Eunuchs & Castrates in the Orthodox Church (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE:  The term “eunuch” has become popularized via a character in the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones, which leaves the incorrect impression that eunuchs are relegated to a fantastical, bygone era. In reality, there are more castrated men alive today than at any other point in history. In the medical world, they are usually grouped into two separate categories: prostate cancer patients and voluntary modern-day eunuchs with castration paraphilias or other emasculating obsessions. 

The castrated Varys serves as the "master of whisperers."
The castrated Varys serves as the “master of whisperers.”

As many as 600,000 men in North America are living as eunuchs for medical reasons. The vast majority are afflicted with prostate cancer. Testosterone, the principal male sex hormone, is thought to prominently contribute to the growth of cancerous tumors in the prostate. Thus, as a way to impede the cancer’s spread, many doctors recommend shutting down the hormone’s primary source: the testes. This is accomplished either surgically, where the testicles are removed, or chemically, where patients receive anti-androgen drugs or injections of the female birth-control drug Depo-Provera.

Both the surgical and chemical methods have the same effects. Testosterone levels are drastically reduced which in turn gives rise to a host of side effects. See The Eunuch Archive.

Prostate cancer patients are distressed by the side effects of androgen deprivation and typically strive to hide or deny the effects of castration. In contrast, most voluntary eunuchs are pleased with the results of their emasculations. Despite a suggested association of androgen deprivation with depression, voluntary eunuchs appear to function well, both psychologically and socially. Motivation, rather than physiology, appears to account for these different responses to androgen deprivation.

The following article is excerpted from The Rudder:

st nikodemos


A Eunuch, whether he became such by influence of men, or was deprived of his virile parts under persecution, or was born thus, may, if he is worthy, become a Bishop. (Apostolic Canons XXIII, XXIV; Canon I of the 1st Ecumenical Synod; and Canon VIII of the 1st-and-2nd Synod.)


Eunuchs as a genus are divided into three species, namely: spadones [spadonas], geldings [thlivias], and castrates [ektomias]. Spadones are those who were born without testicles and virile members from the womb of their mother, concerning whom the Lord said: “There are some eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb” (Matthew 19:12); an example was Dorotheos, a priest in the church of Antioch, as Eusebius bears witness in his Ecclesiastical History, Book 7, Chapter 32). Geldings are those whose virile members were so compressed and squeezed by their parents when they were infants that they rendered useless for the purpose of begetting children by being so squeezed. Castrates are those who have deprived themselves of their genitals either with a knife or by some other means or contrivance of a mechanical kind.1

These facts being known beforehand, the present Canon says: in case anyone has become a eunuch as a result of wickedness and injury inflicted by other men, or in times of persecution his genitals were cut off, or he was born without any from his mother’s womb, but he is worthy of Holy Orders, let him be made a bishop.2 For he himself was not the cause of such mutilation, but on the contrary, he suffered the injury either as a result of nature or at the hands of wicked men, and ought on this account to be treated mercifully, and not be hated and castigated. Concerning eunuchism Apostolic Canons XXII, XXIII, and XXIV also have something to state.

In addition, Canon I of the First Ecumenical Synod says that any clergyman who is eunuchized by physicians on account of an illness or by barbarians, shall be permitted to remain in the clergy; or if he is a layman, he may be made a clergyman. But as for anyone in good health who has eunuchized himself, if he is a clergyman, let him cease performing the functions of priesthood; or, if he is a layman, let him not be made a clergyman. Again, Canon VIII of the First-and-Second Synod, citing this same canon of the First, says: Any clergyman who eunuchizes another or himself with his own hand or another’s, let him be deposed. As for any layman who does this, let him be excommunicated. But if priests or laymen eunuchize those who are afflicted with a disease of a venereal nature, they are not to be blamed.

Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip, Menologion of Basil 006 (11th century)
Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip, Menologion of Basil 006 (11th century)



Of such castrates some have cut off both their testicles and their penises, in which case they can no longer have any intercourse with a woman, while others have cut off only their testicles, but not also their penises, and thus they can sin with women, even though they are incapable of begetting children, and they feel the effects of an internal warfare within them more vehemently than those who have their genitals intact and are capable of begetting children. Just as Basil the Great speaks of them in extenso in his discourse concerning virginity. Concerning which matters Sirach also says: “The desire of a eunuch to deprive a young woman of her virginity” (Ecclesiastes 20:4). Possibly Pentephris the eunuch of Pharaoh and master of Joseph the All-beautiful, was also such, because we read of his having as wife a woman who had tried to force Joseph to have intercourse with her.

Note that holy Augustine narrates the fact that a young man gave a letter to procurator Felix asking to be eunuchized by a physician, who did not dare perform the necessary operation due to the imperial edict. For it was as if any eunuch must necessarily be something unholy or dishonorable, forbidden by both the divine law and by the imperial law! But then again divine Justin, in his second apology, says that certain physicians asserted that they could not eunuchize anyone without the procurator’s permission.

Apostle Philip and Ethiopian Eunuch


Such was Nicetas, according to Choniates Nicetas, who says, “There was a certain eunuch by the name of Nicetas presiding as bishop over the town of Chona and a veritable resort of every virtue; but moreover, even the patriarch of Constantinople Ignatius was a eunuch.” Concerning eunuchs God too says in the Book of Deuteronomy: “No gelding, nor anyone excised, shall enter the church of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 3: 1.)


