A Skete of the Valaam Monastery

A Skete of the Valaam Monastery

A Skete (from Coptic ϣⲓ(ϩ)ⲏⲧ via Gk. σκήτη), is a monastic community in Eastern Christianity that allows relative isolation for monks, but also allows for communal services and the safety of shared resources and protection. It is one of three early monastic orders along with eremitic and coenobitic that became popular during the early formation of the Christian Church.

Skete communities usually consist of a number of small cells or caves that act as the living quarters with a centralized church or chapel. These communities are thought of as a bridge between strict hermetic lifestyle and communal lifestyles since it was a blend of the two. These communities were a direct response to the ascetic lifestyle that early Christians aspired to live. Skete communities were often a bridge to a stricter form of hermitage or to martyrdom. The term Skete is most likely a reference to the Scetis valley region of Egypt where Skete communities first appear, but a few scholars have argued that it instead is a stylized spelling of the word ascetic.


What Exactly Is Monasticism?

Strictly speaking, monasticism is a dedication to a fellow community based on the renunciation of worldly pursuits in order to devote oneself more fully to spiritual work. Traditionally, successful monastic orders have centered around various religious doctrines, most notably within the Christian and Buddhist faiths–though other examples exist throughout history. Community life is generally centered around a principle doctrine, and membership requires participation towards a certain telos* specific to that doctrine. 

*Telos is broadly defined as a purpose, and it is classically demonstrated as follows: when describing a knife, one could name several properties of the knife–it is long, sharp, hard, cold, etc.–but at some point, one would also have to say that a knife is for cutting; cutting is the telos of the knife.

Many different kinds of monasticism exist in the world. For instance, Trappists–who follow strictly the Rule of St. Benedict–must work in order to sustain the monastery, and must not be dependent on external support. On the other hand, many Buddhist monks are forbidden from simple activities like growing and cooking food, or handling money, as a means of ensuring dependence on the lay community.

Many Christian orders differentiate between the eremitic (hermit) and cenobitic (community) orders, for example: while the eremitic orders seek seclusion and removal from worldly affairs, the cenobitic orders seek to ameliorate human suffering, and help spread the telos of the Church (union with Christ). 

Generally, monasticism involves a strict observance of particular rules and conduct. Most monastic orders maintain strict standards for appearance, mannerism, time scheduling, and course of study, though some monastic order are far more liberal. Generally, a habit or robe is worn to symbolize membership in the order, and there is some kind of hierarchy (though not always). 

Monasticism frequently involves set times for eating, sleeping, prayer/meditation, study, and work. Many Trappist orders are able to support their monastery financially with around four hours of dedicated work, six days a week (a total of twenty-four hours of work per week). In addition to this, they will work for two hours a day on personal project, with the rest of the day being dedicated to chores, prayer/meditation, study, eating, and sleeping. Buddhist monks frequently spend much of the day in meditation, and are encouraged to develop meditation skills even while doing chores. At night, they often attend an evening lecture, and have a few hours for personal study throughout the day. Lay supporters come to the monastery to do much of the work that monks are forbidden from doing, such as tending to the garden, cooking, etc., while the monastery is largely supported financially by donations.

Most monastic orders are cenobitic, and thus derive a lot of support from the communities in which they participate. Indeed, community support (not necessarily financial support) seems to play an essential part in the long-term success of cenobitic monasteries. Such monasteries often serve their communities by offering intellectual and moral support, spiritual guidance, and hospitality to those in need. 


The Hermitary: Resources and Reflections on Hermits and Solitude

The Hermitary: Resources and Reflections on Hermits and Solitude

hermitary is a dwelling for a hermit. Hermitary is an obsolete medieval English word, which, however, referred to enclosed anchorites more than to hermits. But that is by the way.

This hermitary is the dream hut of the pseudonymous Meng-hu, the dreamtiger, whose Western name is derived from a short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The title of the story, entitled in English, is dreamtigers.

In that story, the narrator recalls that as a child he was impressed by the tigers in the zoo, then dreamed of them. As an old man, he tries to dream them again, but they are no longer the same shape or color or clarity. Instead, they are “dreamtigers.”

So Meng-hu tries to dream, not of tigers, perhaps, but of what his face was like before his parents were born. But he does not worry about whether the dreamtigers are clear and distinct. It is enough that the sun shines, the trees in the forest sway with the breeze that is cool against his face, and that the birds still sing outside his ramshackle hut.


The Spiritual Legacy of Father Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton is a name that ought to be familiar to any whose interest is drawn to monasticism and monastic practice. Merton wrote extensively on monasticism, interfaith dialogue, and a form of zen practice that, he believed, was independent and distinct from cultural and historical traditions and doctrines. Though Merton was a Catholic monk of the Trappist order, he frequently wrote about the shared methodologies of monastics from around the globe.


The Fellowship for Intentional Communty

The Fellowship for Intentional Communty

Intentional Communities have for many centuries been places where idealists have come together to create a better world. Although there are thousands of intentional communities in existence today, and many others in the formative stages, most people are unaware of them or the roots from which they spring.

