The Orthodox Monastic Tradition - The Beginnings

Since the early years of the Christian era, Christians have been called by Christ Himself to life in the world without being of the world (John 17:13-16). They are distinct from the world, because of their special conduct and their exemplary ethical life. When, toward the middle of the second century of the Christian era, Christian life reached a low ebb, some Christians, both men and women, reacted to this by raising their own personal standards of austere Christian life. They practiced chastity, celibacy, poverty, prayer and fasting (Justin, I Apology 15:6; Athenagoras, Apology 33; and Galenus, De Sententiis Politiae Platonicae).

These people considered themselves Christians selected to live the life of angels (Matt. 22:30). They lived by themselves or in special houses as a community. At about the middle of the third century, they began fleeing the world and going to the desert, where they established permanent habitations, whether by themselves or in small groups. They are known as the "anchorites" (from anachoresis: departure, flight); the hermits (from eremos: desert); and the monastics (from monos: alone, for a monastic "lives in the presence of God alone").

A good example of an anchorite monk is Saint Anthony the Great, who fled the world [c. 285] and established himself in the desert of Middle Egypt. Many people imitated his example; they went and lived close to him, thus "populating the desert" (Troparion of St. Anthony). These monks lived by themselves in huts and small houses to form a village called "lavra" (later the concept of "lavra" develops, as we will see). St. Anthony is considered the Father of Orthodox monasticism, for his kind of monasticism, that of "living alone with God as his only companion" remained the most cherished monastic ideal for the monks of the Eastern Orthodox Church throughout the ages.

The establishment of Christianity as a legal religion of the roman Empire by Constantine the Great, with the edict of Milan (313), led to a new decline in the ethical life of Christians. In reaction to this decline, many refused to accept any compromises and fled the world to become monastics. Monasticism thrived, especially in Egypt, with two important monastic centers, one in the desert of Nitria, by the Western Bank of the Nile, with Abba Ammoun (d. 356) as its founder, and one in the desert of Skete, south of Nitria, with Saint Makarios of Egypt (d. ca. Egypt 330) as its founder. These monks were anchorites, following the monastic ideal of St. Anthony. They lived by themselves, gathering together for common worship on Saturdays and Sundays only.

Whereas Saint Anthony the Great is the founder of anchorite monasticism, Saint Pachomios of Egypt (d. 346) is the founder of the so-called "cenobitic" (from Koinos bios: communal life) monasticism. Pachomios started as an anchorite himself in the Thebaid, Upper Egypt. Later in that same place, he founded the first "monastery" in the modern sense of the term. St. Anthony's lavra was a village of anchorites who lived by themselves in their own huts and had a life in common, practiced common daily prayer evening and morning, worked in common, had common revenues and expenditures, and common meals, and wore the same identical monastic garb. This garb consisted of a linen tunic or robe and belt, a white goat skin or sheep skin coat and belt, a cone-shaped head-cover or hood (koukoulion) and a linen scarf (maforion or pallium). At this stage, monks were identified with lay people seeking Christian perfection. No religious ceremony was required, and no monastic vows. Monks were prohibited from becoming clergy.

Anchorite monasticism existed in other places besides Egypt. However, "organized monasticism," that is, of the "cenobitic" type, spread to Sinai, Palestine and Syria from Egypt. Two monks from Egypt, St. Ilarion (d. 371) and St. Epiphanios, later bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (d. 403), brought organized monasticism to Palestine.

Monasticism at this time was identified with the "charismatics" of the ancient church. This identification of monasticism with the "enthusiastic element" in the church led to some abuses, of which those around Eustathios of Sebastia (d. 380) are good example. Eustathios introduced monasticism into Asia Minor from Egypt. His followers became overzealous; they taught that marriage and meat-eating made salvation impossible; they were, in fact, advocating monasticism for all Christians. The Council of Gangra (343) condemned these over-enthusiastic practices. Another heresy that affected monasticism during this same time was "Messalianism," which appeared in Mesopotamia (c. 350 A.D.). Messalians were ascetics who practiced poverty, celibacy and fasting. They rejected the sacramental life of the church and pretended to see God with their physical eyes. They spread in Syria and Asia Minor; they finally were anathematized by the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus [431]. Under the influence of the Messalians, the non-sleepers or Vigilant (Akoimetoi) type of monasticism was developed in the area of Constantinople (mid-fifth century). The most famous instance was the Studion monastery, renowned for its polemic against the Iconoclasts. St. Symeon of Antioch [ca. 460] also developed the Stylite type of monasticism, living himself on a pole (stylos) for over 36 years.

