The following essay was recently written by His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos in response to a scandal that has been occurring in his Metropolis which also recently brought him to break communion from one of his local monasteries, the well-known Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in Nafpaktos. Yet it still provides an excellent template to distinguish generally what healthy and sick monasticism is according to Orthodox tradition.
Monasticism is the glory of the Church, and the monks, as taught by St. Gregory of Nyssa, are the crown of the body of the Church and are truly a jewel of the head, since monks, like hairs, are also dead to the world and glow and radiate the Light of Christ.
In actuality, monastic life is a prophetic, apostolic and martyric life, and through this dimension Orthodox celebrate true monasticism.
If one reads the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the Apostles, they will find that the first Christians, imitating the apostolic group of Christ, lived by prayer, common life, inspiration, landlessness, and they expected the coming of the Kingdom of God, which they experienced as a spiritual engagement.
During the persecutions, Christians lived intensely according to Divine inspiration and descended into the lower parts of the earth – in the catacombs – to worship God. Of course, they did not live independently, but were tied together with their Clergy and their Bishops.
Following the cessation of persecution and the secularization of Christians, the phenomenon of withdrawal grew more.
Caves, forests and countrysides became full of monks that wanted to live the “martyrdom of conscience”, to constantly glorify God, to pray to Him, to live and seek the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Because there could have been diversion in this situation, for this reason Basil the Great with his ascetic texts, particularly his “Longer Rule” and his “Shorter Rule”, laid the foundations for the original healthy monasticism. Avoiding extremes he organized the communal life, so that monks could live within the Church, which is the blessed and sacred institution established by the Holy Spirit as the Body of Christ, and they could be saved by remaining within Her.
Since within all forms of social life there is observed excess, for this reason the Church decided synodically how monasticism should function and how the Monasteries should work its hierarchical and synodical government. Two Canons of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod are characteristic which form the basis of Orthodox monasticism and determine the difference between healthy and sick monasticism.
The 4th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod is very clear:
“Let those who truly and sincerely lead the monastic life be accorded true honor; but, inasmuch as certain persons using the pretext of monasticism bring confusion both upon the churches and into political affairs by going about promiscuously in the cities, and at the same time seeking to establish Monasteries for themselves; it is decreed that no one anywhere build or found a monastery or oratory contrary to the will of the bishop of the city; and that the monks in every city and district shall be subject to the bishop, and embrace a quiet course of life, and give themselves only to fasting and prayer, remaining permanently in the places in which they were set apart; and they shall meddle neither in ecclesiastical nor in secular affairs, nor leave their own monasteries to take part in such; unless, indeed, they should at any time through urgent necessity be appointed thereto by the bishop of the city. And no slave shall be received into any monastery to become a monk against the will of his master. And if any one shall transgress this our judgment, we have decreed that he shall be excommunicated, that the name of God be not blasphemed. But the bishop of the city must make the needful provision for the monasteries.”
This Canon is very clear. Monks should not oversee themselves, but they ought to obey the Bishop of the land. They should fulfill the essence of monasticism, which is quietude, fasting, prayer, and to remain patiently in the place they have chosen.
Further, they are not to take actions that cause disruption in the Church and in the community, and they are not to leave the Monastery and wander the world without the permission of the Bishop.
Monks who otherwise do not obey the Bishop and do not live monastically are to be excommunicated. In these healthy conditions the Bishop shall make provisions for the Monasteries.
It is obvious that the Church is composed of Bishops who live in communion with the Presbyters and the people. In the Church is a hierarchical and synodical government, which means that no one does what they want, but everyone has something to offer somewhere. Also, in the Church there is a clear difference between the Parish and the Monastery. That which is common is the Divine Eucharist and the other Mysteries, and the difference is in the way of life, since in the Parish people who live in society are guided pastorally, while in the Monastery intense prayer is cultivated for the benefit of all Christians.