Inasmuch as some wrong-minded heretics, and especially the Oualesians, hearing the Lord say, “if thy right eye scandalize you, pluck it out . ., likewise if your right hand or foot scandalize you, cut it off,’etc., as they mistakenly explained the saying, and hence they said that one ought to amputate and cut off those members which incite him to sin. Examples of such heretics are mentioned by divine Epiphanios. So for this reason all such men as have been found to have mutilated themselves by amputating members of their body when they were healthy themselves are liable to the penalty in the present Apostolic Canon, seeing that they are enemies of God’s creation, and since the above words of the Lord’s are not to be understood literally, but are to be explained figuratively or tropologically. Or to make the matter plainer, it may be said that if we have relatives or friends who are so intimate and dear to us that they may be regarded as members of our body, yet the friendship of such men stands in the way of our love for God, we ought to cut off from ourselves any such endeavor and friendship, and prefer to give our love to God and save our own soul, exactly as this saying is explained by divine Chrysostom, Theophylactos, Epiphanios, and other Fathers of the Church.

“Note further that eunuchs are called by St. Gregory the Theologian ‘men among women, and women among men,’ while St. Basil the Great (in his epistle to Simplicias) calls the race of eunuchs infamous, calamitous, unmanly, deserving of condemnation to irons, and many other such epithets, adding that they are not even credible as witnesses under oath.” The divine Apostle, on the other hand deems anyone liable to a curse that castrates himself. For he thus curses those who were troubling the Galatians, “I would they were even cut off who trouble you” (Galatians 5:12), said with the implication that they ought to be eunuchized, as Chrysostom and Theophylactus interprets the phrase.

Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Decani Monastery)
Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Decani Monastery)


Pursuant to the present Apostolic Canon Demetrius of Alexandria, according to Socrates, deposed Origen because the latter dared to castrate himself though others say that Origen, being a learned man, found a herb and drug with which he succeeded in withering the root of the palpitating flesh. Read also Epiphanios where he mentions (Heresei 64) rumors then current respecting the castration of Origen. But divine Athanasios as well, in speaking about Leontios of Antioch, who was Eudoxior predecessor, says that neither the bishopric nor communion befitted him, because he castrated himself, in order to be able thenceforth to sleep with a certain woman by the name of Eustolia, who though a wife to him was said to be a virgin, without incurring suspicion. (Apology I to Constantine.)

The rest of the Canons of the Holy Apostles on Eunuchs and Castration, together with St. Nikodemos Interpretation, can be read here:

Icon of the Fathers of the first Ecumenical council
Icon of the Fathers of the first Ecumenical council


If anyone has been castrated by surgeons for a disease, or has been castrated by barbarians, let him remain in the clergy. But if anyone has castrated himself when well, he must be dismissed even if he is examined after being in the clergy. And henceforth no such person must be promoted to Holy Orders. But as is self-evident, though such is the case as regards those who affect the matter and dare to castrate themselves, if any persons have become eunuchs by barbarians or their lords, but are otherwise found to be worthy, the Canon admits such persons to the clergy. (Apostolic Canons XXI, XXII, XXIII; Canon VIII of the lst-&-2nd Synod)


Various Canons of the Apostles include decrees concerning eunuchism. But since they were disregarded it would appear, on this account it became necessary that it be made the subject of the present Canon, which states: Whoever has been made a eunuch by surgeons because of a disease or ailment, or by barbarians during the time of an invasion, if he is a clergyman, let him perform the functions of the clergy. But whoever while in good health has made himself a eunuch, although he is a clergyman, must cease from the activities of the clergy. And as many such persons who are laymen, henceforth not even one may be made a clergyman.

But as we say this in regard to those who affectedly and willfully dare to make themselves eunuchs, in the same way again we say that if there are any persons that have become eunuchs by barbarians or by their masters (or owners), that is to say, against their will and tyrannically, but who are worthy, the Canon (either the present Canon, that is to say, or Apostolic Canon XXI) allows them to be admitted to the clergy. Read also the Interpretation of Apostolic Canon XXI.

An image from a Vatican Codex of 1162 believed to be a representation of the Church of the Holy Apostles
An image from a Vatican Codex of 1162 believed to be a representation of the Church of the Holy Apostles


The divine and holy Canon of the Apostles judges those who castrate themselves to self-murderers; accordingly, if they are priests, it deposes them, and if they are not, it excludes them from advancement to Holy Orders.

Hence it makes it plain that if one who castrates himself is a self-murderer, he who castrates another man is certainly a murderer. One might even deem such a person quite guilty of insulting creation itself. Wherefore the Holy Synod has been led to decree that if any bishop, or priest, or deacon, be proved guilty of castrating anyone, either with has own hand or by giving orders to anyone else to do so, he shall be subjected to the penalty of deposition from office; but if the offender is a layman, he shall be excommunicated: unless it should so happen that owing to the incidence of some affliction he should be forced to operate upon the sufferer by removing his testicles. For precisely as the first Canon of the Synod held in Nicaea does not punish those who have been operated upon for a disease, for having the disease, so neither do we condemn priests who order diseased men to be castrated, nor do we blame laymen either, when they perform the operation with their own hands. For we consider this to be a treatment of the disease, but not a malicious design against the creature or an insult to creation. (Apostolic Cannons. XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXIV; Canon I of the First Ecumenical Synod.)


