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Orthodox Monks |
From bully-boys to godly mentors

Orthodox Monks is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 22, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The brawling monks of the East who once fatally thrashed an aged patriarch emerge from a terrible persecution as men of God with a wide respect they will never lose

Orthodox Monks - From bully-boys to godly mentors

Orthodox Monks - From bully-boys to godly mentors
The Monastery of Xenophondous, built in 963, one of twenty-one monasteries on stunningly beautiful Mount Athos, Greece. The Holy Mount, completely self-governed, preserves many religious artifacts and icons of great value and is the acknowledged center of Eastern monasticism. The idyllic landscape, long a sanctuary from the turmoil of the world, belies the intensity of the spiritual battles waged in its monasteries.

When the rich young ruler asked Jesus how he could gain paradise, the Lord’s uncompromising reply was: “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (Mark 10:21). It was a challenge the young man could not accept, and it has been harassing the consciences of many Christians ever since. But century after century, thousands upon thousands of believers have accepted it. Leaving families, professions, ambitions and pleasures, they embraced as monks and nuns a stern regime of rigorous prayer and ascetic discipline. However, the monastic movement in the East followed a somewhat different path than that taken in the West.

Greek-speaking monastics found that divorcing themselves from worldly pleasure was one thing, but renouncing worldly power in a society where church and state were so closely entwined was another proposition entirely. Eastern monks became fervently, often violently, involved in one doctrinal controversy after another, descending in mobs from their monasteries to disrupt church councils and occasionally inflicting physical assaults upon those whom they regarded as doctrinally errant. At one council, held at Ephesus in 449, monks joined soldiers in clubbing and kicking the patriarch of Constantinople so severely that he died a few days later. (See earlier volume, Darkness Descends). Such conduct has no parallel in Western monasticism.

In the East, however, it persisted into the eighth century, when the monks reacted with determined fury to the banning of icons by the emperor Leo III, bringing upon themselves a hundred years of merciless imperial persecution. Out of that severe trial a different Eastern monasticism emerged, whose author is not disputed. The story of Theodore, who headed the Byzantine monastery at Constantinople known as Studion, is told in chapter 5. He it was who led the monks back to the ancient Rule of St. Basil the Great, father of Eastern monasticism, and who led them in suffering willingly the terrible trials of the iconoclast struggle. In so doing, they won the respect and loyalty of the Christian population, something they have never since lost.

Theodore favored a strictly disciplined communal life, on the premise that solitary challenges to Satan, especially if undertaken prematurely, could lead to self-absorption, delusion and other evils. He also stressed at Studion the importance of labor, both manual and scholarly, to balance prayer and ascetic discipline. Many other monasteries followed its example. Even so, writes Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, by the end of the first millennium, the characteristics of Western and Eastern monasticism had increasingly diverged.

The monks in the East, writes historian David Knowles (Christian Monasticism) were regulated by decrees of church councils that later passed into common law. “This and their differing social conditions, together with the Byzantine reverence for a tradition that had never been broken, preserved Eastern monasticism as a whole from complete secularization and from the rhythm of decadence and reform experienced by the West, as it also stood in the way of the formation of new orders and the diversification of vocations.”

Monasteries in raw Western lands, for example, reacting to the urgent material as well as spiritual needs of their people, became technological leaders in such areas as medicine and agriculture. The ancient civilizations of Asia Minor, on the other hand, were not so dependent in such matters upon monks. Then too, the new religious orders that evolved in the West made possible central supervision of whole networks of monasteries. This had no counterpart in the East, where a monastic house still typically began when disciples gathered about one saintly figure, remained a self-governing and individualistic entity under its hegoumenos (head), and despite the pervasive influence of Studion, often encouraged some members to live in solitary cells.

Two broad styles evolved, but were frequently combined. In “cenobitic” houses, explains British historian Rosemary Morris in Monks and Laymen of Byzantium, 843—1118, the entire community was seen as a “mystic body” collectively battling the forces of evil. In “lavriote” monasticism, named for the “lavra,” a grouping of individual cells, members live and pray in solitude, gathering perhaps weekly for the Divine Liturgy. Practitioners of the austere lavriote regime, which harks back to St. Anthony of Egypt, usually sought solitude in the wilderness.

One location favored from early times was the rocky peninsula called Mount Athos. It juts from the coast of Macedonia, rising precipitously from the Aegean Sea and terminating in the mountain itself, a chunk of snowcapped marble over a mile high (6,670 feet). The spiny ridge, thirty miles long and 6.5 miles wide at its broadest, is deeply serrated by ravines and cliffs, and sufficiently inaccessible to satisfy even the most fastidious Byzantine hermit. Recorded history on Athos begins in 963, when monasteries on Byzantium’s more vulnerable frontiers were falling victim to Muslim and other raiders, and the emperor Nicephorus Phocas sponsored the first major monastery there: the Grand Lavra.1

Its founder, a Bithynian monk named Athanasius, thereby earned the designation Athanasius the Athonite. Supported both by Nicephorus and his successor John Tzimisces, Athanasius managed to placate the resident solitaries, who seriously resented this organized invasion. Tzimisces issued the Grand Lavra an official charter (known as the “goat,” because it is written on goatskin). Many more monasteries followed, and twenty-one are still there. At least four, including the Grand Lavra, date from Athanasius’s lifetime (920—1003).

Soon known as the Holy Mountain, Athos became an enduring focus of Orthodox monasticism, as Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia and other Eastern states also established “national” monasteries there. Despite dissension among them, they learned to operate as a semiautonomous republic. They also survived pirate raids, invasion, and a centuries-long subjugation by the Muslim Turks, and although today the monks are numbered in hundreds, not thousands, their ancient pursuit of holiness continues unchanged. The peninsula itself remains pristine, practically untouched by “progress.” Its monasteries, both styles, still function as repositories for (and disseminators of) scholarship, learning and art, and as centers of charity and hospitality.

However, as with all Byzantine monasteries (and Western ones too, for that matter) one overriding function of these Athonite establishments has been the provision of spiritual counsel to church, state and individual Christians. St. Simeon the New Theologian (949—1022), regarded by many as the greatest of Byzantine mystical writers, was unquestionably a central influence in this. A Studion monk who became hegoumenos of St. Mamas Monastery, Simeon insisted that every layman–from emperor to humble soldier or farmer–needed a spiritual father. A monastery was the likeliest place to find one, he taught, though even here the seeker must take care to choose a monk sufficiently advanced in the spiritual life to possess the necessary discernment, charity and dispassion.2

Simeon’s countrymen wholeheartedly agreed, it seems. Orthodox monastics have exerted extraordinary influence all across the East. The more the monks tried to withdraw from the world, the more the world insisted on seeking them out. “There is no doubt,” writes historian Morris, “that these monastic saints were looked upon as ‘living icons,’ the best possible examples of the spiritual life.” n

1. A popular legend holds that the Virgin Mary made a brief visit to Athos, and so admired its spectacular beauty that she asked the Lord her Son to give it to her as a garden. However, the blessed Theotokos is the only feminine presence to find a welcome on this entire peninsula. Human females, and even female domestic animals, have been constitutionally banned from the Holy Mountain for a millennium.

2. St. Simeon taught that initial cleansing of the soul and much prayer, notes historian Morris, must go into selection of a spiritual father. “Go and find the man whom God, either mysteriously through himself, or externally through his servant, shall show you,” he wrote, and century after century, Orthodox Christians have obeyed.

This is the end of the Orthodox Monks category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 22, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Orthodox Monks from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at