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Panayiotis Christou

The monastic life in the eastern orthodox Church

Reprinted from "The Orthodox Ethos", Studies in Orthodoxy vol. 1, Ed. by A.J.Philippou

The coenobitic system.

A further step was taken in Egypt by Pachomius (d. 346). As well as administration and prayer, he placed the shelter, dress, diet and work of the monks under supervision. Usually they lived in groups in spacious dormitories. It could be said that under this system monasticism became easier through the monks living together and associating with one another. A communal form of life made it possible for women to devote themselves to ascesis in seclusion: it is dangerous for them to live in complete isolation. But the main advantage of this system was that monasticism could now play a part in philanthropic activity.

The turning of monasticism in this direction was the chief work of Basil the Great the (d. 378), bishop of Caesarea. He lived in solitude for some time at his estate at Pontus, with members of his family. There be composed his famous work, Ascetica, which was to become the basis for the organization of monasticism during the subsequent period. He recommended the gathering of monks together in organized groups, in accordance with the social nature of men: “Man is a tame and social being, not a wild and solitary one. For there is nothing so characteristic of our nature as to associate with one another and to need one another and to need one to love our kind’ (Extensive Rules 3, I-P.G. xxxi, 947). According to this teaching, monks should return from the deserts to cities, and establish there philanthropic coenobia. Basil himself returned to Caesarea and organized a whole group of socially beneficial institutions, which later received, in his honour, the name of Basileias. From the very beginning, the direction of these was in the hands of monks, who were called “fathers of orphans”.

The coenobium could be regarded as the final form of monasticism, but is not. Although at first it eased the yoke of the ascetics, later it rendered it much harder to bear. For this reason a tendency towards a less strict mode of life became apparent during the Middle Ages, and this resulted in the constitution of the idiorrythmic life. The “contemplatives”, that is, those dedicated to the contemplation of God, sought release from practical and social work, in order to be unfettered for their spiritual work; and at the same time the weaker monks sought a relaxation of discipline. At the idiorrhythmic monasteries administration, dress, prayer, and to some extent living quarters remained communal. Diet and to some extent work were released from control. Thus monks were allowed to acquire private property, which could not, however, exceed certain limits. From one point of view, the idiorrythmic life may be regarded as a return to the communal system of the lavra, while from another standpoint it is a combination of the eremitic and the communal patterns of monasticism.

These four kinds of monasticism henceforth run parallel to one another throughout the centuries. Within the eremitical tradition there appeared strange and interesting variations, sometimes taking extreme forms. The confirmed shut themselves up for many years in their cells, communicating with the outer world only by letter, and to receive their meager allowance of food. The stylites dwelt on half-destroyed pillars. Those who became “fools” for Christ’s sake traveled about displaying their assumed madness for the sake of humility.

All four survive to the present day. Hermits are to be found almost exclusively on the furthest points of the peninsula of Mount Athos; the communal system is represented by the sketes of Athos; and the other two systems, the coenobitic and the idiorrhythmic, by monasteries in all Orthodox regions.

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