Monasticism is an integral part of Greece’s heritage, shaping the country’s religious, cultural and architectural landscape. With roots in the early traditions of Eastern Christian monasticism, Greek monasticism, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church, offers a unique blend of spiritual devotion, cultural preservation, and architectural splendor. This article explores the rich history of monasticism in Greece, highlighting its origins, development, and the significant role played by monastic communities in sustaining the Orthodox faith and Greek culture, especially during challenging historical periods.
From the Desert Fathers to the establishment of renowned monastic communities such as Mount Athos and Meteora, Greek monasticism has evolved over the centuries. It has not only provided a sanctuary for spiritual contemplation and ascetic living, but has also played a pivotal role in the preservation and transmission of classical Greek culture and literature. These monasteries, nestled in serene and often remote locations, serve as bastions of faith and repositories of vast historical, artistic, and cultural wealth.
The monastic way of life in these communities, characterized by prayer, work, and self-sacrifice, continues to draw interest and respect from people around the world. This article offers a comprehensive exploration of Greek monasticism from its early beginnings to its contemporary relevance, providing insights into the daily lives of monks and nuns, the architectural splendor of the monasteries, and their importance in Orthodox Christianity. Join us on a journey into the heart of Greek monasticism and discover the spiritual and cultural treasures that these monastic communities have preserved for centuries.
Table of Contents
History of Monasticism in Greece
The history of monasticism in Greece is deeply intertwined with the history of Eastern Christian monasticism, which began in the Eastern Mediterranean in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The Desert Fathers pioneered traditions that would influence both the Hesychast traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western monastic traditions. The founder of monasticism is considered to be Saint Anthony the Great. As a young man, he heard the words of the Gospel read in church, which inspired him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow a life of asceticism.
Monasticism in Greece was largely developed through the efforts of St. Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Monks were ordained in a special religious service and took special monastic vows, thus becoming a special class of Christians between the clergy and the laity.
Monks were not only religious practitioners, but also copyists, collectors, avid readers, and religious thinkers. They played a vital role in the transmission of classical Greek culture while producing books for their own use.
One of the most important monastic communities in Greece is the Monastic Community of Mount Athos, an Eastern Orthodox community of monks that has the status of an autonomous region. The first organized monastery was founded by St. Athanasios the Athonite and took the name Megiste Lavra.
During the Ottoman Empire, monasticism played an important role in preserving the Orthodox faith and Greek culture. The monks not only kept the faith alive, but they also kept Greek culture and literature alive. The monasteries became the secret school for all Greeks under Turkish occupation.
However, from the middle of the nineteenth century, monastic life was in decline throughout the Orthodox East. Nevertheless, the monks managed to preserve the autonomy of their monastic community and to protect the monasteries’ properties.
Today, monasticism continues to be an important part of the Greek Orthodox Christian heritage, with monasteries playing a vital role in the preservation of religious, cultural, and architectural heritage. [link]
Monasteries in Orthodox Christianity
Monasteries in Orthodox Christianity serve as vital centers for prayer, contemplation, community service, and the preservation of sacred traditions. They are not mere relics of the past, but active, living communities that continue to contribute significantly to the spiritual life of the Orthodox Church.
Monasticism in the Orthodox Church was developed largely through the efforts of St. Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Monks were ordained in a special service and took special monastic vows, thus becoming a special class of Christians between the clergy and the laity.
Monasteries are primarily places of continuous prayer. Monks and nuns devote their lives to prayer, interceding for the world and seeking a deep communion with God. These religious communities provide an environment conducive to contemplation and spiritual introspection.
The daily life of a monk typically involves working through the night in vigil and prayer, followed by a light breakfast and rest. The monks then begin their daily work. Each monk has an assigned daily task, his “obedience. Some take care of the grounds, cleaning, sweeping paths, trimming trees and hedges, planting and watering. Others work in the monastery’s vegetable garden, vineyard, citrus orchard, and olive grove. Others work in the kitchen, preparing meals, setting the tables, and washing dishes. Other daily tasks include construction projects, electrical and plumbing maintenance, carpentry, metalwork, financial accounting, and chapel maintenance.
Monasteries also play a vital role in the preservation of Orthodox faith and culture. During the Ottoman Empire, monks not only kept the faith alive, but they also kept Greek culture and literature alive. The monasteries became the secret school for all Greeks under Turkish occupation. Monasteries were also instrumental in preserving the Scriptures. Since reading the Bible was an important part of a monk’s life, some monks were assigned to copy manuscripts for use in the monastery.
Monasticism in Orthodox Christianity is more than a tradition; it’s a profound spiritual journey. It embodies the essence of the Orthodox faith, emphasizing deep devotion, self-sacrifice, and an unwavering commitment to God. Monastics serve as spiritual role models whose lives exemplify the virtues of faith, devotion, and divine love. They are a living reminder of the transformative power of faith and the potential for spiritual elevation.
The Importance of the Mount Athos Monasteries in Greek Monasticism
The Mount Athos monasteries hold a significant place in Greek monasticism and the broader Orthodox Christian world. Mount Athos, often referred to as the “Holy Mountain,” is the largest Orthodox monastic community globally and is considered the center of Orthodox monasticism.