Just as Apostolic Canon XXII forbids anyone who castrates himself to be made a cleric, and Apostolic Canon XXIII deposes them if they have already become clerics in case they castrate themselves, as being murderers of themselves, so does the present Canon depose those clerics who, either with their own hands or by giving orders to someone else, castrate anyone; and it excommunicates laymen who do this. But if anyone should fall a victim to an affliction requiring him to be castrated, then and in that case neither those priests who order his castration are to be deposed, nor are laymen who with their own hands castrate such a person to be excommunicated, since castration of such persons aims at curing the disease, and not at killing the man, or at offering any insult to nature. See also Apostolic Canon XXI.

A depiction of Origen's self-castration.
A depiction of Origen’s self-castration.

Testimony of an ex-Monk from Serbia

NOTE: The following testimony contains many similarities and patterns as those experienced by novices and rassaphores under Geronta Panteleimon of Boston. Although Serbia and Massachusetts are separated by over 4,300 miles, the predation of abbots on their monastics, as well as older fathers with younger monastics, share the same trademarks. It should also be noted that stories like these [i.e. scandals, homosexual predator abbots, etc.] are utilized in some of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries as examples of why the monastics should be grateful to have Geronda Ephraim as their spiritual Father and that God called them to his monasteries; i.e. they could’ve ended up in a “problematic monastery.” These stories are usually utilized when many of the monastics are having logismoi about the monastery, administration, actions of the elder, or the heavy workload, etc. Though the stories are meant for inspiration and to help increase zeal and gratefulness, these tactics tend to be  manipulative in nature.

Photo from the testimony page, presumably of the author.
Photo from the testimony page, presumably of the author.

“When it comes to homosexuality, we, who are gay, know from medical research and also from the Bible, that our orientation is not our own choice, but it is something that God has given us from the day we were born (see Matthew 19/11, 12). There are eunuchs from birth (likewise, there are those who have themselves been eunuched or eunuched by others). Unfortunately, the Church (let’s call her that way) has been trying for centuries to put into her doctrine a new homophobic god who doesn’t resemble the evangelical Jesus at all, the Son of God who loved us while we were sinners (unbelievers).

I was unfortunately one of many who were taught by the local “church” that the Lord is homophobic, and that, therefore it takes a long, hard work, pain, fasting, faith, prayers and tears to make the Lord have mercy and correct his own mistake by making us straight. The proof that God is infallible in his creation is that there are thousands and thousands of LGBT people in the world. We are not evidence of imperfection of God’s creation, but a blessing, and I realized that after I passed very difficult, painful and, I can say bloody path of self-discipline, or perhaps it is better to say, the pious self-destruction.

This is actually a small part of what I have went through in my painful Christian way, but if I wrote in more details it would be a huge book. If anyone thinks that sexuality is changeable and does not believe my testimony, let them try themself to change it and God will certainly show them it is not, I am sure. And even in the Bible itself it is not written anywhere that God has ever changed anyone’s sexual orientation, which He created, by the way.

St George

My parents have baptized me in the Orthodox church of St. George in 1993 when I was six. However, I became a Christian ten years later, when I was 16, when for the first time I heard the gospel of Christ, whom I had believed as personal savior. The same year I began my Bible correspondence course and a daily Bible studying. I understood that salvation results from faith, but I became confused because of the Orthodox environment in which the Gospel of Christ is not preached, so I put myself in a religious, ceremonial system of my own environment. It was very upsetting to know that because I was gay I didn’t have any equal right to be a member of the church if I didn’t change my orientation, but the same church had promised me the help from God in which I really never doubted because I knew He was almighty.

When I was seventeen years old I began to fast regularly, to confess and partake in my local church. In my town, in the temple of Holy Mother of Jesus I came across a group of people who have turned me away from studying the Bible and told me to read Bishop’s Nikolai books and start studying the lessons of Holy fathers. Momentarily I dismissed my individual Bible studies as heretical, and started learning of the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church. What I found in this doctrine was crystal clear, it was the teaching that salvation is possible either through straight marriage or through monasticism.

Oh, how I was suffering and wept in despair, wondering is it really possible that there was no salvation to me, even though the Bible teaches the opposite (John 3/16, 5/24, 20/31, Rome. 10/9, the first John 5 / 13, Efes. 2/8, 9). I decided to fight. To give my best, to the end. In next few years I have been working diligently studying the lessons of Bishop Nikolai, the various Orthodox books of practical, spiritual, moral, and so on.

Elder Thaddeus

Already at the age of eighteen, under the influence of books of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnitsa I got a sincere desire to spend the rest of my life serving Christ as an Orthodox monk and a firm resolve to endure in this way, believing that I will eventually change myself with God’s help.

Then I started going regularly to explore the surrounding monasteries, both in Serbia and abroad. I kept praying, asking from God to clear my misdirected sexuality as they taught me it was, but also to clear myself from all of my sinful thoughts, words and deeds. I visited some of monasteries in Greece as well as the famous Meteora. I was collecting various relics, praying and making hundreds bows to the ground every day, praying sincerely and with tears doing very hard daily prayers which my spiritual father gave me to pray. Oh, I tried so hard. I was going to spiritual conversations with various elders, very known monks from all parts of Serbia.

