As Orthodox Christians, one of the joys of taking a holiday in somewhere like Cyprus or Lebanon is the opportunity to visit a monastery. The term ‘ monastery’ in Orthodoxy applies equally to communities of male and female monastics. Monks and nuns follow the same path in monastic life, so the word ‘monastery’ applies to both. In this article, please read ‘nun’ as well as ‘monk’ whenever the word ‘monk’ is used.
Pilgrims visit monasteries for a plethora of reasons, but as Christians a visit to a monastery should help us to learn more about our relationships with each other and with God. Monastic communities enjoy equal status within the Church as married couples and families. There exists within the Orthodox Church a symbiotic relationship between parish and monastic communities: the one cannot be fully-alive without the other (please see the forthcoming article, “Church in the Family and Church in the Monastery” for more on this).
If we are unfamiliar with monastic life, a monastery visit can seem a daunting prospect! Like visiting an unfamiliar foreign country, the best way to engage positively is to learn the local manners and the local language.
Generally speaking, all tonsured monks are referred to as ‘Father’, and all tonsured nuns are referred to as ‘Mother’. A novice is called ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’ respectively. In larger monasteries it is unlikely that you will meet or speak to any novices. Visitors to a monastery are usually greeted by a fully-tonsured monastic known as the Guestmaster whose job it is to look after the needs of guests.
In the Orthodox Tradition, all monastics are addressed only by their Christian names, which are usually different to their baptismal names if they are tonsured. Non-ordained monks are still addressed as ‘Father’. If you are introduced to the Abbot or the Abbess, you should ask for a blessing. An Abbess will give you a blessing with her pectoral cross of office.
Generally speaking, do not approach monks or nuns without an initial introduction and do not engage them in conversation. This is not rudeness, but an acknowledgement that they may be in prayer. In stricter monasteries, novices are forbidden to speak with visitors.
If you wish to speak to a priest-monk (‘hieromonk’) for spiritual advice or confession, please ask the Guestmaster to arrange this for you. During busy times, it may not be possible to speak with a hieromonk without prior arrangement.
The monastery is a place of repentance, healing, and “life in abundance” (c.f. John 10:10). You may frequently hear the words, “Forgive!” and “Bless!” Monastics not in priestly orders will nevertheless greet each other with a mutual matania and a kiss of peace. Every action in the monastery is done only after a blessing from a priest or bishop: this is very useful to bear in mind as a visitor. It may seem polite to help with the washing up after a meal, but you must not do this without first receiving a blessing.
As you walk around the monastery, it may appear that the monastics are muttering to themselves… this is not a type of cabin-fevered behaviour: they are saying the Jesus Prayer!
Monks and nuns are reluctant to speak about themselves, and will not tend to speak of their lives before entering the monastery. It’s best not to ask. Receiving the monastic tonsure is seen as a type of baptism by the Church, and as such, a monk’s former life is irrelevant.
As Orthodox Christians we already know how to behave in Church. Behaviour within a monastery is really an extension of this. A basic rule-of-thumb would be: ‘If you wouldn’t do that in Church, don’t do it in the monastery!’
Some monasteries are stricter than others, but a basic minimum would be:
Within the Monastery of St Antony and St Cuthbert, women are not expected to cover their heads, although they may if they wish. They may also wear trousers.
Within the Monastery of St Antony and St Cuthbert, men may wear short-sleeved shirts or ‘T’-shirts in chapel if they wish. No short trousers please for anyone over the age of 12 years.
Both women and men are discouraged from wearing excessive fragrance and excessive make up.
If you are staying for more than just a couple of days, it’s worth packing some suitable work clothes as the Abbot may ask you to join a work party.
Silence is usually kept during meal-times, apart from one of the monastics who reads from the lives of the saints. Meals start and end with prayer, led by the abbot. Please remember that monastics do not eat meat.
As you would in Church, you would be asked to observe the following:
These should be obvious to everyone, but just in case:
The monastery is a place for all. The monastics live a life of prayer, repentance and praise not only for themselves but for all of humanity. The monastery exists as a place of salvation for all people, and especially for those who visit or who ask for the monastics to pray for them. The monastery tries to become, through the Merciful Love and Divine Condescension of God, part of the Kingdom whilst still on earth. Step into a monastery and by a Mystery of the Holy Trinity you step into Eternity.