The Monastic Life: The way of perfection

27 April 2015
gheorghios mantzaridis

Prof. Georgios Mantzaridis

With the advent of monasticism, a special way of life appeared in the Church, which however did not  proclaim a new morality. The Church does not have one set of moral rules for the laity and another  for monks, nor does it divide the faithful into classes according to their obligations towards God. The Christian life is the same for everyone. All Christians have in common that “their being and name is from Christ”1. This means that the true Christian must ground his life and conduct in Christ, something which is hard to do in the world.

What is difficult in the world is attempted with dedication in the monastic life. In his spiritual life the monk simply tries to do what every Christian should try to do: to live according to God’s commandments. The fundamental principles of monasticism are no different from those of the lives of all the faithful. This is especially apparent in the history of the early Church, before monasticism appeared.

Athos3-0497 in

Mount Athos. Photo by Fr. Constantin Prodan

In the tradition of the Church there is a clear preference for celibacy as opposed to the married state. This stance is not of course hostile to marriage, which is recognised as a profound mystery,2 but simply indicates the practical obstacles marriage puts in the way of the pursuit of the spiritual life. For this reason, from the earliest days of Christianity many of the faithful chose not to marry. Thus Athenagoras the Confessor in the second century wrote: “You can find many men and women who remain unmarried all their lives in the hope of coming closer to God”3.

The Christian life has from the very beginning been associated with self denial and sacrifice: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”4 Christ calls on us to give ourselves totally: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”5.

Lastly, fervent and unceasing prayer, obedience to the elders of the Church, love of and submission to others, as well as all the essential virtues of the monastic life were cultivated by the members of the Church from its earliest days.

It goes without saying that the monk and the married man live different lives, but this does not alter their common responsibility towards God and His commandments. Every one of us has his own special gift within the one and indivisible body of Christ’s Church6. Every way of life, whether married or solitary, is equally subject to God’s absolute will. Hence no way of life can be taken as an excuse for ignoring or selectively responding to Christ’s call and His commandments. Both paths demand effort and determination.

Saint Chrysostom is particularly emphatic on this point: “You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded of the layman and another of the monk; since the difference between them is whether or not they are married, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities… Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence”7. Referring to the observance of particular commandments in the Gospels, he says: “Whoever is angry with his brother without cause, regardless of whether he is a layman or a monk, opposes God in the same way. And whoever looks at a woman lustfully, whatever his status, commits the same sin”. Here he mentions that the layman falls into sin is in fact more culpable. In general, he observes, in laying down His commandments Christ does not draw distinctions between people: “A man is not defined by whether he is a layman or a monk, but by the way he thinks”8.

Christ’s commandments demand a rigour of life that we often expect only of monks. The requirements of decent and sober behaviour, the condemnation of wealth and the urging to frugality9, the avoidance of idle talk and the call to show selfless love are not directed only at monks, but at all the faithful.

Lastly, the rejection of worldly thinking is the duty not only of monks, but of all Christians. The faithful must not have a wordly mind, but sojourn as strangers and travellers with their minds fixed on God. Then-home is not on earth, but in the kingdom of heaven: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come”10. The Church can be seen as a community in exodus. The world is its temporary home but it is bound for the kingdom of God. Just as the Israelites, freed from bondage in Egypt, journeyed towards Jerusalem through many trials and tribulations, so Christians, freed from the bondage of sin, journey through many trials and tribulations towards the kingdom of heaven.

In the early days this exodus from the world did not involve achange of place but a way of life. Just as people did not turn away from God and towards the world spatially but in manner, because God was and is everywhere and fulfils everything, so in the same way this turning away from the world and towards God was understood first not spatially but as a way of life. This is especially clear in the lives of the early Christians. Although they lived in the world they were fully aware that they did not come from it nor did they belong to it: “In the world but not of the world”. And those who lived in chastity and poverty, later fundamental principles of the monastic life, did not abandon the society of men or take to the mountains.