At the same time I was always obedient to my spiritual father, listening to all of his advices. I learnt and tried to do my best to change myself. I met many monks, nuns and absorbed all their spiritual teachings. So, I came in contact with my future abbot from the Monastery of Holy Healers. He guided me spiritually, slowly preparing me for life in monastery and I had to study some of monastic books like The Ladder, various editions of Svetigora (Holy Month); Otacnik, Philokalia according to this I was living sincerely with all my heart and faith as a monk even before I went to monastery.

In all of my confessions I was saying every single sin of mine in great details, because the monks told me so and I was even making the list of my sins every day. But nothing helped, although my spiritual father was praying for me a lot, regularly mentioning me in prayers on the (Liturgy) prothesis, spraying me with holy water, covering me with holy oils, even reading exorcisms above myself. Nothing was better off. I was still me.

With my twenty-one years, I began to sing regularly at the Divine Liturgy in the church of St. Athanasius in my place. Every day I went twice to church for morning service and evening. I didn’t miss any vigil, nor petohlebnica (bread sanctifying), akathists, all of that in order to make me better spiritually armed. I prayed to hundreds of various saints, angels, archangels, Mary, but I just kept staying with all my sinful nature which I deliberately suppressed improvising God’s action. Thousands of times, I was in despair, I threw myself to the ground in prayer, hating myself because I could not be what I was taught that the Orthodox Church want me to be. It was a horrible experience. Hell alive.


That same year I went on pilgrimage trip to Romania. Worshiping the relics of St. Parascheva in Iasi, bowing in monastery Sihastria in elder Cleopas grave, in great hope visited monasteries Chetatsuia, Neamt and Golia with bitter tears, and love spending hours in prayer to the Holy Spirit to change my nature. And immediately after returning, I went to Mount Athos in Chilandar.

Then I moved to another town. Immediately, I received the blessing of my abbot, to start serving in the civilian military service in Gerontology Center. I was spending my days, visiting the old and sick, spending time with them, reading them the Bible and the Prologue of Ohrid (Saint’s biography) and teaching them to keep everything what is prescribed by the Orthodox Church. Along with my civilian military service I was daily going to morning and evening services at Holy Trinity Church, where I also sang in the kliros on services.

The Prologue

Then, I became a member of the choir of the church of St. Nicholas and was often hired to work on cleaning the candle burner in the temple of the Holy Emperor Constantine and Helen, and also I started working as an assistant of priest and chanter of one of the priests from the same temple. And people, they admired me, watching me as the new St. Sava and admired my life, which made me even more sad so I just often cried. I visited various local Churches and monasteries of the local diocese, visiting the monasteries of the old ras (place in South Serbia) and the famous monastery Ostrog, crying to God to change me. On the internet I connected with various orthodox monasteries around the world in Australia, America, Asia and other countries of Europe and sent them all packets and some gifts requesting them to pray for me.


After all of the mighty effort, fasting, sackcloth, mad abstinence, with a heavy bucket of tears spilled suffering, mighty prayer, I never forgot alms. Almost all of my clothes I donated to the poor and with less personal things, upon completion of the civilian army, with my 23 years, strengthened by the blessing of the Serbian Patriarch, and the blessing of my dad I went to the monastery of Holy Healers and became a novice. In the monastery I humbly performed many of obedience such as, singing in the church, cleaning and maintenance of the dormitory, cultivation of bees, working in the garden, making incense and bottling of wine and brandy, doing missionary and caring of the guests. With the blessing of my abbot I learnt icon painting, translated from English akathist to Holy Chinese martyrs as well as various Internet sites about Orthodoxy in China and wrote missionary tracts.

Elder Paisios from the Monastery of St John the Theologian from Suroti
Elder Paisios from the Monastery of St John the Theologian from Suroti

During I was novice, I occasionally visited the monasteries of the diocese of Zica (Jeetsa). I also went to Croatia to the monastery of Lepavina to miraculous icon, and then went on a tour of Mount Athos monasteries Chilandar and Esphigmen, and visiting on way back the monastery of elder Paisious St. John the Theologian in Suroti.

In the meantime, I experienced many shocks. I realised that the Holy Spirit does not really change people by default, and that it’s terrible to try to improvise its actions. I learned that about 70 percent of Orthodox monks in monasteries are actually gay or bi. Many of them have secret relationships, they all used to hope that this could be changed but no, it’s impossible. Likewise, my old spiritual father himself (who was 62 years old by the way) had a gay relationship with the other monks, and another brother who was with me in the same monastery was in love with me and for that I forced myself to change the monastery.

After nine months of being a novice with the blessing of my abbot, I went to another monastery dedicated to the Nativity of Virgin, and there I spent a month and a half. There I found the same situation, at first the abbot himself felt in love with me and insisted that I sexually satisfy him which I refused, and then another brother started flirting with me and I had my first gay relationship with him. After that, some young monks who knew I was gay almost gave me marriage proposals, inviting me to go and live with them in their monasteries. There was an abbot who was so in love with me and insisting that I cross in his monastery, so then my local abbot even gave me blessing for a gay relationship with a brother within the monastery I belonged to, so that I would not leave the monastery nor tear down the integrity of the brothers. That was already too much for my soul. I could not do it anymore. It was not that I was abused for I was born as gay too, I was actually shocked by this knowledge, and also felt sorry for them, because these people have to hide that they need to be loved. The things have been crystal clear, especially when I found out of some gay bishops’ certain activities. No, that will never change.

