This simply-written article will help parents answer young children's questions about the people "in long black" who sometimes visit their parish, and introduce the concept of monasticism and its role in the Church. Clark Carlton's The Faith (Regina Orthodox Press, 1997) provides a more in-depth explanation appropriate for older children and teens, that includes a discussion of the roots of monasticism, sacrifice, repentance, and obedience.
When the Holy Spirit established the Church on Pentecost, those who followed Christ were given a way to praise God and work toward salvation together, instead of struggling alone.
Every Orthodox Christian should be working toward salvation (which means "coming closer to God"), but some men and women are called by Him to put all their effort into knowing Him. They love praying to God and studying His Word so much that they do not marry or have children. The lives of these monks and nuns are totally dedicated to God and His Church.
Monks and nuns live away from the rest of the world in communities called monasteries. Men's monasteries are led by an abbot, and women's monasteries by an abbess.
The most important job of a monk or nun is to pray, both privately and communally ("as a group" or "together") by reading the holy Hours, participating in frequent (sometimes daily) Liturgy, and observing all the other services and feasts in the cycle of the Church. Monks and nuns go to Church several times a day, every day!
While we are at school and at work, or playing in the back yard, monks and nuns make sure that praise is always offered to God. Day or night, a monk or a nun somewhere in the world is singing to God or praying silently. That means the Orthodox Church is always at prayer.
Monks and nuns pray for us. They pray in our place when we are doing something which keeps us from saying our own prayers, and they pray on our behalf by asking God to grant salvation and health to every Orthodox Christian. (They do this every day, even if we don't pray ourselves because we're too young or too sick - or just too lazy.) Because of monks and nuns, we are always remembered before God. What a great gift!
Because monks and nuns spend so much time praying and studying, they have a very special wisdom with which to interpret the world in which we live today. Many people call on monastics to ask for advice and guidance, or to learn more about the Orthodox Faith.
The second job of a monk or nun is to teach the True Faith, Holy Tradition, and an Orthodox lifestyle to all of us, both formally (in sermons, lectures, or writings) and informally, by their example.
Many monastics become experts in a specific areas: Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers and Mothers, the lives of the saints, liturgics (that is, how and why our religious services are conducted), iconography, music, etc. With the blessing of their Abbot or Abbess, they may travel to speak, or write and publish books and newsletters on topics important to the Church. If several monks or nuns share the same area of expertise, the monastery itself may host retreats or lectures for those interested in learning more.
Monks or nuns will often mentor ("oversee and guide") the studies of others, and help them to grow spiritually and academically so they can work for God, too.
Parish priests and other lay people may ask a monk to be their Spiritual Father. He hears their confessions and guides their spiritual growth and development. Nuns may be Spiritual Mothers, too, but absolution is always given by a priest, or monk who is also ordained a priest (called a hieromonk or archimandrite).
Participating in the full cycle of Church services, praying privately, studying the Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers and teaching occupy a great deal of a monk's or nun's day. But in addition to their full-time efforts in praying and teaching, many monastics work "part-time" to support their monastery.
Individual monks or nuns may write icons (that is, holy pictures that tell stories about Christ and the saints) for use in our homes and Churches or create beautifully-written passages of Scripture (called "illuminated calligraphy"), if God has given them that talent. Others may translate Scripture, music, or the writings of the Church Fathers from Greek, Russian, or Serbian into English for our use, or from English into a different language (like Aleute or Japanese) for missionary use.
A monastery might sell candles, incense, or other religious items (like prayer ropes), which certain monks or nuns spend part of each day making by hand. Frequently, monastic communities operate a book store or collect and sell items used in Church services or in our icon corners at home, since many parishes and families visit them.
Some monks or nuns may be assigned the tasks of planting and tending the monastery's orchards and gardens, preparing food for the community and its visitors, and doing the cleaning and washing for everyone, so that others may do different types of work.
The whole monastic community works together to do God's work. Monks and nuns work toward salvation together, by praying, studying God's Word and teaching it to us and to others, and working hard to support the Church and the monastery where they live.
by Nichola Toda Krause
© 1998 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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