THE NATIVITY OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Dom Prosper Gueranger OSB
"Let us celebrate the Nativity of the Virgin Mary; let us adore Her Son, Christ Our Lord." Such is the invitation addressed to us today by the Church. Let us hearken to Her call; let us enter Her overflowing joy. Let us understand the Church, when, even on this day, She proclaims Thy Divine Maternity and unites in Her chants of praise the Birth of Emmanuel and Thine own, O Mother of fair love and of holy hope. He Who, being Son of God by essence, willed to be also Son of man, had, before all other designs, decreed that He would have a Mother. Such consequently, was the character of that title of Mother, that, in the eternal decree, it was one with the very being of the chosen creature, the motive and cause of Her existence, as well as the source of all Her perfections, natural and supernatural. We too, then, must recognize Thee as His and our Mother, even from Thy very cradle, and must celebrate Thy birthday by adoring Thy Son our Lord.
Inasmuch as it embraces all the brethren of the Man-God, Thy Blessed Maternity sheds its rays upon all time, both before and after this happy day. "God is our King before ages: He hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth" (Ps. 73:12). "The midst of the earth," says St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "admirably represents Mary. Mary is the center of the universe, the ark of God, the cause of creation, the focus of ages. Towards Her turn the inhabitants of Heaven and the dwellers in the place of expiation, the men that have gone before us, and we that are now living, those who are to follow us, our children's children and their descendants. Those in Heaven look to Her to have their ranks filled; those in Purgatory look to Her for their deliverance; the men of the first ages, that they may be found faithful prophets; those who come after, that they may obtain eternal happiness. Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Sovereign of the world, all generations shall call Thee blessed, for Thou hast brought forth life and glory for all. In Thee the angels ever find their joy, the just find grace, sinners pardon; in Thee, and by Thee, and from Thee, the merciful Hand of the Almighty has reformed the first creation" (Sermon 2 for Pentecost, 4).
Andrew of Crete calls this day a solemnity of entrance, a feast of beginning, whose end is the union of the Word with our flesh; a virginal feast, full of joy and confidence for all (Oration 1 for the Nativity of the Mother of God, 1). "All ye nations, come hither," cries St. John Damascene; "come every race and tongue, every age and every dignity, let us joyfully celebrate the birthday of the world's gladness" (Homily 1 for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary). "It is the beginning of salvation, the origin of every feast," says St. Peter Damian, "for behold! The Mother of the Bridegroom is born. With good reason does the whole world rejoice today; and the Church, beside Herself, bids Her choirs sing wedding songs" (Sermon 45, on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
Not only do the Doctors of East and West use similar language in praise of Mary's birth, but moreover the Latin and Greek Churches sing, each in its own tongue, the same beautiful formula, to close the Office of the Feast: "Thy birth, O Virgin Mother of God, brought joy to the whole world: for out of Thee arose the Sun of Justice, Christ Our God: Who, taking off the curse, hath bestowed blessing; and defeating death, hath given us life everlasting."
This union of Rome and Byzantium in the celebration of today's Festival, dates back as far as the 7th century at least. It is believed that it originated at Angers, towards the year 430, by an apparition of Our Lady to the holy Bishop Maurillus in the fields of Marillais; and hence the name of Notre Dame Angevine often given to the Feast. In the 11th century Chartres, the "city of Mary," claims for its own Bishop Fulbert, together with King Robert the Pious, a principal share in the spreading of the glorious solemnity throughout France. It is well known how intimate the Bishop was with the King; and how the latter himself set to music the three admirable responsories composed by Fulbert, wherein he celebrates the rising of the mysterious star that was to give birth to the Sun; the branch springing from the Rod of Jesse, and producing the Flower whereon the Holy Ghost was to rest; and the merciful power which caused Mary to blossom in Judea like the rose on the thorn.
In the year 1245, in the third session of the First Council of Lyon (the same session which deposed Frederick II from the Empire), Pope Innocent IV established for the whole Church, not the Feast which was already kept everywhere, but the Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the accomplishment of a vow made by him and the other Cardinals during the Church's widowhood, which through the intrigues of the crafty Emperor, lasted 19 months after the death of Pope Celestine IV, and which was brought to a close by the election of Sinibaldo Fieschi, under the name of Innocent IV.
