The Monastic Life

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

People visit Cappadocia's ancient cave churches and monasteries wonder about the daily life of monks. Who were these people? How did a monastery function? How did monks spend their time? This extended article explains everyday life in a Byzantine monastery around the year 1000 AD, the period when most Cappadocia churches were formed. (Also read, "Monks and Monasticism" and "St. Basil's Monastic Vision.")


Starting a Monastery


Monasteries in the Byzantine world were independent and individual. There were no monastic orders, such as the Benedictine monks in Western Christianity. Every monastery was autonomous and developed its own charter (Greek, typika). This legal document explained the monastery's purpose, leadership structure, and daily routine. Often pious saints started monasteries to live out the Christian life in quiet community. In other instances, rich aristocrats or royal families founded and endowed monasteries. This action projected status and ensured a burial location for the patron's family.


Monasteries were rather small. The average was 10–20 people. The legal minimum was three monks, and only a few had more than fifty monks.


Entering a Monastery


A wide range of people became monks. Sometimes children entered a monastery as youths, but they could not become official monks until adulthood. Middle-aged people heard God's calling to the monastic life. Often elderly people, especially widows, joined the monastery as a retirement home. Rich people, including Byzantine kings and royal family members, also retired to the monasteries that they built. Many sick and poor people entered monasteries because monastic generosity ensured they would be provided for. Only slaves and criminals were prohibited from joining a monastery. Because every monastery was independent and different, monks transferred from one monastery to another.


To join a monastery, a person took vows to obey the monastery regulations and the superior. Entrance into the monastery was always free, though gifts were accepted. People had to renounce all earthly possessions and trust the monastic community for sustenance. After a trial period of six months to three years, one could officially become a monk. The entrance process was expedited for elderly people near death. The minimum age for becoming a monk was generally eighteen years old.


There was not an elaborate ceremony to enter a monastery. Monks took a vow of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. In most cases monks disowned all their wealth, often by donating it to the monastery. To symbolize their new status, one shaved the crown of the head (tonsure) and took a new name.


The Monastic Compound


Monks lived together at a monastery. Monasteries were spiritual centers where people could live in community. The most important part of any monastery was the common church (katholikon), in which monks celebrated the liturgy. Near the church was the refractory (trapeza), a large dining room where monks ate. The church and refractory designated the "spiritual zone" of a monastery. The "living zone" consisted of the monks' cells, a kitchen, and storage rooms. These rooms were constructed around a courtyard area, which functioned as a meeting area for social and economic activity. Most monasteries hosted a regular market to sell their products to the public.

The entire area was enclosed by a fortified wall. This was important for physical protection, but also served as a symbolic barrier between the sacred monastery and the outside world. The wall had a prominent gate where lots of social activity happened. This common monastic layout facilitated the prescribed daily life performed by the monks.


Finances


When St. Basil the Great introduced monasticism to Cappadocia in the 300's, he strongly emphasized manual labor. Monks used communal tools to perform their assigned tasks. They worked to provide for each other and monasteries were economically self-sufficient. Work was considered to be spiritual and beneficial.

Monasteries in the Middle Byzantine Period (850–1204 AD) functioned differently. They favored liturgical routines over manual labor. By the 900's, monasteries became financially dependent upon donations. People would contribute gold coins or real estate like vineyards and homes. Gifts were recorded in the monastic registers, and the donor was promised memorial services and prayers on every anniversary of their passing. For a significant contribution, a donor would be buried in the church of a monastery and receive prayers in perpetuity.


Monastic property was inalienable and exempt from taxation. Through donations and shrewd acquisitions, monasteries accumulated significant wealth. Some monasteries functioned as sprawling agricultural estates. They hired stewards to cultivate and oversee their farms and vineyards. Extra goods were sold during the markets hosted in the monastery courtyard on feast days. A few large monasteries even owned their own ships to trade their surplus wine. By the year 1000 AD monastic landholdings were so large they impacted imperial revenues, so Byzantine kings forbade the construction of new monasteries to limit the amount of tax-exempt land.


Monasteries also functioned as the de facto banking and retirement system in Byzantine society. Many people donated their assets to a monastery in exchange for free lifetime occupancy and burial. This donation functioned like an annuity—for a lump sum of money, the monastery promised to care for that person until death, bury their body, and even commemorate their life with a feast day.

Powerful nobles sought to control monasteries because they were so financially profitable. The imperial government, in a system called charistike, granted monasteries to private individuals who should repair and fund them. But those managers abused their power; they often liquidated the monastery's assets and appointed their own people as the leaders. For this reason, monasteries sought independence. Monks wanted full control of monastery resources to use for ministry activities. To obtain independence, monasteries sought protection from church bishops, imperial officials, or local strongmen. This was a tricky balance—monasteries desired spiritual and financial independence, but need patrons for protection.


