Orthodox Monasticism: The Degrees of Monks

St. Columba of Iona Fr. Peter PrebleNovice lit. “one under obedience”—Those wishing to join a monastery begin their lives as novices. After coming to the monastery and living as a guest for not less than three days, the abbot or abbess may bless the candidate to become a novice. There is no formal ceremony for the clothing of a novice, he or she simply receives permission to wear the clothing of a novice. In the Eastern monastic tradition, novices may or may not dress in the black inner cassock (Greek: Anterion, Eisorasson; Slavonic: Podriasnik) and wear the soft monastic hat (Greek: Skoufos, Slavonic: Skufia), depending on the tradition of the local community, and in accordance to the abbot’s directives. The inner-cassock and the skoufos are the first part of the Orthodox monastic habit. In some communities, the novice also wears the leather belt. He is also given a prayer rope and instructed in the use of the Jesus Prayer.

If a novice chooses to leave during the period of the novitiate, no penalty is incurred. He may also be asked to leave at any time if his behaviour does not conform to the monastic life, or if the superior discerns that he is not called to monasticism. When the abbot or abbess deems the novice ready, he is asked if he wishes to join the monastery. Some, out of humility, will choose to remain novices all their lives. Every stage of the monastic life must be entered into voluntarily.

Rassophore lit. “Robe-bearer”—If the novice continues on to become a monk, he is clothed in the first degree of monasticism at a service at which he receives the tonsure. Although there are no formal vows made at this point, the candidate is normally required to affirm his commitment to persevere in the monastic life. The abbot will then perform the tonsure, cutting a small amount of hair from four spots on the head, forming a cross. He is then given the outer cassock (Greek: ??????, Rasson, Exorasson, or Mandorrason; Slavonic: ?????, Riassa), an outer robe with wide sleeves, from which the name of Rassophore is derived. He is also given a kamilavkion, a cylindrical brimless hat, which is covered with a veil called an epanokamelavkion. (These are separate items in the Greek tradition, but in the Russian tradition the two are stitched together and the combination is called a klobuk.) If he has not previously received it, a leather belt is fastened around his waist. His habit is usually black, signifying that he is now dead to the world, and he receives a new name.

Although the Rassophore does not make formal vows, he is still morally obligated to continue in the monastic estate for the rest of his life. Some will remain Rassophores permanently without going on to the higher degrees.

Stavrophore lit. “Cross-bearer”—The next level for Eastern monastics takes place some years after the first tonsure when the abbot feels the monk has reached an appropriate level of discipline, dedication, and humility. This degree is also known as the Little Schema, and is thought of as a “betrothal” to the Great Schema. At this stage, the monk makes formal vows of stability of place, chastity, obedience and poverty. Then he is tonsured and clothed in the habit, which in addition to that worn by the Rassophore, includes the paramandyas (Greek: ???????????; Slavonic: ????????, paraman), a piece of square cloth worn on the back, embroidered with the instruments of the Passion, and connected by ties to a wooden cross worn over the heart. The paramandyas represents the yoke of Christ. Because of this addition he is now called Stavrophore, or Cross-bearer. He is also given a wooden hand cross (or “profession cross”), which he should keep in his icon corner, and a beeswax candle, symbolic of monastic vigilance the sacrificing of himself for God. He will be buried holding the cross, and the candle will be burned at his funeral. In the Slavic practice, the Stavrophore also wears the monastic mantle, which symbolizes 40 days of the Lord’s fasting on the Mountain of Temptation. The rasson worn by the Stavrophore is more ample than that worn by the Rassophore.

After the ceremony, the newly-tonsured Stavrophore will remain in vigil in the church for five days, refraining from all work, except spiritual reading. Currently, this vigil is often reduced to three days. The abbot increases the Stavrophore monk’s prayer rule, allows a more strict personal ascetic practice, and gives the monk more responsibility.

Great Schema Monks whose abbot feels they have reached a high level of spiritual excellence reach the final stage, called the Great Schema. The tonsure of a Schemamonk or Schemanun follows the same format as the Stavrophore, and he makes the same vows and is tonsured in the same manner. But in addition to all the garments worn by the Stavrophore, he is given the analavos (Slavonic: analav) which is the article of monastic vesture emblematic of the Great Schema. For this reason, the analavos itself is sometimes itself called the “Great Schema”. It drapes over the shoulders and hangs down in front and in back, with the front portion somewhat longer, and is embroidered with the instruments of the Passion and the Trisagion. The Greek form does not have a hood, the Slavic form has a hood and lappets on the shoulders, so that the garment forms a large cross covering the monk’s shoulders, chest, and back. Another piece added is the Polystavrion or “Many Crosses”, which consists of a cord with a number of small crosses plaited into it. The polystavrion forms a yoke around the monk and serves to hold the analavos in place, and reminds the monastic that he is bound to Christ and that his arms are no longer fit for worldly activities, but that he must labor only for the Kingdom of Heaven. Among the Greeks, the mantle is added at this stage. The paramandyas of the Megaloschemos is larger than that of the Stavrophore, and if he wears the klobuk, it is of a distinctive thimble shape, called a koukoulion, the veil of which is usually embroidered with crosses.