In 1377, the great Pope Gregory XI, who broke the chains of captivity in Avignon, wished to add a vigil to the solemnity of Our Lady's birthday. But whether he merely expressed a desire to this effect, or whether for some other reason, the intentions of the holy Pope were carried out for only a short time during the years of trouble that followed his death.
Together with the Church, let us ask, as the fruit of this sweet Feast, for that peace which seems to flee ever farther and farther from our unhappy times. Our Lady was born during the second of the three periods of universal peace during the reign of Augustus, the last of which ushered in the Prince of Peace Himself. The temple of Janus is closed; in the eternal city a mysterious fountain of oil has sprung up from the spot where the first sanctuary of the Mother of God is one day to be built (Santa Maria in Trastevere); signs and portents are multiplied; the whole world is in expectation. In Judea, two obscure descendants of David, Joachim and Anne, are thanking God for having blessed their long-barren union.
The days, then, are accomplished. Ever since the hour when the Eternal Trinity came forth from Their repose to create Heaven and Earth, all generations have been in labor to bring forth the day which is to give a Mother to the Son of God. Parallel with the direct line from Abraham and David to the Messias, all human genealogies have been preparing for Mary, their Mother, the generation of adopted sons whom Jesus is to make His brethren.
At length, O Mary, our Earth possesses Thee! Thy birth reveals to it the secret of its destiny, the secret of that love which called it from nothingness, that it might become the palace of the God Who dwells above the heavens. But what a mystery, that poor, weak humanity, inferior to the angels by nature, should be chosen to give to the angels their King and their Queen! Their King they will soon adore, a new-born Babe in Thine arms; their Queen they reverence today, admiring Thee in Thy cradle as only angels can admire. In the beginning these morning stars, these noble spirits, contemplated the manifestations of almighty power, and praised the Most High; yet never did their eager gaze discover such a marvel as that which delights their eyes at this hour: God, more purely imaged under a corporal veil, under the fragile form of a newborn infant, than in all the strength and all the beauty of their nine angelic choirs; God, so captivated by such weakness united, by His grace, to such love, that He made it the culminating point of His work by determining to manifest His Son therein!
Queen of Angels, Thou art our Queen also; accept us as Thy servants. On this day, when the first movement of Thy holy soul was towards God, and the first smile of Thy lovely eyes was for Thy happy parents, may holy Anne allow us to kneel and kiss Thy little hand, already filled with the divine bounties of which Thou art the predestined dispenser. And now, grow up, sweet little one! Let Thy feet be strengthened to crush the serpent, and Thy arms to carry the treasure of the world! Angels and men, the whole of nature, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, all are awaiting the solemn moment, when Gabriel may fly down from Heaven to hail Thee full of grace, and bring Thee the message of eternal love.
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Sermon on the Nativity of the Theotokos
The Church’s veneration of Mary has always been rooted in her obedience to God, her willing choice to accept a humanly impossible calling. The Orthodox Church has always emphasized Mary’s connection to humanity and delighted in her as the best, purest, most sublime fruition of human history and of man’s quest for God, for ultimate meaning, for ultimate content of human life.
If in Western Christianity veneration of Mary was centered upon her perpetual virginity, the heart of Orthodox Christian East’s devotion, contemplation, and joyful delight has always been her Motherhood, her flesh and blood connection to Jesus Christ. The East rejoices that the human role in the divine plan is pivotal. The Son of God comes to earth, appears in order to redeem the world, He becomes human to incorporate man into His divine vocation, but humanity takes part in this. If it is understood that Christ’s “co-nature” with us is as a human being and not some phantom or bodiless apparition, that He is one of us and forever united to us through His and forever united to us through His humanity, then devotion to Mary also becomes understandable, for she is the one who gave Him His human nature, His flesh and blood. She is the one through whom Christ can always call Himself “The Son of Man.”
Son of God, Son of Man…God descending and becoming man so that man could become divine, could become partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), or as the teachers of Church expressed it, “deified.” Precisely here, in this extraordinary revelation of man’s authentic nature and calling, is the source that gratitude and tenderness which cherishes Mary as our link to Christ and, in Him, to God. And nowhere is this reflected more clearly that in the Nativity of the Mother of God.
Nothing about this event is mentioned anywhere in the Holy Scriptures. But why should there be? Is there anything remarkable, anything especially unique about the normal birth of a child, a birth like any other? The Church began to commemorate the event with a special feast…because, on the contrary, the very fact that it is routine discloses something fresh and radiant about everything we call routine and ordinary, it gives new depth to the unremarkable details of human life…And with each birth the world is itself in some sense created anew and given as a gift to this new human being to be his life, his path, his creation.
