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 smalland 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
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 shouldunless you are traveling
a long distance for a rare and infrequent visitbe 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? 
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.
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.