Monday, 10 May 2010

Questions about Orthodox Monasticism

We have just received an interesting email (slightly edited):
I am an undergraduate student taking a class on World Religions. While I am not Greek Orthodox, I have become very interested after watching a “60 Minutes” interview with His All Holiness Bartholomew. I have chosen as a topic for my research paper, aspects of the Greek Orthodox religion. If possible, could you answer the following questions?
(This web site provides excellent information, and I would like to ask a few questions in order to add an interview reference for my paper.)
1. What is the origin of the order of Monks?
2. What is the role of Monks in hierarchy of the Church?
3. Do Monks have a role in the spiritual development of lay persons?
4. Do you see any similarities between the orders of Monks in the Orthodox Church and in the Buddhist religion?
Thank You,
Let us take the questions one by one.
1. What is the origin of the order of Monks?
First of all, the student of religion must understand something of the relations of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Until the schism of 1054 ad, they were one church, in communion with one another. However, although the Roman Church originally spoke Greek, it soon changed to Latin, whereas the Greek Church centred in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) continued to speak Greek. Moreover, the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople were both centred on capitals of the Roman Empire: there were two capitals of the Roman Empire (whence the two-headed eagle, one head looking West and one East). However, although the two churches were in communion, they evolved in somewhat different directions and with a somewhat different mentality. This is evident when one reads St Augustine in parallel with contemporary Greek Fathers of the Church: there is already a clear difference in mentality. Moreover, partly because St Augustine was writing in Latin, although the Roman Church (and the Protestant Reformers) took him very seriously indeed, he was ignored in the Greek East. This is important even in the question in hand because St Augustine founded an order of monks, with a rule that has a completely different character from Greek-based rules. The two churches split in the 11th Century.
Let us now turn to the actual question. First of all, let us note that there are two basic types of Christian monk: the coenobitical monk, who lives with other monks in an organized monastery, and the eremitical monk, who lives alone. Traditionally, the Greeks trace the origins of the coenobitical Christian monk to the Acts of the Apostles, to the Christian community in Jerusalem. See Acts 4, 32 – 37:
The heart and soul of the crowd of believers was one and no one said that any thing of his possessions was his own but everything was common to them. And the Apostles rendered the witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power for great grace was on all of them. For there was no one in want among them; for as many as were owners of fields or houses sold them and brought the prices of those things which had been sold, placing them at the feet of the Apostles. And they gave to each according to the need he had. And Joses, called Barnabas by the Apostles, which translated means ‘Son of Consolation’, a Levite, from a Cypriot family, there being a field he owned, sold that field and brought the money and placed it at the feet of the Apostles.
Now there is no indication that the believers in the original Jerusalem community were obliged to be celibate. Since the Apostle Peter was married, this seems unlikely.
The relevant passages of the Bible concerning celibacy are these: First, Elias (Elijah) the Prophet who was clearly celibate, as it seems his disciple and successor Elisha was. In the description of the Prophet Elias’ life, the Bible refers to the ‘Brotherhoods of the Prophets’, which seem to have been celibate, although the Bible does not say much at all.
In the New Testament, St John the Baptist is clearly celibate, as was Our Lord himself. Our Lord says this about celibacy in Matthew 19, 9 – 12:
I say then to you that whoever dismisses his wife, if not for fornication, and marries another commits adultery and she who is dismissed commits adultery if she marries. His disciples said to him: If this is the basis of legal action for a man with the wife, it is not profitable to marry. He then said to them. Not all can receive this word, but those to whom it is 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 made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God; let he who is able to receive this word, receive it.
The Church has never accepted any interpretation of this passage that would suggest that self-castration is acceptable; the Church has always understood this passage to be a provision for voluntary celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Note that there is no indication that celibacy can be undertaken for any other reason.