This feast therefore is first a general celebration of Man’s birth, and we no longer remember the anguish, as the Gospel says, “for joy that a human being is born into the world” (Jn. 16:21). Secondly, we now know whose particular birth, whose coming we celebrate: Mary’s. We know the uniqueness, the beauty, the grace of precisely this child, her destiny, her meaning for us and for the whole world. And thirdly, we celebrate all who prepared the way for Mary, who contributed to her inheritance of grace and beauty…And therefore the Feast of her Nativity is also a celebration of human history, a celebration of faith in man, a celebration of man.
Sadly, the inheritance of evil is far more visible and better known. There is so much evil around us that this faith in man, in his freedom, in the possibility of handing down a radiant inheritance of goodness has almost evaporated and been replaced by cynicism and suspicion. This hostile cynicism and discouraging suspicion are precisely what seduce us to distance ourselves from the Church when it celebrates with such joy and faith this birth of a little girl in whom are concentrated all the goodness, spiritual beauty, harmony and perfection that are elements of genuine human nature. Thus, in celebrating Mary’s birth we find ourselves already on the road to Bethlehem, moving toward the joyful mystery of Mary as the Mother to God.
Solemn Profession of Dom Patrick Lobo
8th September 2015
Dear Br Patrick,
Today the homily is addressed to you rather than to everyone else, not because you are the centre of attention, Our Lord and his Blessed Mother are, but because you are about to commit your life, your whole life, to the service of God in this monastery and among the monks of this community, following the example of Christ himself and Our Lady, who offered their lives that we might have life and have it in abundance. St Benedict, in the Prologue to the Rule, quoting Psalm 33, sees the Lord calling you to the monastic life. “Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?” If your response is affirmative, then, says St Benedict, “what is more delightful than this voice calling us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel as our guide, that we may deserve to see him who has called us to his kingdom.”
Dear Patrick, it is now six years since you arrived at Belmont as a postulant and you have journeyed faithfully, though not without difficulty at times, through the various stages of monastic formation. You have also spent three years living at St Paul outside the Walls and studying at the Beda. In all this time, you have not wavered from your response to the Lord’s call. Together with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and with Mary at the Annunciation, your reply continues to be, “Fiat - let it be done unto me according to thy word; Father, not my will but yours be done.” Each time you say the Lord’s Prayer, those words that Jesus taught us, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” are an affirmation that your deepest yearning is to do the will of God in the monastic life as a monk of Belmont.
In a few moments, you will make three vows, the traditional Benedictine vows of stability, conversatio morum and obedience, “in the presence of God and his saints,” as St Benedict insists, reminding you that vows are made to God and his Church and should never be broken, for they are sacred. By stability, you will unite yourself to one specific monastic community, just as a man unites himself to his wife, symbolised by your place in choir, in the refectory and in the order of the community. Wherever you are, you will stand in the presence of God, ever mindful that he is with you as you are with him. Your whole life should become one of continuous prayer. By conversatio morum, you promise to live faithfully each and every aspect of the Benedictine charism according to the Constitutions of the English Congregation and the traditions we hold dear at Belmont. This includes our life of prayer, the Divine Office, Lectio Divina and Mental Prayer, and work, whether it’s manual, pastoral or one of the many facets of hospitality. By obedience, you commit yourself to seek God and love him in your brethren, the abbot, the sick, our guests and all those with whom we work and pray. You will listen carefully with the ear of your heart to the voice of God and come, by the ladder of humility, to that perfect love that casts out fear. It is a wonderful life and a beautiful vocation. God must love you very much to have called you here today.
The Rite of Solemn Profession does have the aspect of a Requiem Mass, in that you will lie on the funeral pall while the Paschal Candle burns beside you. You have been asked by Christ to “lose your life in this world” and to “lay down your life for your friends,” You are to enter fully into the mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection by dying with him in order to rise with him to new life: the old man must die, the new man must live. To fully understand this dying for Christ’s sake, you will remain with him for three days in the tomb, practising complete silence and withdrawal from the world, even from your own brethren. I hope you have shut down your computer and disconnected your phone. Nothing must get in the way of total communion with Christ and conformity to his death. You alone can make this work, for you will never again get the opportunity to be alone with God in this very special way in the silence of your heart.