Spatial detachment from the world is used to assist detachment in manner. Experience shows that man’s salvation is harder to achieve in the world. As Basil the Great points out, living among men who care nothing for the strict observance of God’s commandments is harmful. It is difficult if not impossible to answer Christ’s call to take up one’s cross and follow Him whithin the bounds of wordly life. Seeing the multitude of sinners, one not only fails to see his own sins but also believe we have achieved something, because we compare ourselves with those worse than us. Furthermore, the hustle and bustle of everyday life distract man from the remembrance of God, and not only prevent him from feeling the joy of communion with God, but lead him to be contemptuous and forgetful of the divine will11.

This does not mean that detachment from the world guarantees salvation, but it is a positive and supportive step. When a man devotes himself wholly to God and His will however, nothing can stop him from being saved. St. Chrysostom mentions characteristically: “There is no obstacle to a worker striving for virtue, but men in office, and those who have a wife and children to look after, and servants to see to, and those in positions of authority can also take care to be virtuous “12.

Saint Simeon the New Theologian observes: “Living in a city does not prevent us from carrying out God’s commandments if we are zealous, and silence and solitude are of no benefit if we are slothful and neglectful”13. Elsewhere he says that it is possible for all, not only monks but laymen too, to “eternally and continuously repent and weep and pray to God, and by these actions to acquire all the other virtues”14.

Christian monasticism has always been associated with stillness or silence, which is seen primarily as an internal rather than an external state. External silence is sought in order the more easily and perfectly to attain inner stillness. This stillness is not the same as inertia or inaction, but awakening and activation of the spiritual life. It is intense vigilance and total devotion to God. Withdrawing to a quiet place and examining himself there, the monk succeeds in knowing himself better, fighting his passions more deeply and purifying his heart more fully, so as to be found worthy of beholding God.

The father of Saint Gregory Palamas, Constantine, lived a life of stillness as a senator and member of the imperial court in Constantinople. The essence of this kind of life is detachment from worldly passions and complete devotion to God. This is why Saint Gregory Palamas says that salvation in Christ is possible for all: “The farmer and the leather worker and the mason and the tailor and the weaver, and in general all those who earn their living with their hands and in the sweat of their brow, who cast out of their souls the desire for wealth, fame and comfort, are indeed blessed”15. In the same spirit Saint Nikolaos Kavasilas observes that it is not necessary for someone to flee to the desert, eat unusual food, change his dress, ruin his health or attempt some other such thing in order to remain devoted to God16.

The monastic life, with its spatial withdrawal from the world to the desert, began about the middle of the third century. This flight of Christians to the desert was partly caused by the harsh Roman persecutions of the time. The growth of monasticism, however, which began in the time of Constantine the Great, was largely due to the refusal of many Christians to adapt to the more worldly character of the now established Church, and their desire to lead a strictly Christian life. Thus monasticism developed simultaneously in various places in the southeast Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine, Sinai, Syria and Cyprus, and soon after reached Asia Minor and finally Europe. During the second millennium, however, Mount Athos appeared as the centre of Orthodox monasticism.

The evolution of Athonite monasticism followed the same general lines as that of eastern monasticism. Today Mount Athos, with its eremitical, communal and cenobitic monastic life, preserves all the main forms that Christian monasticism has taken throughout its long history.

The commonest and safest form of the monastic life is the cenobitic. This form is now followed by all twenty of the monasteries on Mount Athos. In the cenobitic monastery everything is shared: habitation, food, work, prayer, effort, cares, struggles and achievements. The leader and spiritual father of the cenobium is the abbot. The exhortation to the abbot in the Charter of Saint Athanasius the Athonite is typical: “Take care that the brethren have everything in common. No one must own as much as a needle. Your body and soul shall be your own, and nothing else. Everything must be shared equally with love between all your spiritual children, brethren and fathers”.

The cenobium is the ideal Christian community, where no distinction is drawn between mine and yours, but everything is designed to cultivate a common attitude and a spirit of brotherliness. In the cenobium the obedience of every monk to the abbot and to brotherhood, loving kindness, solidarity and hospitality are of the greatest importance. As Saint Theodore of Studium observes, the whole community of the faithful should in the final analysis be a cenobitc Church17. This is anyway enjoined by the cenobitic spirit of the Orthodox Church, and the monastic cenobium is the most consistent attempt to achieve this.

