Monday, 31 October 2005

Comments on the Vows of the Tonsure to the Great Schema

We here provide some comments on the vows of the Great Schema. It should be understood that the Great Schema is the rule by which monks are measured in the Orthodox Church: it is the perfect state of monasticism, and all other states of monasticism (the Small Schema and the Rasophore) are lesser approximations to the Great Schema. This is the position of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (Mt Athos). In the Orthodox Church there are no temporary vows, only solemn, perpetual vows.

The Priest catechizes the postulant, speaking as follows:

Open the ears of your heart, Brother,

A monk in the Orthodox Church is addressed as Father, just as a priest is. This practice goes back to Fourth Century Egypt. Brother is used only for a novice, or here, for the postulant giving his vows.

and hear the voice of the Lord saying: ‘Come to me all who are toiling and who are burdened and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you will find refreshment in your souls.’ Therefore, render now to God with fear and joy the proper answer to each of the questions. Know surely, then, that our Saviour himself is here present,

Sometimes the presence of God during the tonsure is quite tangible.

with his most-hymned Mother and his Saints, listening to the words which are coming forth from you; so that, when he comes to judge the living and the dead, he may render to you, not according to what you are about to renounce and profess, but according to whether you guard what you profess.

This is similar to the Western adage that the habit does not make the monk. However, here it is a matter of a solemn injunction that the monk will be judged on the basis of how well he has ‘performed’ his vows.

Now, therefore, if you are coming in truth to God, with care answer us what you are about to be asked.

Then the Priest inquires of him, saying:

Question: Why have you come, Brother, falling down before the Holy Altar,

The monk is consecrating himself to God.

and before this holy Brotherhood?

And he is doing so as a member of a concrete, specific monastic brotherhood. There are no monks that are general monks of nowhere in particular.

Answer: I desire the life of asceticism, Reverend Father.

In the formal questions and answers—which are much like a contract—the postulant explains the goal of monasticism: asceticism. There are three homilies by St Basil the Great which treat monasticism along the dimensions of: the soldier of Christ (the active dimension); the consecration of the postulant to Christ (the offering of a soul to God); the life of repentance (the ascetic dimension: asceticism as the actualization of repentance).

Question: Do you desire to be worthy of the Angelic Habit and to be enrolled in the choir of the Monastics?

‘Choir of the Monastics’ suggests a place in the Church for the monk, for him who lives alone. The monk has an ecclesiastical identity. The ‘Angelic Habit’ is the habit of the monk of the Great Schema; all other monastic conditions in the Orthodox Church have incomplete habits which do not have all the elements of the habit of the monk of the Great Schema.

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

The Priest:

Truly, you have chosen a good and blessed work, but only if you complete it. Good things are acquired with toil and achieved with pain.

The Orthodox Church is emphatic on the necessity of perseverance in the monastic state in the face of its inevitable great difficulties. There is nothing in the Orthodox Church’s attitude to monasticism that makes it an easy way out.

Question: Do you come to the Lord of your free will?

It is very important in a contract that the person have the capacity to make a contract.

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

Question: Not from any necessity or violence?

This speaks to the possibility, in an age when such things occurred, of a forced tonsure.

Answer: No, Reverend Father.

Question: Do you renounce the world and the things which are in the world, according to the commandment of the Lord?

This particular vow is what distinguishes the monk of the Great Schema from the monk of the Small Schema (the monk of the Small Schema does not make this vow) and the Rasophore (the Rasophore does not make formal vows at all). (There is some dispute whether a Rasophore is a monk (bound for life) or a novice (bound at his own and his monastery’s discretion).)

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

Question: Will you remain in the Monastery and in the ascesis up to your last breath?

In the Orthodox Church, a monk must be written into a concrete monastery somewhere. Monks can change monasteries. But they cannot leave the monastic state. There is no generally accepted practice in the Orthodox Church of laicizing monks. A monk cannot be ‘defrocked’: he is bound by his vows until death.

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

Question: Will you preserve unto death obedience to the Superior, and to the whole Brotherhood in Christ?

Obedience is both to the Superior and to each member of the brotherhood, but only a simple and naïve monk would not realize that the obedience owed to each member of the brotherhood who is not the Superior is different from that obedience owed to the Superior.

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

Question: Will you endure every affliction and deprivation of the Monastic life for the sake of the Kingdom of the Heavens?

To the extent that there is an explicit vow of poverty in the Orthodox Church, and there really is not, this is it. What this vow is really saying is this: will you willingly endure every difficulty both in the things that happen to you (say, persecution) and in the things missing from you (say, no food) for the sake of the Kingdom?

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

Question: Will you preserve yourself in virginity and chastity and piety?

Since married men can become monks, ‘virginity’ means chastity, not formal virginity. The word translated ‘chastity’ (sophrosyne) also means ‘prudence’. ‘Piety’ does not mean sentimental piety, but being religious, having a fundamentally religious orientation.

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

And the Catechism is immediately begun by the Priest, as follows:

See, child, what agreements you have given to the Master Christ.

This is a contract.

Angels are here invisibly present recording this your profession, which is going to be required of you in the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Orthodox Church there is no dispensation from monastic vows. That is why it is necessary that the postulant be thoroughly tested.

I am now narrating, therefore, the most perfect life, in which the way of life of the Lord is shown forth, bearing witness what things it is necessary for you to embrace and what things you must avoid. This renunciation, then, for him who has made it is nothing other than a profession of the cross and death.