I left the monastery. Illumined by the Gospel, knowing exactly in the monastery that salvation does not really results from acts, but results from the faith, and reading the Bible, after nearly a year, only a few months before my own official turning to a monk was planned, I left the monastery and returned to my parents’ house. For the next six months I was working as an assistant priest in the temple of the Holy Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena, where I assisted in the kliros and altar. It is important to mention that at last I even began to pray for help and some Catholic saints, but they also did not help me to change and become something who I am actually not. You cannot change it.

Finally, I found my way back to apostolic Christianity since I came into contact with a pastor from the Evangelical Church in which I was baptized and became an active member. Now, I’m an evangelical missionary withim my local church by referring others to the Gospel of Jesus and the fact that Jesus loves everyone no matter who we are. I’m glad that today, with my life partner, with the blessing of our church I can live my life as a rescued child by the grace of God and constantly rejoicing and celebrating in the joy of the gospel of the One whose love we will never be apart of (Rom 8/35, 39). To Him be glory forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

~ An ex-Monk, Serbia


Also see: 

Silence or Condemnation: The Orthodox Church on Homosexuality in Serbia


Monasticism: The Apostolic Life (Geronda Paisios, Abbot of St. Anthony’s Monastery, 1998)

From a Presentation by the Very Reverend Abbot of St. Anthony’s Monastery, Archimandrite Paisios, to the San Francisco Diocese clergy conference at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona. Spring, 1998. A photocopy of this speech was given to each of the monks at St. Anthony’s Monastery shortly afterwards.

Many Christians during the first centuries of the Church were moved by a holy zeal to elder-paisios-of-arizonaforsake the world and distribute almost all their belongings to the poor or to a common treasury, and then lived a secular life, praying and reading the Holy Scriptures. They usually lived not far from their own families. By doing handicrafts, they earned what they needed for their basic living necessities. They distributed the little money that was left over to the poor. These people were called “ascetics.” This way of life developed even more during the following years, and from this mode of living the monastic life was born. Women who wanted and desired to dedicate themselves completely to God confessed before witnesses that they desired a life of virginity and thenceforth lived—in the beginning—with their parents, who provided for their livelihood. Later it was customary for the virgins to live together in “Parthenons,” Pachomios the Great organized monasticism for women more perfectly and founded many monasteries for men and many for women.

The monastic life was called the “apostolic life” in the ancient church.  It imitated – and still imitates – the life of the first Christians, who lived under the direct or indirect spiritual direction of the Apostles.  In essence, it is a life of repentance and purification of the heart from our passions, while fulfilling the commandments of the Lord.  The beatitudes of the Lord find their fulfillment in monasticism, and more generally in ascesis, just as in the time of the ancient church.

The ascetical life of the monasteries is just like the ascetical life of the first Christians.  We find in the Acts of the Apostles that the faithful “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers… All who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.  Continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food. . .” (Acts 2:42-46) And later we find another similar testimony: “The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” (Acts 4:32)

Sozomenos writes in the Ecclesiastical History that the Jews who became Christians led a philosophical life, as he called it – their way of life was just as we see it organized today, says Sozomenos, by the Egyptian monks.  They imitated as much as they could the Prophet Elias and St. John the Baptist.  “They forsake belongings, relatives, friends; they live outside of the city in sacred houses called monasteries, in which they conduct august sacraments and worship God day and night.  They do not eat before sunset, or they eat once every three or more days.  They abstain from meat and wine.  There are old virgins living with them…” We see that ascesis was never limited only to men.

In an account of St. Justin the Philosopher, in the second half of the second century, the saint describes the life of the Christians which is similar to that of the first Christians; “We bring whatever we have to the common treasury and we distribute it to whomever is in need.”  Their spiritual life was such that, according to St. Justin, they would not even contract marriages, except for the sake of raising children, or they would set aside marriage to keep complete continence.  In other words, the monastic way of life, according to the saint, was a normal phenomenon.

The Lord’s words, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given,” were actually meant to help his disciples strive for a life of celibacy.  Thus, according to St. John Chrysostom, the Lord presents the issue of not marrying as a great and significant achievement in order to attract them and exhort them, since the Lord wanted to inspire the desire for celibacy in them.

Then, to show the possibility of virginity, He said, “There are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” that is, they destroyed the evil thoughts and purified their heart.  In this way He led them with these words to prefer celibacy, as St. John says.


Celibacy existed in the beginning of the creation of Adam and Eve.  St. John Chrysostom describes the life of Adam and Eve in his eighteenth homily on the Book of Genesis: “At the outset and from the beginning the practice of virginity was in force. However when due to their indifference they disobeyed and sin began, that lifestyle was taken away.

Also in his work On Virginity, he describes the life of Adam and Eve saying: “It was deemed necessary for him to have a helpmate, and it came to be, yet not even in this manner was marriage considered necessary.  It did not even appear, for they lived without marriage, abiding in paradise as if in heaven, and enjoyed the pleasure of associating with God…. Thus did they live in that place, adorned with virginity.” So it was natural for Adam and Eve to live in virginity and in continuous communion with God, since, as St. Nicholas Cabasilas says, “Adam and Eve were created in the image of the Incarnate God the Logos. Christ was the archetype. The Old Adam was not the prototype for the New, but the New Adam was the prototype for the old.  St. Gregory Palamas and St. Maximos the Confessor say exactly the same thing. In this monastic life, the life of celibacy, mankind has its beginning.

