Ideals of the monastic life

As the first ascetics withdrew from the world to the desert, they were determined to detach themselves from many worldly goods: marriage, wealth, and independent action. Celibacy did not admit of degree, but was absolute. In poverty, however, there occurred the modification which we have noted above in connexion with the idiorrhythmic life. But even here poverty was essentially maintained, for the property of the idiorrhythmic monks was never sufficient for comfortable living. Finally, obedience, either to an abbot or to the spiritual father of the desert, the abba, was a significant concern of the monks. The selfish, independent spirit represented the secular world, and hence had to be uprooted completely. That is, the young ascetic had to surrender his evil will to God in the person of his spiritual father, in order that it might be transformed into a good will. This point is vividly illustrated an by an anecdote in which an abba, wishing to test the degree of progress of his spiritual son, asked him if he saw the horns-which were non-existent- of a beast of burden which was passing by; and he replied without hesitation, “Yes, I see them, abba”.

The observance of these three virtues is undertaken by novices in a special pledge, during which they are tonsured. The formulation of this vow coincided with the foundation of the coenobitic system, and the scriptural and doctrinal basis of monasticism was worked out soon afterwards. Without it, monasticism was in danger of deviating in the direction of the itinerant Massalians. In this way the subjection of monasticism to the Church, and the channeling of its power in direction which were useful to the Church were achieved. This subjection was sealed by Justinian and embodied in laws (Nearai, 5,i.67,i).

The vices which threaten the moral integrity of the ascetic are not these three alone. In subjequent aretology, other vices, together with these, constitute the eight mortal thoughts: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sorrow, despondency, vanity and pride. The passions which correspond to these thoughts must be deadened and a state of passionlessness achieved. Self-examination and self-censure, especially before going to bed, provide the monk with powerful weapons, as he sets out to struggle against the demons. But his chief weapon is prayer-continuous and intense prayer. The whole life of the monks is dominated by that converse with God; “the whole life is a time for prayer” (Basil, Ascetic Discourse, P.G., xxxi, 877).

The twenty-four hours of the monk’s day are divided into three eight-hour periods: one for prayer, one for rest, and one for work. Their intense work has a threefold purpose: to ensure their means of support, to aid their fellow-men, and to avoid evil thoughts, which invade man’s consciousness particularly when he is idle. The products of monastic art and handicraft have always been of exceptional quality and are still in great demand, especially their paintings and wood carvings. Also, works of classical and Christian literature have been preserved in copies which came from monastic workshops.

Connected with their work were the philanthropic activities of the monks. As we have already observed, this devotion to philanthropy was first promoted and systematized by Basil the Great. After his time a monastery without a guest house, hospital and school was inconceivable. As a simple example we may mention that the monastery of Pantocrator at Constantinople, which was established in the twelfth century, had a hospital with men and women physicians, organized in a manner reminiscent of present-day hospitals. It was divided into four sections: medical, surgical, gynaecological, and the eye and ear infirmary. Remnants of this philanthropic activity can still be seen in our day. The Bedouins who live near the monastery of Sinai never make their own bread, but are given it free by the monastery of St. Catherine there; and those who visit any Orthodox monastery whatsoever receive free hospitality.

The monks who occupied themselves with work, as we have described above, and combined the struggle to free themselves from passion with serving those in need, were called in earlier times active (praktikoi). But beyond action there is a higher stage in the ladder of monastic perfection: contemplation (theoria), the striving for direct communion with God and the vision of Him. This differentiation of the activities of monks is encountered very early, in a poem by Gregory the Theologian:

“Will you prefer action or contemplation?

Contemplation is the occupation of the perfect,

Action belongs to the many.

Both are good and dear;

Choose the one that befits you.”

Silence has been an indispensable condition for the ascetic in his pursuit of perfection. By silence is meant inner quiet and the related outer quiet through which the causes of passion are removed. This state has given its name to the last brilliant period of Byzantine mystical theology: hesychasm.

Silence was inseparably bound up with Christian ascesis. The efforts of the first monks in this direction took the form of avoiding babbling and remaining silent whenever circumstances called for it. Abba Poimen is quoted as having said: “Whoever talks for the sake of God’s will acts rightly; and whoever remains silent for the sake of God’s will likewise acts rightly”. (Sayings of the Fathers,721). In any case, the element of silence, even though it did not predominate unduly in monastic thought, later received greater emphasis because of its connexion with inner prayer. It was judged that prayer, as a product of the disposition of the heart, need not be expressed vocally, inasmuch as such expression, by producing external stimuli, may interrupt concentration on the object of prayer. In this way there resulted inner, mental prayer, which became crystallized in the brief prayer of Jesus, repeated incessantly.

Surrounded by absolute, the spiritual silence, the spiritual eyes of “contemplative” monks are opened. They become worthy of visions and enjoy spiritual experience which can only be described with difficulty. They live in a state of continual illumination of the vision of light, and communion with the things of light. The word “light” and other related terms are encountered on almost every page of the writing of Simeon Theologian and Gregory Palamas. This light is part of God. Through a paradoxical fusion of the historical with the metahistorical, the experience of deification (theosis) becomes possible here and now. The light which was seen by Christ’s disciples on Mount Tabor, the light which the hesychats see today, and the luminous quality of the world to come, constitute three phases of one and the same spiritual event, fused together into one supra-temporal reality.

The one-sided domination of the “contemplative” tendency has contributed to the neglect of the social mission of the monastic life in the East, in contrast to developments in the West. Despite the attempts which have been made from time to time, the reorganization of the monastic life on the older foundations, especially on the rule of Basil the Great, did not succeed, because these attempts were limited in scope and intensity. Without neglecting “contemplation”, to which religious literature and piety owe so much, there is a need for action to be emphasized once more, and for monasteries to be established which will promote Christian ideals within the organized society of mankind.



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