Asceticism, and the toils that go with it, was devised simply in order to ward off deception, which established itself through sensory perception, it is not [as if] the virtues have been newly introduced from the outside, for they inhere in us from creation, as hath already been said. Therefore, when deception is completely expelled, the soul immediately exhibits the splendor of its natural virtue. (Disputation with Pyrrhus, 95)
St. Ignaty Brianchininov 1807-1867
In the chapter on Obedience [St. John of the Ladder says], “Scan the mind of inexperienced novices, and there you will find distracted thought: a desire for solitude, for the strictest fast, for uninterrupted prayer, for absolute freedom from vanity, for unbroken remembrance of death, for continual compunction, for perfect absence of anger, for profound silence, for surpassing purity. And if by divine providence they lack these in the beginning, they rush in vain to another life and are deceived. For the enemy urges them to seek these perfections before the time, so that they may not persevere and in due time attain them. But to those living in solitude the fraud extols hospitality, service, brotherly love, community life, visiting the sick. And the deceiver’s aim is to make the latter as impatient as the former.”
The fallen angel tries to deceive monks and drag them to perdition by suggesting to them not only sin in its various forms but also the most exalted virtues unsuited to their condition. Do not trust your thoughts, opinions, dreams, impulses, or inclinations, even though they offer you or put before you in an attractive guise the most holy monastic life. If the monastery in which you are residing gives you the possibility of living a life according to the commandments of the Gospel and unless you are exposed to temptations to mortal sin, do not leave your monastery. Endure courageously its defects, both spiritual and material. Do not think you can find a sphere of activity not given by God to our time. (The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life [kindle version])
Gregory of Sinai and other saints concur. They insist that it is not an easy task to find a skilled and trustworthy guide in this wonderful discipline. For, they explain, such a trustworthy instructor must have much personal experience and be grounded in the wisdom of the holy Writings.
He must also have acquired the gift of spiritual discernment. Even in the time of those saints we are told that such a teacher was not easily found. In our present time of such evil, all the more diligence must be had in seeking such a guide. But if such a teacher cannot be found, they, the saintly Fathers, order us to study the Sacred Scriptures and hear our Lord Himself speaking: “Search the Scriptures and in them you will find eternal life.” For St. Paul the Apostle says that all that was written in the Sacred Scriptures was written for our instruction (cf. Rom 15:4). Thus the saints, who underwent great discipline to control their feelings and labored in mental prayer in the vineyard of their own heart and purified their mind of all passions, have discovered the Lord and attained spiritual wisdom. We, too, who are so enflamed by the fires of our passions, are enjoined to draw the living water from the fountain of the Sacred Scriptures, which have the power to extinguish the fires of our passion and instruct us in the understanding of the truth.
For this reason, even though I am a great sinner and not endowed with wisdom, I also assiduously have applied myself to the holy Writings according to the inspired Fathers’ teachings. Like a slave I was imprisoned by unbecoming passions, which are the basic roots of evil in all things. Thus it is not because I have overcome the passions in a healthy, benevolent silence, but because of my sickness of the passions that I have collected together a little out of what I found from the holy Writings. Like a dog picking up crumbs that fall from the table, so I have gathered together the words of those blessed Fathers and have written all this to be a reminder to us to imitate them, even if it be only in an insignificant way. (The Monastic Rule [Ustav], Introduction)
Quite simply during these holy days it is possible to see great zeal and attention. But the true subject behaves with obedience not at any particular time, but keeps up the struggle always. What is the struggle? Not to walk according to one’s own will, but to let oneself be ruled by the disposition of the superior. This is better than the other works of zeal and is a crown of martyrdom; except that for you there is also change of diet, multiplication of prostrations and increase of psalmody are in accord with the established tradition from of old. (Catechesis 53)
Monasticism is something ‘other,’ a kind of ‘anti-city,’ anti-polis, for it is basically ‘another’ city… Christian history unfolds in an antithesis between the Empire and the Desert [but] monasticism succeeded, much more than the Empire ever did, to preserve the true ideal of culture in its purity and freedom. In any case, spiritual creativity was richly nourished from the depths of the spiritual life. (Christianity and Civilization)