The dependencies of the twenty holy monasteries of Mount Athos are the kathismata (“seats”), the kellia (cells), the kalyves (huts), the twelve sketes and the hesychasteria. In all the dependencies the monastic life has a more solitary and quietist character.

The kathismata are closely linked to the monasteries and are used by the brethren for greater solitude. The kellia and kalyves, which are small monastic complexes, are occupied by small groups of monks who lead a life of quietism, practice obedience to their elder and live by farming or handicrafts.

On Mount Athos there are twelve sketes, also dependent on monasteries. The sketes, which can be seen as corresponding to the ancient lavras, possess a common church, the Kyriakon, and are administered by a prior. The sketes are also dedicated to the quietist life but with a social dimension. Hospitality does not normally concern the individual cottages of the skete, but is the responsibility of the prior and his assistants.

Lastly, the life of complete solitude is practised in the hesychasteria, or true hermitages. These are found in remote spots on the Athos peninsula and particularly at its tip. The hermits were the original nucleus around which the first monastic communities grew, and even after the rise of communal and cenobitic monasticism the hermits continued to be the most charismatic personalities in the body of the Church. However, the cenobia and the monastic communities had already begun to be places of preparation for future hermits. Indeed, the Council of Trullo, in its 41st Canon, ruled that a three-year stay in a monastery was a prerequisite for those wishing to become hermits. Today, too, the hermits of Mount Athos live either in monasteries or in kellia and kalyves under obedience to an elder for several years before taking up the completely solitary life in the wilderness.

In its flight from the world, monasticism underlines the Church’s position as an “anti-community” within the world, and by its intense spiritual asceticism cultivates its eschatological spirit. The monastic life is described as “the angelic state”, in other words a state of life that while on earth follows the example of the life in heaven. Virginity and celibacy come within this framework, anticipating the condition of souls in the life to come, where “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”18.

Many see celibacy as the defining characteristic of the monastic life. This view also expresses that of the early Church as to the nature of the Christian life and the universal application of the Gospel commandments. This does not mean, however, that celibacy is the most important aspect of the monastic life; it is simply what gives this life its distinctiveness. All the other obligations, even the other two monastic vows of obedience and poverty, essentially concern all the faithful. Needless to say, all this takes on a special form in the monastic life, but that has no bearing on the essence of the matter.

All Christians are obliged to keep the Lord’s commandments, but this requires work. Fallen human nature, enslaved by its passions is reluctant to fulfil this obligation. It seeks pleasure and avoids the pain involved in fighting the passions and selfishness. The monastic life is so arranged as to facilitate this work. On the other hand the worldly life, particularly in our secular society, makes it harder to be an ascetic. The problem for the Christian in the world is that he is called upon to reach the same goal under adverse conditions.

The monastic profession rite, with its shearing of hair, is called a second baptism”19. Baptism, however, is one and the same for all members of the Church. It is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The rite of profession does not repeat, but renews and activates the one baptism. The vows taken during the rite are in essence no different from those taken at baptism, with the exception of the vow of celibacy. Furthermore, hair is also shorn during baptism.

The monastic life points the way to perfection. However, the whole Church is called to perfection. All the faithful, both laymen and monks, are called to become perfect following the divine example: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”20. But while the monk affirms the radical nature of the Christian life, the layman is content to regard it conventionally. The conventional morality of the layman on the one hand and the radical morality of the monk on the other create a dialectical differentiation that takes the form of a dialectical antithesis.

Saint Maximos the Confessor, in contrasting the monastic with the worldly life, observes that a layman’s successes are a monk’s failures, and vice versa: “The achievements of the worldly are failures for monks; and the achievements of monks are failures for the worldly. When the monk is exposed to what the world sees as success- wealth, fame, power, pleasure, good health and many children, he is destroyed. And when a wordly man finds himself in the state desired by monks- poverty, humility, weakness, self restraint,mortification and suchlike, he considers it a disaster. Indeed, in such despair many may consider hanging themselves, and some have actually done so”21.