Therefore, monasticism is not something foreign to the Church; it is not something that began much later. Celibacy is the life that Christ the Prototype of the old Adam, wanted mankind to live.

When the Church was besieged by blasphemous heresies, the monks and nuns greatly contributed to fight against them. They fought against and hated the dogmas of the heretics, but sincerely loved the heretics. With sincere love in imitation of Christ they brought the heretics back to the bosom of the Church. The sacrament of communion was the final, the crowning stage of the heretics’ return to the Church. However, without the complete rejection of the heresy, this was impossible. Their confession of faith in the decision of the Ecumenical Councils was considered a basic prerequisite of the expression of the orthodoxy of the monks. The catholicity of the Church during the era of the Ecumenical Councils is lived in the eucharistic assembly with obedience to a bishop, as well as through the unconditional acceptance of the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. The voice of the infallible Church is expressed both through the Ecumenical Councils and through the other regional councils, whose authority is acknowledged by the universal Church’s conscience.

The champions of these decisions were the monks, distinguished for their orthodox faith. Since heresy appeared as a threat to the unity of the Church, the bishops, being responsible for their flock, sought the help of spiritual men to confront the heresies. St. Anthony the Great was summoned from his mountain by the bishops many times to help confront the Arians. St. Makarios was called upon by a bishop to help him against Ierakitos. The nun Melani was active in Palestine. Besides all the other public welfare institutions and women’s and men’s monasteries she founded, she brought about 400 schismatics back to Orthodoxy, who belonged to the sect of the Meletians. Likewise, she worked with other spiritual men to bring all the Spirit-fighting heretics of her area back to the Church. In the book of Barsanuphios and John, the faith in the Ecumenical Councils is praised and extolled. In Palestine, St. Efthymios and St. Symeon the Stylite brought Evdokia back from the anti-Chalcedonian heresy of Dioscoros to the Universal Church. And along with her, a multitude of people deceived by Theodosios returned to the Orthodox Church.

The confessors of the Orthodox Church Sts. Savvas and Theodosios the Abbot also engaged in similar struggles. St. Savvas not only anathematized the leaders of heresies – Eutuches, Nestor, and Severos – but also “supported” the council of Chalcedon. Countless other monks struggled for the authority of the Ecumenical Councils and against the heresies. Not only did monks and hieromonks struggle for them, but they also took part in the Ecumenical Councils. In particular in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, out of the 350 Orthodox Fathers, 136 were abbots and monks.

Even the emperors themselves believed in the positive role of the monks to bring back those who had gone astray from the Church, “which is one.” The letters of the emperor Marcian to the Fathers of Sinai which exhort them against Theodosios the heretic, show the conviction of the emperor that the peace of the Church and the return to her of those who have gone stray was possible through the sound advice and support of the monastics.

The ascetic monastic fathers of the desert, having traversed the path of their spiritual journey free of deception, that is, by passing from the purification of their soul, and progressing to illumination and theosis, in other words to the state of beholding God, to the true theology of our Church, were able to present the truth successfully against errors.

“Christ is the light for Angels, Angels are a light for monks and the monks are a light for all men.” –St. John Climacus
“Christ is the light for Angels, Angels are a light for monks and the monks are a light for all men.” –St. John Climacus


     Our Church honors marriage in Christ as well as virginity in Christ. So when a monk or nun criticizes or despises marriage, he shows that he does not have an ecclesiastical mind-set (phronema), since he criticizes something that the Church blesses. A true monk never criticizes the blessed state of marriage. And of course a married person should not criticize monasticism because this also shows a lack of an ecclesiastical mind-set (phronema). Divine Grace is acquired by the monk with virginity in Christ, while by the layman with a marriage in Christ. But in either case, a struggle, ascesis, is required, according to Orthodox teaching.

St. John Chrysostom teaches: “Those who live in the world, even though they are married, ought to resemble the monks in all ways.” “You are greatly deceived if you think that there are things that are required of laymen and other things of monks…. All are equally accountable.” St. Basil the Great says in his Ascetical Works: “Submission to the Gospel is required for all men, both for monks and for laymen.

How much, and to what degree must each and every person apply himself in order to attain salvation?  According to Father Justin Popovitch, “all of God and all of man, nothing less. It is not measured by just how much is needed and who gives more but God gives all of Himself and man must give all of himself, and in this consists salvation.” And this again applies to monks as well as laymen.

Monasticism expresses the apostolic life of the ancient Church as the continuation of that Church. It is the heart of the Church. But because the world does not provide the capability for people to live in it evangelically to the degree that many would want to, they withdraw from the world, aflame with a divine inspiration, which for several people is uncontainable, for even in their sleep they keep the commandments of the Lord. They withdraw from the world not out of self-love or cowardice or to avoid assuming worldly responsibilities, but out of a purely holy desire to be freed of their passions and that their heart be cleansed, so that they be united with Him Whom they yearn for.


“A Monk,” according to St. Nilus of Sinai, “is he who, withdrawing from all men, is united with all men. A monk is he who regards himself as existing with all men and sees himself in each man. The more a monk overcomes the world, the brighter shines his grace-filled rays and the greater the number of people who can be warmed and illumined by them. From his isolate cell, he sees deeper and becomes familiar with his fellow human beings and grows far closer to them in heart than is possible for those living in the world, for he sees them all and is united with them in God.”