The 8th Canon of the same Synod, that is the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, goes even deeper to determine what should be the behavior of the monks and the laity towards the Bishop. And I quote:
“Let the clergy of the poor-houses, monasteries, and martyries remain under the authority of the bishops in every city according to the tradition of the holy Fathers; and let no one arrogantly cast off the rule of his own bishop; and if any shall contravene this canon in any way whatever, and will not be subject to their own bishop, if they be clergy, let them be subjected to canonical censure, and if they be monks or laymen, let them be excommunicated.”
This Canon is also very clear. It indicates that the Bishop of a local Church is not a decorative element, but he who sets up the unity of the Local Church.
The clergy of the Monasteries should not arrogantly go against the Bishop. The Canon in the original language of the Synod writes: “καί μη κατά αυθάδειαν αφηνιάτωσαν του ιδίου επισκόπου” (“let no one arrogantly cast off the rule of his own bishop”).
Usually we say that a certain horse went wild on a rampage (αφηνίασε). This image is reflected in Hieromonks who go on a rampage against Bishops. [Aφηνιάζω literally means to get the bit between the teeth.]
Zonaras interprets the word αφηνιάζειν as to abscond and escape from the power of the Bishop.
Also, in this Canon is established that those who subvert this order are to receive a penance. Of course, penances are used as therapeutic agents for the treatment of diseased members of the Church, as is done with the sicknesses of the body. Which means that anyone who does not obey the Holy Canons and the synodical and hierarchical government of the Church is sick and will die spiritually if they do not repent.
In this Canon, besides the Clergy of the Monasteries, monastics and laity are referenced as well. Interpreting why this Canon makes reference to the laity, St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes: “In order to expose those laymen on whose boldness and protection the clergymen and monks rely in showing disrespectfulness to the Bishop and refusing to submit to his authority.”
From these two Canons of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, which have ultimate authority in the Church, and which all should apply to themselves, are exported three consequences:
1. The Orthodox Holy Monastery in the tradition of the Church has a specific purpose and a specific mission. They receive some members of the Church – men and women – who want to cultivate prayer fervently and live with fasting and quietude, that is, to live ascetically the entire hesychastic tradition of the Church.
The Holy Monastery differs clearly from the way pastoral work in the Parishes is done, and they should neither be substitutes for the Parishes nor to struggle against their pastoral activity.
In other words, monks are indirectly pastoral, showing secular people by their example to pray and live a spiritual life within the Church, respecting the Clergy, especially the Bishops.
In this way Monasteries should not distract people in a coordinated and systematic way from the Parishes and should not elevate themselves to the extent and manner that the Parish works.
For example, monks cannot alter Monasteries into Conference Centers, Entertainment Centers, Camping sites with a concentration of youth, and radio stations, etc. They cannot develop various programs such as excursions, entertainment with instruments, etc.
Orthodox monks cannot convert their Monasteries into Parishes, especially without approval from the Bishop, whose approval must be permanent and not merely to indicate a “blessing” given without explanation from another predecessor Bishop in the past.
If some monks want to work pastorally, they can with the permission of their Bishop, in a Parish area. Let them decide and receive permission to become the Priest of a Parish and exercise their pastoral work toward people. Monasteries cannot be secularized and turn into Parishes and thus alter the spirit of Orthodox monasticism, and in general for a rivalry to exist between Monasteries and Parishes.
2. The Orthodox Holy Monastery cannot be organized as an independent “Diocese”, the monks cannot live independently, and the Abbot cannot be presented as a second ecclesiastical authority, like a Chorbishop (Χωρεπίσκοπος). Of course, every Holy Monastery and every Parish is self-governed, but not autonomous, cut off from the hierarchical and synodical government of the Church.
The Bishop of every Local Church has the special grace to shepherd and care for the whole Church, so that all things are done with order and decorum, on the basis of the Holy Canons and ecclesiastical tradition. It is not just a decorative element and a secular administrative institution.
He will guide his flock – the Clergy, monks and laity – with the knowledge of Holy Tradition and the Divine Canons, which during his consecration he assured he would preserve and honor.