God is good and he has allowed you to make your Profession on the feast day of the Nativity of his Virgin Mother, the Queen of Heaven. Today’s feast doesn’t have the theological magnitude of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption, nor the shared joy of the Annunciation, but it is an ancient feast which we celebrate together with the Eastern Churches, many of them suffering tragically from persecution and exile: we keep them in our prayers. The Byzantine liturgy today contains this lovely Kontakion:
In your holy birth, O Immaculate One, Joachim and Anna were rid of the shame of childlessness; Adam and Eve of the corruption of death. And so your people, free of the guilt of their sins, celebrate by crying out, “The barren one gives birth to the Theotokos, who nourishes our life.”
May the Mother of God, the Theotokos, nourish your life, your faith, your joy and your love as you live each day of your monastic life with humility and total self-giving. May she, the Mother of this Community, bless and protect you and may you always remember the feast of her glorious Nativity as the day on which you, like her, said a final and binding “Yes” to God, that his will be done in your life as it was in hers. Amen
MONASTICISM IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Monastic Grades
When one desiring the monastic life enters a monastery, he normally passes through three steps or stages: 1) Probationer (Novice including Riasaphor), 2) Monk of the Lesser Schema (Cross-bearer or Stavrophore), and 3) Monk of the Great Schema (Russian Skhimnik). The Probationer who enters a monastery desires to do so in order to acquit himself worthily in the angelic state, so called because Monks renounce all wordly things, do not marry, do not acquire and hold property, and live as do the Angels in Heaven, glorifying God night and day and striving to do His Will in all things.
The first act of anyone who desires to perform any strenuous task is that of preparation. If, for example, one is an athlete, he would train and condition himself physically and mentally, so as to better perform in the chosen event. If one wishes to be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman or whatever, he first prepares himself with the proper education, apprenticeship training under the skilled guidance of one more experienced, and so on. A soldier first spends time in Boot Camp, being trained physically and mentally to be a good soldier. And so, in like manner, he who wishes to be a Monk must prepare himself for the task at hand, thus entering as a Probationer (or Novice).
For a period of at least three years, the Novice must train himself under the guidance of one skilled in the monastic life and the direction of souls, by immersing himself in the life of the Monastery, struggling to perform the obediences given to him and preparing himself physically (through his labors, fasting, vigils, etc.) and spiritually (through his rule of prayer and obedience to an elder), for the monastic life. This three-year period of preparation has existed from the earliest times, for, in the Life of St. Pachomius, the founder of the Common Life, we learn that he was commanded by an angel: Do not admit anyone to the performance of higher feats until three years have passed.... Let him enter this domain only when he has accomplished some hard work.
Traditionally, a Novice, after spending a short time in lay clothing, is vested in part of the monastic habit, that is, the Inner Riasa and the Skouphos (or monastic cap). The Inner Riasa is simply a narrow-sleeved robe reaching to the ankles (Podriznik in Russian) and the Skouphos is a cup-shaped cap common to all Orthodox clerics and monastics. These garments are always black in color (as are all the monastic garments), signifying penitence and deadness to the ways of the world.
After one has been a Novice for a while, he could take the next step, which is that of Riasaphor Monk, who, it must be noted, is still considered to be a Novice, but in a special sense. He does not make solemn vows, as do the Monks of the Lesser and Greater Schemas, but he is still considered to be, although imperfect, a true Monk. He cannot marry, he cannot leave the Monastery without censure, and if he were to leave and marry, he would be subject to excommunication. Nonetheless, he is still a Novice.
The Order of the Riasa is usually performed after one of the canonical Hours. Standing before the Abbot, the candidate is tonsured (hair cut in a cross-wise form) in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, signifying that he casts from himself all idle thoughts and acts, and takes upon himself the yoke of the Lord. The Abbot then vests him with the Outer Riasa (a wide-sleeved outer robe) and Kamilavka (a flat-topped hat).
In ancient times the Riasa was worn on days of mourning and it signifies to the Novice that he must grieve for his sins. The Kamilavka (cap protecting from the heat) signifies to the Novice that he must tame the heat of the passions. Henceforth the Novice is called Riasaphor (Wearer of the Robe), but, as noted, no vows have been made. [In our times, the Riasaphor Monk is also allowed the monastic veil with the Kamilavka, as is worn by the Monks of the Lesser and Greater Schemas.]