There was once a great clairvoyant elder who maintained that the power of Grace which he saw, during a Baptism, near at hand to the person being baptized, he also saw at the time that a monk was receiving the Angelic Schema. (Hypothesis XXXI, The Evergetinos Vol. III of First Book)
Turning now to the law, which is properly ours— that is, to the Gospel— by what kind of examples are we met, until we come to definite dogmas? Behold, there immediately present themselves to us, on the threshold as it were, the two priestesses of Christian sanctity, Monogamy and Continence: one modest, in Zechariah the priest; one absolute, in John the forerunner: one appeasing God; one preaching Christ: one proclaiming a perfect priest; one exhibiting
more than a prophet, — him, namely, who has not only preached or personally pointed out, but even baptized Christ. For who was more worthily to perform the initiatory rite on the body of the Lord, than flesh similar in kind to that which conceived and gave birth to that (body)? And indeed it was a virgin, about to marry once for all after her delivery, who gave birth to Christ, in order that each title of sanctity might be fulfilled in Christ’s parentage, by means of a mother who was both virgin, and wife of one husband. Again, when He is presented as an infant in the temple, who is it who receives Him into his hands? Who is the first to recognize Him in spirit? A man
just and circumspect, and of course no digamist, (which is plain) even (from this consideration), lest (otherwise) Christ should presently be more worthily preached by a woman, an aged widow, and
the wife of one man; who, living devoted to the temple, was (already) giving in her own person a sufficient token what sort of persons ought to be the adherents to the spiritual temple,— that is, the Church. Such eye-witnesses the Lord in infancy found; no different ones had He in adult age. Peter alone do I find— through (the mention of) his
mother-in-law —to have been married. Monogamist I am led to presume him by consideration of the Church, which, built upon him, was destined to appoint every grade of her Order from monogamists. (On Monogamy, 8)
Every monk is always a theologian and a man of dogma. The monastic estate is the recapitulation of the whole content of Orthodox doctrine. It is a distillate of the experience of the Orthodox faith and it’s guardian. This is true, just as it is also true that the monks have often, of necessity, fought in defense of doctrine.
However, the natural place of the monk is asceticism and not the defense of doctrine in the public church. The security of doctrine, its living out and its preservation, comprise a necessary equilibrium in Orthodoxy. But the monasteries do not have it as their purpose to champion the doctrine. The holy Canons strictly forbid the monks from getting mixed up in doctrinal issues and in “church affairs.” Permission is required for this purpose from the bishop.
To be sure, there have been periods when the monks have involved themselves — and they did well to do so — with defense of doctrine, and they continue to do it. The Holy Mountain, for example, protects the Church even today, but this is an exception. It presents itself as an imperative necessity by reason of the difficult period that the Church is presently experiencing.
The same Church assembled in councils is the assurance of the doctrine. The monks preserve its conscience unimpaired, and the council, bishop, etc., is obliged to take this into account. There are fathers, like Saint Barsanuphius and a great many others, who strictly forbad any mingling of monks in questions of the faith, and this in order that they dedicate themselves to their ascetic struggles. Such men, however, possess the doctrine in their very lives. They live it out in every one of their veins and their blood itself depends on it.
Let us pray that the necessity not arise that monks should have to intervene, but that the Church be ever Orthodox and rightly divide the word of truth. (The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain by Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin pp. 180-181. “Martyrdom: Foundation of Orthodox Monasticism”)
[Christ] announces that the order and holy choir of the virgins shall first enter in company with Him into the rest of the new dispensation, as into a bridal chamber. For they [are] martyrs, not as bearing the pains of the body for a little moment of time, but as enduring them through all their life, not shrinking from truly wrestling in an Olympian contest for the prize of chastity; but resisting the fierce torments of pleasures and fears and griefs, and the other evils of the iniquity of men, they first of all carry off the prize, taking their place in the higher rank of those who receive the promise. (Banquet on Ten Virgins, Discourse 7.3)
Marriage could but bring forth men, — virginity alone was worthy of giving birth to the God-Man… if you wish to learn from the Lord Himself the angelic dignity of virginity, listen to His own word: “for in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in Heaven” (Mat. 22:30); or as another Evangelist paraphrases the same thing, “for they are equal unto the angels.” (Lk. 20:36) The state in which they neither marry nor are given in marriage, consequently, that of perpetual virginity, is then called by the Lord equal unto that of angels.