Here is what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 – 11:
Concerning, then, those things which you wrote to me, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. On account, however, of [the danger of] fornication let each [man] have his own wife, and each [woman] have her own husband. Let the man render to the wife the favour which is owed and likewise the wife to the husband. For the woman does not have authority over her own body but the husband; likewise the man does not have authority over his own body but the wife. Do not deny each other, unless it is by mutual agreement for a time so as to dedicate yourselves to fasting and to prayer and then to come together again, so that Satan not tempt you on account of your incontinence. I say this by way of concession not by way of command. For I wish that all men were as myself. But everyone has his own gift from God, one this way and one that way. I say then to the unmarried and to the widows that it is good for them to remain even as I am but if they do not keep continent then let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. I command those who are married, however, not I but the Lord, that the woman must not separate from her husband. But if she separates, let her remain unmarried or else let her be reconciled to her husband; and let the husband not leave his wife.
As we can see here, it is better not to marry but marriage is not a sin. Moreover, celibacy within marriage is by mutual consent for a time for the sake of fasting and prayer. Of course, the canons of the Church have regulated this with regard to the fixed fasts of the Church. However, more important for an understanding of Christian monasticism, celibacy is better than marriage. Here is what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, 25 – 40:
Concerning maidens, I do not have a command of the Lord but I give my opinion as one who has been shown mercy by the Lord to be faithful. I think then that this is good on account of the present necessity, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Have you been given to a wife? Do not seek to loose the bonds. Have you been loosed by a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned. And if the maiden marries, she has not sinned. But such persons [i.e. those who marry] will have affliction in the flesh; I [would] spare you [that]. I say this then, brothers, that the remaining time has been shortened, so that those who have wives should be as not having, and those who are weeping as not weeping, and those who are rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those who are buying as not possessing, and those who make use of this world as not making use, for the form of this world is passing. I want you to be without cares. He who is unmarried takes care for the things of the Lord, how he will please the Lord. But he who marries takes care for the things of the world, how he will please his wife. For the married woman and the maiden have been divided. She who is unmarried takes care for the things of the Lord so that she be holy in body and spirit. She who has been married takes care for the things of the world, how she will please her husband. I say this to you towards your own profit: not so that I put a noose around you but towards seemliness and so that you might constantly wait for the Lord without distraction. If someone thinks he is behaving badly towards his maiden, if he is of surpassing sexual vigour and thus it must happen, let him do what he wants; he does not sin; let them marry. However, if anyone has stood stably in his heart, not having necessity, and has authority over his own will, and has judged this in his heart, to keep himself a virgin, he does well. So that he who marries does well but he who does not marry does better. A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband is alive. If her husband passes away, she is free to marry whom she wants, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is more blessed if she remains thus [i.e. an unmarried widow], and I think that I have the Spirit of God.
We can see that in the New Testament celibacy is clearly foreseen for the sake of the Kingdom of God and for no other reason. Marriage is not a sin but the higher state is celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Moreover the Bible is clear that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is not for everyone but only for those who can sustain it and who want to. It is a free choice for those who are able to live such a life.
Now in terms of the actual historical evolution of monasticism, we have already mentioned the coenobitical model of the original Jerusalem community. There are also passages both in Acts (concerning for example Dorcas who was raised from the dead by Peter) and in the Epistles of Paul which refer to the widows. These appear originally to have been genuine widows who devoted themselves to good works in celibacy with the support of the Church. These widows seem very similar to orders of nuns and most likely played a historical role in the evolution of Christian monasticism. St Paul even regulates concerning them. However, we will leave the reader to research this on his or her own.
In the same era as the New Testament the Jewish theologian or philosopher Philo of Alexandria describes a community of ‘Therapeutae’ near Alexandria in his work ‘On the Contemplative Life’. The work has sometimes been interpreted as describing an early Christian monastic community but there is certainly room for other interpretations.
