Thoughts on Orthodox Monasticism
Today, we are living in world were monasticism is very much criticized especially with in Protestantism. Many Christians do condemn monastic life as useless and not according to the teaching of Christ. People misunderstand Monastic life as worthless, not having any definite objective or purpose as per Christian teachings. But Bible and Church tradition reveals that how orthodox Monasticism is clear reminder that we don’t belong to this world, as Gospel of John 15:19 says,
“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hates you “
In the following chapter of John, we read that the prince of this world is Satan. Therefore, monks, nuns, and monasteries remind us that we are not of this world. The life in monasticism is a strong reminder that our purpose in this life must be interrelated with the life that is to come.
Brief History of Monasticism
History witnesses that monastic life or life in solitude existed even before the church was established; a voice came crying out of the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord (Mat 3:3). St John the forerunner and Baptist lived a life of solitude and prepared the way for the coming king. We can reflect this fact that, as St John prepared the way for the coming King, today’s monasticism is a witness for the coming Kingdom.
Our Lord Jesus speaks of persons who deny themselves everything in life, including the community of marriage. In the gospel of Mathew Chapter 19, which also read during the liturgy of Holy matrimony, where Lord’s disciples stated, that It is better not to marry for the sake of Kingdom of heaven. And Jesus replied by saying,
“All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake. He, who is able to accept it, let him accept it”
In this verse, Jesus is trying compare the eunuchs with three kind of Individuals; one who is born as celibate, one who was made to be celibate and the one who choose to be celibate. And then he instruct, He, who accepted it , let him accept it. Bible do confirms the authenticity of having a life of celibacy. One must also read what St Paul said in the letter to Corinthians, chapter seven. (7:1-40). Which confirms that Orthodox Monasticism is strictly based on teachings of Christ.
St Anthony the Great
The environment for a complete monastic life and a life in solitude emerged from the biblical narravatives and how the desert fathers interpreted these scriptures. When Christ asked his disciples, who were doing their worldly jobs, “to follow me.” Monastic life is a response to this calling. When Jesus said, “Follow me………immediately they left their nets and followed him”. Same with what happened when Samaritan women came to fetch some water, as she did every day. She met the messiah . She left her jar and went back to the city to proclaim that she found the Messiah.(John 4). The same incident happened with another man from Upper Egypt, who later came to be known as “Father of Monasticism” , St Anthony the Great.
When St Anthony was about twenty years old, he lost his parents, but he was responsible for the care of his younger sister. Once going to church, he heard the Gospel passage where Christ speaks to the rich young man:
“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me” (Mt.19:21).
Anthony felt these words applied to him. He went back and sold all his possessions and left his younger sister in nunnery. Leaving his home, he started living an ascetic life, where he worked with his hand and earned for his livelihood and also to help other poor people. Latter he went on wandering around the desert in search of complete solitude life. In the wilderness, he faced terrible temptations with thoughts of his former life, doubting his decision, lust and other worldly pleasures.
According to St Athanasius’s, biography of Abba Anthony. St Anthony had a vision, he saw an angel who wore a girdle with a cross and on his head was a head cover (like Masnoopsa). He was sitting while braiding palm leaves, then he stood up to pray, and again he sat to weave. A voice came to him saying, “Anthony, do this and you will rest.” Henceforth, he started to wear this tunic that he saw, and began to weave palm leaves, and never was bored again.
During his life in wilderness, he endured terrible temptations. Satan use to scare him with monstrous creatures and as mentioned in his biography, Satan appeared to him in the form of a frightful looking black child . Monsters use to beat him, strike him, and torture him every night. But he vanquished them all with prayer. Once in search of a strict seclusion, he went to stay in a graveyard, where his friend uses to bring some food once in a week. There Satan tried to kill him, he was so wounded that when his friend came with food, he thought he is dead. Latter St Anthony regained his consciousness and went back to the tomb.
After having so many experiences , he started walking toward the desert of thebes. There Satan tried to tempt with worldly thought like earlier days. But Saint ignored everything. In latter days of his life, many people got attracted toward him and slow and steady many cells were formed surrounding the Abba Anthony’s cell. He acted as a father and guide to their inhabitants, giving spiritual instruction to all who came into the desert seeking salvation. He increased the zeal of those who were already monks, and inspired others with a love for the ascetical life.
His ascetic life was not just having a solitude life. In AD 311 there was a fierce persecution against Christians, by emperor Maximian. St Anthony left the desert and went to Alexandria. He openly ministered to those in prison. Soon the persecution ended he went back to his cell.
Another time, he came in public to defend the Orthodox Faith against the Manichaean and Arian heresies. St Anthony publicly denounced Arianism in front of everyone and in the presence of the bishops. Which was a turning point for the rejection of Arianism in the council. During his brief stay at Alexandria, he converted a great multitude of pagans to Christ.
St Anthony spent eighty five years in desert. Shortly before his death, he instructed his disciple to keep the purity of monasticism and Orthodox faith. He told two of disciple to bury him in desert and not to keep his body as relics. Till today no one knows where he was buried. Sources says, it’s somewhere near the present St Anthony’s Monastery. The biographical book “Life of St Anthony the Great” by St Athanasius, the Patriarch of Coptic Orthodox Church, was widely-read and translated into several languages. It played an important role in the spreading of the ascetic ideal in Eastern and Western Christianity.
The monasticism set by St Anthony and his contemporaries like St Paul the hermit, St Pachomios inspired and led the foundation of other monastic communities beyond the borders of Coptic Church. St Basil the Great founded communal monastic system based on what he saw in Egypt and Syria , his rules became the foundation of Byzantine Monasticism or Eastern orthodox Monasticism.
Rules of Monasticism
There are majorly two categories of monasticism . One is Solitude or can termed as heremitic life , which was led by St Anthony and St Paul the hermit, Living alone and not under anyone’s supervision. The other is Cenobitic monasticism , which are administered by an abbot. Under his guidance the monastery operates with specific rules and daily schedules.
In Solitude or hermitic monasticism, rules are not defined rather its personal choice imposed by a monk upon himself. He lives by himself in a hut or in a cave and comes down to the monastery whenever he attends the Divine Liturgy to receive Holy Communion. This type of monasticism is still strictly followed in Coptic monasteries, especially those in Wadi natrun desert.
In Cenobitic Monasticism , The three important rule of Orthodox Monasticism are Obedience, Chastity and Poverty. Obedience is the foremost rule and it must voluntary. The monk must never believe that his obedience was forced upon him. In this respect a monk denies himself, the desires of his ego and he becomes a servant.
If a person was involved in marital relations, then thereafter he must continue to practice the rule of chastity rather than of virginity. The third rule of monasticism is poverty. It is certainly obvious that if a monk acquires material things, his mind and heart are still with the things of the world. So monks denies every possession of their life and accept the life of poverty. In Coptic monasteries, one can see a lot of monk, who were in every good position in their former life but denied themselves and accepted poverty.
Through the practice of pure prayer the monk brings his human will into union with the Divine Will. A monk teaches us that we are made in God’s image and we must live a life to be like God. There is Icon called “Ladder of Divine Ascent”, which represents the teachings of a monk St John Climacus of St Catherine Monastery, Egypt. This Icon reflects how a monk transforms and live a life to be like God (Theosis) . The monk knows that in order for him to experience true freedom, he must come into union with God. This union takes place when there is total agreement between the two wills, the human and the divine. May the life of a monk inspire us, remind us and prepare us for the coming kingdom of God.
In the name of one triune God we pray
Reference: Orthodoxy: Evolving Tradition – David N. Bell
Monasticism in Egypt: Images and Words of the Desert Fathers