Of course the comparison here is between the perfect monk and the very worldly Christian. However, in more usual circumstances whithin the church the same things will naturally function differently, but this difference could never reach diametrical opposition. Thus for example, wealth and fame cannot be seen as equally destructive for monks and laymen. These things are always bad for monks, because they conflict with the way of life the monks have chosen. For laymen, however, wealth and fame may be beneficial, even though they involve grave risks. The existence of the family, and of the wider secular society with its various needs and demands, not only justify but sometimes make it necessary to accumulate wealth or assume office. Those things that may unite in the world divide in the monastic life. The ultimate unifier is Christ Himself.

The Christian life does not depend only on human effort but primarily on God’s grace. Ascetic exercises in all their forms and degrees aim at nothing more than preparing man to harmonise his will with that of God and receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. This harmonisation attains its highest expression and perfection in prayer. “In true prayer we enter into and dwell in the Divine Being by the power of the Holy Spirit”22. This leads man to his archetype and makes him a true person in the likeness of his Creator.

The grace of the Christian life is not to be found in its outward forms. It is not found in ascetic exercises, fasts, vigils and mortification of the flesh. Indeed, when these things are seen as ends in themselves they become abhorrent. This repulsiveness is no longer confined to their external form but comes to characterise their inner content. They become abhorrent not only because outwardly they appear as a denial of life, contempt for material things or self-abandonment, but also because they deaden the spirit, encourage pride and cultivate self-justification.

The Christian life is not a denial but a affirmation. It is not death, but life. And it is not only affirmation and life, but the only true affirmation and the only true life. It is the one true affirmation because if goes beyond all possibility of denial and it is the one true life because it leaves death behind. The negative appearance of the Christian life in its outward forms is due precisely to its attempt to stand beyond all human denial. Since there is no human affirmation that does not end in denial, and no worldly life that does not end in death, the Church takes its stand and reveals its life after accepting every human denial and affirming every form of earthly death.

The Power of the Christian life lies in the hope of resurrection, and the goal of ascetic striving is to partake of the resurrection. The monastic life, as the angelic and heavenly life lived in time, is the foreknowledge and foretaste of eternal life which eats away at mortality. It aims not at casting off the human element, but at clothing the incorruptible and immortal: “For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life”23.

There are sighing and tears produced by the presence of sin, and an aching to be free of the passions and to regain a pure heart. These things demand ascetic striving, and undoubtedly have a negative form, since they aim to break down. They are exhausting and painful, because they are concerned with states and habits that have become second nature. It is however precisely through this breaking down, this self purification, that man clears the way for God’s grace to appear and to act. God does not manifest Himself to an impure heart.

Monks “guard the place”. They choose to constrain themselves spatially and there cultivate the spiritual freedom offered by Christ. They tie themselves down in death’s realm in order to experience more intensely the hope of the life to come. They reconcile themselves with space, where man is worn down and annihilated, feel it as their body, transform it into the Church and orientate it towards the kingdom of God.

The monk’s journey to perfection is covered in stages and is connected with successive renunciations, which can be summarised in three. The first renunciation involves completely abandoning the world. This is not limited to things, but includes people and parents. The second is renunciation of the individual will, and the third is freedom from pride, which is identified with liberation from the sway of the world24.

These successive renunciations have a positive, not a negative meaning. They permit a man to fully open up and be perfected “in the image and likeness” of God. When man is freed from the world and from himself, he expands without limit. He becomes a true person, who “encloses” within himself the whole of humanity as Christ does. This is why on the moral plane the Christian is called upon to love all men, even his enemies. Then God Himself comes and dwels within him, and the man arrives at the fullness of his theanthropic being25. Here is to be found the greatness of the human person, and this explains the superhuman struggles needed for his perfection.