…[A]m I not speaking too much of a subject, which many may think, does not concern them? Indeed the Lord Himself has forewarned us, that not all are able to be virgins, saying: “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it was given.” (Mat. 19:11) He Himself has called unto virginity not all men, but only those who are able, to whom it is given: “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” (Mat. 19:12) And as virginity is not for all, therefore you may even ask, why then do I speak of it at all? I accept this question. It will lead me to the aim and end of my discourse. We speak of virginity to all, because among all there are those “that are able to receive it”; and my word is seeking out from amongst all those whom God calls to hear and fulfill it, and who are often unknown to men.
We speak to all men of virginity that those who are married might know that there is a state higher than marriage; and that honoring virginity in others, and thinking humbly of marriage, they might obtain for marriage a blessing near to the blessing of appointed virginity.
We speak of true virginity unto all men, that, knowing it, they may guard themselves from mistaken ways of the foolish virgins, who with the unlit lamps of their minds, wanting the oil of love, are roaming far from the heavenly abode, and, instead of love for the Bridegroom, they are but breeding hate against the holy state of marriage. For, already, since the time of the Apostles, “the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their consciences seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry. (1 Tim. 4:1-3)
Finally, we speak of virginity to all men, that they who are married as well as they who are not, may vigilantly and carefully distinguish the bright beauty of virginity, the comeliness of pure and honorable marriage, from the state of those who have neither been faithful in the use of the golden talent of virginity, nor of the silver talent of marriage, entered upon by the will of the Lord of all talents and gifts. Virginity and marriage are not for all men, but chastity is for all men: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and wordly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.” (Tit. 2:11-12) What does it mean to live soberly? It means either in the purity of virginity or in the honorableness of marriage, in both cases, “in the abstinence from worldly lusts,” and above all, “from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.” (1 Pet. 2:11) They alone who live thus in this present world, may “look for that blessed hope” (Tit. 2:13) to come. Amen. (Sermon XX, On Holy Virginity)
For we call a whole-burnt offering a holocaust… Yet there is a difference between a whole-burnt offering and a sacrifice, because every whole-burnt offering is a sacrifice but not every sacrifice is a whole-burnt offering. For there are many good deeds which are done as sacrifices but they are not whole-burnt offerings, because they do not kindle the whole mind with spiritual love. For those who devote themselves to the things which are of God in such a way that they still do not relinquish certain things which belong to the world, truly make a sacrifice but not a whole burnt-offering. But those who abandon all that belongs to the world and set the whole of their mind alight with the fire of divine love; these truly become a sacrifice and a whole-burnt offering to the Lord Almighty. (On the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Homily XII.30)
Just as we humans prefer gold to sliver, so the Lord indeed likes marriage, but likes virginity more, in order to show you that if you can preserve your virginity and become a monk, or if you are a woman a nun, you are fortunate and thrice blessed, you are free from worldly things, you are like an angel. However, if you want to preserve your virginity, you must put as the first foundation the non possesion-of-property and must discipline your body with fasts, prayers, vigils, and hardships in order to humble the flesh. Also, you must flee from the world… There is no other way for the monk to be saved except by withdrawing far from the world.
Jesus did not love him alone in a singular way to the exclusion of others, but He loved John beyond those whom He loved, in a more intimate way as one whom the special prerogative of chastity had made worthy of fuller love. Indeed, He proved that He loved them all when before His Passion He said to them, ‘Even as the Father loved Me, I also loved you; abide in the love, that which is Mine (Jn. 15:9).’ But beyond the others He loved the one who, being a virgin when chosen by Him, remained forever a virgin. Accordingly, when Christ was about to die on the Cross, He recommended His Mother to John (Jn. 19:26, 27), so that virgin might watch over virgin; and when he Himself ascended to heaven after His death and resurrection, a son would not be lacking to His mother, whose chaste life would be protected by his chaste services. (Homilies on the Gospels, Bk. 1, 87)
Virginity is the rule of life among the angels, the property of all incorporeal nature. This we say without speaking ill of marriage: God forbid! (for we know that the Lord blessed marriage by His presence Jn. 2:1, and we know him who said, Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled Hebr. 13:4), but knowing that virginity is better than marriage, however good. For among the virtues, equally as among the vices, there are higher and lower grades. We know that all mortals after the first parents of the race are the offspring of marriage. For the first parents were the work of virginity and not of marriage. But celibacy is, as we said, an imitation of the angels. Wherefore virginity is as much more honourable than marriage, as the angel is higher than man. But why do I say angel? Christ Himself is the glory of virginity, who was not only-begotten of the Father without beginning or emission or connection, but also became man in our image, being made flesh for our sakes of the Virgin without connection, and manifesting in Himself the true and perfect virginity. Wherefore, although He did not enjoin that on us by law (for as He said, all men cannot receive this saying Mat. 19:11), yet in actual fact He taught us that and gave us strength for it. For it is surely clear to every one that virginity now is flourishing among men.