The monastic community of Mount Athos has existed for the last twelve centuries and has preserved a wealth of historic, artistic, and cultural elements. The monasteries house priceless collections of well-preserved artifacts, including rare books, ancient documents, and artworks of immense historical value.
Mount Athos has exerted a lasting influence on the Orthodox world, particularly on the development of religious architecture and monumental painting. The typical layout of Athonite monasteries has been used as far away as Russia.
The first monks arrived on Mount Athos in the ninth century, and today, over two thousand monks from Greece and many other countries live an ascetic life on Athos, isolated from the rest of the world.
During the Ottoman Empire, the primary role of the monks of Mount Athos was to preserve Hellenic culture. Following the Greek war of independence and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the monasteries’ role in cultural preservation became less urgent, leading to a decline in prominence throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century. However, in the 1970s, there was a push to revive the spiritual traditions of Mount Athos.
Mount Athos is also a place that houses the most numerous and important relics of the Orthodox world, making present, and active by their miracles, almost all major Christian saints.
The Importance of the Meteora Monasteries
The Meteora Monasteries in Greece are an important part of Greek monasticism. The foundation of these monasteries began around the 11th century, with the first ascetic state officially established in the 12th century.
The Meteora monasteries are the second most important monastic community in Greece after Mount Athos. At their peak in the 16th century, there were 24 monasteries, but today only six are active. These monasteries were created to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The monastic life of Meteora encompasses different types of monasticism found within Orthodox Christianity, making it not just a natural wonder or an archaeological site, but a spiritual site with an active, centuries-old monastic life.
The monasteries of Meteora have played a vital role in preserving Hellenic traditions and culture, especially during the Turkish invasion. They have also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their significant Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and architecture.
Today, the Meteora Monasteries continue to be an important part of the Greek Orthodox Christian heritage, attracting visitors from around the world for their spiritual, historical, and architectural significance.
Frequent Questions about Monasticism in Greece
What is the difference between a monastery and a convent in Orthodox Christianity?
In Orthodox Christianity, the terms “monastery” and “convent” are often used interchangeably, but they generally refer to religious communities of men and women, respectively. A monastery is a religious community in which men, called monks, live together in seclusion, devoting their lives to prayer, meditation, and study. On the other hand, a convent is a religious community where women, called nuns, live together and devote themselves to prayer, contemplation, and various forms of service. Both monasteries and convents serve as vital centers for prayer, contemplation, community service, and the preservation of sacred traditions in Orthodox Christianity.
What are the basic types of Christian monks?
The basic types of Christian monks are: the coenobitic monk, who lives with other monks in an organized monastery (coenobitic monastery), and the eremitic monk, who lives alone. Traditionally, Greeks trace the origins of the coenobitic Christian monk to the Acts of the Apostles, to the Christian community in Jerusalem. See Acts 4:32-37:
“The heart and soul of the multitude of believers were one, and no one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but all things were common to them. And the apostles testified with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, for great grace was on all of them. For there was no one who lacked among them; for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of what was sold, and laid them at the feet of the apostles. And they gave to every man according to his need. And Joses, called by the apostles Barnabas, which translates as ‘son of comfort,’ a Levite of a Cypriot family, who had a field, sold that field and brought the money and laid it at the feet of the apostles.”
Idiorrhythmic monasticism, on the other hand, allows individuals to live more independently within a monastery or convent, but still under some form of supervision. This form of monasticism originated on Mount Athos in the 14th century and is characterized by a more relaxed set of communal rules. Monks in idiorrhythmic monasteries are allowed to hold private property, cook for themselves in their own cells, and are not strictly required to attend all divine services as a community2.
Is there an age limit for entering a Greek monastery as a novice?
In Orthodox Christianity, there is no universal age limit for entering a monastery as a novice. The decision often depends on the specific monastery and the discretion of the abbot or abbess. Some monasteries may prefer younger novices, as they may be less steeped in worldly ways, but this is not a universal rule. There are cases of people entering monastic life at various ages, even in their late 60s or 70s, and in one case a woman became a nun at the age of 92.
It’s important to note, however, that becoming a novice is a serious commitment and requires a period of training under the guidance of someone experienced in monastic life. This period of novitiate can last several years, during which the novice immerses herself in the life of the monastery and prepares herself physically and spiritually for monastic life.
In conclusion, while there is no strict age limit for becoming a novice in a Greek Orthodox monastery, the decision is often made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the maturity and commitment of the individual and the specific rules of the monastery in question.
What is the process of becoming a novice in a Greek monastery?
The process of becoming a novice in a Greek Orthodox monastery involves several stages:
- Initial Interest and Preparation: The person who feels called to monastic life should begin by discussing his or her interest with a priest. They should also familiarize themselves with monastic life, for example, by reading the Rule of St. Benedict and the lives of holy men and women.
- Find a suitable monastery: The individual should find a monastery that is suitable for him. This often involves finding an elder who can guide them and joining the monastery where the elder is located.
- Living as a guest: The individual comes to the monastery and lives as a guest for at least three days. This time allows the individual to experience monastic life firsthand.
