Monasticism. I am fond of saying that our beloved monastics are the heart of the Church because they have separated themselves from the world to focus on praying for those of us stuck here in the world. That said, there is a lot of confusion about what monastics are, what they do, and how we ought to best understand their role within the Church and in our spiritual lives. To that end, I’m going to focus over the next several weeks on various aspects of monasticism, to include their ranks and the process of becoming a monk or a nun of the Orthodox Church. This is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive, but it should provide a well-rounded picture of the overall idea; NB: if you do want an exhaustive treatment of the subject, we have a few copies of The Angelic Life available in the bookstore (and cheaper than Amazon). This week we’ll be discussing the first step toward the monastic life - that of becoming a novice.
A novice (poslushnik in Slavonic or dokimos in Greek) means “one (who is) under obedience,” and is the period one enters when they declare their intention to enter into the monastic life. It’s really a pretty casual affair, and not quite as complicated as one might think - to begin with, you go to the monastery and declare your intention to remain there. After at least three days (but often a little longer), the abbot or abbess may bless the candidate to enter the novitiate - for which there isn’t a formal ceremony - just the blessing to dress as a novice. As to what the dress is, usually a simple black inner cassock, the podriasnik, and the soft hat, or skufia. This is the foundation of all monastic attire. The novice may sometimes also be given a simple leather belt that may or may not have the monastic buckle with symbolism similar to the Golgotha icon. A prayer rope and instruction in the prayer rule is next.
The novice may be asked to leave at any time if the abbot discerns they are not called to the monastic life or if their behavior is not in line with monastic expectations, and similarly, the novice may depart the novitiate at any time they choose and return to the world. After a while, usually at least a year, the abbot may ask the novice whether or not they wish to join the monastery formally and move the the next stage, the rassophore (more on this next week); some choose to remain novices their entire lives out of deep humility, remembering that monastics enter each stage of their vocation entirely voluntarily.