Children and Orthodox Monasticism (Gerontikon)

NOTE: In Greece, Geronda Ephraim was known to allow children as young as 12 become nuns. Here, until the GOA Charter was established, people as young as 16 were allowed to become monastics in Geronda’s monasteries. Gerondissa Olympiada Voutsas, Abbess of Holy Protection Monastery (PA) originally wanted to become a nun at a very young age. Her parents were so adamantly opposed that they even brought charges against Geronda Ephraim for proselytizing youth. Eventually it was settled and Geronda Ephraim arranged a marriage for her with another spiritual child who wanted to become a monk, Ioannis Voutsas (now Geronda Joseph, Abbot of St. Nektarios Monastery in NY). In the early 90’s, he blessed them to renounce the world and become monastics: Ioannis went to Filotheou Monastery on Mt. Athos and Athena went to Archangel Michael Monastery on Thassos. In a couple of years, they both became superiors of monasteries in North America.

Gerondissa Olympiada Voutsa.
Gerondissa Olympiada Voutsa.

Children in early monasteries lived in a precarious situation, simultaneously cherished and nurtured as a gift from God and vulnerable to the dangers of ascetic discipline and the vicissitudes of the adults around them.

Major monasteries where there were children (Map from Chitty, The Desert A City)
Major monasteries where there were children (Map from Chitty, The Desert A City)

“Do not bring young boys here. Four congregations in Scetis are deserted because of boys.” – Abba Isaac of Nitria

“When you see a cell built close to the marsh, know that the devastation of Scetis is near; when you see trees, know that it is at the doors; and when you see young children, take up your sheep-skins and go away.” – Abba Makarios the Great

Geronda Joseph Voutsas, Abbot of St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)
Geronda Joseph Voutsas, Abbot of St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)

One of the inhabitants of the Thebaid came to see Abba [Father] Sisoes one day because he wanted to become a monk. The old man asked him if he had any relations in the world. He replied, “I have a son.” The old man said, “Go and throw him into the river and then you will become a monk.” As he went to throw him in, the old man sent a brother in haste to prevent him. the brother said, “Stop, what are you doing?” But the other said to him, “The abba told me to throw him in.” So the brother said, “But afterwards he said do not throw him in.” So he left his son and went to find the old man and he became a monk, tested by obedience. From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Alphabetical Collection

Bielin. Monastery of St Basil of Ostrozh, interior fresco of church, St Sisoes the Great
Bielin. Monastery of St Basil of Ostrozh, interior fresco of church, St Sisoes the Great

Or do you not know that boys especially are not able to continue in virtue unless they are granted some relaxation or small comfort? Pachomius, in the Parilopomena

“It is easier for children to reach this degree, that, being obedient from their earliest age, they may eagerly strain ahead to the things that are before (Phil 3:13) until they reach perfection…. For ground that has been cleared is ready to be planted….” Pachomius, in The Life of Pachomius

“For what constitutes a child? Ignorance. What constitutes a child? Want of instruction; for they are our equals so far as their degree of knowledge permits.” Epictetus, Discourses Book 2

Pachomius “set a little one in the midst of his disciples saying, ‘Anyone who shall receive a young child such as this in my name receives me (see Mt 10:42).’ But as for other little ones who have acquired an evil bent in their [youth] [the ms breaks off for a few words]…. [as Solomon] says, ‘Anyone who lives wantonly from his youth shall become a slave (Prov. 31:21).’ And so my brothers, every young child as well as those who are older whom the Lord has brought to us for the rebirth, let us be zealous … many times, let us teach them….” Tenth Sahidic Life of Pachomius, Fragment 2  

St. Pachomius Great Schema Angel

As for the manner of keeping [the children], there is no need to say many words; one word is sufficient. The man who cleanses his own conscience to perfection (Heb 9:14, 2 Cor 7:1), in the fear of God and in truth, he it is who can keep the little ones with the Lord’s help—for he needs his help. First Greek Vita of Pachomius 49

