Friday, November 6, 2015

Marriage or Monasticism? ( Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos Vlachos )

Most young people don’t know how to discover their calling in the life. Whether to dedicate themselves to monasticism or select the marriage path. Some have the feeling that monasticism is a more superior choice than marriage and that marriage represents a lower situation. Others believe that any young man who chooses to become a monk is a coward who avoids the responsibilities of citizenship.

Bishop of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos provides a warm insight and a clear view of the essence of both marriage and monastic life, based on the teaching of the Eastern Church Fathers. “Both marriage and monasticism are powerful symbolic ways of straining toward the ultimate goal of love. Celibacy and marriage are not contrasted with each other; instead, both are compared to and directed to God’s love”.

Monasticism and Married Life

Orthodox spirituality is accessible to all people; responding to its message is not associated with special groups of people. All those who have been baptised in the name of the Holy Triune God are “compelled” to uphold Christ’s commandments. There are no excep­tions on the way toward theosis, which is the “journey” from the image of God to His likeness. The Apostle Paul says clearly: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3, 27).

The essence and aim of Orthodox spirituality presented in the foregoing chapters is delineated in the Word of Christ and the teachings of the Apostles. Many passages from Holy Scripture have been quoted which show that the first Christians lived the spiritual life profoundly, having attained to the illumination of the nous and unceasing prayer.

In a reference to virginity and marriage the Apostle Paul states: “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife” (1 Cor. 7, 32-33). Yet, at the same time he stresses: “But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wines be as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7, 29). Thus married people also lived asceti­cally and had experiences of the spiritual life.

Moreover, not to be overlooked is the fact that all of the Apostle Paul’s Epistles, sent to the various Churches, were addressed to Christians who were married and had families. And it is within these Epistles that St. Paul speaks of cleansing of the heart, illumination of the soul, acquisition of noetic prayer, of the unceasing prayer of the heart, Sonship by grace, and of life in the Holy Spirit. These epistles disclose that the Christians of the first Apostolic Churches lived as the monks live today in the holy monasteries. When the persecutions ceased, however, and Christianity became the official state religion, seculariza­tion penetrated the Church and the ascetic way of living disappeared from the cities. It was precisely during this time that monasticism developed as an attempt to preserve the essence of the spiritual life. For this reason the holy Fathers emphasize that monasticism is the continuity of the Apostolic age and the life of the first Church; and that the monks are those who live the life of the Gospel, who experience repentance to its ultimate degree and who try to ob­serve the commandments of Christ unyieldingly. Every Orthodox monk who lives within this atmos­phere is an Apostle of Christ, a Martyr and a Prophet. Monasticism is apostolic, prophetic and martyrial life.

To understand the essence of monastic life, one should read the beatitudes of Christ. The monk com­mences his life in profound repentance with tears of mourning and the cleansing of the heart. In the Gospel and the Apostle Paul’s Epistles all the ele­ments which constitute the genuine monastic tradi­tion, as proclaimed by the Fathers, can be found.

These same elements are emphasized in the ser­vice of monastic tonsuring. It states there that during the noviciate period the prospective monk passes through the stage of the Catechumen, living in deep repentance and undergoing purification of the heart.

This is the “first love” of which the Evangelist John speaks in the book of Revelation. When repentance is accomplished monastic tonsuring takes place, which is referred to as the “second baptism”.

Monastic tonsuring is called a mystery because the monk experiences the purifying and illuminating energy of God. According to St. Symeon the New Theologian the second baptism is the baptism of the Spirit, that is, the illumination of the nous and the acquisition of noetic prayer. The following is said to the monk while he is being tonsured: “You are purged of your sins and becometh son of light”, Thus, the monk experiences purification of the heart prior to his tonsure, and ac­quires illumination of the nous while being tonsured.

The apostolic life and the way of life of the first Christians, as described in the Pauline Epistles and the book of the Acts, is made visible.

Monasticism is apostolic and evangelical; mor­tification of the “old man” precedes it, though, and then the monk becomes a “temple” of the Most Holy Spirit. The prayers read by the priest are expressive of this theme.

Married Christians in their personal lives are also called to live the Gospel and the commandments of Christ. Noone is exempted from this responsibility. Every one must experience repentance; overcome sel­fishness; and acquire love for God and love for others.

It is apparent that the circumstances of married life are different from those of the monastery, and thus a certain adjustment is needed. Yet, what the monastery is for the monk, the family is for the married person. Family is the place for ascetic practice in married life. It is therein that a person is called to carry out the will of God.

