in the

Bishop Kallistos Ware


The Hermit Life in the Christian East

Solitude and Communion, Papers on the Hermit Life given at St. David's Wales, by Orthodox, Roman, and Anglican Contributers. ed. A.M. Allchin, Fairacres Publ. no. 66, (SLG Press, Oxford, 1977),  pp. 30-47.

(1) Three Ways(2) 4th-Cent. Egypt(3) Basil, Cassian & Benedict(4) Palestinian Pattern;
(5) Canonical Legislation(6) Athos & Patmos(7) Daily Programme(8) Conclusion

 (1) Three Ways



THE body is one and yet has many limbs, and all these limbs, though many, form a single body.’ (I Cor. 12:12) The analogy which St Paul applies here to the life of the Church as a whole can also he applied more specifically to the monastic vocation within the Church. All monks and nuns share the same ascetic call and belong to a single, all-embracing order’ or ‘estate’, yet within that One ‘estate’ there is a wide variety of patterns and a constant flexibility. This variety and flexibility must always be kept in view when considering the position, within the Orthodox monastic framework, of the hermit—of the one who, according to a famous definition by Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399), ‘is separated from all and united to all’. 1

    The wide variety of patterns is reduced by St John Climacus (d. circa 649) to three main types. ‘The monastic way of life’, he says, ‘takes three general forms: either to live in ascetic withdrawal and solitude, or to be a hesychast with one or two companions, or to dwell with patient endurance in a coenobium.’ 2 These three forms--the coenobitic, the eremitic, and the middle or semi-eremitic way of the hesychast who dwells with one or two others—are found at the very outset of Christian monasticism in fourth-century Egypt. St Antony provided in his own persona living icon of the hermit ideal; St Pachomius established the coenobitic pattern; St Ammon at Nitria and St Macarius at Scetis mapped out the intermediate path.

    The same three forms can be found, sixteen centuries later, side by side in contemporary Athos. The twenty ruling monasteries exemplify the coenobitic discipline, although in some houses the full strictness of this has been modified by the introduction of the idiorrhvthmic system.3

Mount Athos and the Island of Patmos The Peninsula and "Mountain" of Athos

    The semi-eremitic way (it could with equal appropriateness be styled semicoenobitic’) is found in the little monastic cottages known as ‘kalyvai’ or ‘kellia’, with between two and six brethren, or very occasionally with more than six. In some parts of Athos these kellia stand isolated, while elsewhere they are grouped in monastic villages called ‘sketes’, as at Great St Anne’s or Kapsokalyvia. Finally there are the hermits, a few of them closely dependent on a monastery, others loosely grouped together in what resembles a skete (as at Karoulia), others again living in extreme seclusion, almost entirely hidden, with the path to their cell known perhaps to none save the priest who brings them communion.

    The coexistence of these three forms of the monastic life means that there is more than one way in which a man may prepare to be a hermit. At least three doors of entry into solitude are found in the practice of contemporary Athos. A monk, after living for some years in a monastery, may go with the abbot’s blessing to a kellion, there to follow the semi-eremitic life; and after that he may withdraw into the life of fully eremitic solitude. In such a case he experiences in succession each of the three main forms of the monastic life. This we may call the ‘classic pattern’ of preparation. But there are two other possibilities. A monk may go out from the coenobium to become a hermit, without first living in a semi-eremitic kellion; or he may at the outset enter a semi-eremitic kellion and so become a hermit, without ever having lived in a coenobium. This last course is by far the most usual way of becoming a hermit on Athos today.

    When a man goes directly from the monastery to a hermit’s cell, it is probable that he will maintain some continuing link with his previous community. He may return there regularly for the Liturgy; the monastery may provide his basic food supplies; he may even be recalled by the community to live again, temporarily or permanently, within the monastery walls. The hermit who has lived previously in a skete or an isolated kellion is in a different situation. It is true that he is theoretically dependent on a monastery, since the entire territory of Athos is divided between the twenty ruling monasteries, with the result that every semi-eremitic kellion and every hermit is in principle subject to one of these twenty ruling houses. But in practice the bond is not likely to be close. The hermit may of course choose to visit the monastery to attend services, especially at great feasts, but the monastic community is not under any obligation to support him (although in fact it often gives him food), and it cannot require him against his will to move into the monastery.

Athos, the Skete of Elijah Athos, hermitage

    Between the hermit and the monk in a coenobium there is a plain and manifest distinction. But the line of demarcation is far less sharply drawn between the hermit and the monk following the semi-eremitic way in kellion. The kelliot may for example find himself left alone through the death of his companions, and so may become de facto a solitary, without any deliberate decision on his part. Again, a man who has lived for some years as a hermit may then be joined by disciples; and so, imperceptibly he moves from the solitary to the middle or semi-eremitic state. Such transitions are easily made in the sketes of contemporary Athos. The degree of physical isolation varies greatly in the case of individual hermits as already emphasized, flexibility is the norm. Some hermits live close tc their neighbours and meet them daily; others, because of distance or from personal choice, have virtually no contact with their fellows. There arc even solitaries on Athos today who follow the same way of life as the boskoi [browsers] in primitive monasticism—dwelling with the animals like Adam in Paradise, not building cells but remaining in caves or in the open air, wearing no clothing and eating no cooked food. Although I have not myself seen any such, I have spoken with monks who know about them. 4

    Such, in broad outline, is the situation of the hermit in Eastern monasticism. Let us give detail to this picture by reviewing some of the historical evidence.