Communal Life


Cenobotic monks shared a common life. They worked, worshiped, and ate together. This shared life fostered spiritual maturity and a heart of love. By living in community, monks could also better learn the Bible and liturgical texts.


When taking monastic vows, a monk renounced their biological family. The monastic community became their new spiritual family. Monks referred to their community as "one body and one breath," or "one indivisible soul." Some people would even abandon their family or fiancé to join a monastery. Some married couples even separated so they could enter the monastic life. Nevertheless, monks did maintained relations with relatives. Monks were not entirely secluded from society. They could leave the monastery complex in pairs to carry out monastic business (i.e., visit a field, sell a crop), attend an ecclesiastical meeting, or visit a sick relative. And lay Christians visited the monastery for many reasons (discussed below).


Most monasteries were for men (monks), though about 10% were nunneries for women (nuns). Monasteries were always divided by gender. There were some "double monasteries," where men and women lived in adjacent residences as a common community under the same leader.


Ideally every member of the monastic community was equal, but that was not always the case. A person's pre-monastic social status influenced their role as a monk. Literate and educated monks chanted the liturgy in the church, while illiterate monks served as support staff by doing physical labor. Also, people from wealthy or political families (like relatives of the monastery founder) enjoyed special benefits. They received better food, retained their private property, and some even brought their servants to the monastery. These concessions helped the affluent more easily transition from their luxurious lifestyles to the rigors of monastic life.


Monasticism had many expressions—ranging from close-knit cenobitic communities to solitary hermits—that overlapped with each other. Most monks were cenobitic, meaning they lived in the community under the common rule. Some monasteries had solitary (eremitic) monks, who lived by themselves outside the monastery complex, but would join the community during the liturgy. These reclusive monks (hermits) regulated themselves (idiorhythmic), focused on contemplation (hesychastai), and lived in remote cells (hermitages).


Leadership


The social order in a monastery was quite hierarchical. Every monastic community was overseen by a "superior" (Greek, hegoumenoi) who was responsible for the spiritual development of the community. At a practical level, this involved hearing the monks' daily confessions and proving moral guidance. The superior assumed an active role in correcting and training the younger monks.


The superior also governed the daily affairs of the community. For example, they determined meal routines, assigned job roles to each monk, and oversaw the monastery properties. As a symbol of their pastoral responsibilities, the superior carried a staff in his hand. After the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), the local bishop was supposed to appoint the superior, but monasteries had strained relationships with the institutional church and often designated their own leader. Other monks were amounted as 'stewards' to help the superior. Each was responsible for managing a certain area, such as the kitchen, the agricultural fields, the room of sacred objects, or the church liturgy.


Based on the example of St. Basil the Great, monasteries emphasized obedience to the leader. Younger monks were expected to always obey. Disobedient monks faced physical penitence, such as one hundred prostrations in the dining hall or washing the feet of others. Monks who refused to follow the community rule were expelled from the group.


Daily Routine


A typical monk spent most of their day on routine chores—preparing food, tending crops, feeding animals, making clothes, etc. In the pre-industrial era, life was full of hard, monotonous labor. Monks worked eight-hour days in the summer, and about four hours a day in the winter. Their labor also had spiritual significance. Work expressed love toward one's fellow monks and mortified the flesh by minimizing idle time.


Time was based on the sun and moon (not clocks), so monk's routine was seasonal. A large holy bell regulated daily activities. Different bell sounds communicated what the monks should do.


A monk lived in a small cell, perhaps alone or with some fellow monks. These were small rooms with beds along the edge. In Cappadocia's rock-cut monasteries, the beds (and pillows) were carved into niches. Monks slept on straw mats. For clothing, all monks wore a single, multi-purpose tunic made from coarse wool. Byzantine monks sported facial hair as a sign of maturity.


Spiritual Ministry


Worship was the most important activity in a monk's life. It involved performing the liturgy and vesper services as a group in the main church (katholikon). The Orthodox liturgy followed prescribed prayers and chants. In a typical monastery, the liturgy was daily and the Eucharist was weekly. After worship events in the church, monks proceeded to the refractory and shared a ritual meal. The main meal was eaten at midday, and a light meal in the evening. Monks were not allowed to miss a meal or fast without prior permission.

modern day monks at Mt. Athos monastery

Monks also cultivated the spiritual life of the soul. Confession of sins to the monastery leader was a daily practice. Self-examination was also stressed. Silence and reflection were important paths to spiritual maturity. Monks devoted themselves to contemplation and spiritual reflection aimed at communion with God. Some saints undertook ascetic practices to master fleshly impulses and purify their desires. Orthodox theology emphasized "deification," the spiritual process of becoming God-like in one's victory over sin and death. For this reason, monastic art emphasizes the exalted Christ, the archetype of immortality and incorruptibility. Monks were obsessed about sexual purity, so interactions with women, young children, and even female animals were restricted. People of the opposite sex were not allowed past the gate of the monastery, to minimize worldly distractions.