“O God most pure … bless this marriage, and vouchsafe unto these thy servants, N. and N., a peaceful life, length of days, chastity, mutual love in the bond of peace, long· lived seed, gratitude from their posterity, a crown of glory which fadeth not away. Graciously grant that they may behold their children’s children. Preserve their bed un assailed, and give them of the dew of heaven from on high, and of the fatness of the earth. Fill their houses with wheat, and wine, and oil, and with every beneficence, that they may bestow in turn upon the needy; granting also unto those who are here present with them all those petitions which are of their salvation”. (Rite of the Holy Matrimony)1.

The Church has placed all of its teaching on marriage in the prayers read during the marriage ceremony. The wedded are blessed to live their lives in love and prudence, following the commandments of God.

“Be thou exalted, a Bridegroom, like unto Abraham; and be thou blessed, like unto Isaac; and do thou multiply like unto Jacob, walking in peace, and keeping the commandments of God in righteousness.

And thou, O Bride: Be thou exalted like unto Sarah; and exult thou, like unto Rebecca; and do thou multiply, like unto Rachel: and rejoice thou in thy husband, fulfilling the conditions of the law: for so is it well pleasing unto God”. (Rite of the Holy Matrimony).2

The fact that women and men who had been wor­thy of experiencing divine vision in the Old Testament are mentioned in the prayers, demonstrates the as­cetic and saving character of marriage in Christ. The holy Fathers teach that conception, gestation and birth constitute the “garments of skin” which Adam wore after the Fall. God, however, eventually blessed this way. St. Maximos writes that marriage, as we know it today, is a result of the Fall.3

St. Chrysostom teaches that all of the command­ments of the Gospel -except, of course, for that of marriage-are to be shared by all men -monks and married.4

St. Basil discerns that both -monastics and the married-are called to uphold the commandments of Christ in the Gospel. St. Gregory Palamas, on the theme of the purity of the heart, declares that married persons can also strive to attain it.5

The existence of many married Saints who pos­sessed noetic prayer both in the Old and the New Testaments reveals that married people have the capacity to experience Orthodox spirituality in all its manifestations. The prophetess Anna kept noetic prayer within her heart and prayed unceasingly while in the midst of experiencing great pain.

Within the framework of Orthodox spirituality, therefore, Christians are not divided into categories of married and single, monastics and lay people; however they are separated into those who have the Holy Spirit within and those who do not. It is possible for all people to uphold Christ’s commandments and experience Or­thodox spirituality under the guidance of a spiritual father. There are neither privileged nor non-privileged people within Orthodox tradition.

Explanation of Monastic Clothing ( St. John Cassian )


Great Schema Monk



-- As we start to speak of the institutes and rules of monasteries, where could we better begin, with God's help, than with the very garb of the monks? After having exposed their outward appearance to view we shall then be able to discuss, in logical sequence, their inner worship. And so, it is proper for a monk always to dress like a soldier of Christ, ever ready for battle, his loins girded.

The monk's garment should only be such that it covers the body, countering the shame of nakedness, and prevents the cold from doing harm, not such that it nurtures seeds of vanity or pride. In the words of the same Apostle: "having food and covering, let them be satisfied with these" (I Timothy 6:8). He says "covering" and not "vesture," which some Latin editions say incorrectly. This means only what may cover the body, not what may flatter it by its splendid style. Thus it should be commonplace, so as to be indistinguishable in terms of novelty of color and cut from what is worn by other men of this chosen orientation; in no respect should it be self-consciously meticulous, but neither, on the other hand, should it be grimy with filth accumulated by neglect; finally, it should be different from the apparel of this world in that it is kept completely in common for the use of the servants of God.

-- There are some other things in the garb of the Egyptians that pertain not so much to the well-being of the body as to the regulation of behavior, so that the observance of simplicity and innocence may be maintained even in the very character of their clothing. Thus, day and night they always wear small hoods that extend to the neck and the shoulders and that only cover the head. In this way they are reminded to hold constantly to the innocence and simplicity of small children even by imitating their dress itself. Those who have returned to their infancy repeat to Christ at every moment with warmth and vigor: "Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are my eyes lifted up. Neither have I walked in great things nor in marvels beyond me. If I thought not humbly but exalted my soul, like a weaned child upon its mother" (Psalms 131:1-2).

-- They also wear linen colobia that barely reach the elbows and, for the rest, leave the hands free. The cutting off of their sleeves is to suggest that they have cut off the deeds and works of this world, and the wearing of linen clothing is to teach them that they have utterly died to a worldly way of life, that thus they may hear the Apostle addressing them daily: "Put to death your members that are on earth" (Colossians 3:5). Their very dress proclaims this as well: "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians3:3). And: "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). And: "The world has been crucified to me and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).

