A Pilgrim’s Guide
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.
The Manners and Language of a Monastery
How to Address a Monastic
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 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.
Behaviour Within The Monastery
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:
- Wear a top that covers the shoulders and upper-arms, and preferably down to the wrist;
- A skirt is usually preferred in stricter monasteries, but in any case your legs should be covered to below the knee;
- Some monasteries ask women to cover their heads, some do not. If in doubt, it’s better to take a headscarf just in case.
- ‘Woman’ includes any girl over about 12 years old.
- Wear a top that covers the shoulders and upper-arms. Most monasteries will also expect you to wear a full-sleeved shirt within the chapel;
- Long trousers only. No shorts;
- Hats may not be worn inside the buildings and especially not in the chapel;
- ‘Man’ includes any boy over about 12 years old.
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.
As you would in Church, you would be asked to observe the following:
- Walk around gently and remain only within permitted areas;
- Always be polite and courteous to other visitors and to the monastics;
- Try not to be overly intimate with your spouse. This is not the place!
- The monastics will almost certainly invite you to some refreshments and will try their best to look after you. They will be genuinely interested in you, and you will be warmly welcomed into their home whilst you are there. Please therefore remember that this is their home…
Some Obvious ‘Do’s
- Spend some time in the chapel. The Guestmaster will probably take you there first;
- Take time to pray, to relax, and to ‘be’;
- Enjoy the hospitality you are offered.
Some Obvious ‘Don’t’s
These should be obvious to everyone, but just in case:
- Don’t use foul or lewd language whilst in the monastery, and try not to talk about worldly matters with the monks;
- Talk quietly and walk around calmly;
- You won’t be permitted to enter any of the monastic cells, so best not to ask;
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.
See also Visiting a Monastery