He who has attained the dignity of Riasaphor is under no obligation to advance further in the monastic grades, and many do not of their own choice, but neither is the Novice obligated to advance to the dignity of Riasaphor prior to making solemn vows and attaining to the next step in monasticism, which is that of the Lesser Schema (habit, dignity, or aspect).
Order of the Lesser Schema
Originally in monasticism there were only two grades: Probationer and Monk of the Angelic Habit (or Great Schema). Thus we can say that for every Monk the most desired feat of the soul the feat of attaining perfection is the taking of the Great Schema. Since ancient times Monks have spoken of the Great Schema as the culmination of Monkhood, wherein the Monk loves God with a perfect love in accordance with the Gospel command, with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt. 22:37). In time the Lesser Schema became a kind a preparatory step to the Great Schema. The Common Life (that of a Monk of the Lesser Schema) came to be known as betrothal, and Seclusion (the life of a Monk of the Great Schema) within a Monastery as actual matrimony.
The main feature of the Order of the Lesser Schema is the Tonsure and the making of solemn vows. The Monastic Tonsure (or Profession) can be seen as the mystical marriage of the soul with the Heavenly Bridegroom, but it also can be seen as a second Baptism, inasmuch as the very ceremony parallels the actual Baptism ceremony. The candidate for the Monastic Tonsure comes as a penitent, as though to Baptism. [In the original Greek of the rite, the candidate is referred to as a catechumen, and he fulfils, in a sense, a catechumenate prior to the Monastic Tonsure in his three-year probation.]
The candidate stands unclothed in the Narthex of the church as though about to be baptized by immersion, signifying that the Old Man is being put off and the New Man put on. Vows are made, as at Baptism, similar to the Baptismal vows of renunciation, faith and obedience to the end of life, and these are given in response to specific questions, as at Baptism. A new name is given, as at Baptism, and the hair is shorn in the tonsure, just as at Baptism. The new monastic is given a cross, just as a cross is placed around the neck of the newly-baptized, and he is also given a lighted candle to hold, just as is the newly-baptized.
Thus, it is obvious that the resemblance of the Monastic Tonsure to Baptism is not accidental; indeed, in the instructions given to the monastic Catechumen in the Order of the Great Schema (with parallels in the Order of the Lesser Schema), the following words are said: A second Baptism you are receiving...and you shall be cleansed from your sins.
We can also see in the Monastic Tonsure the mystical re-enactment of the return of the Prodigal Son to his father's house, for, at first, he stands at a distance from his father's house (in the Narthex the entrance to the Sanctuary) as a penitent, having abandoned the world after drinking the cup of its deceitful delights. He is seen from afar (as the Prodigal was by his father), for the Monks come to greet him and escort him to the gates of the Altar where his father (the Abbot) awaits him.
In the Order of the Lesser Schema, as noted above, the Novice stands unclothed and unshod in the Narthex, wearing only a sort of shirt (in ancient times a hair shirt), waiting, as a penitent, to be conducted into his father's house.' As he is conducted to the Abbot, the Novice performs three prostrations on the way, and then stops before the Holy Doors where the Abbot is waiting. Before him stands a lectern upon which are laid a Cross and a Testament.
The Abbot then asks him what he seeks in coming here. The reply is given, I seek a life of mortification. The Abbot then questions him further as to whether he aspires to the angelic estate, whether he gives himself to God of his own will, whether he intends to abide in the Monastery and lead a life of mortification until his last breath, whether he intends to keep himself in virginity, chastity, and piety, whether he will remain obedient to the Superior and to the brethren even unto death, and whether he will endure willingly the restraints and hardships of the monastic life. When he has answered all these questions, Yes, Reverend Father, with the help of God, the Abbot then exhorts him as to the nature of the monastic life and the Novice pledges himself to keep his vows, which were included in the Order of Monastic Profession by St. Basil the Great.
Then, in order to test his willingness, the Abbot hands the scissors, with which the Tonsure is to be effected, three times to the Novice, asking him each time to take these scissors and give them to me. Each time the Novice takes the scissors and hands them back to the Abbot, kissing his hand. Then the Abbot tonsures the Novice's head in the form of a cross, saying, Our brother N. is tonsured by the cutting of the hairs of his head in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in doing so changes the Novice's name for another, in token of complete renunciation of the world and perfect self-consecration to God. Indeed, the first act of obedience of the new Monk is his acceptance of the new name given him.