-- They wear thin ropes, too, which are braided with a double thickness of wool. . . . They descend from the top of the neck, separate on either side of the neck, go around the folds at the armpits, and are tucked on both sides, so that when they are tightened the garment's fullness may be gathered close to the body. Thus their arms are freed, and they are unimpeded and ready for any activity as they strive wholeheartedly to fulfill the Apostle's precept: "These hands have labored not only for me but also for those who are with me" (Acts 20:34). "Nor do we eat anyone's bread for free, but we worked night and day in labor and weariness, lest we burden any of you" (II Thessalonians 3:8). And: "If anyone does not wish to work, neither should he eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10).

-- After this they cover their necks and also their shoulders with a short cape, striving after both modest style and cheapness and economy. In this way, they avoid the cost of coats and cloaks as well as any showiness. These are called "mafortes" in both our language and theirs.

-- The last pieces of their outfit are a goatskin, which is called a "melotis" or a "pera," and a staff. These they carry in imitation of those who already in the Old Testament prefigured the thrust of this profession. Of them the Apostle says: "They went about in melotis and goatskin, needy, in distress, afflicted, the world unworthy of them, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and caverns of the earth" (Hebrews 11:37-38). This garment of goatskin signifies that, once all the turbulence of their carnal passions has been put to death, they must abide in the most elevated virtue and no willfulness or wantonness of their youth and of former fickleness must remain in their bodies.

-- But they refuse shoes as being forbidden by gospel precept (Matthew 10:10), even when bodily infirmity or a winter morning's chill or the intense midday heat demands them, and they only put sandals on their feet. They understand that this use of them, with the Lord's permission, means that if, once having been placed in this world, we cannot be utterly removed from the care and worry of this flesh and are unable to be completely rid of it, we should at least provide for the necessities of the body with a minimum of preoccupation and involvement. Thus we should not allow the feet of our soul, which must always be ready for the spiritual race and for preaching the peace of the Gospel . . . to be entangled in the deadly cares of this world -- namely, by thinking of what caters not to the needs of nature but to superfluous and harmful pleasure.

-- This we shall accomplish if, in the words of the Apostle, "we do not make provision for the flesh in its desires" (Romans 13:14). But although they legitimately use sandals, since they were conceded by the Lord's decree, they nonetheless do not allow them on their feet when they approach to celebrate or to receive the most holy mysteries, considering that they must keep literally what was said to Moses and to Joshua the son of Nun: "Undo the strap of your sandal, for the place on which you stand is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5 and Joshua 5:15).

-- We have said all of this so that it might not seem that we have left out anything concerning the Egyptians' garb. But we ourselves should keep only those things that the situation of the place and the custom of the region permit. For the harshness of the winter does not allow us to be satisfied with sandals or colobia or a single tunic, and wearing a little hood and having a "melotis" would evoke derision rather than edification in the beholder. Hence we are of the opinion that, of the things we have mentioned above, we should wear only what is in keeping with the humility of our profession and the character of the climate, so that the whole point of our clothing may not consist in strangeness of apparel, which might be offensive to persons of this world, but in decent simplicity.

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 21 - 26

The Woman who Dwelt in a Cave...

A saintly hermit told the brothers the following story:
One day, as I was sitting in the desert, I began to feel worried and sad. A thought came to me: “Get up and go for a walk in the desert”. So I walked and came to a water-course and gazing into the distance in the moonlight- night had fallen already- I saw something hirsute sitting on a rock. At first I thought it was a lion and stopped walking in that direction. But then I thought it over and realized that, even if it were a lion, I shouldn’t be afraid, but rather should take courage and believe in the grace of Christ. So I started off again, heading towards the rock. Near the rock there was a small hole. No sooner did the figure see me approaching in the distance than it sprang up and disappeared into the cave.

When I got to the rock, I found a basket with some beans and a pitcher full of water, so I realized that the figure must have been a person, rather than a lion. So I went up to the opening of the cave and shouted: “Servant of God, please, do me a favour and come out and bless me”. No answer. I insisted that whoever it was should come out and give me a blessing, but the reply came: “Forgive me, Elder, but I can’t come out”. When I asked why, I received the answer: “Forgive me, but I’m a woman and quite naked”. When I heard this, I immediately took off the cloak I was wearing, wrapped it up and threw it into the cave. “Take this clothing, put it on and come out, please”. She did so. As soon as she came out, we said the usual prayer and sat down. Then I implored her: “Do me the favour, mother Elder, of telling me how you came to this place, how you spend your time here and how you found this cave”.

