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Although not con­sid­ered as one of the sacra­ments of the Church since it is not essen­tial to the Chris­t­ian life as such and is not a nec­es­sary ele­ment for the very exis­tence of God’s Peo­ple, monas­ti­cism has played an impor­tant role in Chris­t­ian his­to­ry and is high­ly val­ued by the Ortho­dox Church.

In the Ortho­dox Tra­di­tion the monas­tic call­ing is con­sid­ered to be a per­son­al gift of God to the indi­vid­ual soul for his sal­va­tion and ser­vice to the Body of Christ. The monas­tic voca­tion is the call­ing to per­son­al repen­tance in a life ded­i­cat­ed sole­ly to God. The ulti­mate Chris­t­ian virtue of love is sought by the monk or nun pri­mar­i­ly through prayer and fast­ing, and through the exer­cise of the Chris­t­ian virtues of pover­ty, chasti­ty, humil­i­ty and obedience.

The monas­tic Chris­t­ian does not nor­mal­ly exer­cise any par­tic­u­lar min­istry in the Church such as that of priest, pas­tor, teacher, nurse or social work­er. The monk is nor­mal­ly a lay­man and not a cler­ic, with each monastery hav­ing only enough cler­gy to care for the litur­gi­cal and sacra­men­tal needs of the com­mu­ni­ty itself.

In Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian his­to­ry many mis­sion­ar­ies, teach­ers and bish­ops have come from men with monas­tic voca­tions. For cen­turies the bish­ops have been tra­di­tion­al­ly select­ed from among the monks. These addi­tion­al call­ings, how­ev­er, are con­sid­ered to be acts of God’s will expressed in his peo­ple, and are not the pur­pose or inten­tion of the monas­tic voca­tion as such. Indeed, one must enter a monastery only in order to repent of his sins, to serve God and to save his soul accord­ing to the ideals of monas­tic ascetism. The cer­e­mo­ny of monas­tic pro­fes­sion indi­cates this very clear­ly. Thus, for exam­ple, Saint Her­man of Alas­ka was first ded­i­cat­ed to the monas­tic life, and only then, in obe­di­ence to his spir­i­tu­al father, left his soli­tude to become a great missionary.

The Monastic Ranks

The Ortho­dox monas­tic tra­di­tion has four clas­si­cal ranks that apply equal­ly to men and to women. The first step is that of novice, which in church ter­mi­nol­o­gy is called the rank of obe­di­ence. At this first stage the can­di­date for monas­tic pro­fes­sion sim­ply lives in the monastery under the direc­tion of a spir­i­tu­al father or mother.

The sec­ond step is that of riasa-bear­er, which means that the per­son is more for­mal­ly accept­ed into the com­mu­ni­ty, and is giv­en the right to wear the monas­tic robe, called the riasa. At this stage the can­di­date is not yet ful­ly com­mit­ted to the monas­tic life.

The third rank is that of the small schema which means that the per­son is a pro­fessed monas­tic. He or she now receives a new name and wears the monas­tic schema (a cloth with the sign of the cross), the veil and the man­tle (man­tia). At this stage the per­son pledges to remain in the monas­tic com­mu­ni­ty in per­pet­u­al obe­di­ence to the spir­i­tu­al leader and to the head of the monastery, called the abbot or abbess (igoumenos or igoume­nia). The ser­vice of pro­fes­sion, in addi­tion to the hymns and prayers, includes a long series of for­mal ques­tion­ing about the authen­tic­i­ty of the call­ing, the ton­sur­ing (i.e., the cut­ting of the hair), and the vest­ing in the full monas­tic clothing.

The final rank of the monas­tic order is that of the great schema. This last step is reserved for very few, since it is the expres­sion of the most strict obser­vance of the monas­tic ideals, demand­ing nor­mal­ly a state of life in total seclu­sion in per­pet­u­al prayer and con­tem­pla­tion. With this final pro­fes­sion a new name is again received, and a new monas­tic insignia—the great schema—is worn.

In the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion there is no pre­scribed length of time that a per­son must remain in one or anoth­er of the monas­tic ranks. This is so because of the rad­i­cal­ly per­son­al char­ac­ter of the voca­tion. Thus, some per­sons may progress rapid­ly to pro­fes­sion, while oth­ers may take years, and still oth­ers may nev­er be for­mal­ly pro­fessed while still remain­ing with­in the monas­tic com­mu­ni­ty. The deci­sion in these mat­ters is made indi­vid­u­al­ly in each case by the spir­i­tu­al direc­tor and the head of the community.

Types of Monasticism

Although the Ortho­dox Church does not have reli­gious orders as the Latin Church does, there are in Ortho­doxy dif­fer­ent styles of monas­tic life, both indi­vid­u­al­ly and in com­mu­ni­ty. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing some monas­ter­ies may be more litur­gi­cal­ly ori­ent­ed, while oth­ers may be more ascetic, while still oth­ers may have a cer­tain mys­ti­cal tra­di­tion, and oth­ers be more inclined to spir­i­tu­al guid­ance and open­ness to the world for the pur­pose of care and coun­sel­ing. These var­i­ous styles of monas­ti­cism, which take both a per­son­al as well as a cor­po­rate form, are not for­mal­ly pre­de­ter­mined or offi­cial­ly leg­is­lat­ed. They are the result of organ­ic devel­op­ment under the liv­ing grace of God.

In addi­tion to the var­i­ous spir­i­tu­al styles of monas­tic life, three for­mal types of orga­ni­za­tion may be men­tioned. The first is that of coeno­bitic monas­ti­cism. In this type all mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty do all things in com­mon. The sec­ond form is called idiorhyth­mic in which the monks or nuns pray togeth­er litur­gi­cal­ly, but work and eat indi­vid­u­al­ly or in small groups. In this type of monas­ti­cism the per­sons may even psalmod­ize and do the offices sep­a­rate­ly, com­ing togeth­er only for the eucharis­tic litur­gy, and even then, per­haps, only on cer­tain occa­sions. Final­ly, there is the eremitic type of monas­ti­cism where the indi­vid­ual monks or nuns are actu­al­ly her­mits, also called anchorites or reclus­es. They live in total indi­vid­ual seclu­sion and nev­er join in the litur­gi­cal prayer of the com­mu­ni­ty, except again per­haps on the most solemn occa­sions. In the rarest of cas­es it may even hap­pen that the holy eucharist is brought to the monk or nun who remains per­pet­u­al­ly alone.

In the Ortho­dox Church today in the West­ern world there are only a few com­mu­ni­ties with a gen­uine­ly monas­tic life. In the tra­di­tion­al Ortho­dox coun­tries monas­ti­cism still thrives, although with great­ly reduced num­bers due to the polit­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al con­di­tions. In recent years, in some places, there has been a renewed inter­est in monas­ti­cism, par­tic­u­lar­ly among the more edu­cat­ed mem­bers of the Church.