On Monasticism

Heart of the Orthodox Church

Monasticism is at the heart of the Orthodox Church. It is the most radical expression of faith, in which a person leaves the world and “normal life,” in order to live in community, in poverty and self-denial, for the sake of Christ.  It takes a certain maturity for a church, as Bp. Pankratiy of Valaam said, for it to produce monasticism. This is perhaps why it took 100 years of the existence of Orthodoxy in American culture to start to bring forth monasteries.

Out of Culture, a Renewal of the Mind

A focus on cultural expressions of monasticism may stress external forms, which can vary, making them seem more important than the real substance of the life, and a kind of external formalism takes the place of spiritual process. This is a great temptation for those who are “traditionalists,” as there is a tendency to get caught up in the externals. 

There is a place for obedience to form, however, what is most important is the inner work of monastic life, the life of repentance; of being “transformed in the renewal of mind” that may, or may not, be visible to any but a monk's spiritual father. 

What is essential to monasticism is its unique culture, which distinct from the overall ecclesiastical culture shared by the Orthodox Churches, while remaining a vital part of it and yet independent of any particular ethnic cultural expressions. 

Unique monastic cultures include Athonite, Greek, Russian, Romanian, and Serbian, as well as others, which all nevertheless maintain underlying forms, values, and ways of life that are uniquely, recognizably monastic.

The true monk is not just outwardly a monk, but rather, inwardly.

Monastic Life: Living the Gospel

In the late 19th Century, St. Ignatiy Brianchaninov wrote that all monastic life must be absolutely based in Scriptures, and any that is not is going astray.

We need to consider what that means. 

Monastic culture is nothing other than life according to the Gospel, both for each monk and for each community.  Its goal is the purification, enlightenment and deification of the monks through a life of repentance, and the building of communities that incarnate the Gospel. There is always a corporate side of things, as well as individual. This is because monastic life has as a goal to bring out and foster authentic personhood in each of its members, which can only be done in community. The gifts of each one need to be discerned, and applied to the life of the community, so that each person reaches his potential and thus, is fulfilled; and so that the community receives the gifts intended by God for its upbuilding, given to each. 

Essential to this is the role of the spiritual father, the elder, to whom the monks are in a relationship as disciples, as spiritual sons. Not only does this emulate the relationship of Christ and the apostles; it is the way the Lord has given his followers to live.

The Inner Work of Repentance

In establishing monasticism in America, I believe what is most important is to look at the essential principles of monastic life, rather than try to duplicate culturally specific forms. This principle and a shared understanding of how monastic life is to be lived that are the core of monastic culture, whatever the particular cultural expression.

The first principle of monasticism is a life of repentance, the transformation of the mind and heart. This involves not only a turning away from sin, but also a renewal of the spiritual faculty within a person. It involves grief for sin, and purification of the soul from the effects of sin; but more than that, it is about an opening up and maturing of the spiritual consciousness in illumination. Repentance is thus the process of deification, the gradual ascent of the person to union with God. However, it is also the process of renunciation and detachment, a gradual ascent to freedom from attachment to sins, then to things and relationships, then to one’s own ego. 

Repentance is at once turning away from and renouncing all things that hold us back from following Christ, a reordering of one’s entire life and system of values, and ultimately, of one’s consciousness itself. Yet, it is also the work of detachment, letting go of these things by which one has defined himself and his life, and refocusing solely on God.

Monasticism is about inner work. 

While all Orthodox Christians are called to a life of prayer and fasting, according to the rules of the Church, the purpose of fasting is that it is a discipline to bring oneself under control. Thus fasting is not only the abstention from various foods.  It is, on a much broader level, the fasting from all things which lead us into temptations and passionate behavior.  At the heart of such discipline is inner watchfulness and vigilance, so that passionate thoughts do not gain control of our awareness, and lead us into sinful thoughts, obsessions, and actions.  At the core of this is the battle with thoughts, afflictive emotions, which lead us into sin. This is the essence of inner work. Prayer and fasting, the discipline of keeping one’s awareness (nous) focused on God, and the practice of self-denial, support this inner work.

To paraphrase St. Maximos the Confessor: the true monk is not the one who appears to be a monk outwardly, but one who guards his thoughts.

Elements of Orthodox Monastic Culture


The first stages of the inner work are the process of purification, in which we confront all the behaviors, habits and ingrained ways of acting and thinking that have constituted our life and our identity. 

When we begin a serious spiritual discipline, especially one involving silence, one of the most important processes that happens is the emptying out of the conscience: memories, resentments, anger, guilt, and all other kinds of repressed emotions and memories come to the surface. 