Then she began to tell me her life story:

“I was a ‘canonical’, she said [that is a woman dedicated to the Church but not tonsured as a nun], ‘and had dedicated my life to the church of the Resurrection of Christ. But where I used to perform this duty, there was a monk, who had his cell near the gate. This monk started to become familiar and seemed very pleased to be in my company or to speak with me. On one occasion I overheard him weeping and confessing this sinful inclination to God. I knocked on the door, and, when he realized it was me, he didn’t open it. Instead, he continued weeping and confessing to God. When I saw this, I said to myself: ‘Here’s this man repenting his own sin, but I’m unrepentant. He’s repenting and bewailing his transgression, so how can I remain like this, without the attire of mourning within me’.

So I immediately took the decision. I went back to my cell, put on an old and worn piece of clothing, filled my basket with beans and my jar with water. I went into the church of the Resurrection and made a prayer: ‘You, Lord, Who are our great and wonderful God, you Who came to earth to save the lost and raise the fallen, You who hearken to all those who sincerely ask Your assistance, show Your compassion and mercy to me, too, sinner that I am. And if it’s your good pleasure to accept my return and the repentance of my soul, bless these beans and this water, so that they’ll suffice for all the years of my life, so that I won’t be distracted- with the excuse of seeing to the needs of the flesh and the body- from continuous worship’.

Then I went to Golgotha and made the same prayer. I embraced the holy rock and the sacred vessels and again called upon the holy name of God. Then, in total secrecy, I left and, with complete confidence, gave myself into the hands of God. I went down to Jerusalem, crossed the Jordan and took the road that led to the bank of the Dead Sea. I’d never seen the sea-level so high. So I went up into the mountains and wandered in the desert until I came to this water-course. I climbed up onto the rock and found this cave. Since then I’ve come to love this place very much. I like to think that God gave it to me so that I could truly repent. I’ve lived here for thirty years and have never set eyes on another person, apart from you today.

And the beans in my basket and the water in my jar have never run out to this day, even though I’ve eaten and drunk as much as necessary. Of course, as time passed, my first clothes wore out and fell to pieces, but as my hair grew and got longer, I covered myself with it as if it were clothing. And so, by the grace of Christ, neither the cold nor the heat, even the furnace of the summer, do me any harm’.

She finished her story here and invited to me to eat some of the beans she had in her basket, because she’d been told “from the outside”, that I was very hungry. We ate and drank until I was full. But I saw that both the basket and the pitcher were still full, so I gave glory to God.

When it was time for me to go, I wanted to leave her my outer raso [habit], but she wouldn’t take it and said: “Bring me new clothes when you next come”.

I was filled with joy when she said this and begged her to wait for me and to welcome me again. We prayed again, I bade her farewell and left, imprinting the location on my mind so that I’d be sure to find it next time I came. I left and went to the church in the neighbouring village and told the priest what I’d seen and heard. He gathered the faithful and in a speech he made to them said: “Not far from our church, there are some saintly hermits whose clothes have fallen apart and they’re going about the desert completely naked. Anyone who’s got clothes to spare, bring them here and we’ll hand them out”.

Immediately, the Christians brought in a good many clothes. I took what I needed and, full of joy, started out again, hoping to see once more the blessed face of this spiritual mother, in the cave. I went back to the place, and tired myself out looking, but I couldn’t find the cave. When eventually I did find it, the God-bearing woman wasn’t there any more, and that upset me.

I went away, saddened. A few days later, some hermits came to visit me and two of them said: “We two were wandering around the desert on the other side of the sea when we suddenly saw, at night, sitting on a rock, a hermit with long hair. When we quickened our steps to meet up with him and take his blessing, he avoided us and went into the entrance of a nearby cave. We wanted to go in ourselves, but as we approached the doorway, a voice came from out of the depths of the cave, saying: ‘Servants of God, please don’t disturb me. On the rock next to you there’s a basket of beans and a pitcher of water. If you want, you can eat and drink’.

The voice gave us its blessing and we went to the rock as we’d been told to do. There on the rock were the basket of beans and the jar of water. We ate and drank and rested for the remainder of the night.

When we woke up in the morning we went to get the blessing of the cave-dwelling hermit, but saw that the person had already fallen asleep in the Lord. We wanted to prepare him for burial, but realized that it was a woman, covered with her own very long hair. We blessed ourselves with her holy relics and rolled a large rock across the entrance to the cave. Once we’d prayed, we started out on the road back”.

I then realized that it was the same ‘canonical’ who had lived as a hermit and had become a holy mother. So I told them what I had heard from her mouth and, all together we glorified God, to Whom, indeed, glory is due unto the ages of ages. Amen.

P.V. Paskhos, Αγγελοτόκος έρημος, Armos Publications, pp. 137-42.