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The Role of Monasticism in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

A Lecture delivered to Greek Orthodox Monastics in the USA
By His Eminence Archbishop Spyridon of America

( Monastery of St. Anthony in Florence, Ariz. - March 26, 1998 )

I greet you paternally, beloved brethren and children in the Lord, in the Name of Christ, our Lord, who rules and reigns over us, over all the holy Churches of God, and over the whole realm of creation with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, who is blessed for ever. I am very glad to be with you and share with you my thoughts and vision for our collaboration and cooperation in this vineyard of the Lord, where he has called us to live, to grow and to serve, until he calls us to our eternal abode in his very presence.

The topic of my address to you on this occasion, “The Role of Monasticism in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America”, is a practical one and has the following clear intention: to acknowledge and to stress the importance of Monasticism in the life of the Church; to outline the function and strength of Monasticism in the Christian diakonia, referring also to possible problems in the operation of its particular function which usually arise from practicing excesses and from trespassing the set limits; and, more importantly, to encourage the pursuit of monasticism in this Archdiocese according to the holy Tradition of Orthodoxy and for the benefit of the entire pleroma of its people. In my attempt to do this, I would like, first of all, to bring to mind the general profile of monasticism and its proper place and limits in the Church.

Since ancient times there have been three main orders in the life of the Church on earth, those associated with the clergy, the laity, and the monastics. All three orders were instituted by the Lord and were given their specific functions in the pursuit of the common cause, the growth of Christians in the life in Christ, the realization and manifestation of the Church as the Body of Christ on earth.

The first order of the clergy (ὁ κλῆρος) was instituted by the Lord Himself, the Great Mediator of the New Covenant, Priest-Prophet-King, through the holy Apostles, whom he chose and sent. This is the special or sacramental priesthood which traces its origin to the divine calling and action in Christ and is tied on the one hand to Christ’s on-going and saving presence and activity in the Church –the clergy are types of Christ and sit in the place of Christ (εἰς τύπον καὶ τόπον Χριστοῦ)- and on the other hand, to the visible and concrete manifestation of the Church as the body of Christ amongst human beings in history, i.e. the eucharistic community. The primary function of the clergy is liturgical and sacramental, but their order is related to all three offices of Christ, priestly–prophetic-royal.

The second order, that of the laity or people of God (ὁ λαὸς τοῦ Θεοῦ), was also instituted by the Lord, but through the Holy Apostles and their successors, the clergy, and is, therefore, tied to the clergy, whose sacramental diakonia and authority it supports, but it is also tied to the sacred mission of the Church towards human society in challenging and evangelizing it with the Gospel, and preserving it by being in it as a kind of spiritual salt.

The laity manifest the gifts of the Spirit and fulfill a general, as distinct from the sacramental, priestly, prophetic and royal function in the Church. That this order is in no way inferior to the previous one, but rather complementary and fraternal, is clearly revealed in the stipulation that no sacramental liturgy can be celebrated by the clergy without the presence of the laity and that non-sacramental liturgy can be and is practiced by the laity alone without clergy.

The third order, Monasticism, is indeed a kind of catalyst between the other two orders, a sort of spiritual bond which stretches its arms, as it were, to the other two orders and reminds everyone in the Church, in a kind of blunt and rigorous way, through its single-minded commitment to monastic discipline, spiritual asceticism (exercise), what the life of the Church is all about. This sacred monastic discipline, this holy exercise of spiritual asceticism, is a sort of spiritual therapy (θεραπεία -hence the name θεραπευταὶ for the monks by some ancient fathers). Spiritual therapy is indeed the primary role of Monasticism and it is precisely this role that renders its real and most friendly profile and place in the whole Church, because it does not elevate it above the other orders in the Church, nor places it in opposition to them or separates it from the Church’s historical reality and sacramental identity.

Monasticism, then, has to do with the unwavering and single-minded pursuit of the healthy Christian life, the life in Christ, the life of the Gospel, which is basically the common pursuit of all Christians in the Church. As such, it has a double function: a) being like a prayer candle which is set in the sanctuary of God’s presence as a pure and acceptable sacrifice to God for the world, and b) being like an illuminating candle which sheds forth the Light of Christ to those who seek to understand the real meaning of the Christian life and to participate in its power, the eternal kingdom of God’s life and truth.

