What Are the Special Vows of Great Schema?

When the priest asks him why he has come, the postulant answers that he desires the life of asceticism. So this is something that distinguishes the lay person from the monk: the monk engages in asceticism; the monk is he who in the Church has been consecrated to God to live the life of asceticism. There is nothing here about a life of service to the poor, teaching, preaching, that sort of thing. Moreover, the service of tonsure does not foresee that there might be ‘orders’ in the Church: there is just one order, the ‘choir of Monastics’, the order of those who live alone to engage in asceticism.

What are the broad outlines of the life of asceticism as seen by the vows of the Great Schema?

The first vow is a very thorough-going renunciation of the world. In his tonsure, the postulant dies to the world. In the Evagrian tradition, represented in the West by St John Cassian, the renunciation of the world is the basis of the ascetic journey to God.

The next vow is the vow of stability in the Monastery. As we pointed out in the previous post, in the Orthodox Church a monk must be a monk in a monastery somewhere. There are no monks of nowhere in particular. It is a saying of the Fathers that the tree (monk) which is often uprooted does not take root and grow.

The next vow is the vow of obedience. This is not only a matter of good order in the Church, a means to control unruly fellows who want to become monks (or unruly women who want to become nuns). Obedience is the imitation of Christ, who was obedient up to death. Obedience is the primary means of combating pride, the worst of all the passions. Here we see the very close correspondence of the vows to the life of asceticism. The vows are the primary structure of the ascetical way of life.

The next vow is endurance in the afflictions and deprivations of the monastic life. Here it is well to understand the context of the vow. The vow foresees a situation much like Fourth Century Egypt where men and women left the cities to go into the desert, where they suffered great deprivation in material things and where they engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Devil and his demons. The priest is asking the postulant whether he is willing to endure to the end in that struggle.

We might say that poverty is taken for granted in this vow, without for all that this vow being a vow of poverty. Poverty is also taken for granted in the catechism.

The next vow, the classic vow of Monastics, has three elements: virginity, chastity (or, prudence) and piety. As we have pointed out, in the Orthodox Church, ‘virginity’ has never been interpreted to mean that married men cannot become monks, or married women nuns. Neither is it taken to exclude sinners from the monastic life. Virginity is taken to mean chastity in the subsequent monastic life. Moreover, in the Orthodox Church, there is not a narrow focus on chastity: the vow of chastity is combined with elements of a proper way of life for a Monastic: the vow foresees that the Monastic will not only be chaste but also have the proper mental attitude of prudence and piety. This means that the Monastic does not keep a physical chastity while living a worldly life of going to the opera or movies, watching TV, that sort of thing. There is a fundamental (re)orientation of the person towards a life of measured, serene piety—religious practice—and towards a life that avoids excess or foolishness.

The next vow is the 900-word vow which describes the monastic life in detail.

Note the military imagery of the ‘post’ and the ‘service’ of the monastic life before Christ the King.

Note the emphasis that the person must avoid the monastic vices and aspire to the monastic virtues. Becoming a monk is not only a matter of leading a life of piety—we can do that as pious lay people in the married state—but of transforming ourselves, with the help of Christ from persons full of vice to persons full of virtue.

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