The Social Dimension of
Abbot George Kapsanis of
Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos
The basic dimension of Orthodox
monasticism is only social. Fleeing the world the monk seeks the true
community - that is, the communion in love with God and fellowmen.
This theanthropic society can be
attained only with great difficulty in the world where society is
usually shaped by formal conventional and external social associations.
As Fr. Demitrios Staniloae characteristically says, "The Christians
in the world are united with God indirectly through His gifts; whereas
the monastics are united with Him directly. They renounce the gifts of
God in order to meet the God of the gifts." Such gifts for example
are the communion in marriage, which the monk renounces not from pride
or destain toward marriage, but from desire to join the higher and
mystic marriage with Christ which is mystically symbolized by the
fleshly marriage. This mystery is great, I speak of Christ and the
Church. (Eph. 5:32)."
To attain to the direct communion with
God and the fellowman, the monk struggles with daily repentance,
asceticism, and obedience to be purified from the passions which flow
from self-love as from a spring and which are the chief impediment to
communion with God and our fellowman.
The holy fathers clearly point out that
the lover of self cannot love either God or his fellowman. And further,
self-love is the root of all evil. The passions impede us from seeing
properly God, humanity and the gifts of God. We see them in an
impassioned manner, that is with diseased spiritual vision, distorted.
The world is good. It becomes evil for us because we behold it
passionately. Thus Abba Isaac says, "The world is our
The monk who is cleansed of the
passions cleans the eyes of the soul and can see dispassionately
(according to the depth of his cleansing) both persons and things. Thus
he can communicate with people properly and use things properly.
It is not by chance that St. Maximos
the Confessor in the 400 Chapters on Love speaks mostly about cleansing
from the passions. Without their purification it is impossible to
acquire true love.
And further, St. John Climacus places
love together with faith and hope in the 30th and last step of the
Ladder of virtues. According to St. John, love is "by its nature a
likeness of God, in so far of course as that is possible to humanity. As
to its activity it is inebriation of the soul. As to its distinctive
character it is a fountain of faith, a depth of patience, a sea of
humility." It is apparent that for the monk society is not
sentimental situation and human attachment (affection, co-operation,
passion) but a charismatic condition, a gift of the Holy Spirit, granted
to those who struggle for purification from the passions.
You can not obtain God and humanity in
your heart so long as you are full with your self-love. So much as you
empty yourself of self-love, so much more can you hold God and your
This experience the monk attains after
the blood of asceticism and struggle. In the texts of the Vigilant
fathers, there exists a realistic anthropology and sociology. From their
personal struggle the holy fathers knew how antisocial a person becomes
with the passions and how social through dispassion and the
transfiguring of the passions. Let us remember the word St. Maximos the
Confessor: "The mind joined to God for a long time in prayer and
love becomes wise, good, strong, compassionate, merciful and slow to
anger; to say it simply, it includes within itself almost all the divine
qualities. When it withdraws (from God) it either becomes self indulgent
like the cattle or quarrelsome with men like a wild beast."
St. Basil set the theological basis of
the cenobitic system which helps the monk to go beyond the unhealthy
individualism and egocentricism and to make concrete the highest created
The prototype for the monastic common
life is the choir of the Holy Apostles with the Lord at it's head. The
prototype of Christian communication should be the monastic cenobitic
community. It is worthy that communality, equality, freedom from slavery
to any human person in whatsoever expediency should be pursued and
implemented in Orthodox cenobia.
Prayer and participation in the divine
worship and the divine liturgy aid the monk in attaining this
theanthropic society. Without prayer how can the monk love God and his
fellowman? Every cry to God "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me the
sinner" or "have mercy on us" constitutes one surpassing
of egoism and one opening toward God and man. In so far as the monk
draws near to God he draws near to humanity, as happens with the radius
of a circle which as the circumference nears the center draws them
In the same way, in the common divine
worship we pray to and glorify, and thank and intercede with God as His
people, as the future body of Christ, as a priestly Kingdom and holy
people. The common worship draws us together in personal spiritual
bonds. The center of our theanthropic society is the Divine Liturgy and
Eucharist. For this reason the Divine Liturgy is celebrated daily on the
Holy Mountain. The characteristics which are used from the beginning for
the central mystery of the Church are characteristics with social
significance. Liturgy means "leitton ergon"; that is, work of
the people. In the Divine Liturgy we can surpass every unhealthy
individualism, even any individ- ualism, even any individualism of
religion or piety, and become Church.
The term `Divine Eucharist' signifies
especially communion with God and between us. Having given thanks to God
in common we join not only with God but with each other by reason of our
Again, the term "Divine
Communion" reveals most clearly the social character of the
Mystery. As St. John of Damascus says, "It is called communion and
is truely so because though it they commune with Christ, with his flesh
and indeed divinity. They commune and unite and are changed by it. For
from one bread they all receive one body and one blood of Christ and
together we will become one precious body of Christ. Thus our unity and
communion in the Church through the holy mysteries is so deep, as the
future unity of the body. It is a unity not psychological or ideological
or ethical or organizational, but a bodily- mystical union."
