Lecture by Kallistos Ware


'First learn to live with others….'

In the second place, the interdependence between life in community and life in solitude is evident in the way whereby the former acts as a preparation for the latter.  As Abba Loukios says in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 'Unless you first learn to live with others, you will not be able to live as you should in solitude.' The future hermit needs first to be tried and tested by the experience of life in the cenobium.

This pattern, with the community serving as a preparation for solitude, is clearly evident in Palestinian monasticism during the fifth and sixth centuries.  When St Sabas, as a young man aged eighteen, seeks admission to the semi-eremitic lavra of St Efthymios, the latter does not allow him to remain there but sends him to the nearby cenobium of Theoktistos.  'My child,' says Efthymios, 'it is not right for you to stay in a lavra, for you are still young; it is better for the young in a cenobium.'   After twelve years of cenobitic life, Sabas is allowed to move into a cave near the monastery, where he spends five days of each week in solitude, returning to the monastery for Saturday and Sunday.  Then, after five more years he withdraws into the utter desert, meeting no one and living on wild plants.  When Sabas becomes head of his own community, he follows the practice of Efthymios.  He does not admit young applicants immediately to the semi-eremitic lavra under his direction but sends them to a special cenobium established for novices.  After being tested in the common life, they may then be allowed to have a cell on their own in the lavra. Sabas tells John the Hesychast, 'Just as the blossom precedes the fruit, the cenobitic life precedes the anachoretic.'

The Palestinian pattern is enshrined in Byzantine canonical legislation.  Canon 41 of the Council in Trullo (AD 692) specifies that prospective hermits are to spend at least three years in a cenobium under obedience to the abbot.  They are then to be examined by the diocesan bishop, after which they spend a further preparatory year in the cenobium.  'When these four years have elapsed,' states the canon, '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.'

Today the provisions of Canon 41 in Trullo are not observed with any exactness.  In the first place, many Orthodox monasteries are stavropegiac in status, and are therefore outside the jurisdiction of the local diocesan bishop.  This is the situation in particular with the twenty 'ruling' monasteries on Mount Athos.  In such a case, the decision to allow a monk to withdraw into solitude rests exclusively with the abbot of the monastery, acting in consultation with the council of senior brethren.  Secondly, most monks live in community for considerably longer than four years before becoming solitaries.  In nineteenth-century Russia, for example, St Seraphim of Sarov spent eight years as a novice and a further eight years as a professed monk in the main monastery, before he was given a blessing to move to a solitary cell in the forest four miles away.

Moreover, the act of eremitic withdrawal is in practice less irrevocable than Canon 41 in Tullo implies.  It is not unusual for monks, after dwelling for some time in solitude, to seek readmittance to the cenobium, even though there is no 'compelling reason endangering their life' that obliges them to do so.  Such a request to return to the main monastery is normally granted without great difficulty.  A solitary may even be ordered by the monastic authorities to return to the cenobium, regardless of his own wishes.  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 Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion.  So the abbot sent a peremptory message, requiring him to leave his hermitage and return to the monastery.  He was then, however, allowed to live strictly enclosed in his cell, not attending services in the main church.

Allowance has also to be made for the fact that, in the monasticism of the Christian East, alongside the two extremes of the cenobium and the hermit life there exists a third, intermediate situation of the lavra or skete.  This may be regarded as semi-cenobitic or semi-eremitic, according to the standpoint from which it is viewed.  This third way is to be found especially on Mount Athos, in the sketes of St Anna, Kapsokalyvia, Kerasia, and elsewhere.   The modern skete is a monastic village, with a central church surrounded by a series of cottages, each of which is occupied by a small group of monks, usually between two and six in number.  Often a postulant will go directly to live in a skete, without ever having passed through a fully organised cenobium.

The transition from the semi-eremitic life of the skete to the fully eremitic life can often be made gradually, without any drastic transformation.  Perhaps the other monks in a particular kellion will all have died, so that there remains no more than one survivor now dwelling on his own as de facto a solitary.  Alternatively, a monk may choose to leave a more central and populated kellion, and to take-up his dwelling alone in a more secluded cottage on the edge of the skete.  On Athos there are also solitaries living in greater isolation at a distance from any skete.  Frequently a monk living in solitude is joined by one or more disciples, thus moving by degrees from an eremitic to a semi-cenobitic way of life.

The existence in Eastern monasticism of the skete or lavra, alongside the full cenobium and the hermit's cell, means that in practice the line of demarcation between life in community and the hermit life is somewhat blurred and indistinct.  Between the two extremes of full community and full solitude there are various intervening possibilities, and in the course of his monastic career a monk may pass through several different situations.  This variety is seen in Orthodoxy not as a defect but as an enrichment and a blessing.  Community and solitude can overlap in a positive and life-giving manner.