Good indeed is the procreation of children enjoined by the law, and good is marriage on account of fornications, for it does away with these 1 Cor. 7:2, and by lawful intercourse does not permit the madness of desire to be enflamed into unlawful acts. Good is marriage for those who have no continence: but that virginity is better which increases the fruitfulness of the soul and offers to God the seasonable fruit of prayer. Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled, but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge Heb. 13:4. (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith Bk. 4.24)
It must not be forgotten that the person who first introduced monasticism to the Latin West was St. Athanasius. During his exile in 340, St. Athanasius brought with him to Rome two monks from the Egyptian desert, one of whom was Ammonius; the other Isidore. Rome was stunned. But the initial reaction of disgust and contempt soon changed to one of admiration and then imitation. Two additional visits to Rome by St. Athanasius strengthened the beginning of the monastic movement in the Latin West. St. Athanasius influenced even the northern part of the Latin empire — during his exile in 336 he spent time in Trier, and wherever St. Athanasius went he spread the knowledge of monasticism. (The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers)
The introduction of monasticism into the West may be dated from about A.D. 340 when St. Athanasius visited Rome accompanied by the two Egyptian monks Ammon and Isidore, disciples of St. Anthony. The publication of the “Vita Antonii” some years later and its translation into Latin spread the knowledge of Egyptian monachism widely and many were found in Italy to imitate the example thus set forth. The first Italian monks aimed at reproducing exactly what was done in Egypt and not a few — such as St. Jerome, Rufinus, Paula, Eustochium and the two Melanias — actually went to live in Egypt or Palestine as being better suited to monastic life than Italy. (Monasticism, Western)
Philip Schaff 1819-1893
[M]any have held, that monasticism also came from heathenism, and was an apostasy from apostolic Christianity, which Paul had plainly foretold in the Pastoral Epistles. But such a view can hardly be reconciled with the great place of this phenomenon in history; and would, furthermore, involve the entire ancient church, with its greatest and best representatives both east and west, its Athanasius, its Chrysostom, its Jerome, its Augustine, in the predicted apostasy from the faith. And no one will now hold, that these men, who all admired and commended the monastic life, were antichristian errorists, and that the few and almost exclusively negative opponents of that asceticism, as Jovinian, Helvidius, and Vigilantius, were the sole representatives of pure Christianity in the Nicene and next following age. (History of the Christian Church: Chap IV. 28 “The Rise and Progress of Monasticism”)
Athanasius, the guest, the disciple, and subsequently the biographer and eulogist of St. Anthony, brought the first intelligence of monasticism to the West, and astounded the civilized and effeminate Romans with two live representatives of the semi-barbarous desert-sanctity of Egypt, who accompanied him in his exile in 340. The one, Ammonius, was so abstracted from the world that he disdained to visit any of the wonders of the great city, except the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul; while the other, Isidore, attracted attention by his amiable simplicity. The phenomenon excited at first disgust and contempt, but soon admiration and imitation, especially among women, and among the decimated ranks of the ancient Roman nobility. The impression of the first visit was afterward strengthened by two other visits of Athanasius to Rome, and especially by his biography of Anthony, which immediately acquired the popularity and authority of a monastic gospel. Many went to Egypt and Palestine, to devote themselves there to the new mode of life; and for the sake of such, Jerome afterward translated the rule of Pachomius into Latin. Others founded cloisters in the neighborhood of Rome, or on the ruins of the ancient temples and the forum, and the frugal number of the heathen vestals was soon cast into the shade by whole hosts of Christian virgins. From Rome, monasticism gradually spread over all Italy and the isles of the Mediterranean, even to the rugged rocks of the Gorgon and the Capraja, where the hermits, in voluntary exile from the world, took the place of the criminals and political victims whom the justice or tyranny and jealousy of the emperors had been accustomed to banish thither. (ibid. Chap. IV.40)