The pastoral staff given to him at his consecration as a Bishop is not a decorative element, but eminently symbolic. Characteristic are the words said during the giving of the pastoral staff: “Receive this staff, to shepherd the flock of Christ entrusted to you, and be a staff and support to those who are obedient. But lead the disobedient and the wayward unto correction, unto gentleness, and unto obedience; and they shall continue in due submission.”
The pastoral staff symbolizes the episcopal ministry, for the Bishop must support the deferential with staff-bacteria, and teach with staff-censure the waggish and ridiculous, who create “jokable and ridiculous episodes”.
Thus, the Holy Monastery cannot substitute or replace the episcopal ministry and present itself as an “episcopal authority” in the land, which competes with the Bishop of the land and functions as a second ecclesiastical authority in the land.
Of course, the Bishop of the area who has discernment and wisdom does not feel the arrogant Abbot as an antagonist, but he cannot tolerate anti-ecclesiastical actions that divide the church-space and make people fanatical, making them members of an anarchical-autonomous group whom they use as “pawns” in their own pursuits of love for authority.
The Bishop cannot remain indifferent to a situation that alters the ecclesiastical ethos and the ecclesiastical phronema. He cannot tolerate schisms of the ecclesiastical body and alterations to the monastic and ecclesiastical traditions.
He will be patient, he will teach the people, he will suggest the appropriate thing, but when certain sickened situations begin to become established, then he is obliged to take appropriate measures for their therapeutic treatment, according to the description of the 31st Step of St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, titled “To the Shepherd”. It is not possible for him to be indifferent to ecclesiastical cancers and to give his heirs an inheritance of anomalous ecclesiastical situations.
3. The Orthodox Holy Monastery must be a model and template even of social life, financial transparency and legitimacy, freedom and justice. From the Holy Monasteries, in which monks who pray and live in depth and height the life in Christ, there should emanate a spirit of love, spiritual freedom, release from any addiction, a spiritual fragrance of courtesy and ecclesiastical grandeur. A Holy Monastery with these makes them Orthodox. When angels are a light to monks, monks also become a light to people. Conversely, as someone would say to me, “when a monk doesn’t have wings (he isn’t an angel), he has horns and a tail!”
Personally I think it’s a problem for a society when there are three ill conditions.
First, when there is dominant indifference in matters of financial corruption, financial abuse, and various irregularities.
A society that is indifferent to such situations shows its forfeiture.
The second ill condition is when there are violent acts, when the residents instead of expressing their demands in a peaceful and democratic manner, manifest with violent and fascistic ways.
The society should be governed by democratic principles and it must tend to the education of the people.
The third ill condition is when in the society someone bullies from various centers, so that people are scared to express themselves, because they know that soon will start blackmails, pressures, slanders and threats to their lives.
A society that is dominated by such an ill condition is unable to stand on its legs, unable to meet the high vocation of giving morals, security and freedom to its citizens.
I make this offering to this text in reference to monasticism, because when these three ill conditions (financial corruption, violence, intimidation) emanate from ecclesiastical centers, from secular Monasteries, who are trying to control society with political and social resources, and seek to regulate even the political and social issues of society, from the perspective of political and party lines, then society is in a total depression.
I think the Bishop of a Local Church oversees and reviews all these issues and tries to heal them with discernment, reason, and sometimes with spiritually surgical interventions.
He must not only attend brilliant social events, but be aware of the purpose of his mission and especially to work within ecclesiastical tradition and with the prerequisite condition and knowledge that he will give a reason for his actions, for his words, and for his works before God.
Of course, with such a serious and responsible position, there are dangers and risks of certain corruption, and some mindlessly threaten their very life with such incompatibility of an evil Bishop.
To conclude, I want to say that healthy monasticism is the glory of the Church, but sick monasticism, which turns itself into a Parish or Diocese or secular organization, into a “dive” in the words of the Holy Canons, is a source of various defects in the Church and society, and is really a sore of the Church and the eternal bane of monks.
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou
Translated by John Sanidopoulos