Orthodox America

  The Monastic Vows

Even in Holy Russia, with its thousands of monasteries and sketes, it was not uncommon to find people of the opinion that monastic life is essentially different from ordinary Christina life. All the more do we hear people today on the subject of fasting and long services: 'Oh, that's just for monastics.' In this essay by the late Archbishop Averky, On Monasticism, it is clear that the difference is one of degree and not of kind.


     No matter how strict the monastic vows we examined, after acquainting ourselves with their essence we cannot fail to see the error of those laymen who, according to the words of Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov, separate themselves unduly from monastics in matters or morality and spirituality. After all, laymen give vows at their baptism which are no less strict than the monastic vows except that they are of a more general character. In the face of the All-seeing God and in the presence of witnesses, each layman, before being submerged into the baptismal font and thereby being reborn into a new grace-filled and holy life, gives a solemn promise to "renounce Satan and all his works and all his angels and all his service and all his pride," and to unite himself unto Christ, believing in Him "as King and God." Not only does he give a promise, but then and there he categorically affirms it, resolutely and irrevocably, when he answers the second question of the priest: "Hast thou renounced Satan?" with "I have." And to the question: "Hast thou united thyself unto Christ?" he answers with the same resoluteness: "I have." In comparison with this vow, which is made by all Christians without exception, the monastic vows simply appear to somehow particularize, reinforce and deepen the vows of baptism. This is why the rite of tonsure into the small schema is called a second baptism, and in performing the small schema the same joyous and exultant chant is sung: "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27). And among our God-wise Fathers and teachers of the Church there is the opinion that the monastic tonsure is not only a rite but a sacrament, namely, the sacrament of a second baptism in which the vow s of renunciation of Satan and the commitment to Christ are repeated and deepened.

    The monk gives a vow of virginity, promising to preserve chastity. Are not laymen committed to chastity before marriage, and within the married state to mutual fidelity and a special marital chastity which, according to the Holy Fathers, consists of a temperate alienation of the spouses from the enslavement of their souls to sensual passion? Also, one should not forget that our Church, while blessing the first marriage of every Christian with a triumphal celebration, has quite a negative attitude and rather unwillingly blesses a second marriage, while for a third marriage there does not even exist a special ceremony, and it is permitted only because it is locked upon as a state preferable to fornication. Those who enter upon a third marriage are denied the Holy Mysteries by the Church for five years, in accordance with the penance set for the sin of sexual excess.

    A monk gives a vow of non-acquisitiveness. But are lay men. according to the Gospel. permitted to hoard riches in order to spend them on their own whims and live for their own pleasure? Does not the Gospel condemn the foolish rich man who all his life only dressed himself in fancy clothes and gaily entertained his friends, giving no thought to the fate of the unfortunate poor man Lazarus who lay covered with sores at the gate of his house. Another rich man, who was getting ready to enjoy his wealth, told his soul: "Friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. No, take it easy; eat, drink and be merry!" He did not hear God's strict reproach: "Fool! tonight you die. Then who will get all your wealth?" (Luke 12:16-22). Again, is the Lord's stern warning: "Verily, I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:24), meant only for monks and not for all Christians?

      Are not all Christians told: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth; where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal," but store them in heaven where they will never lose their value, "for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt . 6:19-21). This is perfectly understandable, for he who hoards his wealth and whose heart becomes attached to it relies more on the power of his wealth than on God, and his wealth occupies that place in his heart which should belong to God. It becomes his idol, a false god instead of the true God. One who loves wealth is a traitor to God: "You cannot serve God and Mammon" (Matt. 6:24).

     A monk gives a vow of obedience, renouncing his own will. But are laymen permitted always to follow their own sinful, uninhibited will? Are they not obliged to be obedient to God's commandments, to their spiritual fathers and teachers, and generally to their elders and persons in authority--not only in spiritual but also in secular life? What would happen if each layman began to live according to his own will, his own desires? Indeed, it was not to monks but to all Christians that St. Paul directed his exhortation: "Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves" (Heb. 13:17). And likewise St. Peter's exhortation: "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well" (I Peter 2:13-14).

    The layman also, if he wants to be a true Christian and succeed in spiritual life, must choose a spiritual father whom he trusts; he must open his whole soul to him, as a monk before his elder, and guide his entire life with all its actions according to the counsel of his spiritual father. Indeed, that is how all believing laymen acted in better days.

    And so, from what has been. said, it is quite clear that the monastic vows are not something new in Christianity, something unusual, unnatural, creating an abyss between monks and ordinary Christian laymen--not at all. The monastic vows are simply a repetition, together with a refinement and at the same time a deepening of the baptismal vows which each Christian gives in more general words and expressions in approaching the Sacramental Holy Baptism, when he promises to "renounce Satan and all his works and all his angels and all his service and all his pride," and to unite himself unto Christ.

(Excerpt translated by Vera Kencis)

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