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Monastery and Convent Etiquette


Monastics are people who have been called out from the world to live the Angelic life. For this reason, lay people have always been encouraged to visit monasteries regularly, so as to form their own spiritual lives around those who represent the standard of spiritual dedication. Serious monastics who truly dedicate themselves to a life of prayer represent the true purpose of our being on this earth: to love God and our neighbor. After a short time in such an atmosphere, a lay person is able to detach himself from the hectic pace of daily living and to regain a more balanced perspective on life. Since most Orthodox monasteries are traditionally quite small—and especially in these times—, monastics often find it difficult to balance their life of prayer with the needs and distractions introduced by their guests. In order to preserve this delicate balance, the following guidelines have been developed over the centuries to ensure that visitors do not interrupt the spiritual lives of the monastics whom they visit. These rules apply equally to monasteries and to convents.

1. When arriving at the monastery, the Abbot (or Abbess) is always greeted in the same way that a Priest would be greeted. The Abbot is not always necessarily a Hieromonk, but he is always accorded the same respect.

2. You may greet the Brothers (or Sisters) of the monastery when you see them, but you should not press them for conversation. You should especially not converse with novices. Conversation and questions should be directed to the Abbot (or Abbess), if he (or she) is present, or to someone appointed to look after guests. Other monastics must have a specific blessing to speak with visitors. This is a very important part of a monastics training in obedience, and his or her silence should not be construed as coldness towards a visitor.

3. Normally, visitors are taken to the Church to venerate the Icons before doing anything else in the monastery. Many monastery Chapels have areas reserved for monastics. Lay people should respect these divisions and should not enter into such reserved areas.

4. The entire monastery grounds should be treated with the same piety as the inside of a Church. Children should not be allowed to run freely about, but should be quiet and stay close to their parents.

5. There are private areas in monasteries where lay people should not go unless invited. Depending on whether it is a monastery or a convent, certain areas will remain offlimits to visitors of either sex. Under no circumstances should men enter the private quarters of nuns or women the private quarters of monks.

6. When invited to dine in the refectory, visitors should refrain from all conversation during the meal, unless addressed by the Abbot (or Abbess). In most monasteries, women are not allowed to eat with the monks, but eat in a separate place. This applies to men who visit convents, as well. During the meal in the refectory, visitors should follow the lead of the Abbot throughout the entire meal. This includes standing behind your seat during the blessing; waiting for the Abbot to sit before taking your seat; waiting for the Abbot to eat before starting to eat; and waiting for the Abbot to take a drink (usually signaled by the ringing of a bell and a short blessing) before drinking anything. At the end of the meal, you should rise when the Abbot rises, whether you have finished your meal or not, and only continue eating if invited to do so. Normally, when the Abbot rises the meal is ended and the aftermeal prayers begin.

7. Most monasteries have guest houses for visitors, usually away from the monastery proper. Some monasteries discourage overnight visitors. If you are staying at a monastery or its guest house, however, you should attend all of the Services that you are allowed to attend. (Some monastic communities do not open most daily Services to lay people, since this can occasion distractions for the monks. You must determine from the Abbot or his representative which Services you are expected to attend.) If you are staying at the monastery itself and wish to leave the grounds for any reason, such as to take a walk, you should get a blessing for this. Naturally, cigarettes must not be smoked any-where in the monastery or guest house. Since Orthodox monastics never eat meat, you should not prepare meals with meat, if you are staying in the guest house. You should, of course, leave your room or the guest house in the same condition that you found it. A monastery is not a motel or a vacation spot, so there are no maids hired to clean up after guests.

8. When visiting a monastery, even for a short time, you should always take a gift. These gifts can include olive oil, candles, sweets, fruit or vegetables, brandy, etc.