 (2) 4th cent. Egypt



TWO points strike us at the outset. First, there was initially a clear separation between the coenobitic and the eremitic vocations: in fourth-century Egypt it was not the Pachomian coenobia but the semi-eremitic centres such as Nitria that served as a training-ground for hermits. Secondly, in the formation of the hermit, from the start primary importance was attached to the need for personal spiritual direction under an ‘abba or ‘elder’—what the Greek sources call a gerōn and what the Russians were later to term a starets. The variety and flexibility of Eastern monasticism must inevitably seem ill-disciplined and untidy to the Western mind, unless it is remembered that underlying this variety there is the direct personal relationship between the spiritual father and his child. This relationship, while it ensures inner order within seeming confusion, is not something that can be contained within institutional forms or controlled by rules.

    The importance of spiritual fatherhood is seen at the very beginning of monastic history in the life of St Antony. When he first hears the call to sell everything and to take up the cross, he does not withdraw at once into the desert but seeks out in the next village an old man who is experienced in the ascetic way and whom he can take as his model. 5 Only some fifteen years later does Antony go out into the further desert and dwell entirely on his own, with none to guide him; and even then he tries to persuade the old man to accompany him. 6 Thus even the pioneer Antony, before becoming a solitary, learnt obedience under others. The significance attached to obedience by Antony—or at any rate by the early monastic tradition—is evident from two ‘words’ attributed to him in Tbe Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

I know of monks who fell away after many labours and lapsed into madness, because they put their trust in their own work and despised the commandment that says, ‘Ask your father and he will tell you.’ (Deut. 32:7.)

If possible, a monk ought to tell the elders how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it. 7

  In the earliest monasticism, then, the aspiring hermit is tested and trained under the personal care of an abba, and not by the observance of the rule in a coenobium. The kind of formation that an abba imparts is indicated in the story told by Palladius about St Antony and Paul the Simple.  8 Even if the details here are not historically true of Antony himself, the account illustrates how the preparation for the hermit life was envisaged in Egypt at the end of the fourth century. Paul journeys from his village to Antony’s cell in the desert and knocks on the door, asking to become a monk. Antony tells him that he is too old to embark on the hardships of the solitary life; let him go to a coenobium. Paul refuses to go away. After leaving him for a long time on the doorstep, Antony becomes afraid that Paul will die there, and so reluctantly he takes him into his cell. The training is very simple: without giving any theoretical teaching, Antony keeps Paul with him in his cell and tells him what tasks he must perform. They work, pray and eat together. Paul does exactly as he is told, without asking any questions. Then, ‘after the required number of months’ (we are not told how many), Antony says to Paul: ‘See, you have become a monk; go and live on your own, so as to gain experience of the demons.’ He then settles Paul in a cell some four miles away. Presumably Antony continues to give him some kind of guidance, but they no longer live together. In this way, after the training of shared life in a kellion, Paul is allowed to become a solitary.

Hermit in the Thebaid
[Ufizzi, Florence]
Arsenius and Sisoes
[St. Antony, Egypt]

    St Pachomius begins in the same way as St Antony. On receiving the call to become a monk, his first action is to seek out an ‘old man’, the hermit Palamon, under whose direction he learns the ascetic way. 9 Pachomius’ subsequent path diverges from Antony’s, for after an initial period as a hermit he founds a coenobium. There is, however, no reason to believe that he was opposed to the hermit life on principle. He envisaged the coenobitic form of monasticism, not necessarily as superior to the anachoretic form, but simply as different. In his eyes the coenobitic and eremitic vocations were mutually exclusive alternatives; the coenobium was not a training-ground for hermits but something complete in itself to which a man was committed permanently until death.

    Thus a young man in the middle of the fourth century, feeling the call of the solitary life, would not have turned to a Pachomian house. He would have gone rather to a semi-eremitic centre such as Nitria, which from the start was orientated towards the eremitic ideal. With its central church and guest house and its scattered monastic cottages, Nitria must have resembled a skete in contemporary Athos, apart from the fact that Nitria was much larger. The aspirant, on arrival at Nitria, entered one of the kellia in the central part of the settlement; here he shared a common life with others, learning monastic obedience under a spiritual father. After a time he might move to the more remote area of the Cells and there live as a solitary. Between Nitria and the Cells there was no sharp boundary; the solitaries lived on the margin of the semi-eremitic settlements, and though secluded they were still an integral part of the total community of Nitria. No precise period of preparation was laid down before the move to the Cells could take place. Evagrius spent two years at Nitria before moving out to the Cells; Palladius spent two years at Nitria before he withdrew there. 10 But both had some experience of the monastic life before coming to Nitria; otherwise the time of preparation might well have been more prolonged.

