We have received an email from someone who describes himself as a rasophore monk in a canonical Orthodox church. While his email states that he would prefer to keep the communication private, we did subsequently receive his written permission to post his email publicly and discuss it. Seraphim is not the rasophore monk’s real name. We should point out that we really regret private correspondences we have engaged in. It is much safer for all concerned for the discussion to be conducted publicly with the identifying information removed. That way Orthodox Monk avoids hassle. He also gets to convey his views to his whole readership. Here is Rasophore Monk Seraphim’s email, somewhat edited:
Dear Orthodox Monk, greetings in the Lord!
First of all, let me introduce myself. I am a rasophore monk from a canonical Orthodox Church and my name is Rasophore Monk Seraphim. I've been reading your blog ‘Orthodox Monk’ and there has been a discussion of whether or not a rasophore monk is a monastic. It was stated that the Greek Church does not consider a Rasophore a full monk, but a novice, because he hasn't made any vows (such a statement was really striking to me), while the Slavic tradition (Russian and others) considers him a monk even without his having made vows—a kind of ‘pre-fully-monastic’. I myself was tonsured a Rasophore and during my tonsure I did not give vows; however, my bishop and the laity consider me fully monastic. My question, I mean, questions are: if a rasophore decides to return to the world for whatever reason, will he be canonically punished? Are there any canonical proceedings to leave the rasophore state and return to the lay state?
I ask this because I've met rasophores who have decided—and still decide—to leave the monastic state (as rasophores), not necessarily to take up the married life but for other reasons such as caring their parents who are ill (if they are their only male child), or to find a job to support their parents and so on. Some of them even say they plan to return to the monastery when their parents pass away. I'd like to know how our Orthodox Church deals with these particular situations (parents, jobs), at least on the canonical level. If such a rasophore decides to live in the world as a celibate and unmarried Orthodox lay person, will the Church grant him a return to the lay situation? Is there any difference among the Orthodox traditions? If they decide to return to the monastery some time later, will they be accepted again?
I very much appreciate, Orthodox Monk, any help you might give me to settle my doubt. Thank your very much! These questions are only monastic curiosity. If possible, keep this e-mail unpublished and in your particular in-box I await your reply.
There are a number of issues here. First of all, is the rasophore a monk or a novice? There is no clear ruling in canon law on the status of the rasophore. The canons of the Church are clear on the status of the monk, and perhaps to a lesser extent, on the status of the novice. The issue here, however, is whether a rasophore is to be considered a monk or a novice. Next, there are issues of conscience for the rasophore—how did he understand what he did in becoming a rasophore and what personal commitments did he make to God before and during and after his tonsure?
Let us start with the status of the monk or nun in the Orthodox Church. For the sake of argument let us consider a monk of the small or great schema, so that there is no doubt that the man is a monk (or the woman a nun); we will address the particular issue of whether a rasophore is also to be considered a monk below.
There is no canonical provision for the laicization of a monk in the Orthodox Church. In the Roman Catholic Church there is a provision for the laicization of the monk that accomplishes its purpose by treating the monk’s vows as given to the community (monastery) and not to God. The point of this strategy, we understand, is that vows given to men can be dispensed (revoked, nullified) whereas vows given to God are irrevocable. Hence, if the monastic vows are given to the Community (monastery), then they can be dispensed by the Community (monastery). However, if the vows are given to God, then they are eternal. This might seem like jesuitical casuistry, but we once met a Jesuit priest who had left his order without permission and who explained the reasoning to us, also explaining that in his own conscience he considered his vows as given to God and therefore irrevocable. In other words, he himself considered that his vows were unbreakable even though he had left the order and was living as a married layman. Needless to say he had psychological problems being in this condition.
In the Orthodox Church, there is no similar provision for the laicization of monks. The monk is understood to have given his vows to God. And the best teaching in the Orthodox Church is that vows given to God are irrevocable. However, it is known that in some jurisdictions when a priest-monk is defrocked he is also reduced from the monastic to the lay state. The reason for this is obvious: as a monk he would be wearing the habit and be a cause of scandal. But there is no canonical foundation for such a practice of reducing a monk to the lay state. What does this mean? To us—and we are neither theologians nor saints with the gift of clairvoyance—this means that although the man is no longer wearing the habit he is bound before God for his monastic obligations.
