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A Discourse for Those Living in the World

by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos

Angels are the light of monastics, while the monastic state is a light for all men. —St. John Climacos

The exaltation of monasticism in my discourse on the monastic life* does not mean that one can attain sanctity only in monasticism, in a life far from the world, that those living in the world cannot become holy and be saved. By world we mean cities, hamlets, and villages, where there are, among the inhabitants, many irreverent people, sinners, slaves of passions and unrepentant folk. Their bad example, the temptations which they present, the uproar and the troubles that they create—these things render exceedingly difficult the attainment of holiness for those who are struggling for it. Moreover, for those who have spouses and children, their manifold cares serve to divert their attention away from exacting askesis. Despite all of that, however, the attainment of sanctity within the world is not impossible. We have already noted, in the lecture which preceded my discourse on monasticism, that there are other paths, paths within the world, which lead to holiness. The Prophets, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Hierarchs, and the Righteous largely struggled within the world. How did they achieve divinization, holiness, and salvation? The God-bearing Fathers of the Church answer us. Many references are not needed. A few passages will suffice.

The divine Chrysostom says: Even a man living within a city can imitate the life of monks. Indeed, even a man who has wife, and who is occupied with the demands of his household, can pray, fast, and learn contrition. For those who were first taught by the Apostles, even though they were living in cities, showed the same piety as those who lived in the deserts, again, others, such as Priscilla and Aquila, ruled over workshops [this case, they were tent-makers]. Also the Prophets had spouses and homes, as did Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the great Prophet Moses, and these things did not hinder them at all with regard to virtue. Let us therefore imitate these people, and let us continually offer up thanks to God, and let us constantly praise Him. Let us cultivate selfmastery and all of the other virtues, and let us bring into our cities the way of life which is sought in the deserts. [1]

And the blessed John of the Ladder observes: Some people carelessly living in the world inquired of me: How can we, who have wives and are taken up with social cares, lead the solitary life? I replied to them as follows: All of the good works that you are able to do—do them. Speak evil of no one. Do not tell lies to anyone. Do not boast to anyone. Do not hate anyone. Do not be absent from the Divine Services. Be generous to those who have need of help. Do not offend anyone. Do not take that which belongs to another. And be satisfied with that which your wives give you. If you do this, you will not be far away from the Kingdom of Heaven. [2]

Again, the divinely-inspired Symeon the New Theologian writes: Those who find themselves amidst the masses of men and amongst the disturbances of the world, if they nonetheless conduct themselves as they should, will find salvation, and become worthy of receiving from God great blessings..., such as are beyond the mind, hearing, or thought. I say this not to impede withdrawal [the world], or to show greater preference for the life lived in the world than for that lived in solitude, but to make it known, to all those who read this account, that he who wishes to do good has received power from God to do it in every place, both within the world and in solitude....

The Lord said, Be ye holy: for I am holy. And with this He urges us who are sinful to imitate Him, to the extent possible, by way of good works, and says, in a way, flee from all evil and do all good: and employ, each of you, every virtue, as best you can, and become as holy as you can, if you wish to have communion with me. For I am holy, being pure and without spot, and these things—that is, purity and spotlessness—are natural to me. As for you, you will become holy if, by toiling in my commandments, you are cleansed from the defilement of your sins and participate in me through the Grace of the All-Holy Spirit. For this is what become holy means. It is when he is far removed from all evil, and does good, that a man becomes holy.... [3]