Monasticism became a strong movement in the life of the church. The church not only condemned anti-church groups and tendencies within monasticism, but also guided and directed the monastic movement to meet its own needs. One of the ways through which this occurred was through a convergence of monasticism and clergy: monks were now ordained in a special religious service at which they subscribed to special monastic vows, thus becoming a special class of Christians standing between the clergy and the laity. This development was mostly due to the efforts of Saint Basil, Archbishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia.

Basil the Great and the Constitution of Orthodox Monasticism

Eustathios of Sebastia introduced monasticism to Asia Minor; he influenced St. Basil, who borrowed whatever was good in his innovations, including the monastic garments, monastic vows, and the special religious service (tonsure) that indicated the special status of a monk, superior to that of lay people, and subordinate to the clergy.

Among the many ascetical works of St. Basil, two are the most significant in terms of regulating the life of monasticism: the "Great Rules" (Oroi Kata Platos), and the "Brief Rules" (Oroi Kat' Epitomen). These rules regulate the life in the cenobitic monasteries: they extol the monastic life in common as the ideal Christian life, the "life of perfection," while at the same time indicating the dangers of the solitary anchoretic life. St. Basil's Rules became the Magna Carta of Monasticism, both in the East and in the West, throughout the monastic tradition. The difference is that while in the Christian East the anchorite spirit of St. Anthony continues to persist as the original monastic ideal, thus at times reacting against the organized monasticism of a Pachomian, cenobitic type promulgated by Saint Basil in the Rules, the Christian West, after the modifications to the Basilian Rules by St. Benedict, remains faithful to the cenobitic spirit of organized monasticism.

St. Basil set Christian perfectionism as the goal of monastic life. The monks were to practice Christian virtues together, especially love; to practice obedience to a spiritual father; to practice chastity and poverty, and share the common goods of the monastery. After they achieved Christian perfection, they were allowed to come back to the world and help others to achieve Christian perfection. Thus, the monks had the mission of "social workers" as well. St. Basil's institutions, especially his Basileias, which was at the same time an orphanage, a "kitchen for the poor," and a school for the illiterate was in practice run by monks. This was St. Basil's way of utilizing the monastic movement to benefit the mission of the Church in the world.

Following St. Basil's example, the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), in its canonical legislation, placed the monastics in a given Diocese under the direct jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop. Only this bishop can allow the foundation of new monasteries in his diocese (Canons 4 and 8). Thus in the Orthodox Church the possibility of the creation of monastic "Orders," as we see them developing in the West during the Middle Ages, was once and for all eliminated.

Monasticism also spread in the West. Its origins go back to St. Athanasios of Alexandria, who was exiled to the West (399). His Life of St. Anthony was translated into Latin by Evagrios of Antioch (380). Two Latin monks, Rufinus and St. Jerome, who lived in Palestine, brought monasticism to the West when they returned, during the second half of the 4th century. St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 395) introduced monasticism in Northern Italy, and St. Augustine (d. 430) in Northern Africa, whence monasticism was transplanted to Spain. St. Martin of Tours (370) introduced monasticism into Northern France (Gaul), and St. Honoratus of Arles into the South. St. John Cassian founded two monasteries near Marseilles (415); he had become acquainted with monasticism in Egypt and Palestine, and was ordained a deacon by St. John Chrysostom in Constantinople. At. St. John's deposition, John Cassian returned to Gaul to establish monasticism there.

The Role of Monasticism in the Byzantine and the Ottoman States

With the development of Monasticism during the fourth century and thereafter, many monastics became involved with the various heresies, especially those concerning the Christological dogma. Most of the monastics were the defenders of the Orthodox faith. Still, Eutyches, an archimandrite from Constantinople, headed the heresy of monophysitism. On the Orthodox side, St. Maximos the Confessor (c. 580-662) played an important role in defeating the heresies of monothelitism and monoenergism. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (680) condemned monothelitism and reestablished the doctrine of Chalcedon. During the time of the iconoclastic controversy, the Studite monks, led by St. Theodore the Studite (759-826), played a very important role. In addition to organizing his monastery, the Studion, on the basis of the cenobitic principles of St. Pachomios and St. Basil, St. Theodore also wrote his three Antirrhetics against iconoclasm.