- Becoming a Novice: After the initial period as a guest, the abbot or abbess may bless the candidate to become a novice. There is no formal ceremony for the clothing of a novice; he or she is simply given permission to wear novice clothing.
- Training Period: The novice must train under the guidance of someone experienced in monastic life for a period that can last from six months to three years, depending on each novice’s progress. This training includes immersion in the life of the monastery, the fulfillment of the given obediences, and physical and spiritual preparation for monastic life.
- Progression to Monkhood: If the novice continues on to become a monk, he is vested in the first degree of monasticism at a service where he receives the tonsure.
It’s important to note that the process can vary depending on the monastery and the discretion of the abbot or abbess. The process is a serious commitment and requires a period of training under the guidance of someone experienced in monastic life.
Greek Monks and Nuns
In the Greek Orthodox Church, both monks and nuns play an important role in monastic life, with their lives typically centered on prayer, contemplation, and service to the church. Both monks and nuns live in monasteries, with monks residing in male monasteries and nuns in female monasteries, and they do not mix to live together within each monastery.
- Orthodox monks are often described as tall, stern, and imposing-looking men with long beards and long hair. They wear black robes with heavy silver crosses hanging from chains that reach down to their stomachs.
- Orthodox nuns, on the other hand, are described as looking more like veiled Islamic women than Catholic nuns.
Orthodox monks and nuns wear black, symbolizing their death to the world and their new life in Christ. Monks’ attire includes a tunic, a belt, a scapular (a garment worn over the tunic), and a hood. Nuns also wear a tunic, belt, and veil.
Greek Words for Monk, Nun, Monastery
- The Greek word for “monastery” is “μοναστήρι” (monastiri).
- The word for “monk” in Greek is “μοναχός” (monachos) or “καλόγερος” (kalógeros or kaloyeros).
- The word for “nun” in Greek is “καλόγρια” (kalógría).
- The Greek word for “abbot” is “ηγούμενος” (igoumenos).
- The Greek word for “abbess” is “ηγουμένη” (igoumeni). An abbess is the female superior of a community of nuns and is appointed by a bishop.
How is the daily life of a monk or nun in Greece?
The daily life of a Greek Orthodox monk or nun is characterized by a balance of prayer, work, and rest. The day typically begins at midnight with personal prayer and spiritual reading, followed by the Divine Liturgy. After a period of rest and a light breakfast, the monks start their workday around 8:00 a.m.
Each monk has an assigned daily task, known as his “obedience.” These tasks can vary widely, including tending the grounds, cleaning, sweeping paths, trimming trees and hedges, planting and watering, to working in the monastery’s vegetable garden, vineyard, citrus orchard, and olive grove. Some monks work in the kitchen, preparing meals and washing dishes, while others may be involved in construction projects, electrical and plumbing maintenance, carpentry, metalwork, financial accounting, and chapel maintenance. Some monks provide hospitality, welcoming tourists and preparing the guesthouses for the many Orthodox Christians who stay at the monastery.
The monks also devote considerable time to prayer and spiritual study. They pray alone and with the rest of the monks and visitors, often from late at night until early in the morning when it’s quieter and they have more privacy. Even when they are hard at work or eating in the refectory, they are in prayer. Services take place in the monasteries’ often exquisitely decorated churches, and the times of the services can vary, sometimes lasting six hours. Most prayer takes place at night, with one service beginning at 2 a.m. and ending at 6 a.m., as the monks believe that prayer is easier when the monastery is at its quietest.
The monks’ meals are modest, including fresh vegetables, water, and often fish and wine. Most products are locally sourced. The monks eat without talking and often listen to another monk praying aloud.
Common Visiting Hours of Greek Monasteries
Each monastery in Greece operates according to its own schedule, so visiting hours can vary. However, it is common for these monasteries to be open to the public during morning hours. Visitors are advised to check the specific visiting hours of the monastery they wish to visit to ensure they arrive at an appropriate time.
Dress Code of Monasteries in Greece
The dress code for visiting Greek monasteries requires modest attire for both men and women.
- For men, long trousers are mandatory, and sleeveless shirts or T-shirts are strictly prohibited.
- For women, the dress code tends to be more specific. They are generally required to wear long skirts or dresses that cover the knees. Tight pants are usually not accepted, but loose long pants might be allowed in some monasteries. It’s recommended to wear modest dresses and blouses, avoiding low-cut necklines or open backs. Sleeveless tops are not permitted unless accompanied by a sweater to cover the shoulders.
In some monasteries, such as Meteora, women must wear a long skirt or dress; pants are not permitted. If a woman arrives in pants, she may be required to wear a “paper” skirt or shawl provided by the monastery over her pants.
Both men and women need to cover their shoulders and knees. Open-toed sandals or shoes are not allowed, and the ankles must be covered with socks.
In some monasteries, women might also be required to wear headscarves that cover the head, tucked under the chin and neck.
These dress codes are enforced to respect the sacred nature of these places and the belief in modesty that is integral to monastic life. Dress code requirements can vary from one monastery to another, so it’s advisable to check the specific guidelines of the monastery you plan to visit.