St. Pachomius
[St. Antony, Egypt]
Pachomius and an Anchorite
[18th c. icon]

    Texts such as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers or the writings of Evagrius, which reflect the Nitrian tradition, continually insist that, without rigorous training under a spiritual father in the shared life of the kellion, no one should attempt to live in solitude. ‘If you have not first of all lived rightly with men,’ stated Abba Lucius, ‘you will not be able to live rightly in solitude.’  11 Elsewhere the Sayings of the Desert Fathers tell of a young monk who, as soon as he was given the habit shut himself in his cell as a recluse. The elders came and smashed down the enclosure, forcibly ejecting him; and he was made to go round to all the brethren, saying: ‘Forgive me, for I am not an anchorite but a beginner.’  12 In one text it is even suggested that communal life under an abba is higher than the eremitic vocation because of the opportunity it provides to practise obedience: ‘One who lives in submission under a spiritual father has a greater reward than one who withdraws by himself into the desert.’  13 But generally in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers there is a reluctance to make direct comparisons. When asked which way of life is the better, Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria wisely replied: ‘lt is impossible to choose between Elijah and Moses, for they both pleased God.’  14

    While the hermit ideal is greatly admired in the Nitrian sources its dangers are not forgotten. The most serious of these is exposure to demonic attacks. As we have seen, when Antony sent Paul to a cell on his own, this was precisely that he might ‘gain experience of the demons’. The solitary has to encounter Satan directly, face to face, in a way that the coenobite usually does not. When a monk lives with others, states Evagrius, 15 the demons attack him indirectly, through the annoyances caused to him by his brethren and through the varying tensions of the communal life; but when he goes out into the desert, the demons no longer use men as intermediary but attack directly. However trying our brethren may be, it is incomparably easier to put up with them than to meet the demons. And just as demons are more terrible than men, so the solitary life is much harder than the communal. St Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), who knew at first hand the life of both coenobite and hermit, had no illusions which was the more exacting: ‘He was reluctant to advise others to live in the desert. One who lives in the desert, he warned, must be like a man nailed to the cross; and he added that if, in the struggle against the enemy, monks in a monastery fought as though they contended with doves, the man in the desert had to fight as one contending with lions and tigers.’  16 In the words of another Russian, St Nil Sorsky (d. 1508), ‘Solitude demands the fortitude of an angel. 17


 (3) Basil, Cassian, & Benedict



ST. BASIL of Caesarea, who along with St Pachomius is the chief pioneer of the coenobitic ideal in the Christian East, seems to go beyond Pachomius in voicing open reservations about the eremitic way. ‘Who does not know’, he protests, ‘that man is a tame and sociable animal, not solitary and wild? For nothing is so characteristic of our nature as to associate with one another, to need one another, and to love our own kind. 18 The solitary lacks the opportunity to show practical compassion towards others, and to manifest obedience and humility: ‘Whose feet will you wash, whom will you look after, how can you be last of all, if you live by yourself?’  19 But Basil’s hostility to the hermit life should not be exaggerated. In his early days he had himself lived in seclusion, with his friend St Gregory of Nazianzus; and if in later years as a bishop he sought to foster a monasticism closely integrated into the life of the Church as a whole, such as he had seen in Syria, this did not imply a total rejection of the solitary way. In a letter to his disciple Chilo, he stresses the difficulties of the hermit life but admits the validity of the hermit vocation.  20 Gregory of Nazianzus said that Basil sought to reconcile and unite the solitary and the common life by founding cells for anchorites not far from his coenobitic houses. 21

Sts. Basil, GregoryNazianzen,
& Gregory of Nyssa
St. John Cassian

    Here, possibly, we can see emerging the idea, absent from Pachomian monasticism, that the coenobium may act as a nursery for anchorites, although certainly St Basil did not envisage that as its primary purpose. This idea of the coenobium as a first stage, leading on to the life of solitude, is much more explicit in St John Cassian. He speaks of the prima scala coenobii from which the monk can then advance to the secundus anachoreseos gradus.  22 But at the same time he enlarges upon the extreme perils of living in solitude, exposed to savage attacks from the demons;  23 here he is of course reproducing the teaching of his master Evagrius. Only the perfect, he says, should withdraw alone into the desert  24 – and who dare call himself perfect? He commends such figures as Paphnutius, who attained sanctity while still in a coenobium,  25 and John, who found himself unequal to the hermit life and so returned to the community.  26 Thus, while upholding the solitary life as an ultimate goal, he evidently considers that the great majority of monks will remain for all their lives in the community. The general tendency of his writings is to discourage rather than to propagate the hermit vocation. Cassian himself had dwelt initially in a coenobium at Bethlehem before living in the semi-eremitic milieu of Nitria and in the deeper seclusion of Scetis and the Cells. It is significant that on settling in Gaul he founded coenobia, not sketes, for training hermits.