After the condemnation of the iconoclasts, monasticism thrived even more. Many representatives of the Byzantine aristocracy became monks. Monks were men of letters; clergy received their education in the monasteries. Bishops, metropolitans, and patriarchs were taken from their ranks; monks were involved with the church affairs, at times for the good of the church, at times creating trouble. Monasteries existed in almost every diocese, with the Bishop as their head, planting a cross in their foundations. Since 879, the right was given to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of planting a cross in monasteries that were under the jurisdiction of other dioceses throughout the empire. They were called "Patriarchal Stavropighiac Monasteries." This right exists to our days.

With the Arab conquest of Syria, Palestine and Egypt (during the 7th century), new centers for monasteries were sought and founded, among which were Mount Olympus in Bithynia and the Holy Mount Athos.

During the entire Byzantine period, the monks took an active part in the life of the Church in general. Still, spirituality was their strength. Concerning this tension in Christian anthropology, two schools of thought were represented; that of Evagrios ponticus (d. 399), who followed a Platonic and Origenistic doctrine pertaining to the "mind," thus de-emphasizing the importance of the human body and becoming dualistic, and St. Makarios of Egypt (or, better, the writings attributed to him), present a more Christian, holistic anthropology; for in this theology man is a psycho-physical entity, and, as such, being a destined to deification. "Prayer of the mind," in the Evagrian spirituality, becomes "prayer of the heart" in the Macarian spirituality. The two schools of thought with the two different anthropologies continue to find representatives throughout the history of the Church.

Saint Symeon, the New Theologian (949-1022), marks an important development in monastic spirituality. A disciple of a Studite monk, he left the Studion to join the small monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople, were he was ordained a priest and became the abbot. He wrote several works, among which are the fifty-eight hymns of "Divine Love," in which he stresses that the Christian faith is a conscious experience of God. St. Symeon is the exponent of an intensive sacramental life, which leads to this personal conscious experience, as we can see in his Hymns. In this he is a predecessor of Hesychasm, which also shares this personal experience of God in conjunction with intensive sacramental life.

Finally, the spirituality of Hesychasm, as enunciated in the theology of St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), is of paramount importance not only in the life of monasticism, but also in the life of the entire Church. An Anthonite monk, St. Gregory took it upon himself to defend the holy Hesychasts of the Holy Mountain in their ways of praying and experiencing the presence of God the "uncreated light" that they contemplated. Barlaam the Calabrian had led the attack against the pious monks and their psycho physical method of prayer, and accused them of "gross materialism," Messalianism, calling them "navel-souls" (omphalopsychoi) and "navel-watchers" (omphaloskopoi).

The hesychastic method of prayer consists of regulating one's breathing with the recitation of the "Jesus prayer": "O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The prayer is repeated constantly until it descends from the lips and minds into one's heart. At the end of the process, the peace of Christ is poured into the heart of the worshipper, and the light itself of Christ shines upon him and around him. This light, as that of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ, may also be seen by our physical eyes.

Saint Gregory established that the experience of the Holy Hesychasts was an authentic one, for it is similar to that of the disciples on Mount Tabor. Theologically it is justified by the distinction between essence and energies in God, this light being the "uncreated light," or the "uncreated energy" of God, that "can descend toward us," whereas the essence of God "remains unapproachable" (St. Basil).

After the fall of Constantinople, the number of idiorrythmic monasteries continued to grow, a fact which brought a further decline to monastic life. The 16th century was the lowest ebb. In reaction to this problem, many of the monks themselves, especially on the Holy Mountain, left the main monasteries and turned to idiorrhythmic ones, establishing Sketai (dependencies) of the main monasteries, with a more rigorous typikon (order). Also, Patriarchs Jeremy II of Constantinople, Silvester of Alexandria, and Sophronios of Jerusalem led the attack against idiorrhythmic monasticism, thus managing to counteract its spread. Cenobitic monasticism prevailed for a while, but the tide soon went in its original direction. Many monasteries of the Holy Mountain, including the mother monastery, the Great Lavra, became idiorrhythmic. Today an idiorrhythmic monastery may become cenobitic but not the other way round. Hopefully, this will guarantee that organized monastic life will finally prevail, according to the Basilian ideal of monasticism.

Monasticism played an important role under the Ottoman Empire, as well. The monks not only kept the faith alive, but they also kept the Greek culture and literature alive. Not only did the education of clergy continue at the monasteries, but the monasteries became the "clandestine school" (Krypho Scholeio) for all the Greeks under Turkish occupation. The monks thus prevented the Christian nations under Turkish occupation from being assimilated to them, and thereby became the natural leaders of national ("ethnic") resistance against the oppressors. It is no accident that the Greek Revolution started in 1821 at a monastery in the Peloponnesos, Aghia Lavra, with Metropolitan Germanos of Old Patras raising the banner of revolution and blessing the arms of the Greek freedom fighters.