The Monastic Habit
At the completion of the Tonsure itself, the new Monk is now vested in the Monastic Habit. He is given to wear a square of cloth, called the Paraman (something added to the mantiya) upon which are represented the Cross of Christ with the lance, reed and sponge, and the inscription, I bear on my body the wounds of the Lord. This is fastened about the shoulders and waist by means of strings or cords sewn to the corners, and serves to remind the new Monk that he has taken on himself the yoke of Christ and must control his passions and desires. At the same time a Cross is hung on his neck (often fastened to the same cords with which the Paraman is bound), signifying that he is to follow Christ.
Then the Monk is given the Inner Riasa, which is the same as that worn by Probationers. A leather belt, made of the skin of a dead animal signifying deadness to the world is fastened about his loins. This girding of the loins also signifies bodily mortification and readiness for the service of Christ and His return (Luke 12:35-37).
Next, the Monk is given the Mantiya (mantle or cloak), a long, sleeveless robe, also called the robe of incorruption and purity, the absence of sleeves signifying the restraining of worldly pursuits. Upon his head the Monk is given the Kamilavka with veil (called, in Russian, klobuk), or the helmet of salvation. The veil signifies that the Monk must veil his fact from temptation and guard his eyes and ears against all vanity. The wings of the veil date from the time of St. Methodius ( 846), Patriarch of Constantinople, who was wounded in the face during the reign of the iconoclast Emperor Theophilus. In order to conceal his wounds, the Saint wore wings with his veil and fastened them about his lower face. And so, the wings of the veil have been in use since that time in memory of the sufferings of the Saint. Finally the Monk is given sandals for his feet.
After the vesting, the Monk is given a Prayer Rope (chotki in Russian) with many knots, to count prayers and prostrations by. This Prayer Rope is the Monk's spiritual sword, helping him to conquer absent-mindedness while at prayer and to drive away evil thoughts from his soul. Then he is given a hand cross as the shield of faith, with which to put out the flaming darts of the Evil One. Finally, he is given a lighted candle, signifying that he must strive, by purity of life, by good deeds, and good demeanor to be a Light to the World.
At the conclusion of this, the Great Litany is recited by the Deacon with the addition of special petitions on behalf of the new Monk. The hymn, As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, is sung as at the Baptism, and then Epistle and Gospel readings, reminding the new Monk that he must wage war against the enemies of salvation and how love of God must be greater than love of parents, etc. At the conclusion of the Rite, the Kiss of Peace is exchanged by the new Monk and the other brethren of the Monastery.
Order of the Great Schema
As noted earlier, the ultimate goal of a Monk is the Order of the Great Schema (or Angelic Habit). One who aspired to that dignity usually struggled for many years in the monastic life and often it was not conferred until the end of a Monk's life. Those who reached that state usually spent the rest of their lives in complete seclusion and silence within the Monastery or a specially-prepared Skete or Hermitage, where laymen could not enter even to pray.
It should be noted, however, that not all the fathers and ascetics of the Church divided monasticism into Greater and Lesser Schema. For example, St. Theodore of Studium ( 826) disagreed with this practice, since he considered that as there was only one Sacrament of Baptism, likewise there should be only one form of monasticism. The practice, however, became widespread, although, in Athonite Greek monasteries, for example, the practice of St. Theodore is generally adhered to.
The Order of the Great Schema differs from that of the Lesser Schema in the following particulars: 1) the monastic vestments are laid on the Holy Table the night before, signifying that the candidate receives them from the Lord Himself; 2) the name of the Monk is again changed; 3) instead of the Paraman, the Monk of the Great Schema receives a garment called the Analavos (to take up in Russian Analav), or the mystical Cross which the Monk is to take up daily in imitation of Christ. This is worn around the neck and reaches to the ankles at the end. Upon it is depicted the Cross of Christ, together with the spear, reed and sponge, as well as the skull and crossbones. Like the Paraman, the Analav is made from the skin of a dead animal and for the same reason; 4) instead of a Kamilavka with veil, the Monk of the Great Schema is given a pointed hat and veil called Koukoulion or Cowl (often called a Cowl of Guilelessness), upon which are depicted five crosses one on the forehead, one on the back between the shoulders, one on the back further down, and one each on the ends of the wings of the veil.
