Lecture by Kallistos Ware

The hermit and the main monastery 

Let us explore two ways in which this interaction between solitude and communion is worked out in practice.  First, let us consider more fully the situation indicated by Basil, with solitaries living on the margin of a cenobitic community and in dependence upon it.  Secondly, let us examine the way in which the cenobium acts as a preparation for the solitary life.

Two leading monasteries of the middle Byzantine era—the Great Lavra on Mount Athos, founded around 963, and St John the Theologian on Patmos, founded around 1088—in their typika legislate for the kind of link that Basil envisages between the cenobium and the solitary life.   At the Great Lavra, St Athanasios lays down that, among the 120 monks comprising the community, not more than five at any one time shall be allowed to live outside the monastery as solitaries.  These 'kelliots', as they are termed, receive their food from the monastery.  Each of them may have one disciple living with him; thus their solitude is not in fact total.  The 'kelliots' continue to owe obedience to the abbot.  With the abbot's blessing, a monk may also live enclosed within his own cell inside the monastery walls.

The arrangements made at Patmos by St Christodoulos are similar.  Not more than twelve solitaries, at any one time, are allowed to live outside the main monastery.  They are to return to the monastery each Saturday, remaining for the vigil service that night and attending the Sunday morning Liturgy.  Then they return 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 eat at the common table, but they are not permitted to speak to anyone except the abbot.  Equally they are not to speak with others when living in their hermitages during the weak.  On weekdays at their hermitages they are to have one meal a day, after the Ninth Hour, 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.

These two examples show how the arrangement envisaged by Basil – solitaries living in close proximity to a cenobitic monastery – might be carried out in practice.  What is particularly significant, more especially in the case of Patmos, is the way in which the solitaries continue to maintain a close link with the monastery, revisiting it each weekend and remaining firmly under obedience to the abbot.  Today there are no solitaries on Patmos, while on the Holy Mountain the situation is considerably changed from that laid down by Athanasios.  All solitaries on Athos, it is true, are in principle dependent on one of the main monasteries, since the entire Athonite territory is divided up between the twenty 'ruling' houses.  But in practice the hermit’s bond with the main monastery is unlikely to be very close.  Certainly, the hermit may sometimes visit the main monastery, but probably he will not do so as often as each weekend.  Usually he does not receive regular supplies of food from the monastery, and in most instances he is not under close obedience to the abbot, although he may have a spiritual father – perhaps another hermit – who provides him with personal guidance.

Hermits on Athos live in a privileged and protected environment.  For solitaries outside the Holy Mountain, to live within the grounds of an established cenobitic house offers obvious advantages.  They can receive supplies from the main monastery, without having to go out to a nearby town or village to do their shopping, and the monastery can protect them from unwelcome visitors.  In return, and much more importantly, the hidden presence of the nearby hermits will deepen and enrich the daily prayer of the cenobitic monks.