Lecture by Kallistos Ware


The daily programme of a solitary

How should a solitary spend his time each day?  Here again there is variety, and rightly so.  As William Blake affirms, 'One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.'  St Christodoulos, as we noted, expects his hermits to live 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 a fourteenth-century witness, St Gregory of Sinai.   He divides the day into four periods of three hours each.  Starting at dawn, the hesychastic solitary spends the first hour of the day on what Gregory terms the 'remembrance of God through prayer and stillness of heart' – that is, primarily the recitation of the Jesus Prayer.   The second hour is given to reading, and the third to psalmodia or the recitation of the Psalter.   Gregory probably expects the solitary to know the Psalms 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 solitary prepares and eats his meal.  During the eleventh hour, if he wishes, he may take a short rest.  During the twelfth hour he recites Vespers.  Gregory does not mention the short Lesser Hours during the day, that is the Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours, each taking about ten minutes: presumably these are said respectively during the three periods assigned to Psalmody.  There is also no reference to Compline, which is perhaps to be said around sunset, not long after Vespers.

For the night 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.  'Those midway on the path' (mesoi) are to spend the first two hours of the night awake, the next four asleep, and the remaining six awake.  The 'perfect', adds Gregory with a dry touch of humour, have no need of sleep, and so can spend the whole night standing and keeping vigil.  During the waking hours of the night the solitary recites Matins (Orthros), and presumably before that Mesonyktikon (the Midnight Office), and then at dawn the First Hour.  The rest of the nightly vigil can be spent in further recitation of the Psalter, in reading, and especially in the practice of the Jesus Prayer.  It is significant that the solitary is not exempted from reciting the Divine Office.  But what is to happen if he cannot read?  Gregory does not say; probably in that case he is expected instead to say the Jesus Prayer, and in fact precise rules exist, specifying how many 'hundreds' of the Jesus Prayer are to replace the different parts of the Divine Office.

As in the regulations for Patmos, Gregory expects the solitary to eat only once a day, after the Ninth Hour and before Vespers.  He makes no mention of any collation earlier in the day.  Presumably during Lent the solitary, following the normal Orthodox rules, would not eat until after Vespers.  In the first week of Lent and in Holy Week he would doubtless observe a stricter fast, as is done by most monks in cenobia.  Gregory allows the solitary to eat a pound of bread daily, and to drink two cups of wine and three of water.  Otherwise his food is to consist of ‘whatever is at hand – not whatever your natural craving seeks, but what providence provides, to be eaten sparingly’.   This presumably would include fresh vegetables, when available; for, at any rate on Mount Athos today, most hermits have a small garden.

Gregory of Sinai is not very explicit about the place of work in the solitary's programme.  He merely says, 'There are three practices blessed by God: psalmody, prayer and reading – and handiwork for those weak in body.'   This suggests that a 'strong' solitary would not need to work, but this can hardly be Gregory's intention; for, from the fourth century onwards, it has been taken for granted in the Christian East that the monk should not beg for alms but should earn his own living.  In common with St Paul, the monk says: 'I worked with my own hands to support myself'.  (Acts 20 : 34).  'Handiwork', in the case of a solitary, might mean simple manual labour, such as basket-making.  Contemporary Athonite hermits often occupy themselves with icon-painting, wood-carving, the preparation of incense, or the making of prayer-ropes (komvoschoinia).  The Psalms or the Jesus Prayer may be recited while performing manual labour.  But when the solitary is attempting to say the Jesus Prayer with concentrated 'stillness of heart', he would not wish to combine it with any external activity.

Gregory does not raise the question of silence.  Does the solitary sometimes receive visitors?  Is he allowed to call on nearby hermits and to talk with them about spiritual questions?  Christodoulos discourages such contacts.  To judge, however, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, most of the 'old men' in the Egyptian desert were eminently sociable; mutual visits between recluses were accepted as normal and even desirable.   Such continues to be the practice on Athos today.  But of course individual anchorites may feel the call, either temporarily or permanently, to enter into total silence.  While in the forest, at one stage Seraphim of Sarov spoke to no one; he did not open the door to visitors, and if he met anyone on the woodland paths he lay on his face until they had gone away.

The programme outlined by Gregory of Sinai is unquestionably severe, although not inhuman.  Later in the fourteenth century, St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos propose a somewhat easier regime.  At sunset, the solitary is to say the Jesus Prayer for about an hour, and then to recite Compline, continuing with a further half-hour of the Jesus Prayer.  Then, after a period of self-examination, he retires to rest, sleeping for about five or six hours, depending on the time of year.  The remaining part of the night is devoted to the Jesus Prayer and to the Divine Office (Mesonyktikon, Orthros, the First Hour).  The morning is to be spent on the Jesus Prayer and on reading, especially the Scriptures.  The Lesser Hours are said at the appropriate times.  When it is a fast day, the solitary eats once, at the ninth hour; on other days he may eat twice, the first meal being taken at mid-day.  After the mid-day meal he may sleep for an hour, if it is summer and the days are long.  In the afternoon he practices handiwork; reciting the Jesus Prayer as he does so.  Vespers is said at the appropriate time, followed presumably by the second meal (if taken).  Flexibility is allowed for those who find it difficult to say the Jesus Prayer for long periods.

Thus the Xanthopouloi, like Gregory of Sinai, expect the solitary to recite the Divine Office in full.  The stipulations of the Xanthopouloi concerning food and sleep correspond more or less to what would be demanded from a monk in a cenobium.  Here, in the programme of the Xanthopouloi rather than in that of Gregory, is a pattern that might appropriately be followed by a solitary in the twenty-first century.

The Xanthopouloi emphasize the need for the solitary to read Holy Scripture, and this is a point frequently mentioned in other sources as well.  It was the practice of Seraphim of Sarov, for example, while enclosed in his cell within the monastery, to read each week the Four Gospels in their entirety: Matthew on Monday, Mark on Tuesday, Luke on Wednesday, and John on Thursday; on the remaining days, the Acts and the Epistles. In this way the solitary life becomes par excellence an Evangelical and Scriptural vocation.