This is why it is so important that the novice have access to his elder, so that he can confess his thoughts, and thus deal with the result of years of living in the world. The thoughts, images, emotions, feelings, memories and resentments that come to awareness all should be taken to confession, and dealt with. 

Thus, it is with the practice of life confessions, first when one becomes a novice, then, later when one is tonsured, that process of purification begins in earnest during the first years of monastic life as a novice. It continues, but in a different way as one becomes more mature, and has dealt with the results of his past life.

Hesychia and a Life of Prayer

Hand in hand with this is the practice of silent prayer, hesychia, using the Jesus Prayer; together with the context of the liturgical and sacramental cycles of the prayers of the Church. 

Liturgical prayers give shape and words to our prayer, and are one main context for the experience of communion with God.

The most powerful aspect, though is the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the prayer of stillness. 

The goal of prayer is to enter into Christ’s own prayer to the Father; thus, the practice of the Jesus Prayer is transformed and becomes the prayer of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. It is an ascent to communion, to participation in Christ’s own relationship with the Father by the Spirit. On another level, the prayer of silence is the means of stilling the mind, and the context of vigilance against intrusive thoughts, so that we can keep our attention/consciousness/awareness fixed on the Presence. This in turn allows us to enter more and more deeply into the living experience of communion, without distraction. 

There is a correspondence between the liturgical prayer and the prayer of stillness: the deeper one’s experience of silent prayer, the deeper also will be the liturgical prayer. As, it is very easy to loose one’s moorings, as it were, in non-conceptual silent prayer,  life structure by liturgical prayer provides a conceptual framework to keep one from going off into mystical darkness beyond one's strength, at least on the initial levels of practice.

Obedience: The Practice of Discipleship to Christ

Crucial to this whole process is the relationship with a spiritual father, who can guide, hear thoughts, and be present to the monk undertaking this process of inner transformation. 

Monasticism is spiritual discipleship lived out through the sacrament of obedience. The relationship of discipleship is about obedience: the disciple to listen to the master, and enter into synergy with him, with the entire monastery engaged in building a community that lives in synergy with one another, and with the will of God, fulfilling the commandment of love. 

A monastery is a community that seeks to live in obedience to the will of God, by living out obedience to their elder and to one another, a community united in love of one another, expressed as obedience and cooperation.

The very core is the relationship between the elder and the disciple: the disciple knows that he is unconditionally loved, and can expose the deepest pain and shame in his heart, so that it can be healed.  This healing comes from learning to be in synergy with God, through obedience to the elder.  

The point is always obedience to God, to the Gospel, to the commands of Christ!

The focus must always be Christ, not the elder, not the community or its the buildings that are the goal of monastic life,  but, rather, the life lived in communion with Christ, Who is the criterion of all things. The disciplines are not ends in themselves, nor the services, nor the asceticism.  All is there to lead us more and more deeply into Christ.  It is at once healing, and at the same time, growth to spiritual maturity.

Work as Obedience

The Monastery’s primary task is to nurture its own members with the services of the Church, the Holy Mysteries, and the fostering of spiritual life. Thus, the discipline of prayer is at the heart of monastic life; but the other component is work. 

There are two kinds of work in a monastery, called “obediences

  1. Daily Chores and Housekeeping, the necessary, mundane activity that keeps the whole community running
  2. Income producing activities, the needful, practical activity of paying the bills

The first includes everything from cooking, cleaning, yard maintenance, laundry, and the like. 

The second includes, the industries of the monastery, which range from making things for sale, to gardening, tending the animals and teaching, and so forth. 

Each brother in the community has particular tasks for which he is given responsibility, and for which he is held accountable.

Monastic Ranks

There are three ranks of monastics:

Schema monks have taken full vows, and are completely committed to the community in the fullness of sacramental monastic tonsure

Rassophore monks have made no vows, but have dedicated themselves to the community through a non-sacramental tonsure, preparing for the Schema

Novices have not yet committed themselves to the monastic life or this community, but are preparing to commit themselves.  Novices are not part of the Council, but prepare themselves to become monks.

In addition, there are workers or postulants

Clerical Orders

The priests and deacons of the Monastery are its own brothers, who having fulfilled at least three years of novitiate, after tonsure, can then be ordained. They will likely not be sent to seminary, but study within the monastery

Clergy ordained before entering have to go through the stage of being a rassophore for at least a year and or two before taking the Schema. 

Being a priest or deacon does not absolve one from the daily tasks and obediences shared by the Community.