If someone among the brothers is caught easily laughing and playing with boys and having friendships with those of tender years, he shall be admonished three times to withdraw from their intimacy and to be mindful of honesty and of the fear of God. If he does not desist, he shall receive the very severe punishment he deserves. Pachomian Federation


Stories from the Gerontikon

It was said of a certain Abba Apollo of Scetis, that he had been a shepherd and was very uncouth. He had seen a pregnant woman in the field one day and being urged by the devil, he had said, Ί should like to see how the child lies in her womb.’ So he ripped her up and saw the foetus. Immediately his heart was troubled and, filled with compunction, he went to Scetis and told the Fathers what he had done. Now he heard them chanting, ‘The years of our age are three score years and ten, and even by reason strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble.’ (Ps. 90.10) He said to them, Ί am forty years old and I have not made one prayer; and now, if I live another year, I shall not cease to pray God that he may pardon my sins.’ In fact, he did not work with his hands but passed all his time in prayer, saying, Ί, who as man have sinned, do you, as God, forgive.’ So his prayer became his activity by night and day. A brother who lived with him heard him saying, Ί have sinned against you, Lord; forgive me, that I may enjoy a little peace.’ And he was sure that God had forgiven him all his sins, including the murder of the woman; but for the child’s murder, he was in doubt. Then an old man said to him, ‘God has forgiven you even the death of the child, but he leaves you in grief because that is good for your soul.’

Jeptha the Gileadite sacrifices his daughter to thank his deity for being victorious over the Ammonites in Judges 11.
Jeptha the Gileadite sacrifices his daughter to thank his deity for being victorious over the Ammonites in Judges 11.

There was a monk in Scetis called Abba Carion. He had two children which he left with his wife when he withdrew from the world. Later, there was a famine in Egypt, and his wife came to Scetis, destitute of everything, bringing the two little children (one was a boy, called Zacharias, the other was a girl). She waited in the marsh land, at a distance from the old man. (For there was a marsh beside Scetis, and they had built churches and wells there.) Now it was the custom in Scetis, that when a woman came to talk with a brother or with someone else whom she had to see, that they should sit far away from one another while they talked. So the woman said to Abba Carion, You have become a monk and now there is a famine; who is going to feed your children?’ Abba Carion said to her, ‘Send them to me.’ The woman said to the children, ‘Go to your father.’ When they got close to their father, the little girl ran back to her mother but the boy stayed with his father. Then the old man said to his wife, ‘That is good. Take the little girl and depart; I will look after the boy.’ So he was brought up in Scetis and everyone knew that he was his son. As he grew older, they murmured in the fraternity about him. Hearing of it, Abba Carion said to his son, ‘Zacharias, get up; we will go away from here, because the Fathers are murmuring.’ The young man said to him, Abba, everyone here knows that I am your son, but if we go somewhere else, we can no longer say that I am your son.’ But the old man said to him, ‘Rise, let us go away from here.’ So they went to the Thebaid. There they were given a cell and stayed there several days. But down there the same murmuring recurred about the child. Then his father said to him, Zacharias, get up, we will go to Scetis.’ A few days after their arrival in Scetis once again they murmured about him. Then young Zacharias went to the lake which was full of nitre, undressed, went down to it and jumped in, up to the nose. He remained there many hours, as long as he could, until his body was changed and he became like a leper. He came out, and put on his clothes again and went back to his father who scarcely recognized him. When he went to communion as usual, Abba Isidore, the priest of Scetis, had a revelation of what he had done. When he saw him, he was filled with wonder. Then he said to him, Last Sunday the boy Zacharias came and communicated like a man; now he has become like an angel.’*

Icon of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Monastery of Stavroniketa
Icon of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Monastery of Stavroniketa

Abba Carion said, Ά monk who lives with a boy, falls, if he is not stable; but even if he is stable and does not fall, he still does not make progress.’

The Sacrifice of Jephthah's Daughter - Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine
The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter – Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine

For further examinations on children and orthodox monasticism, see:

St Anthony's Monastery Arizona Nov03 081