From these passages of St. Chrysostom, St. John of the Ladder, and St. Symeon, we indeed learn of the possibility of sanctification for those living in the midst of the world, as well as several presuppositions, with examples, for the realization of this possibility. St. Chrysostom indicates, among other things, that those living in the world may imitate those who strive in the desert—the monastics. In the passage from St. John of the Ladder, which followed that of Chrysostom, there was no reference to monks as objects of emulation. However, at another point in the Ladder, he makes the following relevant and important comment: Angels are the light of monastics, while the monastic state is a light for all men. [4] This was believed by St. John (Chrysostom), as we have noted, and by St. Symeon the New Theologian, as we shall now see. In the same chapter where he maintains that those who find themselves amidst the masses of men and the disturbances of the world, if they nonetheless conduct themselves as they should, will find salvation, St. Symeon offers as an example of this a certain youth, who lived in Constantinople and had the care of looking after a house and carrying for the servants and freemen. But he had as a spiritual guide a most holy elder, who lived in a monastery. The spiritual Father counselled him well and gave him a small order to fulfill: as well, he gave him a book by St. Mark the Ascetic, in which he writes of spiritual law. The young man began immediately, with great eagerness, to fulfill the command which the elder had given him, and to put into practice, with doubtless hope, that which he had read in the book by St. Mark. And what did he do? He always followed his conscience, and did all that it told him to do, not disregarding a single thing. He followed the commandments of God. He read many psalms. He made many prostrations. Mentally he recited the prayer. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, as many times as he could. With this work that he did, he was made worthy to lift his mind up to Heaven, where he cried out to the Mother of Christ for compassion; and through her intercessions, he was atoned before God and there came down upon him the Grace of the Holy Spirit.... [5]

What St. Symeon says points out, on the one hand, the great worth, for one living in the world, of having a very virtuous, wise, and ascetic spiritual Father, and, on the other hand, the great worth of being eager to apply that which he tells one to do. Orthodox Christians have perceived the value of having such an elder from the earliest times. And all who have had the zeal to succeed in the inner, spiritual life, and to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit, sought to find such a guide. When they found such a guide and could not visit him personally, they corresponded with him. This was done by men of all social levels—even kings— in days when the contemporary anti-monastic sentiment was non-existent. In the life of St. Anthony the Great, which was written by St. Athanasios, there is a passage which is very instructive with regard to this subject. It refers to the relation between the great king and Equal of the Apostles, Constantine, and St. Anthony. It is as follows:

Upon hearing of St. Anthony, the emperor Constantine and his sons, Constantius and Constans, wrote to him as though he were their father, and were eager to receive letters from him....

In his replies he [Anthony], used to praise them for their worship of Christ, giving them, at the same time, words of helpful counsel concerning the salvation of their souls. Moreover, he wrote them that they should not consider their transitory majesty something of importance, but to think always of the future judgment....

In particular, he advised them to be philanthropic and to take care to render justice and to diminish poverty. They received his counsel with joy each time that he wrote to them. For this reason he was loved by all, and all wished to have him as a father. [6]

The importance of one having such a spiritual Father was clearly acknowledged by the New Martyrs during the years of the Turkish yoke. This we learn from their lives, and from the lives of the Holy Fathers to whom they fled for comfort prior to their martyrdom, as a fitting preparation. In the life of St. Makarios, Bishop of Corinth, which was written by Athanasios of Paros, we read that many laymen went to him for confession and advice, there being among them many who afterwards courageously went to martyrdom for their Christian faith. Athanasios gives the names of three of them: Polydoros the Cyprian, Theodore the Byzantian, and Demetrios the Peloponnesian. Before going to their martyrdoms, they spent a period of time at the hermitage of St. Makarios on the island of Chios. He, as a wise and experienced trainer of martyrs, as Athanasios calls him, prepared them well for the test of martyrdom—by confession, fasting, prayer, and encouragement. Thusly prepared, they went to martyrdom with exceeding courage and great gratitude to St. Makarios for the good which he had done: that is, in preparing them to receive the crown of martyrdom.

Likewise, many future martyrs left the world to be prepared for martyrdom by St. Nikephoros of Chios, a disciple of St. Makarios who labored in asceticism in an area near him. Among these were Angelis, a resident of Argos, and Mark the New, a resident of Smyrna. Yet other New Martyrs sought comfort for the same reason from the Fathers of the Holy Mountain.