Now, to be single-minded in the pursuit of the life in Christ, is to practice the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy which has been shaped by the Holy Spirit through the Fathers. This Holy Tradition is the orthopraxy, the right praxis, of the Christian liturgy and of the Christian life which is intrinsically related to it. This is exactly what the Monastery stands for. It is the place where both the orthodox practice of liturgy and the orthodox pattern of spiritual life are pursued in a rigorous and coherent way.

The pursuit of the liturgical practice links the Monastery with the order of the clergy which is charged with directing this practice and with maintaining its integrity. I mean, of course, the constitution of the local church as a eucharistic community headed by the bishop and served by canonically ordained clergy. Inasmuch as the Monastery pursues this orthodox practice, it comes under episcopal jurisdiction, like any parish, although it differs from a parish in that it also has a rule, the monastic rule which, entails special monastic vows and commitments, which do not bind the lay people of whom the parish is composed. It is well known that Monasteries maintain with precision (ἀκρίβεια) the orthodox liturgical tradition, to the formation of which many Monastics have contributed in a most fundamental way. Indeed, the Liturgical Rubrics which the Church follows today, the Τυπικόν, was shaped in monastic communities, such as the great Monastery of St. Savva the Sanctified in Palestine and the great Monastery of the Studites (the Ἀκοίμητοι) in Constantinople. This practice involves the unfailing observance of the daily cycle of prayer, the prayer of the Eikositetraoron with its seven akolouthies, and of the yearly cycle of Eucharistic celebrations with the Feasts of the Lord, the Mother of God and the Saints, and the observance of the various other orthodox types of prayer whether sacramental or not.

The pursuit of the orthodox praxis of the Christian life, which is also called the orthodox manner of existence, or orthodox spirituality, to give it a more contemporary name, links the monastery with the laity. This practice consists of three main activities: Firstly, of keeping the commandments of Christ, which Christ himself has delivered in the Gospel and which are summed up in the double commandment of love: love for God and love for neighbor (Matth. 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-31). Secondly, it consists of studying the works of the Lord in creation and redemption and acknowledging them before the Creator in a worshipful way so that no idolatrous attachment to the world can be allowed to enter into human life; and 3) offering one’s self up to the Lord in prayerful communion through the prayer of the mind, the prayer of the heart. These three activities are not separate but inherent to each other so as to make up one three-fold life activity which is the heart of orthodoxy. They are also known in the monastic tradition as purification, illumination, and deification, or union and communion with God.

Purification has to do with cleansing and conquering the passions, or wrong doings of the flesh, which are caused by imbalanced aggression and/or desire in the first, the vital, power of the human soul, the power which vivifies and moves the body, governs its actions and generally its life movement on earth. Illumination has to do with human thoughts, which are governed by the rational power of the human soul. The objective here is to clear the soul from evil thoughts (λογισμοὺς), which are unreal or unnatural imaginations that deprive the human being from true understanding and result in an imbalanced and/or unbridled operation of the aggressive and appetitive drives of the vital power which lies below the rational power in the soul. When this cleansing of thought is achieved then illumination takes place in that thought is rooted in the reality of nature which is essentially good and life supporting since it is created and sustained by God. Finally, deification has to do with the liberation of the greatest power of the soul, “the mind”, which is located in the inner sanctuary of the human soul, the heart. This is what we call our mind-set, our spiritual outlook, our ultimate life orientation and perspective. The objective here is to establish the heart in God, or to enthrone God in the heart. The great Apostle Paul spoke of it as the acquisition of “the mind of Christ”, which is God-centered, as opposed to self-centered or world-centered, and which manifests the powers of divine grace in the human being. When this is achieved, then the image of God in man is restored, because the potentiality or potency of the image is paired with the dynamic actuality of the likeness, and so the will and purpose of God in creating and saving man is fulfilled. God makes his abode in man and man becomes the temple of the living God.