Next, until the Edict of Milan in 313 ad, which permitted Christianity without establishing it (that happened under Theodosius the Great in 380 ad), there were periodic persecutions of Christians. The norm was for the Christian to flee persecution, not to remain and be subject to martyrdom (since it was not clear that you would withstand the torture, and it was more humble to flee than to stand your ground). A number of these early Christian fugitives remained in the wilderness. A number of these saints’ lives are briefly recorded in the collections of Lives of the Saints. We have examples of such saints already from the middle of the 3rd Century, if not earlier (there probably is a problem with the sourcing, not with the existence of earlier saints of this type).
Moreover, when St Anthony the Great went to the desert sometime before 300 ad, at that time, as his biographer, St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria, who knew him personally, remarks, there were monks who lived on the outskirts of towns and villages, but St Anthony was the first to go to the desert. Actually, St Anthony wasn’t the first to go to the desert, since there were others who had gone to the desert to escape martyrdom and had remained. But he certainly had a dramatic effect on the nature of Christian monasticism.
By the end of the 4th Century, Egypt was full of monks, as was Palestine and Syria. Indeed, there were developments in Palestine and Syria parallel to the early growth of monasticism in Egypt and it would be a mistake to think that the source of all Christian monasticism was Egypt, although it did indeed produce the form dominant in the Orthodox Church. There were some differences between Syrian and Egyptian monasticism. A characteristic example of a contemporary Syrian saint is St Symeon the Stylite (fl. 5th C.), who is well-attested and the ruins of whose pillar have been found and whose fame spread all the way to Rome.
2. What is the role of Monks in hierarchy of the Church?
The monk becomes a member of the ‘choir of those who live alone’ within the Church. He renounces the world, becomes celibate, but as a member of the Church. He is a member of the Church who has opted for a celibate role within the Church. Fairly early the canons (laws) of the Church regulated concerning monks. A monk is forbidden to seek the priesthood. If he is offered the priesthood he may accept (and indeed may be required to accept because of his vow of obedience). But as is clear from the Scriptural passages quoted above, the monk is dedicated to serving the Lord without distraction in repentance and prayer; his is not the vocation of the teacher. Hence, it is considered unseemly and even dangerous for a monk to seek the priesthood, which is really a ministry of teaching in the Church. Moreover, monks were also regulated by the canons of the Church to remain in their hermitages and/or monasteries: they were not to spend their time in the cities making trouble. However, fairly soon, bishops were selected exclusively from the monks. Hence, although the monk could not seek the priesthood, let alone a bishopric, he could be selected for either. Historically, monks have functioned as a kind of ginger group in the Orthodox Church. That is, the monks often supported sound doctrine.
3. Do Monks have a role in the spiritual development of lay persons?
Yes, if they themselves have any spiritual development. The best thing to do here is to quote St John of Sinai, the author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. We don’t have the text handy, but he says that the angel is the light of (model for) the monk, whereas the monk is the light of (model for) the layperson. This aspect of monasticism developed over the years. In 19th Century Russia, Dostoevsky himself used to go to Optina monastery where he used to confess to one of the Elders there, St Ambrose. St Ambrose said of Dostoevsky: ‘That is a man who repents.’ The same Elder said of Tolstoy, with whom he spoke for eight hours straight: ‘He has much pride.’ So, yes, this is a very important aspect of Orthodox monasticism. Needless to say, conflicts can arise with Section 2, above, if the monk who is playing a role in the spiritual development of lay persons doesn’t see eye to eye on certain matters with the local bishop. With regard to nuns, spiritually developed nuns do also counsel lay persons, mostly females. The Orthodox Church has always paid attention to the stricture of St Paul that he did not permit women to have authority over men in the Church, so while there are roles that women play in the Church, nuns generally do not offer spiritual direction except to other women.
