kiev Caves Lavra and Optina Monastery in Russia, Mount Athos and Patmos in Greece, Tismana and Neamtu in Romania, and Ochrid in Serbia. There were countless monasteries, convents and hermitages in these countries in pre-communist times.

Monasticism has always been regarded as a voluntary form of martyrdom. It developed and blossomed forth in the 4th century after the bloody persecution of Christians had dwindled. Today, in countries under communist rule, monastic life, like all church life, is being stifled, In these places there are thousands of unknown martyrs crowding prisons and concentration camps. It is calculated that in Russia alone more people died for their faith in the first 30 years since the Revolution than died in the first 300 years or Christianity. There seems to have been a balance between the cessation of persecution and the growth of monasticism. If this is so, then we should be seeing in the Free World a resurgence of monastic vocations, especially of the more ascetic form.

Although the emphasis in Orthodox monasticism has always been on spiritual activity aimed above all at union with God in complete renunciation of this present world, it would be incorrect to imply, as some do, that Eastern monks care nothing for the needs of others and have had little or no influence upon the course of events. In the East as in the West, it was the monks, sometimes hidden in caves, who kept the torch of civilization burning during the dark ages of barbaric incursions. And later it was in the cloister that Christian and national culture was kept alive during centuries of Tartar and Moslem-Turkish invasions and occupations, a trial their Western brethren were spared.

Many bishops (all Orthodox bishops are monks) played leading roles in their countries’ state councils, as for example St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who was also a great mystic. There was also St. Sergius of Radonezh (?1314-1392), one of Russia’s greatest saints, and many others up to the present day, such as Patriarch Miron Christea who was regent (1927-1930) ‘for the young king of Romania. They advised, admonished, encouraged or opposed their princes when necessary.

Although Orthodox monks never played such spectacular roles as did the Abbots of Cluny at one time, nevertheless, throughout history their influence was considerable. In the Byzantine Empire they were powerful in quelling heresies and fighting immoralities. None were more active in this battle than St. John Chrysostom (d. 407). Later, in the Russian Empire, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (d. 1783) was similarly renowned.

Although they functioned primarily as communities of prayer, Orthodox monasteries also enraged in charitable activities: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and caring for the sick. Many of them grew very large, comprising several hundred or even thousand monks or nuns. Some had vast estates which they farmed. While this occasionally tended towards excessive wealth and had to be curtailed, it enabled these prosperous monasteries to rescue whole regions from famine.

(to be continued)


(Originally published by the St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Monastic Skete, Swartz Creek, MI 48473. Text from a translation from the Monastery of the Veil, Bussy-en-Othe, France.)

[1] V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, James Clark & Co. Ltd. London, 1957, p. 17, 18.

3 thoughts on “The Angelic Path – An Outline of Orthodox Monasticism

  1. Pingback: An Outline of Orthodox Monasticism – Part 2 – The North American Thebaid

  2. Pingback: An Outline of Orthodox Monasticism – Part 3 – The North American Thebaid

  3. Pingback: The Angelic Path – An Outline of Orthodox Monasticism – Hermitage of New Solovki

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