Monks also used their time to produce sacred objects for the monastery, such as manuscripts (hand copied books), icons (paintings of saints on wood), and liturgical objects (metal objects used in the church). This was a sacred activity performed with a spirit of devotion and worship.

Producing manuscripts was a common activity in monasteries. While one monk read from the original document, other monks would hand copy the message on fine parchment. Then, after the text was complete, another artist would illuminate the manuscript with colorful images, often using precious metals like gold. Byzantine monasteries took pride in the fine penmanship and ornate decoration of their manuscripts. Before the printing press, most knowledge was preserved and transmitted by monks who hand copied manuscripts. In the Byzantine world, monks produced half of all manuscripts and monasteries had the best libraries. Monks copied mostly sacred and liturgical texts, but also some secular writings.

a Byzantine Manuscript of the New Testament

In addition to manuscripts, monks painted icons or liturgical objects as decorations. The cave churches in Cappadocia would have originally been covered with icons or liturgical objects. Patrons would commission monks to produce (or just purchase and donate) these objects. Monasteries acquired so many sacred treasures that they had special storerooms with full-time staff to keep a detailed inventory, preserve the objects, and properly furnish the church on each feast day. The manuscripts, icons, and liturgical objects were sacred for aiding divine worship. They were only sold in times of extreme financial duress, and even then, only to other monasteries.


Outside Visitors


Monasteries existed not only the resident monks, but also for people in the neighborhood. They were spiritual centers for the entire community. Byzantine Christians visited monasteries for many reasons. They came to attend a church service, get spiritual advice from a monk, confess their sins to the abbot, and request prayers from the monks.


Lay Christians often visited monasteries to seek healing. A particular monk, relic, or icon may have become famous for their miraculous powers. Monasteries with a holy object were popular pilgrimage destinations. People would travel great distances to visit the monastery.


Christians would also go to a monastery to celebrate special feast days. These events included a liturgical church service in honor of a deceased saint. Then, afterwards, people attended the market/fair held in the monastery's courtyard. This was a time to see friends, buy goods produced by the monks, and even rest in a peaceful setting.


Social Services


Monasteries offered valuable social services to the local community, especially to the poor and vulnerable. Social care was a core function of monasteries. St. Basil spent his inheritance to establish a large charitable facility where the poor could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge. His example became a model of social care for latter monasteries. Here are some common social services that Byzantine monasteries offered.


  • The sick visited monasteries that operated small hospitals. Monks provided physical care and professional medical care until people were restored to health.

  • The hungry received bread and leftover food from monks. The distribution happened daily at the monastery gate. The poor received extra food on feast days.

  • Travelers could stay in the guest lodge of monasteries. The welcome environment and protected compound was a safe refuge in ancient times. People also stayed at monasteries in times of political unrest or famine.

  • The elderly could live in a monastery, much like a retirement home. In exchange for an initial payment, elderly people received a regular food supply and a proper burial.

  • Orphans could be housed and educated at monastery schools. St. Basil the Great opened a monastic school to provide a classical Greek education to children in Caesarea. Early monasticism followed this precedent, but later monasteries often forbade children because they were potential distractions to the monks.

Conclusion


Many monks had great devotion and faith, committed to a life of radical obedience and worship. But like all people, monks were human beings who had to eat, sleep, and work. To meet their social and physical needs, monks developed regular patterns for life and worship. As you explore ancient monastic ruins, pause and imagine the monks carrying out the various activities described in this article.


Further Reading

  • Constable, Giles, "Preface," in Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents (Dumbarton Oaks, 2000), xi–xxxvii.

  • Mango, Cyril, "Monasticism," in Byzantium: the Empire of the New Rome (1980), chapter. 5.

  • Talbot, Alice-Mary, "A Monastic World," in A Social History of Byzantium, ed. J. Haldon (Wiley- Blackwell, 2009), 257-78.

  • Talbot, Alice-Mary, "An Introduction to Byzantine Monasticism," Illinois Classical Studies 12.2 (1987) 229-41.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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