In Byzantine law, the person who became a monk was deemed to have died.

Know, then, that from this present day you have been crucified and put to death to the world through the most perfect renunciation. For you have renounced parents, brothers, wife, children, forefathers, relatives, associations, friends, habits, the tumults in the world, cares, possessions, goods, empty and vain pleasure and glory;

This a pretty thorough-going renunciation. This catechism is sealed with a vow of acceptance just below. The catechism is itself part of the contract.

and you are renouncing not only those things which have just been said, but even yet your own life, according to the voice of the Lord which says: ‘Whoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ If therefore you truly seek to follow him, and if without lies you ardently desire to be called his disciple, from the present moment prepare yourself not towards ease, not towards freedom from care, not towards sensual pleasures, not towards anything else of those pleasures and enjoyments which are on the earth, but towards spiritual struggles, towards temperance of the flesh, towards purification of the soul, towards mean poverty, towards the good grief, towards all the sorrowful and painful things of that life according to God which brings joy. For you have to hunger and to thirst and to go naked and to be reviled and ridiculed, to be reproached and persecuted, and to be tempted in many sorrowful things, in which things the life according to God is characterized.

This is asceticism.

And when you suffer all of these things, ‘Rejoice,’ it is said, ‘for great is your wage in the Heavens.’

The above is a description of what the monastic life is and is not about.

Rejoice therefore with joy and exult with exultation, for today the Lord God has selected you,

God himself choses the monk. The monk is consecrated to the service of God.

and set you apart from life in the world, and has set you, as before his face, in the post of the Monastic order, in the service of the angelic life,

‘Post’ appears to be a military term, as does ‘service’. The monk is set before Christ the King in the King’s bodyguard.

in the height of the life which imitates Heaven, to worship him angelically, to serve him wholly and completely, to seek those things which are above. ‘For our way of life,’ according to the Apostle, ‘is in the Heavens.’

St John of the Ladder remarks that the light of the monk is the angel and the light of the lay person is the monk.

O the new call! O the gift of the Mystery! You are receiving a second Baptism today, Brother,

This doctrine of the second Baptism is more or less repeated in medieval Catholicism, which taught that the monastic tonsure purveyed the forgiveness of all previous sins.

in the wealth of the gifts of God who loves mankind, and you shall be cleansed of your sins, and you shall become a son of Light, and Christ himself our God rejoices together with his holy Angels over your repentance, slaughtering for you the fattened calf.

The ‘fattened calf’ that is slaughtered is the grace that the tonsured monk receives.

Walk worthily therefore of your call; rid yourself of the attachment to vain things; hate the desire that draws you towards those things which are below; turn your own ardent desire towards Heavenly things; by no means whatsoever turn back, so that you not become a pillar of salt like the wife of Lot or like a dog returning to its own vomit, and the word of the Lord be fulfilled in you: ‘No one putting his hand to the plough and having turned towards the rear is fit for the Kingdom of the Heavens.’

This is a call for stability in the vocation.

For the danger for you is not little, having now professed that you will guard all the aforesaid things, afterwards to make little of the profession or even to run back to the previous way of life, or to separate yourself from the Father and the Brothers who are engaged with you in ascesis, or, remaining, to live your days contemptuously. For you will have weightier responsibilities than previously before the unerring tribunal of Christ, as much as you now enjoy more grace.

This grace is quite real and tangible.

And it would be better for you, as the saying goes, not to vow than to vow and not to render your vow.

This is very important.

And again, do not at all think that in the previous time of your sojourn in this place that you have adequately struggled against the invisible powers of the Enemy, but know rather that from now there will succeed to you greater struggles in the battle against him,

This is not vain words but the sober truth.

but that he will in no way prevail against you if he finds you fenced about by a strong faith and love for him who is guiding you and by sincerity in your obedience and humility.

For this reason, put away from yourself refusal to listen, contradiction, pride, strife, jealousy, envy, anger, clamour, blasphemy, secret eating, boldness of manner, special friendship, talkativeness, wrangling, grumbling, whispering, personal acquisition of any miserable thing and all the other sorts of vice through which the wrath of God comes on those who practice them and the Destroyer of souls begins to take root in them.

These are monastic vices.

Rather, then, instead of those things acquire those things which are fitting to Saints: friendship, stillness, leniency, piety, meditation on the divine words, reading, keeping of the heart from filthy thoughts, labour according to strength, temperance, patient endurance up to death, and perfect confession of those things which are in your heart to the Father to whom you previously gave your vows, as the divine testaments relate: ‘They were baptized,’ it says, ‘confessing their sins.’

These are monastic virtues.

The tonsure foresees that the monk will have a spiritual guide to whom he will have revealed the depths of his soul. This is very important; it is only on this basis that the spiritual father can guide the young monk.

Question: Do you thus profess all these things in the hope of the strength of God and do you agree to persevere in these promises until the end of life, by the grace of Christ?

Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.

This catechism, which in English is over 900 words long, is sealed by a vow of the same weight as all the other vows.

1 comment:

  1. A married man can be a monk? Can he live with his wife and have conjugal relations? This is a very unusual concept and would be of great interest to the protestants in america who have no understanding of the Orthodox whatsoever. They consider the Orthodox to have the same rules as the Church of Rome.