My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
CHURCH DISCIPLINE AND ETIQETTE IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH (Part V)
Monastics are Orthodox Christians who have been called out from the world to live the Angelic life. For this reason, lay people have always been encouraged to visit monasteries regularly, so as to form their own spiritual lives around those who represent the standard of spiritual dedication. Serious monastics who truly dedicate themselves to prayer represent the True purpose of our being on this earth: to love God and our neighbor. After a short time in such an atmosphere, a lay person is able to detach himself from the hectic pace of daily living and to regain a more balanced perspective on life. Since most Orthodox monasteries are traditionally quite small--and especially in these times, monastics often find it difficult to balance their life of prayer with the needs and distractions introduced by their guests. In order to preserve this delicate balance, the following guidelines have been developed over the centuries to ensure that visitors (Orthodox Christian pilgrims) do not interrupt the spiritual lives of the monastics whom you visit. These rules apply equally to male monasteries as well as female monasteries.
- When arriving at the monastery, the Egoumenos (Abbot) (or Egoumenisa - Abbess) is always greeted in the same way that a Priest would be greeted. The Egoumenos (Abbot) is not always necessarily a Hieromonk (Priest-monk), but he is always accorded the same respect.
- You may greet the fathers (Brothers) (or Sisters) of the monastery when you see them, but you should not press them for conversation. You should especially not converse with novices. Conversation and questions should be directed to the Egoumenos (Abbot) or (Egoumenisa -Abbess), if he (or she) is present, or to someone appointed to look after the guests. Other monastics must have a specific blessing to speak with visitors. This is very important part of a monastic's training in obedience, and his or her silence should not be construed as coldness towards a visitor.
- Normally, visitors are taken to the Church to venerate the holy Icons before doing anything else in the monastery. Many monastery Chapels have areas reserved for monastics. Lay people should respect these divisions and should not enter into such reserved areas.
- The entire monastery grounds should be treated with the same piety as the inside of a Church. Children should not be allowed to run freely about, but should be quiet and stay close to their parents.
- There are private areas in monasteries where lay people should not go unless invited. Depending on whether it is a male monastery or female monastery, certain areas will remain off-limits to visitors of either sex. Under no circumstances should men enter the private quarters of nuns or women the private quarters of monks.
- When invited to dine in the refectory (trapeza), visitors should refrain from all conversation during the meal, unless addressed by the Egoumenos or Egoumenisa (Abbot or Abbess). In most monasteries, women are not allowed to eat with the monks, but eat in a separate place. This applies to men who visit female monasteries, as well. During the meal in the refectory (Trapeza), visitors should follow the lead of the Egoumenos throughout the entire meal. This includes standing behind your seat during the blessing; waiting for the Egoumenos to sit before taking your seat; waiting for the Egoumenos to take a drink (usually signaled by the ringing of a bell and a short blessing) before dinking anything. At the end of the meal, you should rise when the Egoumenos (Abbot) rises, whether you have finished your meal or not, and only continue eating if invited to do so. Normally, when the Egoumenos rises the meal is ended and the after-meal prayers begin.
- Most monasteries have guest houses for visitors, usually away from the monastery proper. Some monasteries discourage overnight visitors. If you are staying at a monastery or its guest house, however, you should attend all of the services that you are allowed to attend. (Some monastic communities do not open most daily Services to lay people, since this can cause distractions for the monks. If you are staying at the monastery itself and wish to leave the grounds for any reason, such as to take a walk, you should get a blessing for this. Naturally, cigarettes must not be smoked anywhere in the monastery or guest house. Since Orthodox monasteries never eat meat, you should not prepare meals with meat, if you are staying in the guest house. You should, of course, leave your room or the guest house in the same condition that you found it. A monastery is not a motel or a vacation spot, so there are no maids hired to clean up after guests.
- When visiting a monastery, even for a short time, you should always take a gift. These gifts can include olive oil, candles, sweets, fruit or vegetables, brandy, etc.
- On the Feast Day of a monastery or its superior, one should send greetings or a small gift. The Feast Day of a monastery (just in the local church) is an extremely important day in its spiritual life, and great blessings are derived by those who visit a monastery or Church on that day.
- One major spiritual objective of any visitor to a monastery should be to seek to confess at the monastery to a hieromonk. Women may in some instances confess to and seek the spiritual aid of a spiritual Mother (Gerondisa or Abbess) in a monastic setting (through the Prayer of Confession itself, of course, must be said by a Priest). In fact, in Greece it is not unheard of even for men to seek out the counsel of a particularly pious or spiritually gifted nun or Gerondisa (Abbess). Metropolitan Cyprian was deeply influenced by the advice of a spiritual Mother who foresaw his service to the Church. Saint Seraphim of Sarov also received a blessing to pursue the Angelic life from an Eldress (Gerondisa).
When confessing at a monastery, make sure that you keep in mind that, while you have been quietly praying and collecting your thoughts during your visit, the monks or nuns have been attending a full cycle of Services, attending to their own Canons (private rule of prayers), preparing meals, often working at the tasks by which they support their monastic communities, and looking after other important matters. Make your Confession short, concise, and contrite. And follow the advice that you are given to the letter.
- When leaving the monastery, the visitor (pilgrim), should be sure to leave a donation for the hospitality received.
Finally, do not become an ecclesiastical gadfly. Do not visit different monasteries and then compare one with the other. Though a good Orthodox monastery must, of course, adhere to certain universal traditions, every community has its own style and its own traditions. It is your place to draw on what is before you and to thank God for it.
"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia (Ministry),
The sinner and unworthy servant of God