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Monasticism

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Key Facts and Ideas  lb

Monasticism proper didn't develop in the Church until the 4th century, although St. John the Baptist and the Essene community by the Dead Sea shared some aspects of monasticism in time of our Lord's earthly ministry.  The relatively late development of monasticism and it's growing importance from the fourth century onwards can be attributed to a new situation in the Church. 

In 313 AD the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Milan.  Hitherto the Church had experienced uneasy periods of calm interspersed with bouts of vicious persecution by the pagan State.  Suddenly one could be a Christian openly and by 380 AD when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, it was even fashionable or politically advantageous to become one. 

Clearly, the Church was faced with a radically new situation.  The kind of discipleship that emerges in a time of persecution radically differs from that which applies in a time of ease.  When martyrdom in the arena ceased to separate the "wheat from the tares" a new kind of witness became necessary in the Church to maintain the vigour of its struggle against anti-Christian forces within the Church and not merely from outside.  Monasticism became a new sort of martyrdom, not by rejection of the Church but as a means of serving its desire to be obedient to the gospel in its highest demands of sacrifice, endurance and attention to God.  A radical break was called for ... a new home (in the desert or isolated places) and a new way of life (through poverty, chastity and obedience).

The first monks were solitaries following the outstanding example of St. Anthony the Great in higher Egypt.  Soon this land became a city of monks, (male and female), as thousands followed St. Anthony's example.  It then became clear that the solitary (eremitic) life was better complemented by communal monastic living (coenobitic) and St. Pachomius was the pioneer of that.  Spreading through St. John Cassian and St. Basil the Great, both types of monasticism eventually came to the west in the monastery at Lerins and also to St. Benedict and his successors.

During this early period a corpus of sayings of the desert fathers and mothers was collected by their disciples and handed down in the Tradition of the Church to subsequent generations of monks and other believers.  These sayings or Apothegmata reflected the practice of a younger more inexperienced monk receiving counsel from an older more spiritually mature monastic.  These are classics of Orthodox Christian spirituality and to this day they have an application beyond the monastic life into the world of all Christians. Many of these sayings and other teachings were gathered together and in 1782, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos) published these as the "Philokalia," the first of many publications and translations of these works.  Together with St. John Climacus' "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" the Philokalia has been singularly one of the most important influences on the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, spreading also in modern times to the non-Orthodox churches.

In the second Millennium a group of monastic communities on Mount Athos in Greece grew rapidly and soon established itself, even in the Ottoman period, as the monastic spiritual power-house of the Orthodox Church ... a position formerly held by Palestinian and Syrian monasticism before the spread of islam.  Communities remain on Mount Athos today.  Monasticism has also grown in the Slav world and before the Russian revolution the Optina fathers made a strong contribution to Russian Christian culture.  With Orthodoxy's growth in the west in more recent times, monasteries have been established here as well.

The form of monasticism in the east has hardly changed from its beginnings in that there are simple rules and stages of consecration making the use of distinctive "orders" (as in the west) unnecessary.  Although parish clergy are usually married in the Orthodox Church its bishops must be either celibates or widowers.  Practically speaking this means that many of her bishops have been and are monks.  Historically, monasticism has bequeathed to the Church much of its hymnody, service patterns (typica) and spiritual writings; many if not all of its saints and also an uncompromising witness to Christ and the Orthodox faith in times of persecution and neglect.  It would be hard (but not impossible) to imagine the Orthodox Church without monasticism, so vital is this to her spiritual health and vitality.

Key Principle  cool

God deserves our whole-hearted attention.  Monastics show how this is possible and bring forth its fruits even for those "in the world."

Key Question  ask

What contribution can monks and nuns make to 21st century Christian culture?

Resources  browse

1.  Monasticism (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America - links page)

2.  Philokalia (OrthodoxWiki)

3.  Orthodox Monasteries and Monasticism (Al Green's site - works best in Internet Explorer)

4.  Spiritual Sayings of the Fathers (a collection presented by the Patriarchal Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand)

5.  The Rule of St. Benedict

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