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.

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