In conclusion, we must make note that in Orthodoxy monasticism embraces both men and women. The general rules for the organization of monastic life, the Monastic Grades, Tonsure, Habit, etc., are the same for all monastics, and the goals and aspirations of monastic life likewise are the same for both men and women. Customarily, female monastics are styled Nuns and their monasteries Convents, and as the Monks are addressed as Brother or Father, so too, the Nuns are addressed as Sister or Mother. The Superior of a Convent is entitled Abbess (Igumena in Russian; in Greek Hegumenissa). Nonetheless, although sequestered in separate monasteries, each isolated from the opposite sex, all Orthodox monastics, Monks and Nuns alike, are united in a common quest for the Angelic State.
The Monastic Tonsure
It is generally accepted that monasticism began in Egypt towards the end of the Third Century, though its origins may have been older. Indeed, some form of monasticism may have existed almost from the birth of the Church. As the word monastic implies (in Greek monos alone), the Monk was one who went into the desert to live alone with God. (Such were also called hermits (or anchorites), which means solitaries.) The first recorded hermitic Orthodox Christian literature was St. Paul of Thebes ( 341) who lived over sixty years in a cave in the Egyptian desert. But the greatest of these hermits, often called the Father of Monasticism, was St. Anthony the Great ( 356). Yet, even in the life of this father of monasticism, the desert solitude was gradually modified by the appearance of disciples. These men wished to pursue the monastic life under the guidance of one who was already experienced. A soldier marching into battle would much rather be commanded by an experienced officer than an inexperienced one, no matter how educated the latter may be. Nor, if he himself is inexperienced, would he wish to enter the battle alone. Thus, after struggling many years as a solitary, St. Anthony gathered to himself a community of Monks who lived in separate huts, each working out his own salvation in his own particular way, but under Anthony's supervision, guided by his great experience in spiritual life.
Anthony knew, however, the difficulties of the solitary life and he strongly approved of the establishment of the coenobitic or common life, as it was perfected by another Egyptian father, St. Pachomius the Great (348). In his coenobitic communities the Monks all lived together in one place, everything being held in common (there being no private property), and the individual Monk was under the strict supervision of a spiritual elder (or starets in this case Pachomius himself). There were still solitaries inhabiting the surrounding desert, and sometimes the elder would himself choose to live more frequently in the desert than in the more populated central community.
Eventually the central community became the norm of monasticism and the solitary life the exception. Whenever we see examples of solitary monastic life in later Saint's lives, we see it entered into almost exclusively by those who had already acquired considerable experience in communal monastic life. Even as great an ascetic as Saint Seraphim of Sarov pleaded for a long time before he was given permission to withdraw into the forest outside of his monastery in order to pursue the solitary life. Thus, in time, the communal, coenobitic form became the preferred form of Orthodox monasticism and thus, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox monastic communities in the world today are coenobitic communities.
In a coenobitic monastery each of the Monks live in a separate room, called a cell, wherein he sleeps and performs his private rule of prayer (the cell-rule) given to him by his elder. All of the Monks assemble together for the Divine Services, for the common meals (or trapeza) in the Refectory (often called the Trapeza or Dining Hall) and in common work. The head of a coenobitic monastery is the Abbot (or Igumen (Hegumen), meaning leader) or, if the monastery were particularly famous, the higher ranking Archimandrite (chief of a fold). In some monasteries under the direct supervision of the Primate of the Church (who is often called, in such cases, the Great Abbot) a deputy will be appointed (called, in Russian, Namestnik or one who acts in the name of the Abbot Deputy Abbot).
In the 14th Century, on Mt. Athos (a monastic republic which has existed on one of the peninsulas of Greece since the 10th Century), there appeared a relaxed form of the coenobitic monastery called the idiorrhythmic monastery (meaning personal way or manner) in which many of the communal rules were greatly altered. Monks were allowed to hold private property, they often cooked for themselves in their own cells, and were not strictly required to attend all Divine Services as a community. This form of monasticism, for a time, held sway on Mt. Athos, but at the present time only a minority of the monasteries there, and in the world as a whole, are, in fact, idiorrhythmic.
Another form of monastic life which developed was the skete life, so-called for the famous Egyptian community of Scetis which originated this form. The skete life has often been called the royal or middle path of monasticism, midway between the extreme rigors of solitary life and the common life. A skete, which in modern times is usually situated on the lands of a sovereign monastery, is, in effect, a small monastic village, consisting of a small number of Monks living a stricter ascetical life prayer.