The Monastic Community of the Holy Mount Athos

Monasticism existed on the Mountain even before the tenth century. Many anchorites were living on Mt. Athos, especially in the area of Ierissos. The anchorites lived in the cells (kellia), and were organized according to the general pattern, selecting a "leader" (protos) from among themselves to keep a semblance of order. Some of those cells were built for many anchorites to live in, and some of these joint habitations were called "monasteries." Two of these were in existence on the Mount before the tenth century: Zogrophou and Xeropotamou.

However, cenobitic monasticism, which is considered to be the beginning of the Great Republic of Monks on the Holy Mountain, only started in 963 when monk Athanasios the Athonite built the cenobitic monastery of Meghisti Lavra, with the help of the Emperor Nicephoros Phokas and the continued support of Emperor John Tsimiskis. The community soon became a "pan-Orthodox" community: Iberians (Georgians), Russians, Serbians, Bulgarians and Romanians joined the Greeks to form the pan-Orthodox community, a "Republic of Monks."

Each of the monasteries had its own abbot; one, chosen leader as Protos, was installed by the emperor himself. Following the example of Lavra, which was given an autonomous status, all the monasteries were considered royal monasteries, without any ecclesiastical dependence. This was changed by Emperor Alexios Comnenos (1081-1118), who gave the Patriarch the right to supervise the monasteries (Novella 37); all the monasteries thus became "Stavropighiac" and Patriarchal. The Patriarch appointed the Bishop of Ierissos to be his representative at the Holy Mountain.

The multiplication of idiorrythmic monasteries under the Turkish occupation affected the Holy Mountain; they dismissed their abbots and even the Protos in the course of the seventeenth century. The abbot was replaced by two or three "trustees" chosen yearly by the monks; the Protos was replaced by four supervisors (Epistatai) who changed every year. One of them chosen as chief supervisor (Protepistatis), as a "first among equals." The Republic, consisting of twenty monasteries, is still represented in the Synaxis by as many representatives that meet twice a year, or as necessary. The representative of Lavra presides over the Synaxis. This typikon, established in 1783 by Patriarch Gabriel IV of Constantinople, still regulates the life of the Anthonite republic of monks.

Orthodox Monasticism Today

With the conversion of the Slavs in the ninth and tenth century, monasticism spread to the Slavic countries as well, where it continues to thrive up to our day, in spite of communist oppression. Important monasteries in Russia - Zagorsk, Optimo, and Valamo - continue the hesychastic tradition. Great monks and spiritual fathers were exponents of this tradition, including St. Nilus (1433 1508), St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), and Father John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), a married priest. Monasticism thrives today in Romania, Serbia, and even Bulgaria.

On the Holy Mountain itself, there is an impressive monastic renewal: several monasteries, inactive in the recent past, were recently populated by young, educated, enthusiastic monks, who give new life and a new spirituality, more in conformity with that of St. Basil, to the Holy Mountain. The monastery of Stavronikita is an example. Under the guidance of important spiritual fathers on the Holy Mountain today - among them ore Father Ephraim, abbot of Philotheou; Father Aimilianos, abbot of Simonos Petra; and abbot Vassilios of Stavronikita - monasticism is thriving on the Holy Mountain, both spiritually and intellectually. The pattern of cenobitic life prevails at present, and continues to gain ground.

Spiritual fathers from the Holy Mountain visit the States, including Holy Cross Theological School. Interest has been generated among young men and women who aspire to monastic life and wish to see its tradition flourish in America. The St. Gregory Palamas Monastery in Hayesville, Ohio under the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, has this potential.

In our day, there is a monastic renewal, as a reaction to the materialist spirit in our society, in almost every Orthodox land. Longovarda Monastery, Nea Makri, and St. John's Monastery on Patmos are some of the active monasteries in Greece outside Mount Athos. As for the States, the major Holy Places, monasteries and shrines connected with them, are under the jurisdiction of the Synodal Church outside Russia.

For a list of monasteries in the United States, see one of the following links:

Suggestions for Further Reading:

H. Waddell, The Desert Fathers, London 1936.

N.F. Robinson, Monasticism in the Orthodox Churches, London, 1916.

C. Cavarnos, Anchored in God, Athens, 1959.