I know that you are familiar with what I am saying here. But, it is important that we are constantly reminded of it all, so that we can safely think and speak of Monasticism, not as an end in itself, but as an order of therapeutic service and diakonia in the Church, which has a rigorous pattern and manner of the Christian life, fulfilling a mediatorial angelic role between the functions of the clergy and the laity that acts as a good catalyst in manifesting and building up the body of Christ on the earth, the one holy catholic Church. Problems arise when monasticism becomes an end in itself and not a means of diakonia to God and His Church. Liturgically, the Monastery cannot be separate from episcopal jurisdiction. This is the Orthodox tradition which has been magnificently manifested in the wonderful exchanges that have taken place between episcopal and monastic thrones. Monasteries have given the Church some of its greatest Bishops and Fathers. On the other hand, the Monastery cannot and should not be cut-off from the laity and its parish structures. We know full well that most monasteries have been founded and supported by the pious laity, who expect to see in them the therapeutic centers where the integrity of the Christian life is to be found. This is the Orthodox tradition which was established by the great St. Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia. We must not forget, that even the great Anthony, who is the patron saint of the heremitical type of monasticism, did not entertain any negative attitude for the Church which is in the midst of secular human society. He actually left the desert and went to Alexandria to help the great Athanasius in his struggle against heresy and in his defense of the integrity of the Christian faith. Clearly then, Monasticism is a most valuable dimension in the life of the Church, but this becomes apparent when Monasticism is in the Church and not outside it. It can only be true to itself, namely, a catalyst in the diakonia of the whole Body of the Church, the clergy and the laity, if it maintains its proper orthodox relation to both episcopal and clerical jurisdiction and to local human need and mission.

Now it is true that since the foundation of this holy Archdiocese of America by the Ecumenical throne and up until more recent times, Monasticism has not been recognized and supported as it should have been. Indeed many maintain that there has been direct opposition to it as well. It is not of this moment to enter into an examination of historical details or of the reasons that regulated such an anti-monastic attitude. Suffice it to say that such an attitude was not unique or peculiar to the Church here, but had wider manifestations. When in 1963 the millennium of the Monastic Communities of Mount Athos was celebrated, there were many who expressed pessimism for its survival. That was human rationalistic thinking that failed to assess the situation of Monasticism and of the Church at that time in light of the age-long sacred history of the Church. Athonite Monasticism not only survived but went through a great revival which continues to grow and to expand beyond the boundaries of that holy garden of the Mother of God. The recent establishment of sacred monasteries within the boundaries of our holy Archdiocese of America is not unrelated to this revival.

The presence of sacred orthodox monasteries within the boundaries and territory of our holy Archdiocese is a hopeful sign for greater achievement in the times that lie ahead of us. Some of these Monasteries have already made a positive contribution to the establishment and revival of the orthodox tradition in this land, while others are laying the foundations for the continuation of such contributions. A lot depends on the Monasteries themselves, inasmuch as they are all faced with the challenge of reversing an history of negative attitudes to Monasticism which entails suspicion and misunderstandings. It is true that there is today, in spite of the secularization that prevails in contemporary society, or even because of it, a greater openness to monasticism and readiness to draw from the inestimable treasures of this tradition of the Church. The presence of good Monasteries has contributed to it, and the same can be said of the classical monastic literature which is now more widely available. We have in English such classic texts as Saint Athanasius’ Life of Saint Anthony founder of Monasticism, “The Leimonarion” of John Moschos, “The Ladder” of John Climakos, “The Gerontikon”, or “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers” and above all “The Philokalia of the holy neptics” of Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, to mention a few.

What has been achieved in a relatively short time deserves our admiration and gratitude, but there is a lot yet to be done. Everything should be organized in accordance with the Orthodox tradition, so that Monasticism will not be seen as antagonistic of the other traditions of life and diakonia in the Church. The Archdiocese is positive towards it and will continue to support it and to work collaboratively for its well being and particular mission.

At this Lenten period the Church is guided with celebrating the feasts of great Monastic Saints, Saint Gregory Palamas, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Andrew of Crete, are names that figure prominently in our liturgical life and practice. It is by delving into their lives and writings that Monastics and Monasteries can truly renew themselves and make the entire body of the Church as ever grateful to Monasticism.