St. Benedict Bestows the Rule
11th c. MS, Rome
Bishop Ansoald visits a Hermit
14th c. MS illum., Francs

    St Benedict of Nursia’s attitude is close to that of Cassian, but carries somewhat further the emphasis upon the coenobitic life as the general norm for monasticism. Like Pachomius, Benedict began as a hermit, andhe nowhere attacks the hermit ideal as such, but only its abuses. His phrase minima inchoationis regula  27 recalls Cassian’s remark about the prima scola. Perhaps, then, Benedict thought that his monks, after being trained by his Rule in the rudiments of monasticism, might then go on to be solitaries. But he nowhere specifies precisely what steps a monk would take in such a case. In the Benedictine, as in the Pachomian Rule, the coenobium is treated as a self-contained whole. This failure to provide practical directions on how to become a hermit, together with the heavy stress on the virtue of stability, inevitably tended to discourage men from becoming solitaries.


 (4) Palestinian Pattern



TO find the coenobium treated, in a fully developed and explicit way, as a preparation for solitude, we must turn from Pachomius, Basil and Benedict to the monastic centres founded in the Judaean wilderness by St Euthymius (d.473) and his disciple St Sabas (d. 532). They established a three-tier system, which we have described above as the ‘classic pattern’. The postulant was expected to go first to the coenobium to receive his monastic formation. From there he might be allowed, after some years of preliminary training, to advance to a lavra: this was a form of the semi-eremitic way, usually with the monks living each in a separate cave, yet remaining in fairly close proximity to one another and meeting for common worship on Saturdays and Sundays. A few monks might eventually move from the lavra into yet greater seclusion, becoming hermits in the full sense.

    This ‘classic pattern’ is exemplified in St Sabas’ own life. When he first sought admission to the lavra of St Euthymius as a young man aged eighteen, Euthymius would not allow him to remain there but sent him to the nearby coenobium of Theoctistus. ‘My child’, says Euthymius, ‘it is not right for you to stay in a lavra, for you are still young; it is better for the young in a coenobium.’  28 After twelve years of coenobitic life, Sabas was allowed to move to a cave near the monastery; here he existed in a semi-eremitic situation, spending five days of each week in solitude within his cave, and returning to his monastery for Saturday and Sunday. Then, after five more years, he withdrew into the utter desert, meeting no one and living on wild plants. Thus he passed through all three forms of monastic life before himself becoming an abbot and spiritual father. In his turn he imposed on others the same pattern as Euthymius had imposed on him. Young applicants were not admitted immediately to the lavra but sent to a special coenobium established for novices; after being tested in the common life they might then be allowed to have a cell on their own in the lavra.  29 Sabas tells John the hesychast: ‘Just as the blossom precedes the fruit, the coenobitic life precedes the anachoretic.’  30

    Here then, in the Palestinian foundations of St Euthymius and St Sabas, we see the Eastern monastic pattern in its fully evolved form, as perpetuated in our own day upon Mount Athos. But in practice many other variations have continued to exist. In Gaza, for example, at the beginning of the sixth century there is the coenobium under Abbot Seridos, and living on the edge of this are two ‘old men’, hermits in strict enclosure, St Varsanuphius the Great and St John the Prophet. The two solitaries act as spiritual guides to the brethren of the coenobium, including the Abbot, as well as to many outside people.  31 In this case, then, we have hermits and a coenobium, but not the intermediate stage of the lavra or skete. The notion that one or more hermits, and not the abbot, should be spiritual guides for a coenobium, is perhaps surprising by Benedictine standards, but it is by no means unusual in the Christian East. On contemporary Athos, for example, close to the monastery of Stavronikita, there lives as a hermit the lay monk Paisios, who acts as spiritual father to the abbot, Archimandrite Basil (a priest), and to the rest of the brethren.