Monasticism is similar to the first apostolic parishes, not only in their common belongings and common daily prayers, but primarily in their common therapeutic treatment. In the ancient Church, the catechumen would pass through the stage of purification, would be enlightened in Holy Baptism, and would even reach theosis. In a similar fashion, a novice monk struggles in the stage of purification and repentance, as the catechumen would, and when his repentance is completed, he enters the stage of enlightenment with the “Second Baptism” which he receives, that is, in his tonsure, and then by the grace of God, he proceeds, if God wills it, towards theosis. If we study Orthodox Monasticism, we would understand how the first apostolic parishes functioned.

The parish life can be inspired by the monastic life. “Angels are a light for monastics, and the monastics are a light for laymen,” according to St. John of Sinai. The monastery reminds the faithful that the commandments of the Lord are common, they apply to all. It drives them on towards new spiritual struggles. Some even experience a spiritual rebirth, according to just how receptive they are to the Grace of the Holy Spirit.

The monastery is a clinic, in precisely the same way that the first apostolic parishes were. The uncreated grace of God perfects man. Once man achieves the healing of this soul, he lives the tradition of our Church; he becomes a bearer of Tradition. When the great Fathers of the Church, who were for the most part monks spoke about purification, illumination, and theosis, they spoke as ones with the experience of the uncreated light; they lived this reality, they lived this tradition of the Church, they lived Orthodoxy. And Orthodoxy, according to Father Justin Popovitch, is: “life and experience of grace, and through this grace, knowledge of God and men.”

The monks, and all Christians, who are cleansed of their passions, find the cure of their soul become the most social of people. And since they themselves have found interior peace and perceptibly know what it means to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, they are able to guide others as well towards the purification of their soul. Spiritual guides are not limited merely to the clergy or to the monks and nuns, but all clergy and laity, married and celibate, men and women are able to guide souls towards perfection if they themselves have been purified of their passions and have attained the state of enlightenment. Or even if they are still in the stage of the purification of their soul, they are able to help.

The love that one has towards monasticism, towards the apostolic life is proof that one lives Orthodox tradition. It is love towards the essence itself of Orthodoxy and this is why all the saints loved ascesis.

St. Gregory Palamas lrg

The ascetical life is our effort assisted by the Grace of God to apply the commandments of Christ. As St. Gregory Palamas has said ‘ascesis is primarily the evangelical life which is based on repentance. It is man’s preparation for his union with Christ. The commandments of the Lord are directed to all married and celibate, without exception. The only difference is that monks pursue the more perfect application, according the words of the Lord, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and come and follow me.”

Ascesis along with repentance requires bodily effort. As Abba Isaac the Syrian says, “The nous is not glorified with Jesus Christ if the body does not suffer for Christ.” When by means of an ascetical life man is united with Christ, or at least is progressing towards this communion and union, then he is able to see within himself how the achievement of the image and likeness of God is brought about. When man struggles, he simply shows his good intentions to God, and it is the uncreated grace that performs the ineffable union.

When a monk, or a Christian, lives properly, that is, when he progresses spiritually and passes through purification and attains enlightenment, and progresses in accordance with the will of God towards theosis, then he lives Pentecost. He comes into direct contact with Christ through His uncreated energies, which has an impact on the whole world for a person’s spiritual rebirth, as the Fathers of the Church understand it and as it is lived primarily in monasticism, is noticed by all of creation. He effectively benefits all of creation. His teaching, his life, his behavior, his entire spiritual world are all different. He reflects the eternal life, the new life that Christ brought to the world. This new man is what we, too, are called to live in order to see in practice the difference between the genuine Orthodox Christian and the life of a worldly man.

A detail of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” at the monastery of St. Catherine’s in Mt. Sinai, Egypt.
A detail of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” at the monastery of St. Catherine’s in Mt. Sinai, Egypt.


    The transfiguration of each soul takes place also with constant repentance. In beginning His work to save the world, the Lord preached repentance.

A monk through constant repentance renews his baptism. According to St. John of the Ladder, the tears of repentance are a second baptism, a reconciliation with the Lord, and a purification of the conscience. According to St. Isaac, the fruit of the inner man begins with tears. This is why tears are a sign of true repentance, and they are required of all Christians. But there are also other kinds of tears. According to St. Isaac, there is “an order of tears which belongs to him who sheds tears unceasingly both night and day …. The eyes of such a man become like fountains of water for two years’ time or even more. But afterwards he enters into peace of thought and purity of heart. And once he enters into it, it shall abide with him till death. And God raises up the fruit of the Spirit in him. And in this present life he perceives, dimly somehow, and in a figure as it were, the change nature is going to receive at the renewal of all things.” This marks the completion of the heart’s purification process.

The saints of our Church know that divine Grace abides in and transfigures our soul with a desire for struggling, with humility – which is the basis and foundation of the virtues – with watchfulness, and with prayer.

The prayer which the monk uses above all, more than all the other prayers of the Church is the so-called Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” It has tremendous power when it is used constantly and with zeal, and primarily when it is used under the super-vision of an elder who possesses this prayer, that is who has experience of how it acts in the soul of a person. The Jesus prayer contains a confession of the God-man and a confession of our sinfulness. In this combination of these two truths lies the whole spirit of our Orthodoxy. With time, the Jesus prayer guides us towards Christ-like humility, which, according to St. Maximos, guides us to the two-fold knowledge: the knowledge of the omnipotence of Christ and the knowledge of our own weakness. The ignorance of the omnipotence of Christ and the ignorance of our own weakness constitute pride.


