Although not considered as one of the Mysteria (Sacraments) of the Orthodox Church, because it is not essential to being an Orthodox Christian, monasticism plays an important role in Christian history and is highly valued by the Orthodox Church.
The monastic calling is considered to be a personal gift from God, which is for the salvation of the monk or nun and a service to the Church (or Body of Christ). The monastic vocation is the calling to personal repentance in a life dedicated solely to God. The ultimate Christian virtue of love is sought by the monk or nun primarily through prayer and fasting, and through the exercise of the Christian virtues of poverty, chastity, humility and obedience.
The monastic Christian does not normally exercise any particular ministry in the Church such as that of priest, pastor, teacher, nurse or social worker. The monk is normally a layman and not a cleric, with each monastery having only enough clergy to care for the liturgical and sacramental needs of the community itself.
In Orthodox Christian history many missionaries, teachers and bishops have come from men with monastic vocations. For centuries the bishops have been traditionally selected from among the monks. These additional callings, however, are considered to be acts of God's will expressed in his people, and are not the purpose or intention of the monastic vocation as such. Indeed, one must enter a monastery only in order to repent of his sins, to serve God and to save his soul according to the ideals of monastic ascetism. The ceremony of monastic profession indicates this very clearly.
The monastic hierarchy
The Orthodox monastic tradition has four hierarchical levels that apply equally to men and to women. The first level is that of a novice. At this level the candidate for monastic profession simply lives in the monastery under the direction of and is obedient to a spiritual father or mother.
The second level is that of riasa-bearer, which means that the person is formally accepted into the community, and is given the right to wear the monastic robe, called the riasa. At this level the candidate is not yet fully committed to the monastic life.
The third level is that of the small schema which means that the person is a professed monastic. He or she now receives a new name and wears the monastic schema (a cloth with the sign of the cross), the veil and the mantle (mantia). At this stage the person pledges to remain in the monastic community in perpetual obedience to their Spiritual Father and to the head of the monastery, called the abbot or abbess (igoumenos or igoumenia). The service of profession, in addition to the hymns and prayers, includes a long series of formal questioning about the authenticity of the calling, the cutting of the hair (tonsuring), and the vesting in the full monastic clothing.
The final level of is the great schema. This level is reserved for very few, since it is the expression of the most strict observance of the monastic ideals, demanding normally a state of life in total seclusion in perpetual prayer and contemplation. With this final profession a new name is again received, and a new monastic insignia, the great schema, is worn.
In the Orthodox Church there is no prescribed length of time that a person must remain in one or another of the monastic levels. This is so because of the radically personal character of the vocation. Thus, some persons may progress rapidly to profession, while others may take years, and still others may never be formally professed while still remaining within the monastic community. The decision in these matters is made individually in each case by the spiritual director and the head of the community.
Types of monasticism
Although the Orthodox Church does not have religious orders as does the Church in Rome, there are in Orthodoxy different styles of monastic life, both individually and in community. Generally speaking some monasteries may be more liturgically oriented, while others may be more ascetic, while still others may have a certain mystical tradition, and others be more inclined to spiritual guidance and openness to the world for the purpose of care and counseling. These various styles of monasticism, which take both a personal as well as a corporate form, are not formally predetermined or officially legislated. They are the result of organic development under the living grace of God.
In addition to the various spiritual styles of monastic life, three formal types of organization may be mentioned. The first is that of coenobitic monasticism where all members of the community do all things in common. The second is called idiorhythmic in which the monks or nuns pray together liturgically, but work and eat individually or in small groups. In this type of monasticism the persons may even psalmodize and do the offices separately, coming together only for the eucharistic liturgy, and even then, perhaps, only on certain occasions. Finally, there is the eremitic type of monasticism where the individual monks or nuns are actually hermits, also called anchorites or recluses. They live in total individual seclusion and rarely join in the liturgical prayer of the community. In the rarest of cases it may even happen that the holy eucharist is brought to the monk or nun who remains perpetually alone.