We do not bring about this union. We do
not make the body of Christ. Christ makes us His Body. We must co-
operate with continual repentance and asceticism that we may become
worthy of this oneness of body and not impede it. The monastery
constitutes a small relvelation of the Church. The monk struggles in the
monastery. He does this in order to live continually and undisturbed (in
so far as possible)the Church as a mystery of theanthropic communion.
The pattern and source of this communion is the Triune God Himself.
There exists, however, an apparent contradiction. The monk pursues the
true community by retirement from society. This is something
inexplicable for the logic of the world. He flees men in order to obtain
freedom from passions and thus to love men in a divine manner. This is
indeed a paradox, but not a contradiction. In this way also the
isolation of the Holy Mountain is justified. So also we can explain such
patristic sayings as: "Flee and be saved" and "a stranger
to all and a friend to all".
St. Gregory Palamas in his wonderful
homily on the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple explains how the
Most Holy Theotokos, through her entrance and dwelling for many years in
the Holy of Holies, lived far from every human attachment in deepest
hesychastic prayer. There she prepared for the great work in which she
interceded for the human race and bore the fruit of that intercession to
earth. By her stillness and contemplation of God the Panagia became the
most 'social' person of the Church.
The monk's withdrawal from the world
does not indicate antisocialness, any more than worldliness means
sociability. It is wonderful how the unworldly monks are open to
everyone; how they receive every person as an icon of God and as a
brother. Indeed the more advanced and graced of the monks can give rest
to anyone no matter how weary and confused he may be. It is a well known
patristic axiom: "When you give rest to your brother, you give rest
to God." So also was the word of the Lord, "As you do to one
of these the least of my brethren, you do it to me."
A certain graced elder who helped a
psychotic youth to recover kept him close to him for a week. He told me
how he remained unmoving listening to him for nine continuous hours.
The broad offering of hospitality of
the Holy Monasteries constitute a tangible example of the communal
offerings of the monks. More hidden however is the way the monks express
their love for their fellowmen in their prayers for them. As a monk is
more advanced, so his prayer for all the living and the dead becomes
warmer and more continual.
As so recently proclaimed a saint as
Elder Silouan the Athonite writes: "There are people who say that
monks ought to be of some use in the world, and not eat bread for which
they have not toiled; but we have to understand the nature of a monk's
service and the way in which he has to help the world. A monk is someone
who prays for the whole world, who weeps for the whole world; and in
this lies his main work. But who is it who constrains him to weep for
the whole world? The Lord Jesus Christ,Son of God, inspires him. He
gives the monk the love of the Holy Spirit, and by virtue of this love
the monk's heart forever sorrows over the people because not all men are
saved. The Lord Himself so grieved over people that He gave over Himself
to death on the Cross. And the Mother of God bore in her heart a similar
sorrow for humanity. And she, like her beloved son, desired with her
whole heart the salvation of all."
The monks express communality with
their writings (like St. Nikodimos the Athonite), with their
correspondence (like Elder Daniel of Katounaki and Elder Joseph the
Cave- dweller), with their periods in the world in obedience to the
Church for preaching, confession, and other pastoral service (like
blessed Gabriel, abbot of Dionysiou Monastery).
In every situation of national
calamity, persecution, captivity or trial the monastics express their
love for their fellowmen with works of foresight for the common good. An
example of this is found in St. Philothei in Athens under the Turkish
domination. The advice of Orthodox hesychast monasticism in the
preservation of the Orthodox faith and the language and ethnicity of the
orthodox people under the Turkish domination and at all times is well
The monk's social consciousness is not
easily acquired. It is the fruit of long and continual struggles.
Without these and Divine Grace the monk does not overcome self-love and
becomes anti-social. When the orthodox monasteries and the small
monastic communities gathered around an elder operate properly they
become centers which radiate orthodox society according to the standard
of Christ. Thus each sanctified monastic and Christian becomes a center
of true society.
Today when our life is becoming ever
more individual, a- social and even antisocial, orthodox monasticism
displays simply and humbly the community of the Orthodox Church. It
helps the enclosed and fearful souls to open to God and to their
brother; to not fear to express love when there is nothing to receive
and not merely when a return is expected.
Sarte saw in every man a threat to his
freedom. The humble and holy hesychast of Russia, Seraphim of Sarov, on
the other hand, saw in everyone his joy. For this reason he greeted
everyone, "Christ is Risen, my joy!"
Through the Cross and Resurrection of
Christ the mortal and sick society of our fallen nature is transfigured
into the healthy and eternal society of the new person in Christ.