 (5) canonical legislation



THE main ruling on the eremitic life in Orthodox canon law (Canon 41 of the Council in Trullo, A.D. 692), speaks of hermits in relation to the coenobium, but says nothing about the intermediate or semi-eremitic state:

Those who wish to withdraw into enclosure either in towns or in villages, and to be attentive to themselves in solitude, must first enter a monastery and there be trained in the manner of life appropriate to a hermit. For a period of three years they must with fear of God be subject to the superior of the house, showing due obedience in everything, and thus making it plain that their choice of the eremitic life is voluntary and whole-hearted. They are then to be examined by the local bishop; and after that they are to continue for one more year outside enclosure, so that the stability of their Intention can be further tested. They are to provide clear evidence that they choose the life of stillness, not from any desire for empty glory, but because of its intrinsic value. When these four years have elapsed, if they persist in their intention they are then to be enclosed. Thereafter they shall not be allowed to leave their seclusion whenever they wish, unless it be for the common benefit or because they are forced to do so by some compelling reason endangering their life; and even then they shall first obtain the blessing of the local bishop.  32

    Anyone familiar with the Orthodox attitude towards canon law will not be surprised to learn that these conditions are widely disregarded. The basic principle underlying the Canon, that the hermit must first have some experience of monastic life shared with others and pursued under obedience, is of course generally accepted. But the Canon goes beyond this in specifying detailed conditions:

(i) The prospective hermit is to spend at least three years in a coenobium under obedience to the abbot.

(ii) He will then be examined by the diocesan bishop; after that, on completing a further preparatory year, he may be permitted to enter solitude.

(iii) He can leave his seclusion only for grave reasons and with the bishop’s blessing.

    In laying down these conditions, the Canon seems to have primarily in mind one particular type of hermit, the solitary strictly enclosed within his cell, most probably inside the monastery itself. The Byzantine commentators, however, give the Canon a wider application, taking it to refer broadly to all hermits and hesychasts. In practice its conditions have been modified in four main ways:

First, most of the larger Eastern monasteries are ‘stavropegiac’, that is, exempt from the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop. Where this is the case, the decision to permit a monk to become a hermit rests with the abbot, usually acting in consultation with the monastic council of senior monks; the local bishop is not involved.

    Secondly, the requirement of four years in community is on the whole regarded as a minimum. In most instances a far longer preparation would be expected. St Seraphim, for example, became a novice in 1778 and was professed in 1786, but it was not until 1794—sixteen years after his first entry to the community—that he was given the blessing to withdraw as a solitary into the forest, four miles from the monastic buildings.

    Thirdly, the act of eremitic withdrawal is in practice far less irrevocable than Canon 41 of the Council in Trullo suggests. It is not uncommon for monks, after living for a time in solitude, to seek readmittance to the coenobium, even though there is no ‘compelling reason endangering their life’; such a request would normally be granted without great difficulty. In becoming a hermit, a monk has not thereby severed all links with his community or forfeited the right to live there again. The abbot may himself order the hermit to return to the community, regardless of the Tatter’s own preference. That was what happened to St Seraphim: after sixteen years in his forest retreat, his legs began to swell and he found it increasingly difficult to walk to the monastery for the Liturgy and Holy Communion. So in 1810 he was ordered by the abbot to leave his hermitage and return to the main community. (But he was then allowed to live strictly enclosed in a cell; he did not attend the services in the main church, but Communion was brought to him each Sunday in his cell.)

    Fourthly, and most fundamentally, nothing is said in this Canon about the skete system, which is the normal door of entry to the eremitic life. Broadly interpreted, the Canon could be taken to mean that no one should settle in a skete without first living in a coenobium; and this, as we have seen, was the rule followed by St Euthymius and St Sabas. But in practice, at any rate on Athos, many monks go to live in sketes without any preliminary preparation in a coenobium, and this has been the case for centuries.

Contrary, therefore, to what is laid down in Canon 41 of the Council in Trullo, a man can become a hermit without any period of initial training in a coenobitic house.


 (6) Athos & Patmos



THE foundation charters (typika) for two of the most celebrated coenobia in the Byzantine world—the Great Lavra on Athos and the monastery of St John the Theologian on Patmos (now, alas, both idiorrhythmic)—are noteworthy because of the relatively close link which they envisage between the hermits and the main coenobium.  33 Like Canon 41 of the Council in Trullo, these typika do not speak of the intermediate or skete way of life. Before the foundation of the Great Lavra in 963 by St Athanasius of Athos, there were on the Holy Mountain no coenobia but only hermits and isolated kellia, loosely federated under the elected leadership of a monk bearing the title protos and governed by periodical general assemblies at the monastic capital of Karyes. Since this loose federation had left room for confusion and disorder, Athanasius sought in his regulations for the Great Lavra to impose a fairly strict discipline over the hermits in the region of the monastery. He specifies that, among the 120 monks comprising the community of the Great Lavra, there should be not more than five solitaries, known as kelliots. These are to live outside the monastery, receiving food from the main community; each of them may have one disciple living with him, which means that their solitude was not necessarily to be total. These kelliots owe obedience to the abbot, and are definitely regarded as continuing to be members of the monastic brotherhood of the Great Lavra. Athanasius also states that a monk, with the abbot’s blessing, may live enclosed as a solitary within his own cell inside the monastery walls.