4. Do you see any similarities between the orders of Monks in the Orthodox Church and in the Buddhist religion?
Yes and no. Obviously, on the most superficial level monks of both religions are ostensibly celibate, or at least unmarried. However, the earliest references to Buddhism in Christian letters we ourselves have seen are first in Clement of Alexandria (2nd to early 3rd C.), who makes a passing reference to Buddha in one of his works, and then in the catechisms of St Hesychios of Jerusalem about 370 ad, who states that through a chain of disciples the Buddha was one of the sources of Manes, the founder of Manichaeism. It is interesting that St Hesychios explicitly states that he is taking his information from converts to Christianity from Manichaeism with whom he has spoken personally.
Now, some differences. First of all, Christian monasticism is an optional way of life within the Christian Church that arises out of the Judeo-Christian Biblical tradition whereas Buddhism was originally a strictly monastic religion that arose out of Hinduism, in fact Hindu asceticism. The first Buddhist scriptures were the rules of the order of Buddhist monks; lay persons are a sort of later add-on. We cannot overemphasize this fundamental difference between Orthodox and Buddhist monasticism.
Next, in Christian monasticism, a monk gives his vows to God and these are considered irrevocable. The same sense of the irrevocable nature of a vow to God is also to be found in Judaism and Islam. The Roman Catholic Church finds a way to laicize monks who so wish by construing their vows to be to the monastic community and not to God. We once had a conversation with a wayward Jesuit who had left his order without authorization and cast off the habit, and who remarked that his conscience told him that his vows were to God, not to the Jesuit community, and that the only option open to him within Roman Catholic canon law was to go to the Cistercians unless he returned to the Jesuits. Hence, sometimes this approach doesn’t even work for the Roman Catholic Church. In the Orthodox Church, vows of the monk or nun are to God and are irrevocable. Historical exceptions exist but are so exceedingly rare as to prove the canon. However, in Buddhism, monastic vows can be undone. There is a standard procedure for doing this. Evidently, this is how it is that we see in Theravada Buddhism (say, in Thailand) that young boys become monks for a year or two and then return to the world in an expected and accepted fashion. Moreover, we have known persons who were Tibetan Buddhist monks who have given their vows back and returned to the world without any stigma being attached to them by their Tibetan Buddhist gurus.
Next, although a Buddhist monk is celibate, there is a strand of esoteric Buddhism that foresees that the monk will engage in actual tantric yoga with a nun or laywoman. This strand is usually associated with Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism but the strand, which arises out of Hindu tantric yoga associated with the worship of Siva, extends all the way to Japan. Before anyone jumps on us, we are confident of our sources. This is inconceivable in Orthodox monasticism. It would be considered a grave, demonic sin. (It should be noted that in Japan there is the historical anomaly of married Buddhist monks. This arose because of the insistence of the state in a fairly recent period that the monks be married. This can be quite confusing because these monks are usually called Buddhist priests, even though there is no priesthood in Buddhism. We do not know how these married monks live with their wives. Moreover, it should be understood that although Tibetan Buddhist lamas are also often called priests and on occasion even get married, there is really no priesthood in Buddhism, at least not in any sense that someone in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even the Greek pagan tradition, would understand the priesthood.)
Next, there is a number of degrees in Buddhist monasticism and there is an incredible number of vows in some of the degrees. We seem to recall that in some cases there are over two hundred and fifty vows. We do not know what these vows are all about. Moreover, Buddhist monastic vows are apparently secret, so that it would be difficult to establish what they are all about with any certainty.
In Orthodox monasticism, the full tonsure to the monastic state requires these vows (see our translation of the tonsure to the Great Schema here):
Then the Priest inquires of him, saying:
Question: Why have you come, Brother, falling down before the Holy Altar, and before this holy Brotherhood?
Answer: I desire the life of asceticism, Reverend Father.
Question: Do you desire to be worthy of the Angelic Habit and to be enrolled in the choir of the Monastics?
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.
Question: Do you come to the Lord of your free will?
Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.
Question: Not from any necessity or violence?
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?
Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.
Question: Will you remain in the Monastery and in the ascesis up to your last breath?
Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.
Question: Will you preserve unto death obedience to the Superior, and to the whole Brotherhood in Christ?
Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.
Question: Will you endure every affliction and deprivation entailed by the Monastic life for the sake of the Kingdom of the Heavens?
Answer: Yes, God helping me, Reverend Father.
Question: Will you preserve yourself in virginity and chastity and piety?
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. 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. 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.
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; and you are renouncing not only those things which have just been said, but even 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. And when you suffer all of these things, ‘Rejoice,’ it is said, ‘for great is your wage in the Heavens.’
Rejoice therefore with joy and exult with exultation, for today the Lord God has selected you 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, 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.’
Oh the new call! Oh the gift of the Mystery! You are receiving a second Baptism today, Brother, 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. 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.’ 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. And it would be better for you, as the saying goes, not to vow than to vow and not to render your vows. And, again, do not at all think that in the previous time of your sojourn in this place 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, 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 those who practise them. Rather, then, instead of those things, acquire these 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.’
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.
One can see that there is not really a vow of poverty for monks in the Orthodox Church, but a vow of endurance in the face of the difficulties and afflictions entailed by the monastic life. However, the catechism, which is sealed by a separate vow of acceptance, does refer to monastic poverty.
Note also that the monk is crucified to the world. This is not something that a Buddhist monk would conceptualize, since Buddhism has different theological bases than Christianity.
Note also that, in a chain going all the way back to the New and Old Testaments, the goal of the monk is ascesis. As St Paul said, the celibate is he or she who is dedicated to pleasing the Lord. This ‘pleasing the Lord’ is understood in monasticism as a process of asceticism to overcome the passions so as to become more Christ-like.
There are really these degrees of monasticism in the Orthodox Church:
Novice (No formal, standardized service. The novice may wear lay clothes, a special uniform or some elements of the monastic habit, although certainly not the veil or the schema—in the West, the schema is called the scapular. This is a period of testing to see whether the person can live as a monk or nun. It can normally be terminated by either side for any reason. It is usually regulated by the Church.)
Rasophore (This is a set of prayers over the beginning monk with a tonsure but without formal vows. See here for the complete service. The habit will ordinarily include the veil but does not include the schema or scapular. While historically the rasophore has been treated as a monk, the Church of Greece takes the position that since there are no vows, it is really a novitiate.)
Small Schema (This is a moderate version of the Great Schema which lacks the vow of renunciation of the world that the Great Schema has, but has all the other vows. It also has a more moderate catechism and milder prayers over the monk. It is based on the service of tonsure to the Great Schema and has exactly the same structure. The readings from the Apostle and the Gospel are different. The actual schema or scapular is smaller than the schema or scapular of the Great Schema and among the Russians is worn inside the habit where it is not ordinarily visible. A priest, who would also be a monk of at the least the Small Schema, ordinarily performs this service. This service is binding for life. We have not translated this service.)
Great Schema (See here. Among the Greeks the actual schema or scapular covers the front of the body from the neck to the knees but among the Russians includes a hood and falls much lower, to the floor. In each case, the schema or scapular is embroidered with a very large cross and a number of letters which are the initial letters of the words in a number of sentences, the more so in the Russian case. The schema or scapular is not always worn. Among the Greeks a priest, who would also be a monk of the Great Schema, ordinarily performs this service, but among the Russians a bishop ordinarily performs it. This service is binding for life.)
The monk or nun may advance from any degree to any higher degree depending on the wishes of his or her spiritual guide (for example, the Abbot). There are differences in time and place and jurisdiction concerning which degrees are conferred when, and even whether a particular degree is conferred at all.
Finally, it should be noted that the services of tonsure in the Orthodox Church are the same everywhere, and the same for men and women: only the gender is changed where appropriate. There has been a historical evolution of the services but the current monastic services are standard throughout the Church.

1 comment:

  1. Quite a post. Thanks for writing it.