One hears the word monasticism and is perplexed by it. To many it is a world of unknown, a peculiar way of life, a new morality. The Church however does not have one set of moral rules for the laity and another for the monks. The Christian life is the same for everyone but much harder for all to achieve in the world. The principles of monasticism are not different from those of the lives of the faithful: to live according to God’s Commandments. What may appear difficult in the world is approached with true dedication and obedience in the monastic world.
In the early Christian years, during the times of persecution, this way of life was present among Christians. The hardships of persecution and martyrdom, kept everyone zealous and watchful over their soul. But as the persecutions came to an end in 323 A.D. during the reign of Constantine the Great, the world slowly changed. The church was no longer persecuted and while Christianity was flourishing, the true Christian way of life was slowly in danger of changing or rather disappearing. Thus, people who still wanted to keep a true relationship with Christ realized that they had to live separately from society. They had to build a world where they could devote themselves only to the Lord. This was slowly the birth and beginning of monasticism.
In the beginning of the 4th century, St. Anthony, the flower of the desert, draws into the wilderness and through his holy way of life attracts thousands of monks around him. Monasteries were not yet in existence. These men living as solitaries i.e. as monks (from the greek word monos meaning alone), bravely struggled on their own, yet strongly felt the need for spiritual guidance. They gathered around St. Anthony and through God’s enlightenment, a set of monastic rules was established and coenobiums (organized monastic communities) started forming.
In parallel, St. Pachomius (another desert dweller) also at the time of St. Anthony, was leading an ascetic life in the desert by himself (St. Gregory describes ascetics as “man’s preparation for his union with Christ”). An angel of God appeared to him during his prayer commanding him to accept disciples and lead them in the angelic life. He obeyed the angel to the best of his knowledge, for he did not exactly know which way to direct them. He received the command from God during a night of prayer to impose a rule of monk life on them. An angel of God dressed as a monk also appeared to him showing him the model of the monastic habit and gave him a tablet on which the rule (protocol) of the community was written. Thus, monasticism in coenobiums slowly took form and spread in various places from the southeast Mediterranean to the north of the African continent reaching Asia Minor and finally Europe. Detachment from the world does not guarantee salvation but surely helps in our spiritual life. The most common and safe form of the monastic life is the coenobitic way of life. It is life “in common”, where everything in the monastery is shared equally with love among the brethren so that they have everything “in common” as St. Athanasius the Athonite exhorts. Living quarters, food, work, prayer, common efforts, cares, struggles, achievements, everything is designed to cultivate a common attitude and spirit of fraternity. The leader and spiritual director is the abbot (or abbess in a women’s monastery) and every monk willingly obeys him knowing that he is present in the image of Christ. “Please your Abbott and you will please God himself”, the Church Fathers proclaim.
For this reason, serene places are chosen to serve as monastery sites where monastics strive to succeed to know themselves better; fighting their passions more deeply and purifying their hearts more fully, so as to be found worthy of beholding God. Their life is dedicated to prayer, fasting, self-denial, poverty, chastity and obedience to Christ through the elder and the brethren.
It is in this manner that our sisterhood strives. Following and leading the way that has been set by our Church fathers for many centuries. In spite of their faults and human weaknesses, the nuns struggle against their passions, against the world and against the devil to preserve and continue the life of Orthodox monasticism. Isolated from the influences of the world and society, for centuries the monastics have maintained the purest form of Orthodoxy. With the grace of God may it continue in this way for ages and ages. Amen