The Great Lavra, Athos Pantokrator Monastery, Athos

    In the foundation documents for the community of St John on Patmos, established by St Christodoulos in 1088, it is laid down that there may be at any one time not more than twelve solitaries living outside the main monastery and dependent upon it. Their continuing bond with the coenobium is underlined. They are to return each Saturday to the monastery, remaining for the vigil service that night, attending the Sunday morning Liturgy, and then going back to their hermitages on Sunday afternoon with sufficient food to last them through the week. They are also to come to the monastery on major feasts. While in the monastery the solitaries are to eat at the common table, but to speak with no one except the abbot. Equally they are not to speak with others while at their hermitages in the week. When in solitude during the week, they are to have one meal a day, after None, and are to eat only uncooked food. The solitaries remain under strict obedience to the abbot; if they show signs of self-will and insubordination, they will be at once recalled to live inside the monastery.

    At the Great Lavra and St John’s, Patmos, during more recent centuries, these rulings concerning hermits have undergone some modifications. The limitation in numbers envisaged by St Athanasius has long been disregarded. Thus in 1971 there were 50 monks living within the Great Lavra itself, but in the territory subject to it there were no less than 328 further monks: 156 living in sketes and 172 in isolated kellia.   34 Of these 328 monks, few if any were directly linked with the Great Lavra in the manner specified by the founder; the rest were virtually independent, each kelliot owing obedience to his own germ rather than to the authorities in the main monastery.

The Island of Patmos Patmos, Monastery of St. John

    On the island of Patmos at present there are a number of hermitages subject to the main monastery. All of these are now unoccupied except one where there is a single monk. He spends one week in every five at the main monastery, sharing in the work of the community and talking with the other monks in the normal way; otherwise he remains at his hermitage, attending the Sunday Liturgy at the nearest parish church. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the hermitages each contained some two to four monks, living a semi-eremitic life. There were also hermits in the full sense: one still remembered on the island is the monk Theoktistos, who died at an advanced age in 1917 after spending part of his life on a waterless rock in the sea not far from Patmos, and part in a cave which he shared with a colony of adders.  35 These monks living in hermitages or as solitaries remained under obedience to the monastic authorities, but the rule that they should return to the main monastery each Saturday had long since fallen into disuse.


 (7) Daily Programme



ST. CHRISTODOULOS, as we noted, expected his hermits to live, except at weekends, on uncooked vegetables and to eat only once a day, in the afternoon. A somewhat fuller description of a hermit’s daily programme and diet is provided by St Gregory of Sinai (d.1346). 36 He divides the day into four periods of three hours each. Starting at dawn, the hesychast spends the first hour of the day on what Gregory terms ‘quiet of the heart’, the ‘remembrance of God’, and ‘prayer’—that is, primarily the Jesus Prayer. The second hour is given to reading, and the third to psalmodia or the recitation of the Psalter, which the hesychast would be expected to know by heart. The second and the third of the three-hour periods are devoted to the same three activities, in the same order. Then during the tenth hour of the day the hesychast prepares and eats his meal; during the eleventh, if he wishes, he may take a short rest; during the twelfth he recites Vespers. Presumably Terce, Sext and None, each taking about ten minutes, are said during the three periods assigned to psalmody, while Compline would have been said at sunset, shortly after Vespers.

    For the night St Gregory proposes three alternative programmes. ‘Beginners’ are to spend half the night awake and half asleep, with midnight forming the point of division; it does not matter which half of the night is used for vigil. ‘Intermediaries’ (mesoi) are to spend the first two hours of the night awake, the next four asleep, and the remaining six awake. The ‘perfect’, who have no need of sleep, are to spend the whole night in vigil! During the waking hours of the night the hesychast recites the Midnight Office, Matins and Prime, devoting any time left over to the Jesus Prayer.

    It is significant that the hermit is not exempted from reciting the Divine Office. St Gregory does not specify what is to happen if the hesychast cannot read; in that case, the Office was doubtless replaced by the Jesus Prayer, and in fact precise rules exist determining how this is to be done. 37 As in the regulations for Patmos, the hermit is to eat only once a day, after None and before Vespers. Gregory prescribes a basic diet of bread and water (mixed with a little wine), supplemented by fresh vegetables when available. 38 In Lent, probably the hermit did not eat until after Vespers; in the first week of Lent and during Holy Week, like many monks in the coenobia, he would doubtless try to observe so far as possible a total fast.

    Surprisingly, St Gregory says nothing about manual labour. Presumably he expected the hesychast to practise some very simple handiwork such as basket-making, during which he could continue to recite the Psalms or the Jesus Prayer. (But St Gregory also expects the hesychast to devote certain periods of the day to saying the Jesus Prayer with undivided attention and unaccompanied by any manual work.) On Athos today most hermits cultivate little gardens; some pursue a handicraft such as icon-painting, wood-carving or the making of incense. Athonite solitaries, while they may receive bread from a monastery or nearby kellion, are on the whole expected to be self-supporting. The hermit applies to himself St Paul’s words: ‘These hands have ministered to my necessities.’ (Acts 20:24.)