Skete life can take one of two different forms: a) the idiorrhythm skete, which consists of separate houses surrounding a small church, in which the Divine Liturgy is usually served on Saturdays, Sundays and Feast Days. The Daily Services are said in a chapel to be found in each house, and the general rules of monastic life are the same as in idiorrhythmic monasteries (the holding of private property, etc.), and b) the coenobitic skete, which consists of the common life typical of the coenobitic monasteries in a main house with Daily Services celebrated in common in the Skete church. As in the idiorrhythmic sketes, Divine Liturgy is celebrated only on Saturdays, Sundays and Feast Days.
Finally, there were also to be found hermitages on the monastery lands (and elsewhere), where those who had especially progressed in the monastic life were allowed to live as solitaries. In such cases the hermit was granted a food ration from the main monastery, usually brought to him by Monks of the monastery, for the hermit rarely, if ever, left his hermitage, where he spent his remaining earthly days in strict solitude and ceaseless prayer, just as had the ancient solitaries of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and other places.
Considering the predominance of coenobitic monasticism, if the origin of monasticism was the solitary life and the Monk is, by definition, alone, why, then, did monasticism become essentially communal? Why does the Church even seem to discourage those who would lead a life of solitude? Is this not a departure from the essence of monasticism?
The answer lies in that physical solitude is not the essence of monasticism, for this essence is, in fact, the struggle to cast out the very root of man's sinfulness: pride and self-will. The First Sin was none other than the desire to live by man's own will rather than the will of God. It was the desire to be independent, to be as God in a manner that would free man from obeying anyone but himself. This is the sin that caused the Fall of man and which is at the origin of virtually every sin we commit. I steal when my desire to possess surpasses all other thoughts or reason. I lie when my desires overcome reality. I hate when someone stands in the way of what I want. I do not pray when I am the center of my universe, and not God.
Pride and self-will can be eradicated only through the acquisition of their opposites: humility and obedience. A Monk leading a totally solitary life is rarely in a position to effectively test either of these qualities. A humble attitude towards God is genuine only if accompanied by humility towards fellow-men. Obedience to God is empty unless one is able to obey others. Instead of learning humility and obedience, the Monk who lives alone runs the serious risk of falling into a special form of pride, prelest, a Russian word sometimes translated as spiritual self-deception. The Monk takes pride in his ascetic labors, in his saintly manner of life and in this state, he can be completely lost, since true monastic sanctity is always self-accusing, always mourning its sinfulness. The more severe the asceticism, the greater the danger of prelest.
Humility and obedience can best and most-safely be acquired through the total surrender of the Monk to an instructor experienced in the spiritual life. The Monk confesses even his most intimate thoughts to his elder and does nothing without his blessing. The former teaches humility, the latter teaches obedience.
The problem of pride and self-will is, as we have said, common to all mankind. Obviously, it is not only Monks and Nuns who must struggle to replace them with humility and obedience. True monastic life, however, especially under the direction of an elder, is exceptionally conducive to that particular struggle. The life of a Monk is specifically regulated to the acquisition of these virtues. Life outside the monastery, with its own responsibilities and preoccupations, makes it difficult to discern the state of one's soul and concentrate on the acquisition of spiritual virtues.
For this reason, Orthodox Christian men and women, clergy and laity, have been flocking to the monasteries for over a millennium and a half. They came to learn from those who are, in a sense, at the front line of battle. They came to learn from the experienced, to obtain advice for success and consolation in failure. They were greeted with love, compassion, and deep understanding. They learned that they were not alone in their struggles, that others had suffered as they did. They returned to their homes strengthened, encouraged and wiser, better-equipped to continue the struggle in their own daily lives.
And so, the goal of monasticism was not one of ego and self, but of love of God and the desire to set aright the pernicious influences of pride, self-will and disobedience. Monastic life elevates a Monk to spiritual perfection in the light of Christ's love and, by living in this love, bears light and spiritual warmth to the world. By withdrawing from the world, a Monk does not express contempt for it, but, on the contrary, acquires a perfect love for the world, a pure love in Christ which is alien to worldly passions. By turning away from vanity the Monk strives to perceive himself and his impotence, and to fortify himself spiritually through prayer to God. And thus is was that it was to the monasteries that the faithful turned in order to acquire help and encouragement in their own daily spiritual struggles.
Excerpt taken from "These Truths We Hold - The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings". Compiled and Edited by A Monk of St. Tikhon's Monastery. Copyright 1986 by the St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, South Canaan, Pennsylvania 18459.
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