If there are any monks in our day, they will be proved by their works. The work of a monk is to not tolerate any innovations whatsoever as pertains to the Gospel, that they not become examples to laymen as proposing heresy and communion with heretics, for they will give account for their [the laity’s] loss [of salvation]. (Letter 79, to Abbot Theophilos, PG 99, 1049)
The gracious gifts and privileges of virginity are heavenly and beyond excellence and bear no comparison with marriage. For divine Chrysostom in his discourses on Virginity says: “Virginity is as far superior to marriage as heaven is away from the earth, and as Angels are from human beings.” St. Augustine in his discourse on virginity says: “Virginal conduct is angelic conduct; and in a perishable body a meditation of eternal imperishability.” St. Jerome (in his Book relating to Jovinian) says: “Virginity is a sacrifice of Christ, having an angelical imitation.” And in his Letter 22 he says: “When the Son of God descended upon the earth, he instituted angelic conduct, in order that the One adored by the Angels in heaven might have Angels on earth.” God-bearing Ignatios, in his letter to the Tarsians: “Christ called (female) virgins priestesses.” St. Ambrose in his commentary on the Psalms calls them (i.e., male virgins) martyrs. St. Cyprian in his discourse concerning virginity calls virginity “a flower and rose of the Church.” The same St. Athanasios himself in his discourse on virginity says: “Virginity is an inexhaustible source of wealth, an imperishable crown, a temple of God, a dwelling of the Holy Spirit, a precious pearl, a trophy against Hades and against death.” St. Gregory the Theologian in his Epics says that (male) virgins who are imitating the virginal Holy Trinity, are standing before the Lamb, and will follow Him wherever He may go, according to Chapter 14 of the Book of Revelation. Virginity is united with wisdom. Wherefore these, as two most beautiful women embraced this watchful Theologian in their arms. In fact, virginity is so good that without it marriage would be useless. For St. Paul says that those who have wives ought to have them with as much sobriety and virginity as though they did not have them at all. St. Isidore of Pelusium, too says: “With respect to a man may be like the Angels, but with respect to marriage he differs nowise from the wild beasts, to which animals coition is a necessity.” (Letter No. 1778.) Nevertheless, so invaluable is virginity that it ought to be kept with all one’s might and care. For if a man once lose it, he cannot ever regain it, according to St. Basil the Great, who says: “For repentance forgives sins, but it wails throughout life for the woman who has been defiled, because it is unable to make make her undefiled.” (Discourse on Virginity) (The Rudder: Footnotes to St. Athanasios the Great 26.)
A careful guide points out many paths, that each may walk along the one which he prefers and considers suitable to himself, so long as he comes upon one by which he can reach the camp. The path of virginity is good, but being high and steep requires the stronger wayfarers. Good also is that of widowhood, not so difficult as the former, but being rocky and rough, it requires more cautious travellers. Good too is that of marriage; being smooth and even it reaches the camp of the saints by a longer circuit. This way is taken by most. There are then the rewards of virginity, there are the merits of widowhood, there is also a place for conjugal modesty. There are steps and advances in each and every virtue. (Letter 63:40)
On the way toward Karyes we made a short stop at the cell of the renowned hesychast, Paisios the Athonite, a great holy man, honored and sought out in the whole ofGreece, who amazed us with his holiness and humility.
The cell of Fr. Paisios in Capsala is surrounded by grape vineyards. We knocked at the gate and waited. A monk small of stature, thin, modestly clothed, about seventy-five years of age, but luminous of face and full of humility, came and opened the gate for us. It was the Elder!
“Bless us, Fr. Paisios! We are pilgrims fromRomania.”
“The Lord bless us all!”
He invited us into a small chapel next to the cell, where we venerated and sang the Axion to the Mother of God. Then he invited us into his cell for guests, about eight by twelve feet. We sat down. There were about ten of us in all. Fr. Paisios served us, according to the custom of Athonite monks, with sweets and cold water. Then he sat on a small chair on the threshold of the door.