St Gregory does not raise the question of silence. Can the hermit sometimes receive visitors? Can he call on nearby hermits and talk with them about spiritual questions? St Christodoulos discourages such contacts; but in the world of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, as on contemporary Athos, mutual visits between recluses are accepted as normal and even desirable. Needless to say, individual anchorites may feel the call, either temporarily or permanently, to complete silence. At one stage during his time in the forest St Seraphim spoke to no one; he did not open to visitors, and when anyone met him on the forest paths he lay on his face until they had gone away.

The programme outlined by St Gregory of Sinai is unquestionably severe, although not inhuman. Other hesychastic texts propose a more moderate regime. Kallistos and lgnatios Xanthopoulos (late fourteenth century) suggest that the hermit should spend the morning in reading and the afternoon in manual labour. Two meals are allowed, except on fast days; the hermit may sleep for five to six hours at night and may also take a short rest at midday.  39 These prescriptions about food and sleep correspond fairly closely to what would be demanded from a monk in a coenobium.

Many Eastern hermits have given especial attention to the reading of Holy Scripture. While in his forest retreat St Seraphim recited the full Divine Office and cultivated a small vegetable plot, while much of the night was spent reciting the Jesus Prayer. After his return to the monastery, when he was living enclosed in a cell, with no garden to look after, each week he read aloud the New Testament in its entirety: the Four Gospels on Monday to Thursday, Acts and the Epistles on Friday and Saturday.  40

 (8) Conclusion



FROM this summary account of the hermit life in Orthodox Christendom, there emerge two points of particular relevance for the contemporary West:

(i) Whereas Western canon law regarding hermits has been marked until recently by an extreme rigidity, Eastern monasticism is distinguished in this as in other respects by flexibility and variety. In the practice of the Orthodox Church, no sharp line of demarcation is made between the solitary and the communal life. A hermit may be settled on the edge of an organized community-either a coenobium or a skete-returning to live in it for longer or shorter periods, and then going back into solitude. The degree of silence, enclosure and isolation varies greatly in the case of different solitaries, or at different periods in the same man’s life. Such matters cannot and should not be made the subject of detailed legislation; freedom must be left to the conscience of the individual, guided by the Holy Spirit and by his spiritual father. Canon law should not displace the personal relationship between the abba and his disciple.

(ii) While hermits may depend directly on a coenobium, in the Christian East it is more usual for them to receive their pre-eremitic formation in a skete or kellion. The kelliot advances into seclusion by a series of gradual steps rather than by a single abrupt change; and at every step he is supported by continuing contacts with those living a more communal life in the skete. The role of the skete, in acting as a bridge between the solitary and the coenobitic life, is of cardinal importance. The present renewal of the hermit life in the West will surely go hand in hand with a revival of the skete system.


1 On Prayer 124 (PG 79, 1193C). Evagrius gives this as a description of the monk, but he seems to have primarily in view the literal sense of the word monachos one who lives alone (monos), the solitary. There is an English translation of this work by John Eudes Bamberger OCSO, The Praktikos. Chapters on Prayer (Cistercian Studies Series, No. 4: Spencer, Mass. 1972).

2 The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1 (PG 88, 641D). See the English translation by Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) (London 1959), p. 56.

3 Until recently eleven of the twenty monasteries were coenobitic and nine were idiorrhythmic. But in the last ten years three of these nine idiorrhythmic houses have returned to the coenobitic rule, and it is probable that more will do so in the coming decade.

4 They are to be found chiefly near the tip of the peninsula, on the wooded slopes above the Great Lavra and Kerasia. For a description of one such monk, see J. Valentin, The.Monks of Mount Athos (London 1960), pp.36-38.

5 Athanasius, Life of Antony (PG 26, 844B).

6 Ibid., 11 (860B).

7 ,Apophthegmata, Alphabetical Collection (hereafter ‘AIph.’), Antony 37, 38 (PG 65, 88B). Cf. English translation by Sr. Benedicta Ward SLG, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Mowbrays 1975), p.7.

8 Palladius, Lausiac history 22 (ed. C. Butler, pp.70-73).

9 Pachomius, Vita Prima 6 (ed. F. Halkin, p.4, lines 18-20).

10 Palladius, Lausiac History 7 & 38 (ed. Butler, p.25, lines 10-14; p.120, lines 7-8).

11 Alph., Longinus 1 (PG 65, 2560); Sr. Benedicta, op. cit., p.104.

12 Apophthegmata, Anonymous supplement, ed. F. Nau (hereafter ‘Anon.’), no.243 (Revue de l’Orient chrétien, 14, 1909, p.364); Sr. Benedicta Ward (trans.) The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers (Fairacres Publications, Oxford 1975), no.111, p.34.

13 .Alph., Rufus 2 (PG 65, 389C); cf. Sr Benedicta, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: Alph., p.177.