The monastic life is one of perpetual spiritual ascent. While the world goes on its earthbound way, and the faithful with the obligations and distractions of the world try to stay within the institutional limits of church tradition, monasticism soars. It rejects compromise and seeks the absolute. It launches itself from this world and heads for the kingdom of God. This is the Church’s goal.

In Church tradition this path is pictured as a ladder leading to heaven. Not everyone manages to reach the top of this spiritual ladder. Many are to be found on the first rungs. Others rise higher. There are also those who fall from a higher or a lower rung. The important thing is not the height reached, but the unceasing struggle to rise ever higher. Most important of all, this ascent is achieved through ever increasing humility, that is through ever increasing descent. “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”, was the word of God to Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. When man descends into the hell of his inner struggle having God within him, then he is lifted up and finds the fullness of being26.

At the top of this spiritual ladder are the “fools for Christ’s sake”, as the Apostle Paul calls himself and the other apostles27, or “the fools for Christ’s sake”, who “play the madman for the love of Christ and mock the vanity of the world”28. Seeking after glory among men, says Christ, obstructs belief in God29. Only when man rejects pride can he defeat the world and devote himself to God30.

In the Lives of monks the Christian sees examples of men who took their Christian faith seriously and committed themselves to the path Christ calls all men to follow. Not all of them attained perfection, but they all tried, and all rose to a certain height. Not all possessed the same talent, but all strove as honest and faithful servants. They are not held up as examples to be slavishly copied, especially by laymen. They are however valuable signposts on the road to perfection, which is for all and climaxes in the perfectness of God.

Athonite monasticism by its ascetic striving and prayer keeps open the boundless horizons for perfection and bringing out the true worth of man. As a model Christian community Mount Athos enriches the lives of the faithful and strengthens them in their spiritual struggles. Its presence as a ” city on the hills” is of the highest importance for the Church and the whole world. Today’s post-modern society in particular, rent as it is by division and confusion, can find in Mount Athos the spirit and the forces that lead to unity and the restoration of meaning to human life.

1. Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogia 1, PG91, 665C.
2. See Eph. 5, 32.
3. Presbeia 33. Also see Justin, Confession 1, 15, 6.
4. Mk.8,34.
5. Mt. 10,37.
6. “Each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” 1 Cor. 7,7.
7. Pros piston patera (To the faithful father) 3, 14, PG47, 372-74.
8. Ibid. 373.
9. “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 1 Tim 6,8.
10. Heb. 13,14.
11. See Oroi kata platos (Monastic rules in full) 6, PG 31, 925A.
12. Catechism 7, 28, ed. A. Wenger, “Sources Chritiennes”, vol.50, Paris 21970m o,243.
13. Catechism 12, 132-5, ed. B. Krivocheine, “Sources Chritiennes”, vol.104, Paris 1964, p.374.
14. Catechism 5, 122-5, ed. B. Krivocheine, “Sources Chritiennes”. vol.96, Paris 1963, p.386.
15. Homily 15, PG151, 180 BC.
16. See On the life in Christ 6, PG150, 660A.
17. See Letter 53, PG99, 1264CD.
18. ML 22, 30.
19. See Service for the Little Habit. The Greater Prayer-Book, p. 192.
20. Ml/5, 48.
21. Maximos the Confessor, On love 3,85,PG90, 1044A.
22. Archimandrite Sophrony, Ascetic practice and theory, Essex, England 1996, p.26.
23. 2 Cor. 5,4.
24. See Stage 2, PG88, 657A. For a comparison of the patristic tradition on the three stages of renunciation see the book by Archimandrite Sophrony, Asceticism and Contemplation, p.26f.
25. See Archimandrite Sophrony, We shall See Him as He is, Essex, England 31996, p.389.
26. See Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, Essex, England 71995, p.572. Also Asceticism and Contemplation, p.42.
27. 1 Cor. 4,10.
28. The Elder Paisios, Letters, Souroti, Thessaloniki 1994, p.235.
29. In. 5, 44.
30. See Archimandrite Sophrony, Asceticism and Contemplation, pp.33-4.