Degrees of Monasticism

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When a sister first arrives at a monastery, she begins with a trial period, as a candidate for the novitiate. In this time, she becomes acquainted with monastic life, testing her strength. The Abbess and the sisters observe whether she has a sincere desire to become a nun. They see whether she wants to serve the One Lord with her whole heart, or whether she has come to the monastery in order to hide from everyday sorrows and concerns, seeking only room and board. The duration of this testing period is determined by the Abbess of the monastery.

At the end of this probationary period, when the candidate has fully learned all the customs of the monastery, is convinced she has the strength to follow them, and persists in her initial desire to enter the monastery, she may enter as a novice. For this, she must write a formal request to the Abbess, as well as an autobiography. Then, the sister will receive a cassock, and officially become a member of the monastery.

The next degree is tonsure as a rasophore, or robe-bearer. At this point, the sister is now a nun. Usually, her name is changed, to mark the beginning of new life. According to the immutable commandment commandment of the Savior, “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Luke 11:9), the newly-tonsured sister is given a special grace that helps her attain salvation. A new patron is also given: the saint whose name she has received at the tonsure.

In the proper sense, Russian Orthodox monasticism begins with tonsure into the lesser schema, as a stavrophore (or cross-bearer). “It is a great thing to be tonsured into the holy angelic schema. Great and mysterious is the power contained in this sacred rite, directed to insure that a person become an angel in the image of his inner life, as angels are incorporeal.” — Abbess Taisia (Solopova), the spiritual daughter of the holy and righteous John of Kronstadt, and founder of eight women’s monasteries.

Tonsure is like a second baptism, in which a person is born anew. As a sign of this new birth, he forever strips off his worldly clothes, and accepts new clothes, in front of the holy Gospel, as if from the hand of God Himself. The great elder Macarius of Optina wrote in his letters:

“Oh, what a great gift of God it is to belong to the fellow travelers of Christ, to walk on the narrow path that our Savior and our God has walked, to bear a part of the cross, on which the Lord Jesus was lifted up and sacrificed for the sake of God’s justice! What happiness it is to bear loss of external goods, property or honor, or to endure illness in the body, or sorrow in the soul, all for the sake of Christ Jesus, with devotion to Him! Those who are devoted to sensuality, who live exterior lives, do not know this happiness; if you tell them about this gift of God’s goodness, they will not understand you…”

After a nun has spent a considerable time in the spiritual life, has attained monastic virtues, and, most importantly, has loved prayer with all her soul, habitually remaining in prayer for long periods, offering heartfelt prayers not only for herself, but also for her neighbors, she can be tonsured into the Great Angelic Schema. The rite of entry into the great angelic schema is very similar to the service of tonsure into monasticism — vows made already are simply repeated — but this rite is performed with even greater solemnity. The Schema Nun also receives her own special clothes, which nuns of the lesser schema do not have: a larger paramandyas, a koukoulion (also called a cowl), and a garment called the analavos. The nun can again be given a new name, as a sign of the beginning of new life, compared even to the former life of the monastic.

This is the monastic life seen in its outward trappings; however, “if the inner striving towards God does not help a person, then he labors on the outside in vain,” says the Venerable Barsanuphius the Great. The essence of monasticism is a total and indissoluble inner union with the Lord, through mental prayer and repentance. According to the Holy Fathers, he who does not strive in this way is not a true monk.

The Monk Barsanuphius of Optina said to his novice Nicholas, the future starets Nikon of Optina:

“Not all of monasticism consists in cassock and porridge. A man puts on a cassock, begins to eat porridge, and thinks, I have now become a monk. No. Externals, by themselves, will do you no good. True, you need to wear monastic clothing and fast, but that’s not all. The lamp, when not lit, does not fulfill its purpose – to shine. What is missing? Fire. Both a wick and kerosene are necessary, but if there is no fire, if it is not lit, it is of no use to anyone. But when it is lit, light will immediately pour forth. So it is in monasticism: outward appearances, on their own, are not useful; an inner spark is needed. Fr. Anatoly said that “monasticism is a man’s innermost heart.”

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