The Jesus prayer purifies the nous of thoughts and fantasy, an indispensable prerequisite without which man does not achieve the knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of God, in other words, does not fulfill his purpose as a Christian. As St. John Chrysostom says, this prayer illuminates man with uncreated light. “Prayer done with zeal is light for the nous and soul… It is an unquenchable and continuous light.” However, it is not achieved without labor and temptations. In fact, according to St. Isaac the Syrian, “Reckon every prayer, wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted to be a miscarriage.”

When prayer, and in particular the Jesus prayer, is done with zeal and persistence and under obedience, it brings man to “true knowledge of God, it is an intercessor between God and men, a physician of the passions, and antidote for illnesses, peace of soul, a guide that leads to heaven, it is communion and union with God. And man’s soul is directed towards God, enlightened, and is thoroughly brightened by His indescribable light.” The monk constantly strives to occupy himself with prayer and mainly with the Jesus prayer, lest he be found unworthy of this divine conversation and end up spiritually lifeless and dead. For the Jesus prayer to purify the soul of man, it must be said without ceasing. This work is not only for monks. Praying without ceasing is for all Christians, according to the Apostle Paul. St. Gregory Palamas as Archbishop of Thessaloniki taught the same thing, that ceaseless prayer, the Jesus prayer, it not only for monks, but for all Christians, as well. But for man to make progress in the Jesus prayer, stillness and seclusion are indispensable aids.

In the Gospel, the Lord often went out into the wilderness to pray. “Why did he ascend the mountain?” asks St. John Chrysostom. And he answers, “In order to teach us that solitude and isolation are good things when we want to come into contact with God. The wilderness is the mother of hesychia and it keeps us far from all noise.

All the hours of the day are appropriate for prayer, but the nighttime hours are most suitable. The night has darkness and quiet, essential aids for the execution of prayer. This is why monks prefer the nighttime hours for noetic prayer and their communication with God. The wilderness has shown forth tens of thousands of saints of our church.

The monk gives priority to the person. Ascesis delivers him from thoughts, the imagination and the passions and by the grace of God he acquires peace and becomes a fountain of peace for all the world. “Find peace within yourself,” says St. Seraphim of Sarov “and thousands all around you will be saved.” He means here not just those who come into contact face to face with such a person but also those far away are changed and become partakers of the grace of such a saint, and turn towards God. This is why today the world needs such people more than ever before.

“Perhaps,” St. Silouan writes, “You will say that nowadays there are no monks who would pray for the whole world; but I tell you that when there are no men of prayer on the earth, the world will come to an end and great calamities will befall: they have started already.”


External stillness must be accompanied with interior stillness. The beginning of the development of the passions and of one’s fall is thoughts, which proceed from a soul lacking peace. The imagination is also a diseased condition of the soul. Of course, in our Lord the New Adam, and in Adam and Eve before the Fall, these did not exist. When we initially undertake by the Grace of God to cure of soul of its illness, a real struggle is required so that we do not, according to St. Dorotheos, “remain all the time rotting in our thoughts.” When a monk joins ceaseless prayer with endless vigilance and complete spiritual obedience to an experienced elder, then he gradually achieves the purification of his soul, and “the purity of soul,” according to St. Isaac the Syrian, “is the first gift of our nature; and without purity of the passions the soul is not healed of the illness of sin, nor does it acquire the glory which it has lost through the Fall.”


     Since we have briefly mentioned the virtues which we as Christians must work at, it would be good to mention also the virtue which is the mother of all virtues, obedience, which without great toil brings all the virtues chained together.

St. Silouan

Obedience is a great mystery of our Church, as St. Silouan has said. “The Holy Fathers,” according to St. Silouan, “ranked obedience, which is in essence humility, above fasting and prayer.” In a broader sense, we must have more obedience to Church Tradition and to the visible point of organizational unity, that is, to the bishop and to the canonical structure of the Church. However, more specifically, spiritual obedience to a spiritual father who has reached the state of illumination and theosis renders the disciple, in proportion to the faith and obedience he has towards his elder, a recipient of the uncreated energies of God, through his spiritual father.

“He who has cut off his self-will and put himself under obedience in all things to his elder and his confessor has an unfettered mind… and obedience brings him all the virtues and gifts one by one. He who has true obedience fulfills all the commandments and becomes like Christ who was ‘obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ The Holy Spirit loves the obedient soul,” according to St Silouan, “and quickly comes to know the Lord, and obtains prayer of the heart…. And thus God gives His wisdom and anything else the obedient soul asks of Him.”


  The Church today, the world, is passing through a very serious crises, a crisis both moral and spiritual. The problem in the world today is man – the individual. If man by means of ascesis purifies his nous from thoughts and fantasies and then his heart from the passions, then the Grace of the Holy Spirit comes permanently to his soul, and in this manner he becomes at peace with himself and with God. He comes into contact with God and is at peace with his fellow man and with all of creation. The achievement of one soul being cured of his passions means a positive change to all of society, it is a beginning of the cure of all society. This is primarily what monasticism – the apostolic life – has offered and continues to offer to the Church throughout its history, either by word or through silence, to those who draw near.

St. Nektarios Monastery, Kursk Root Icon, Russian Clergy and monks.
St. Nektarios Monastery, Kursk Root Icon, Russian Clergy and monks.