Let us make this a little clearer. Let us suppose that a monk who has given vows to God violates his vows. The monastery expels him and the Holy Synod reduces him to the lay state. Does this mean that the man can do what he wants? No. The vows cannot be dispensed and he will answer for them on the Day of Judgement. What he must do is keep his vows while living as a layman. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s wearing blue jeans or the habit or whether he shaves or not: he’s still bound.
We don’t want to go into details, but there is a very famous case of a priest-monk hearing the confessions of political persons who engaged in espionage—evidently passing on what he learned in confession and otherwise to a foreign intelligence service—and who in a crisis of conscience ceased his priesthood, cast off the habit and married. He was counselled by an Elder to continue living with his wife in the lay state—but as a monk. Needless to say the man experienced psychological crises up to the time of his death.
Now the question is this: is the rasophore a monk? What we understand in our limited knowledge is that the consensus on Mt Athos is that the rasophore is a monk and obliged to continue in the monastic state. However, for the pastoral reasons alluded to above, the Church of Greece treats the rasophore as a novice, which means that he can take off the habit and live without penalty as a layman. Here it should be understood that the Church of Greece does not have jurisdiction over Mt Athos; the Patriarch of Constantinople does. However, if a Greek monk leaves Mt Athos he will almost invariably end up in Greece under the jurisdiction of the Church of Greece, so the attitude of the Church of Greece to a rasophore who has cast off the habit and left Mt Athos is of great practical importance. As far as we know there is no particular procedure for this, just as there is no particular procedure for a novice to leave a monastery and resume his life as a layman. However, as rasophore monk Seraphim points out, Slavic jurisdictions treat the rasophore as a monk, not as a novice. So in such jurisdictions the rasophore who returned to the world would not be able to marry in Church—unless people looked the other way. In the diaspora, anything goes, which is unfortunate.
What penalties does the monk who returns to the lay state have? We are not a confessor and not an expert on the canons, but we imagine that the only possible conditions under which a confessor would allow the man to receive communion would be if he on the one hand lived as a monk in the world and on the other hand sorted out any problems he had with the monastery and the circumstances surrounding his casting off the habit (e.g. was there a woman involved?).
This brings us to the matter of conscience. Let us suppose that I am on a boat on the high seas. There is a storm and I am afraid that the boat is going to capsize. I make a vow to God that if he saves me, I will give two sheep to such-and-such a monastery. I am saved. I don’t give the two sheep. I die. What happens next? I have a problem. I owe God two sheep. He doesn’t need the sheep but I am obliged to keep my vows to God. Let’s suppose that it’s a really serious storm and instead of two sheep I vow to become a monk. Same thing. If I don’t become a monk, then when I die I have an unfulfilled vow to God. I have a problem.
So in the case of someone who has given vows to God—for example the Jesuit mentioned above—the problem on the Day of Judgement is his conscience: what he obliged himself to do before God.
So let us consider a man who is tonsured a rasophore. Let us first take the case where his jurisdiction treats the rasophore as a novice. What did the man himself understand in conscience about what he was doing when he became a rasophore? If he understood that he was becoming a monk, and was committed before God to becoming a monk, then he has implicit vows to God. He must keep these implicit obligations to God even if his jurisdiction treats him as a novice. He must live as a monk. But if he thought he was becoming a novice? Let us hope that he had a serious conversation with the Abbot before he was tonsured, so that there was no confusion about what was involved in the tonsure.
Let us now take the case where the jurisdiction treats the rasophore as a monk. Then certainly unless there are issues such as psychological incapacity to understand what was entailed in becoming a rasophore, the rasophore is a monk bound to remain in the monastery working towards the fullness of the monastic state. Hence, if he returns to the world for whatever reason, he still has his obligations to God. He has to live as a monk.
Rasophore monk Seraphim raises the issue of possible legitimate reasons to return to the world—aged parents and so on. These things are pretexts since on the one hand they would have been discussed with the Abbot before the tonsure and directions given; and, on the other hand, the monk has no obligations to those in the world such as Rasophore Monk Seraphim describes. For example, when a married man becomes a monk, under canon law the marriage is automatically dissolved. So the monk is free of such worldly obligations; indeed they must be seen as temptations of the Devil to return him to the world.
However, this is not the place for Rasophore Monk Seraphim to raise such questions. The appropriate place is at the feet of his Elder and Abbot.