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Orthodox Monks

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John 17:13-16

I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.


A monk is a person who practices monasticism, adopting a strict religious and ascetic lifestyle, usually in community with others following the same path. The word comes from the Greek monachos, commonly translated as a solitary person and can apply to either men or women.

It should be noted, however, that monachos is a word that had to be forged especially to name the then new phenomenon of men living solitarily in the Egyptian desert. The phenomenon came to an abrupt rise in the 3rd century AD, when thousands of Egyptians, mostly men, set out to the deserts of Nitria, southwest of the city of Alexandria, in order to imitate the life of St. Anthony, the first Christian monk.

Monks usually live in a monastery following a single rule and governed by an abbot. Monasteries can be organized as Cenobiums, where all live together, pray together, and share everything; or they can be more disjointed with the monks only coming together for Sunday services. A monk who lives alone, away from society and sometimes also from all other monks, is called an Anchorite or Hesicaste (also called a hermit).

Orthodox monks lead very strict lives. It is their overriding purpose to pray for the world and the salvation of all mankind. Monks and nuns do not, in general, do social work or teach school, but leave this for lay people to work out their salvation. Monks are spiritual warriors using prayer and discipline in order to conquer their own shortcomings. It is for this reason that Bishops are almost always chosen from the ranks of monks.

Monastic Levels

In the Eastern Orthodoxy, novices may or may not dress in the black inner robe (Isorassa or Ryassa) and wear the soft monastic hat (Skoufos), this being dependent on the abbot wishes. The isorassa and the skoufos are the first part of the Orthodox monastic "habit", of which there is only one general style (with a few slight regional variations over the centuries).

In general, Orthodox monastic's have little or no contact with the outside world, including their own families. If a novice chooses to leave during the novitiate period, no penalty is incurred. When the abbot deems the novice ready, the novice is asked to join the monastery. If he accepts, he is tonsured in a formal service. He is given the outer robe (Exorassa) and the klobuk. He also wears a leather belt around his waist. His habit is usually black signifying that he is now dead to the world, and he receives a new name. He is now formally known as a Rassophor (or Ryassophor).

The next level for monastic's takes place some years after the first tonsure when the abbot feels the monk has reached a level of discipline, dedication, and humility. Once again, in a formal service, the monk is elevated to the Schema, which is signified by the addition of certain symbolic pieces to his habit. One of those pieces added is the Polystavrion or "Many Crosses". Because of this addition he is now called Stavrophor. In addition, the abbot increases the monks prayer rule, allows a more strict personal ascetic practice, and gives the monk more responsibility.

Monks whose abbot feels they have reached a high level of excellence reach the final stage, called Megaloschemos or Great Schema. In some monastic traditions the Great Schema is only given to monks and nuns on their death bed, while in others they may be elevated after as little as 25 years of service. Eastern Orthodox monks (except novices) are always called Father even if they are not priests. Old monks are often called Gheronda or Elder out of respect for their dedication.

Many (but not all) Orthodox seminaries are attached to monasteries, combining academic preparation for ordination with participation in the community's life of prayer. Bishops are often chosen from monastic clergy, whether from the monastery or from life in the world (see clerical celibacy). Monks who have been ordained to the priesthood are called hieromonk (priest-monk); monks who have been ordained to the deaconate are called hierodeacon (deacon-monk).

For the Orthodox, Mother is the correct term for all nuns except novices. Nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachoi, and their common living space, a monastery.

See: Monastic Clothing
See: Monastic Life
See: Monastary Food
See: Monastic Obedience
See: Monastery Links
See: Monastery FAQ

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