“Fr. Paisios, we come from far away. Please – give us a profitable word.”
“Forgive me, please. I am not hieromonk and I do not dare to give a profitable word to priests,” answered the Elder.
“Nevertheless, find for us a profitable word.”
“Fathers, I have not yet finished the school of monasticism and I don’t know many words.”
Seeing his humility, Archimandrite Cleopa asked him, “Fr. Paisios, which prayer is more beneficial for a monk: to read the Psalter or to say the Jesus Prayer?”
“Both are good,” he answered, “only say them from the heart, with faith and with tears.”
“Which monastic ascetical labor is better? Common life or that of the wilderness [desert-dwelling]?”
“If you have humility,” the Elder said, “in either you can be saved. He who wants to be sure of salvation enters into a community under obedience; and he who loves stillness and prayer withdraws in solitude.”
“How can we help in the salvation of others?”
“Through prayer. The monk is first of all a man of prayer and a candle on the candlestand for everyone. Only in this way can we help and spiritually build up people. First is prayer, then the example of our life, then the word of instruction.”
“How can we obtain the gift of tears?”
“If we have the humility of the saints, we will obtain both the Prayer of the Heart and the gift of tears. I haven’t been able to obtain this gift, which is received from God by great labor.”
“What opinion do you have of Athonite monasticism today?”
“I don’t have any opinion. But I know that all came to theHolyMountainto glorify God and to be saved. Thus all force themselves, according to their zeal and their strength, in prayer, in obedience, in fasting, in nightly vigils, and in all good works. All humble themselves, have hope, and labor and follow Christ. Who, however, will lay hold of the crown of salvation, no one knows except God alone.”
“What books must monastics read?”
“First of all the Holy Scriptures. Then the Lives of the Saints and the Patristic writings. We do not have to read or speak a lot, but we must do a lot!”
“Fr. Paisios, how many times must we partake of Holy Communion per year?”
“The promptings of the heart and our spiritual father indicate to us how many times. Some more often, others less often. But if monastics can commune once a week, it is very good. Lay people – less frequently and in accordance with what their spiritual fathers decide.”
“What other counsel can you give us?”
“Let us always be ready for death because we know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh (Mat. 25:13)”
“Fr Paisios, how many hours must a monk sleep at night?”
“If I added up how many hours I sleep lying down on a bed and how many I sleep on my feet, you would see that I sleep all day long, because I don’t keep watch with my mind in prayer!”
And we benefiting greatly from the humility and wisdom of Fr. Paisios, thanked him for receiving us and for the counsel given, asked for his blessing, and continued on our way. (Shepherd of Souls: The Life of Elder Cleopa, Chap. 56 The Pilgrimage to Mount Athos pp. 146-149)
For, there being two roads in life as regards these matters, the one a more moderate and helpful road conducive to life, that of marriage, I mean; the other one being angelic and unsurpassable, that of virginity; but if anyone should choose the mundane life – that is to say, the way of marriage, though he is not liable to censure or blame, he will not receive so many gracious gifts. For what he will receive when he bears fruit will be thirty. But if he embraces the chaste and supra-mundane life, though the road is rough in comparison with the first and difficult to achieve, yet it has more wonderful features in the way of gracious gifts: for it has produced the perf1ect fruit, the hundred. (The Rudder: Canons of the Holy Fathers, First Epistle to the Monk Amun)
“’A monk must love God as a son and fear him as a slave.’ says Evagrius. In fact, this is so of every Christian, even if he is not a monk. It is a great art to unite love for God to fear of Him. Many other of the Holy Fathers also, when they speak of love for God, speak at the same time of fear of Him- and vice versa…the greatest love towards God of which man is capable can be turned into pride if it is not accompanied by a sense of fear- and great fear without love leads to despair.” – St. Nikolai Velimirovic
Metropolitan of Nafpakos, Hierotheos
“Indeed we know very well that the Church praises both ways of life, both the monastic life and the married life. But this does not mean that one is praised at the expense of the other. And at this point we must say that the interpretation of the Parable of the Talents applies, which we mentioned before.