In more ancient times, such Fathers, who gave guidance to those living in the world, and who brought them to sanctification, were found not only in the deserts, but in the cities, too. They were the holy bishops, who came from monasteries and who took with them to the cities their rich spiritual experience and ascetic way of life. Of this, St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain speaks most beautifully and instructively in his book Handbook of Counsel. He says, among other things:

O what happy and golden centuries were those during which the holy Church of Christ had the excellent and very beautiful custom of choosing from among the modest ranks of monastics all those (with the exception of a few, who, because of their exceeding virtuousness, were chosen from among the laymen and immediately elevated to the leadership of the people) who were to be elevated to the exalted throne of the episcopacy and entrusted with the protection of souls. With regard to this practice, it is cited in the proceedings of the Synod of Haghia Sophia, in which the Bishops of Chalcedon and Caesarea told the emissary of Pope John this: In the East, without becoming a monk, no one becomes a bishop or even a patriarch. ...Also the historian George Kedrinos refers to this fact, as does in deed the best commentator on the hierarchy of the Church, the Archbishop of Thessalonica, holy Symeon, saying:

The Church first makes monks most of those who are to be future bishops, and then ordains them bishops (Chapter CCLXVI).

To be sure, this was a custom, or should we say, a most holy law, a very just law, a law of general benefit. A most holy rule, since monastics, through ascetic struggles and through the monastic way of life, first purified themselves (from the passions and from faults) and then set out to purify others: they were first enlightened and afterwards enlightened others: they were first perfected, and then perfected others, they were, to express it concisely, first made holy and afterwards made others holy....

These same, taking upon themselves the protection of the people, transmitted to the people from the richness of their spiritual gifts, and were all things to them: physicians, enlighteners, guides, saviors, healing those sick in soul; enlightening those in darkness; guiding those in error; and saving all, or many, through the word of teaching and through the examples of their virtuous lives. [7]

Anyone reading or hearing these words of St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain cannot but wish with his whole soul that the most holy law mentioned above, the selection of bishops from the modest ranks of those who are truly monks—not so just in name—, be restored for the regeneration, sanctification, and salvation of Christians in the world, for the training of the Righteous.

Also very helpful in the goal of the sanctification of those who live in the world are pilgrimages to monasteries with exceptional spiritual traditions, such as the monasteries of the Holy Mountain; the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on Patmos; the Monastery of Longovarda on Paros, where the eminent spiritual Father Philotheos Zervakos shined forth in our own days: the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Aegina, known throughout the Greek world for the reputation of its founder, St. Nectarios the Miracle-worker and Metropolitan of Pentapolis and the Monastery of All Saints on Kalymnos, where the important spiritual Father St. Savvas the New, contemporary of St. Nectarios, strove for twenty years.** Through confession at these centers of spirituality, through participation in the moving services of the monks or nuns, and speaking with them, a Christian living in the world is aided by calm refuge from his worldly cares, by being purified, by rediscovering himself, and by tasting of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.


1. Homily LV, on the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

2. Klimax [Greek], by St. John Climacos (of the Ladder), Constantinople, 1883. Pp. 18-19.

3. The Extant Works of St. Symeon the New Theologian [Greek], trans. [modern Greek] by Dionysios Zagoraios, Syros, 1886. PP. 284-285, 279.

4. Klimax, op. cit., p. 128.

5. Extant Works of St. Symeon, op. cit., p. 283.

6. St. Anthony the Great: The Biography Written by St. Athanasios the Great [Greek], trans. [modern Greek] by Phos Publications, Athens, 1958. Pp. 148-151.

7. Handbooks of Counsel [Greek], 2nd ed., Athens, 1885. Pp. 15-16.

* Appendix B from Paths and Means to Holiness, a collection of presentations given by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos, translated and edited by Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos of Oreoi [now Etna] (Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1986).

** We should add to this list a monastery which receives pilgrims by the thousands each week, the Holy Monastery of Sts. Cyprian and Justina in Fili, outside Athens. This monastery assists in the treatment of those suffering from the demonic influence of contemporary psychic movements, which flourish in Greece. The founder of the monastery, Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili, is distinguished by his moderate stand as an Old Calendar zealot and is the spiritual son of Elder Philotheos Zervakos, who blessed the founding of the monastery. [Ed.]