14 Anon., 70 (Revue de l’Orient chrétien 12, 1907, p.396).

15 Praktikos 5 (ed. A. and C. Guillaumont, Sources chrétiennes 171, pp.504-5); trans. Bamberger, op. cit. (see n.1), p.16.

16 Fragments from the Life of Saint Seraphim’, in G. P. Fedotov, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (London 1950), p. 248.

17 Ustav (ed. Borovkova-Maikova), p.88; cited in G.A. Maloney, Russian Hesychasm: The Spirituality of Nil Sorskij, (The Hague 1973), p.111.

18 Longer Rules 3, 1 (PG 32, 917A ). Cf. W. K. Lowther Clarke, The Ascetic Works of Saint Basil (London 1925), p.157.

19 Longer Rules 7, 4 (933B). Cf. Clarke, op. cit., p.166.

20 . Letter 42 (PG 32, 348B-360B).

21 Or. 53, 62 (PG 36, 577B).

22  Coll. 18, 16 (ed. E. Pichery, Sources chrétiennes 64, p. 36).

23 Coll. 7, 23 (ed. Pichery, Sources chrétiennes 42, pp.265-6).

24 Inst. 8, 18 (ed. J.-C. Guy, Sources chrétiennes 109, pp.358-9).

25 Coll. 3, 1; 17, 15-16 (ed. Pichery, Sources chrétiennes 42, pp.139-40; ibid., 64, pp.28-36).

26 Coll. 19, 2 (ed. Pichery, Sources chrétiennes 64, pp.39-40).

27 Rule 73.

28 Cyril of Scythopolis, Life of Euthymius 31 (ed. E. Schwartz, Texte und Untersuchungen 49, 2, p.50, lines 3-4). Similarly Euthymius does not allow the young Kyriakos to stay in the lavra, but sends him to the coenobium of Gerasimus: Life of Kyriakos 4 (ed. Schwartz, p.224, lines 23-25). There is a French translation of Cyril of Scythopolis by A.-J. Festugière OP, Les Moines d’Orient, vol. 3, 1-3 (Paris 1962-3).

29 Cyril, Life of Sabas 28-29 (ed. Schwartz, pp. 113-14).

30 Cyril, Life of John the Hesychast 6 (ed. Schwartz, p.206, lines 8-10).

31 This remarkable community is well described by D. J. Chitty, The Desert a City (Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1966), pp.13240.

32 For Greek text and discussion of the canon, see Placide de Meester, De Monachico Statu iuxta disciplinam byzantinam (Sacra Congregazione per la Chiesa Orientale, Codificazione Canonica Orientale, Fonti Serie II - Fascicolo X: Rome 1942), pp.75-76, 312-13. (Council in Trullo: so called from trullus, meaning a dome, because it met in the domed hall of the imperial palace.)

33 For the typikon of the Great Lavra and related documents, see Ph. Meyer, Die Haupturkunden fiir die Geschichte der Athosklbster (Leipzig 1894), pp.10240, esp. p^.115-16; for the hypotyposis of Patmos and connected material, see F. Miklosich and J.Müller, Acta et diplomate graeca medii aevi, vol. vi (Vienna 1890), pp.59-90. These documents are analysed by P. Dumont, ‘Vie cénobitique ou vie hésychaste dans quelques “typica” byzantins’, in 1054-1954. L’Église et les Églises. . . . Études et travaux . . . offerts à Dom Lambert Beauduin (Chevetogne 1954), vol. 2, pp. 3-13.

34 These figures are taken from Irénikon, 44, 4 (1971), p.530. During the same year, the figures for Athos as a whole were as follows: out of a total of 1,145 monks, 446 were living in the twenty monasteries, 254 in the sketes, and 445 in isolated kalyvai and kellia. In these figures no distinction is made between the kelliots living together in small groups and the anchorites living alone; i.e. between those following the semi-eremitic way and hermits in the strict sense. Indeed, such a distinction would be difficult to make in statistical tables, for the two classes shade into one another.

35 See Irma Gorainoff, ‘Théoktistos’, in Contacts, vol. xvii, no.52 (1965), p^p.290301; and Holy Men of Patmos’, in Sobornost, series 6, no.5 (1972), pp.337-44.

36 Chapters, 99 and 101 (PG 150, 1272C-1273A); in the English translation of E. Kadloubovsky and G.E. H. Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London 1951), pp. 57-58.

37 See N. F. Robinson, Monasticism in the Orthodox Churches (London 1916), pp.155-7.

38 Chapters, 102 (PG 150, 1273A); Kadloubovsky and Palmer, op. cit., p.58.

39 Century, 25-27 (PG 147, 684D-689A); Kadloubovsky and Palmer, op. cit., pp.195-8.

40 Irma Gorainoff, Seraphim de Serov (Collection ‘Spiritualité Orientale’, no.11, Bellefontaine 1973), p.53; also, by the same author, The Message of Saint Seraphim (Fairacres Publications, Oxford 1973), ^.6.



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