It can be maintained that in the Church the people are not divided simply into unmarried and married, but into people who live in Christ and people who do not live in Christ. Thus on the one hand we have people who have the Holy Spirit and on the other hand people who do not have the Holy Spirit. Moreover, in the early Church, as it seems in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, all the Christians, unmarried and married, lived like monks, because even marriage has its asceticism. Therefore, if some monk criticises marriage in Christ, he shows that he has a problem with the monastic life, and if a married person criticises and looks askance at the monastic life, it means that he has a problem with the way in which he is living his life. A good monk never criticises what God praises and a good married person never criticises anything that God praises, such as the monastic life.”
The Mind of the Orthodox Church, p.157
Someone asked Abba Agathon, ‘Which is better, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance?’ The old man replied, ‘Man is like a tree, bodily asceticism is the foliage, interior vigilance the fruit. According to that which is written, “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire” (Mat. 3:10) it is clear that all our care should be directed towards the fruit, that is to say, guard the spirit; but it needs bodily protection and the embellishment of the foliage, which is bodily asceticism.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Agathon: 8)
Now it is not right that the wing of virginity should, by its own nature, be weighed down upon the earth, but that it should soar upwards to heaven, to a pure atmosphere, and to the life which is akin to that of angels. Whence also they, first of all, after their call and departure hence, who have rightly and faithfully contended as virgins for Christ, bear away the prize of victory, being crowned by Him with the flowers of immortality. For, as soon as their souls have left the world, it is said that the angels meet them with much rejoicing, and conduct them to the very pastures already spoken of, to which also they were longing to come, contemplating them in imagination from afar, when, while they were vet dwelling in their bodies, they appeared to them divine. (Banquet of the Ten Virgins 8.2)
Moses: “When I went up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone…I was in the mountain forty days and forty nights, I ate no bread and drank no water.” Deuteronomy 9:9
Prophet Jonah: “It was by fasting and other things that the people of Nineveh were saved from his prediction of peril.” Jonah 3:7
Prophet Joel: “Now, says the Lord your God, turn to Me, with all your heart, with fasting and with wailing, and with mourning.” Joel 2:12
Prophet Daniel: “And I set my face toward the Lord god, to seek him diligently by prayer and supplication, with fastings and sackcloth. And I prayed to the Lord my God, and confessed…” Daniel 9:34
Take a look right here at the recent video of Mt. Athos. I will also be posting the video on the side bar.
From pre-Nicene times to our modern times, the monastics of the Church have kept us vigilant and sober, showing us that God does indeed call modern day John the Baptists’ and Paul the Apostles’. God calls these monks to live a life of purity not merely for themselves, but for the greater health of the entire Church – men and women praying for the Church and the world, serving the Church and the world, and sacrificing for the Church and the world.
The movement of monasticism was first inspired by John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” – John 1:23. His very calling was prophesied by Isaiah as the forerunner to Christ; a spokesman and martyr for Christ, yes, but a monastic one at that. St. John’s life was one that was dedicated to one primary thing: meditating on the revelation of God in the purist form possible: alone, celibate, with little to no material possessions to look after; a slave to Christ! Saint John’s calling, of course, exemplified the calling of Christ, who also lived a “monastic” life; thee monastic life! Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12), as well as his solitary habits (e.g., Luke 4:42; 5:15-16), would become an important model for later monastic practices.
At times Jesus encouraged the renunciation of commitments to important symbols of established society: marriage (Matthew 19:12 – “Others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven; the one who can accept this should accept it”), and wealth (Mark 10:21 – “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor”). He had also promoted a high level of self-denial among his followers (Mark 8:34).This was the beginnings of the New Covenant Church, formed and fashioned amongst the very highest of ethical, moral and spiritual standards ever known to man.
After John and Christ we see many others who follow the monastic calling in order to promote and grow the Kingdom of God. Saint Paul the Apostle could certainly be considered a monastic. We see that in his writings he withheld from not only the companionship of a wife but also of material gain. Saint Paul’s influence on the New Testament Church was extreme, and we can see in Acts 16:5 that from this work the Church began to gain great momentum, “being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.”
In Acts 4:32, we can see how the Church shared all things and lived a very communal life. This communal life was a natural progression likely inherited from the simple fact that in order to love one another an attitude of giving and fellowship had to manifest. It was this communal lifestyle that gave way to the later monastic communities.
