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Monastic Life

The Structures and Order of Orthodox Monastic Life 1


By Fr. Abbot Mark

A monastery structures its life according to a rule (τипиκόν, уставу). The rule establishes the basic code of conduct within the community, the structures of authority, the liturgical ordo, and the schedule of prayer, work, and rest. Each monastery has its own rule. Nevertheless, in the Christian East, the Ascetikon of Saint Basil the Great, the rules of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified and Saint Theodore the Studite have become the models upon which monasteries have formulated their own rules, as have the rules of Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Benedict of Nursia done in the Christian West. According to the Church’s sacred canons, a monastery may only be established and exist with the blessing of the bishop of the diocese. Presiding over the monastic community is the abbot, who is the spiritual father and leader of the community. He may delegate his authority to various deans within the community.

With this in mind, a monastery resembles more a family than a parish. Healthy Christian families live according to their own rule, even if this rule remains unwritten. Households have rules by which the family and even guests must abide. Heading the family are the father and the mother, who may delegate authority and responsibility to the older children. Families live according to a schedule: there is a time to wake up and go to sleep, there are times for meals, study, chores, and recreation. Christian families ought to have an icon corner where they gather together for daily prayer. They gather with other families at a parish on Sundays, feast days, and on other occasions. 

Monks arise at an appointed time in the morning and begin their day with an assigned rule of prayer in their cells. After this time of private prayer, monks gather in their church for the morning offices (Midnight Office and Matins), often followed by the Divine Liturgy. They then proceed to the refectory (dining hall) for the morning meal. In monasteries, meals are typically eaten in silence while a reader will read from the lives of the saints or other works that are spiritually edifying. The meal concludes with a prayer of thanksgiving, after which the monks begin their assigned work, called obediences. If a mid-day meal is offered, the monks will again gather in the refectory, following the same order and discipline as the morning meal. Work continues until the mid-afternoon. The liturgical day concludes with the reading of the 9th hour in the church, after which Vespers is served, beginning the new liturgical day. After Vespers, the monks gather once again in the refectory for the evening meal and then back to the church for Small Compline. Eventually the monks retire to their cells for their evening rule of prayer and sleep. On Sundays, feast days, and other appropriate occasions, they rest from their labors. 

The heart of a monastery is prayer. The Holy Apostle Paul instructs Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The fruit of monastic prayer and worship is witnessed by the fact that the liturgical services and private devotionals which Orthodox Christians attend, participate, and pray come from the monasteries. Parishes, for pastoral and practical reasons, often shorten or even omit certain services. Monasteries, on the other hand, keep a stricter observance of the Church’s Typikon. Even outside the divine offices and their cell rules, monks strive for continuous prayer to God.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the first Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in the prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:42-46).

Monastics maintain the fervency of the Early Church. This life of common prayer, worship, fellowship, labor, and struggle is a blessing to the entire Church. For this reason, pilgrimage and material support by those remaining in the world continues today as part of the Church’s Sacred Tradition. When we visit a monastery and participate in their life, we find renewal in our own spiritual life.

The Structures and Order of Orthodox Monastic Life 2


By Fr. Abbot Mark

This post is from an article about Orthodox Christian monasticism written by a priest of the OCA who is kindly contributing his effort to this blog. This post discusses the origins of the monastic tradition.  Posts to follow will be discuss the monastic typikon or rule and how it structures the life of the monastic community, how non-monastics should conduct themselves when visiting a monastery, the essence of monastic spirituality and the chief purpose and goal of monasticism.  —  Fr. Mark.     

Christian monasticism emerged in North Africa and Syria during the 4th century. With the end of persecution after Emperor Constantine’s conversion, the monastics, through their ascetic austerity, became bloodless martyrs, counterbalancing the Church’s official status in the Roman Empire. The ascetic fathers developed three forms of monastic life, all of which continue in our time.

The father of Christian monasticism and founder of its most ancient form is Saint Anthony the Great (+356). He and his followers lived as hermits in huts and caves, on top of trees and pillars and even in tombs.1 Saint Macarius the Great (+392) lived as a hermit in Northern Egypt, in the desert of Scetis. Renowned for his holiness, he began to attract disciples, each of whom lived in his own cell, providing his own livelihood.  However, they all would gather together in common prayer and worship on Sundays and feast days.2  Today, we call such communities sketes; they are a middle ground between solitary and communal monasticism. Saint Pachomius the Great (+348) settled in the abandoned village of Tabennisi, south of Scetis. An angel of God appeared to him in the form of a schemamonk and gave him a rule of monastic life. Gradually, followers began to gather around him. Thus, he is the father of communal or coenobitic monasticism. These monks shared the same food and attire and fulfilled the work assigned them for the common good of the monastery. They were not allowed to possess their own money or possessions.3 Most monks in the Orthodox Church today live in such communities.

Monastics minister to the Church and to the world through their prayer for the Church and for the world. Saint Isaac the Syrian (+880) writes: “The monk ought to be in his appearance and all his actions an exemplar of profit to those who see him, so that by reason of his many virtues which shine forth like sunbeams, the enemies of truth, when they look upon him, will involuntarily confess that the hope of salvation which the Christians have is firm and unshakeable and from every side will run to him as a refuge. And so the horn of the Church will be exalted over her enemies, and many will be moved to emulation of his virtue and will come forth from the world; and he will be venerable among all because of the beauty of his life, so that on his account the mouth of the sons of the Church will be opened, and their head will be exalted above all religions. For the boast of the Church of Christ is the monastic way of life.”4!

1 Timothy (Met. Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin Books, 2015, p. 35 2 The Synaxarion, vol. 3, 2001, p. 208-209 coenobitic-monasticism

4 The Ascetical Homilies, 11, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011, p. 196.

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