The Schemamonk also shall remain some days in vigil in the church. On the eighth day after Tonsure, there is a special service for the “Removal of the Koukoulion.”

In some monastic traditions the Great Schema is never given or is only given to monks and nuns on their death bed, while in others, e.g., the cenobitic monasteries on Mount Athos, it is common to tonsure a monastic into the Great Schema only 3 years after commencing the monastic life.

Orthodox Monasticism: The Symbols

St. Columba Fr. Peter Preble Fr. John A. PeckDuring the Tonsure service when the Monk makes the profession of his vows, several symbols are presented to him by the Abbot. These symbols remind him of the life that he is now beginning.

The service begins with the candidate wearing a white robe symbolic of that which he wore for his baptism. Tonsure into the monastic life is another baptism or sorts as the new monk dies to his old life and is born again into a new life. It is the tradition that the monk receives a new name at this point.

Next the monk is clothed in the Paraman and Cross. On the Paraman are representations of the Cross of Christ with the lance, reed and sponge, and the inscription, I bear on my body the wounds of the Lord. This is fastened about the shoulders and waist by means of strings sewn to the corners, and serves as a reminder that the new monk has taken upon himself the yoke of Christ and must control his passions and desires. These are presented with the following words from the Abbot:

Our Brother receives the Paraman, the Betrothal of the Angelic Schema, as a perpetual reminder of taking upon himself of Christ’s easy yoke and of bearing His light burden, and for the curbing and restraining of all his fleshly desires. And he also takes the Sign of the Lord’s Cross upon his breast, for a perpetual reminder of suffering and humiliation, spitting, revilement, woulds, buffeting, Crucifixion and death of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, which He voluntarily endured for our sakes; and to signify that, as far as possible, he will endeavor to imitate this.

The Riasa is presented next with the following words:

Our Brother is clothed in the garment of spiritual joy and gladness, for the putting away and trampling of all sorrows and troubles proceeding from the flesh and from the world; and for his perpetual joy and gladness in Christ.

The leather belt is presented next. The belt is leather and made from the skin of a dead animal signifying the deadness to the world. The buckle of the belt has the symbols of the Crucifixion on it to remind the new monk of his daily Crucifixion. The follow words are spoken by the Abbot:

Our brother is gird about his loins with the power of truth, for mortification of body and renewal of spirit, and for courage and caution.

The new monk is next given the Mantiya, a long sleeveless robe, also called the robe of incorruption and purity, the absence of sleeves signifying the restraining of worldly pursuits. The Mantiya is presented with the following words:

Our brother is clothed in the robe of salvation and in the armor of righteousness, that he may withdraw himself from all unrighteousness, and with carefulness put away the vain imaginations of his mind and the subtleties of his will; that he may have the remembrance of his own death always in his mind and consider himself to be crucified to the world and to be dead to every evil deed, but always alive for the showing forth, without laziness, of every Christian virtue.

Next the new monk receives the Kamilavka with veil or the helmet of salvation. The veil signifies that the monk must veil his face from temptation and guard his eyes and ears against all vanity. The wings of the veil date from the time of St. Methodius (846) who was wounded in the face during the reign of Emperor Theophilus. In order to conceal his wounds, the saint wore wings with his veil and fastened them about his lower face.

Our brother takes the helmet of salvation in the hope that he may not be put to shame and that he will be able to stand against the snares of the devil; and he covers his head with the veil of humility and perpetual obedience, as a sign of spiritual love of wisdom; and that he may turn away his eyes, that they not behold vanities.

Sandals for his feet are now presented:

Our brother is shod with sandals in readiness for the proclamation of the Good News of peace; that he may be swift and diligent in every obedience and every good deed.

The Prayer Rope or Chotki is given. The rope has many knots to count the prayers of the new monk.

Take brother the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, for continual prayer to Jesus; for you must always have the Name of the Lord Jesus in mind, in heart, and on your lips, every saying, “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The hand cross is next given. The hand cross is the shield of faith, with which to put out the flaming darts of the Evil One. The monk will keep the hand cross in his icon corner to remind his of this saying.

Take, brother, the shield of faith, the Cross of Christ with which you will be able to put out the flaming darts of the Evil One; and remember always how the Lord said, “He who would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”

Finally a lighted candle is give signifying that he must strive, by purity of life, by good deeds, and good demeanor to be a Light to the World. The candle will be placed in the Icon Corner and the monk will be buried with this candle.

Take, brother, this candle, and know that from henceforth you must, through a pure and virtuous life, and through a good character, be a light unto the world. For the Lord said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who art in heaven.

Then the final blessing is pronounced:

Our brother has received the Betrothal of the Angelic Schema and has been clothed in the whole armor of God, that he may be able to vanquish all the power and warfare of principalities and powers, and rulers of the darkness of this age, of evil spirits under the heavens, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Let us all say for him, Lord, have mercy.

It is the tradition that the new monk remain in the monastic church for some days praying for himself and for the entire monastic brotherhood. The new monk is to remain clothed in the whole of the habit for those days.