Author: Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos
Studying the present book the reader becomes aware of the contemporary relevance of Orthodox monasticism, its place and mission in today’s world, but also its current state of secularisation.
The five chapters of the book look in detail at many issues relating to Orthodox monasticism, which is a true science expressing the genuine spirit of Christianity. Without the monastic life the Church is regarded as secularised.
The first chapter, entitled “Orthodox Hesychastic Monasticism”, examines Orthodox hesychastic monasticism as a prophetic and apostolic life of martyrdom. In reality monastic life is the genuine Christian life as lived by the Christians in the early Church, and monks are those who “live according to the Gospel”. The three monastic virtues (virginity, poverty and obedience) are analysed, and there is a brief account of the characteristics of true Orthodox monks, which are repentance, prayer, obedience and constant perfection. There is a discussion of “dogmatic consciousness”, which is closely connected with the spiritual life of monks, or of Christians in general, and comes from experiencing divine grace.
It is made clear that the value of monasticism does not lie in its contribution to society and in missionary work, but in its preservation of holy hesychia, which is the method and means by which man is saved. Through their prayer monks perform a timeless mission within society.
We are told about the position of monks within the Church, for there is a hierarchy of gifts and ministries within the ecclesiastical organisation. According to the teaching of St Dionysios the Areopagite, monks belong to the category in the Church of those who are shepherded, as do laypeople – although they are higher than the laity because they have arrived at noetic hesychia and theoria – and they come under the authority and responsibility of the Bishops.
At the end of the first chapter, as we read the addresses given by the author at services of clothing in the monastic habit and tonsures, we have the opportunity to learn about further facets of the monastic life and conduct.
In the second chapter, called “Hagioritic and Sinaitic Monasticism”, we read about monasticism as it has been lived on the Holy Mountain and Mount Sinai, since it is possible to lead the monastic life in any part of the world. It includes texts which were written at various times by the author about the Holy Mountain and the fathers who practise asceticism there, as well as talks given by him at the patronal festivals of holy monasteries. Writing about the close ties between the Holy Mountain and the Mother of God, he extols the love of the Hagiorites for the All-Holy Virgin. He talks about life on the Holy Mountain (in communities, sketes and the desert), the special culture preserved there, and its ecumenical nature, by virtue of the fact that it transcends nationalism.
In his description of the ascetic life and mystical theology as they were lived on Mount Sinai, the author offers Moses as a pattern of spiritual perfection, for the Prophet Moses became the model for every monk, and more generally for any Christian who desires to acquire the knowledge of God, which is deification. It is pointed out that theology is the vision of God, and the Orthodox monk can attain to this through Christian asceticism, which means the purification of the senses and the nous. Asceticism in Orthodox monasticism is not an end in itself, but a means to cure the soul and participate in God’s grace.
Fundamental points are covered in the third chapter, entitled “The Mystery of the Cross in the Monastic Life”, which contains an analysis of the teaching of St Basil the Great on Orthodox monasticism. There is a detailed examination of the essence and purpose of the monastic life, and what the prerequisites are for this purpose to be achieved. The hesychastic and neptic method is set out, by means of which the monk will obtain communion and union with God. Careful consideration is given to the way in which monks should come into contact with the world, as defined by St Basil the Great, and there is also a reference to female monasticism.
St Basil the Great upholds hesychastic monasticism, as other holy Fathers of the Church also interpret it, and has no connection whatsoever with monasticism based on social and missionary work.
There follow texts which interpret the mystery of the Cross in the monastic life, and express the teaching of the Apostle Paul, St Isaac the Syrian, St Gregory Palamas and Elder Sophrony of blessed memory. It is emphasised that the experience of the Cross is a participation in the mystery of the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God, which comes about through co-operation between God and man. The reader learns how a monk, or any Christian, can live the mystery of the Cross in his personal life, and overcome the devil, sin and death.
The fourth chapter, called “Orthodox Monasticism and Its Secularisation”, explains that the secularisation of monasticism is the outcome and consequence of losing the spirit of repentance. Writing about the state of Orthodox monasticism today, the author refers to other signs that monasticism has become secularised, namely: its involvement in worldly affairs; its dependence on secular authorities; the undermining in various ways of ecclesiastical institutions; and disregard for the Church’s hierarchical system of government.
The same chapter also sets out who is a true monk; what the prerequisites are for genuine monasticism; how monasticism becomes secularised, according to St Symeon the New Theologian; and the place of the Bishop in the Church, according to St Symeon of Thessaloniki.
The fifth chapter, under the title “The Canonical Foundation of Monasticism and the Service of Tonsure”, makes significant references to some of the sacred Canons defining the framework within which the monastic way of life should be practised, and to the meaning of the declarations and promises which a monk gives during the service of the Great and Angelic Schema.
From studying the book it can be concluded that the monastic life has great value and importance, and that Orthodox monasticism, which is basically hesychastic, is completely different from the Western type of monasticism. Holy monasteries are hospitals for souls, and monks, in a spirit of discipleship and obedience, seek to be cured, in order that they may attain to communion and union with God. The question is posed, whether the hesychastic and neptic tradition and the life of repentance are lived in holy monasteries even today. It is imperative for monks to take responsibility for knowing what their task and mission is, and also for the Church to offer pastoral care, in order that monasticism should not be diverted from its true purpose.
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