9. On the Feast Day of a monastery or its superior, one should send greetings or a small gift. The Feast Day of a monastery is an extremely important day in its spiritual life, and great blessings are derived by those who visit a monastery or Church on that day. Because of Protestant influence and a decline in Roman Catholic piety in America, converts from these faiths are often generally lax in their veneration of Saints. They often completely forget Feast Days, both those of their own Patron Saints (which should be celebrated with far greater festivity than birthdays) and those of monastic and Church communities. The Orthodox Church has never lost sight of the tremendous inter-action between our physical world of the senses and the spiritual world of the Saints. Thus, pious believers who make sacrificial journeys to visit a monastery or Church on its Feast Day, ac-cording to Church Tradition, receive great blessings.

10. One major spiritual objective of any visitor to a monastery should be to seek to confess at the monastery. Women may in some instances confess to and seek the spiritual aid of a spiritual Mother in a monastic setting (though the Prayer of Confession itself, of course, must be said by a Priest). In fact, in Greece it is not unheard of even for men to seek out the counsel of a particularly pious or spiritually gifted nun or Abbess. Our own Metropolitan Cyprian was deeply influenced by the advice of a spiritual Mother who foresaw his service to the Church. Saint Seraphim of Sarov also received a blessing to pursue the Angelic life from an Eldress.

When confessing at a monastery, make sure that you keep in mind that, while you have been quietly praying and collecting your thoughts during your visit, the monks or nuns have been attending a full cycle of Services, attending to their own Canons (private rule of prayer), preparing meals, often working at the tasks by which they support their communities, and looking after other important matters. Your Confession should, therefore, not present an occasion for idle gossip, extended talk, or curious prattle. Make your Confession short, concise, and contrite. And follow the advice that you are given to the letter. As well, a visitor should accommodate his schedule to that of the monastics and not insist on this or that time for Confession.

11. When leaving the monastery, the visitor should be sure to leave a donation for the hospitality received. The amount should be determined by the length of stay (and stays at monasteries should—unless you are traveling a long distance for a rare and infrequent visit—be limited to three days, under normal circumstances) and the number of meals taken (if you did not prepare them, as you normally should when staying in the guest house) and amount of utilities used. People often forget the cost of such things, particularly in the winter, when heating is very expensive. Whenever possible, one should leave an amount equivalent to at least half of the cost of a modest motel room for the same period. You will not be asked for anything, as that would violate the monastic rule of hospitality. Nonetheless, you should leave your donation with the Abbot (or Abbess), even if he (or she) protests. If all efforts fail, you can leave the offering anonymously in a candle box at the back of the Church. Remember the admonition of Saint Paul: If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we reap your carnal things? [101]

When visiting a monastery or convent, do not be surprised or dismayed if you feel some initial trepidation or uneasiness. Often people come under some spiritual oppression when they first arrive at a monastery, particularly if it is the first such visit. One reason for this uneasiness is that as lay people we are humbled by the example true monastics set. This humility can assault our proud selfimages and even cause us to be uncomfortable with monastics. If, however, we honestly and deeply recognize and acknowledge their sacrifices, their devotion, their obedience, and their humility, we can no longer be very impressed with our own efforts. This is the greatest blessing of visiting a monastery. Once we can admit our spiritual weaknesses and overcome them, we can begin to receive and appreciate the beneficial instruction available by the very presence of good monastics. This is not a comfortable process, either. Ones first impulse may be to leave, in fact. But this will pass. Do not be discouraged by such feelings. They only mean that you will receive a greater blessing at the end of your visit.

Finally, do not become an ecclesiastical gadfly. Do not visit different monasteries and convents and then compare one with the other. Though a good Orthodox monastery must, of course, adhere to certain universal traditions, every community has its own style and its own customs. Find places that are beneficial to you and make them your spiritual retreats. If you do visit more than one community in finding a place which is suited to you, do not then constantly babble about what you saw at another place. You can become a source of temptation and scandal to the monastics who hear this. It is your place to draw on what is before you and to thank God for it. It is not your place to comparison shop or to compare one community with another or to carry gossip from one place to another. If you do so, your monastic pilgrimage will be harmful to yourself and to others.

Endnotes

101. I Corinthians 9:11.

Father David Cownie and Presbytera Juliana Cownie, A Guide to Orthodox Life (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1996), pp. 96-100.