As Williston Walker states in his book, A History of the Christian Church (p.154), monasticism “arose originally among the peasantry.” This early movement of Christians sought to withdraw from the populations in Egypt and Syria as well as the churches within those areas. The Church witnessed this separation and so began to sponsor the communities and becoming actual products of the monastic movements.
Known as one of the Desert Fathers, St. Anthony (250-356 A.D.) is said to be one of the first official Christian “monks.” When he was about twenty he heard the voice of God saying, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” He did as he was commanded and sold his possessions. Anthony’s sacrifice went far beyond what most monks practice today. When Anthony was 35, he retired into the desert, where he shut himself up in an abandoned fort. Food was thrown to him over the wall and for twenty years he saw no people whatsoever.
After these years of isolation an entire colony of men gathered around his fort to follow their call to monasticism. In 305 A.D. the monks persuaded Anthony to come out to disciple them. He spent five or six years at this task and in 311 A.D., paid a visit to Alexandria to encourage the Church in persecution. He then retired deeper into the desert, where he lived alone for the rest of his life (Bonnell Spencer, Ye Are the Body, p. 62). Through a famous biography written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Anthony’s monastic life became widely known. Athanasius portrayed Anthony as if he were a wrestler in training and so tapped both the religious fervor and the sports fever that were characteristic of the common men and women of the Eastern Empire and thus Anthony’s influence spread well beyond Egypt.
A number of monastic communities that sprang off of Anthony’s work made the point of it all to live alone, and although still connected with the Church were still very disconnected from people, including other monks. Pachomius (290-346 A.D.) went a step further, however, and arranged that the monks should work to produce their own food and clothing. This way, they were no longer dependent upon the charity that the public could spare for their sustenance, and the number of people who could adopt this cenobitical life (“life in common”) would become unlimited. After the reforms of Pachomius, the number of monasteries and monks began to increase rapidly in the East, including addition of women into the monastic fold.
In Syria, the monastic life grew with the tendency of self-denial. Simeon the Elder (390-459 A.D.) was one of the more popular examples of what was called a “Stylite,” because he spent thirty years of his life living at the top of a pillar, where he prayed and preached to those passing by.
In Cappadocia, and later in Asia Minor cenobitism became the rule. The monastic life in this region owes its progress to the efforts of Esustathis of Sebaste (300-377 A.D.) and Basil the Great of Caesarea (370-379 A.D.). Basil promoted the “philosophical life” and demanded both the love of God and neighbor. Basil also encouraged his monks to situate themselves on the edge of the cities so as to serve the general public with instruction and hospitality.
The Monastic ideal was first taught to the West by Saint Athanasius, who wrote the biography of Saint Anthony called The life of Anthony. The book was quickly translated into Latin (360 A.D.)
The earliest sign of monastic life in the West was that of Bishop Martin Tours (335-397 A.D.). Around the same time, Eusebius of Vercelli (340-371 A.D.) introduced a new monastic community which involved clergy under a special ascetical rule. This same rule was followed by Augustine of Hippo.
The constant growth of monastic communities in the West, particularly in Italy, Gaul, and Spain, led to a fifth century rule called the Rule of Benedict, which is very likely to be contributed to Benedict of Nursia (480-550 A.D.) (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church). Benedict’s members were required to renounce personal possessions and to remain in the community for life. The monks conducted a communal praise of God in a sevenfold daily office, they labored in the fields and they participated in what is known as lectio divina – the meditative study of the Scripture. They conducted a school for reading and studying of Scripture, equipped with a library. This gave way to other monasteries beginning the same ministry, eventually, reaching into the Middle Ages, resulting in the monastery as the primary institution of learning. Although the Benedictine Rule spread slowly, it was used very steadily by Pope Gregory the Great, who used its monks as missionaries, bishops and ambassadors.
Monasticism has grown today as a major influence in the Orthodox Church with thousands of monasteries around the world. It serves as an anchor in the Church for ethics and spiritual practices that would otherwise fade with those who are caught up in marital and other social affairs. The monks of the Church can in many ways be considered to be the very conscience of the Church. The daily lives of various parishioners around the world are not lived without the consideration of the monks and how they live. We know that there are many monks living a strict spiritual life for the kingdom of God, and this convicts us and gives us strength! We also reap the prayers of the monks and greatly benefit from the theological/educational resources that they create.