The Fellowship for Intentional Community is increasing public awareness of existing and newly forming communities. We offer information and referrals for those who are actively seeking, or simply curious about, alternate lifestyles for themselves and their families.

“To make community accessible to all those who seek it.”

Communities come in all shapes and sizes, and share many similar challenges — such as defining membership, succeeding financially, distributing resources, making decisions, raising children, dividing work equitably, and choosing a standard of living. Many wrestle with questions about right livelihood, spiritual expression, land use, and the role of service in our lives. At the same time, there is limited awareness of what others are doing to meet these challenges — and much to gain through sharing information and experiences with others exploring similar paths.

The Fellowship for Intentional Community documents the visions and experiences of life in community, and actively promotes dialogue and cooperation among communities.

Intentional communities are often aware of themselves as different from mainstream culture, and many choose to highlight these differences. Yet, virtually all communities share a common root value of cooperation. The Fellowship for Intentional Community facilitates the extension of cooperation beyond membership boundaries and common values, understanding that differences can be a cause for celebration, and an occasion for enrichment and growth.

The Fellowship is helping draw the circles of cooperation ever larger, and assisting with the personal stretching that this requires In that spirit, FIC membership is open to everyone. 



Students Learn to Live Like Monks

Students Learn to Live Like Monks

By Kathy Matheson

PHILADELPHIA — Looking for a wild-and-crazy time at college? Don’t sign up for Justin McDaniel’s religious studies class.

The associate professor’s course on monastic life and asceticism gives students at the University of Pennsylvania a firsthand experience of what it’s like to be a monk.

At various periods during the semester, students must forego technology, coffee, physical human contact and certain foods. They’ll also have to wake up at 5 a.m. — without an alarm clock.

That’s just a sample of the restrictions McDaniel imposes in an effort to help students become more observant, aware and disciplined. Each of the constraints represents an actual taboo observed by a monastic religious order.

“I’ve found in the past that students take this extremely seriously,” said McDaniel, who has taught the class twice before. “I’ve had very few people who try to get away with things, and you can always tell when they are.”

The discipline starts with a dress code for class: White shirts for the men, black shirts for women, and they must sit on opposite sides of the class. No makeup, jewelry or hair products. Laptop computers are prohibited; notes can be taken only with paper and pen. And don’t even think of checking your cell phone for e-mail. … [continued]


Business Lessons Learned in the Monastery

Business Lessons Learned in the Monastery

When I lived in the monastery as a Catholic priest, 20% of my superiors thought they were Divinely inspired. Now that I’m working in corporate America, the number’s up to 80%. In my company, I’m one of the few who has a core competency for dealing with executives who believe themselves to be infallible. My CEO has even recognized this skill and has me report directly to him to assist in changing the company’s culture. Oddly enough, my years in the Church gave me some decent skills for succeeding in the business world. I often feel that the jobs have proven to be quite similar, much of my work continues to remain priestly: building community, repairing trust, offering hope, and trying to heal an inherently flawed human system.

Morale continues to remain dismal in most companies and employee surveys reveal three disturbing trends: nobody trusts, workers don’t believe senior management, and employees are too stressed out to care. Problems with trust, belief, and caring. When I lived behind the cloistered walls, we referred to these dynamics as a crisis of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Corporate America is facing a spiritual problem as much as a fiscal one. Napoleon once said that leaders are dealers in hope. That sounds like a sacred quality to me. So, maybe it’s not all that surprising that the job of today’s executive is as much spiritual as it is managerial. … [continued]


Business Secrets Of The Trappists

Business Secrets Of The Trappists

For more than 12 years I have been going to a Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C., called Mepkin Abbey. As a monastic guest, I wear a habit and temporarily live the life of a Trappist monk. I go primarily for spiritual reasons, but as a businessman and entrepreneur I am fascinated by the worldly aspect of the monastic life.

Mepkin, like monasteries the world over, runs a business. These monastic businesses are invariably based on just the kind of low-margin, highly competitive “me too” commodity products–cheese, fruitcakes, eggs–that any first year MBA student would “wind down” and “exit” as fast as possible.

Yet these monastic businesses are hugely successful. The demand for their prosaic products far outstrips supply, giving monastic businesses the kind of pricing flexibility usually associated with dominant brands or patent protection.

Most important, the monastic business model is far more than a curious anomaly. My own experience applying the monks’ lessons demonstrates that the magic behind monastic businesses can be universally applied with equally impressive results. Business executives everywhere should be learning from the monks.

First, some background.

An essential part of the Rule of St. Benedict, the founding and still-definitive guide to monasticism written by St. Benedict in the sixth century, is that all monasteries must be self-sufficient and self-supporting communities. Trappists accomplish this primarily through manual labor. Indeed, the Rule of St. Benedict calls monks to manual labor as an essential part of the monastic experience. Orare est laborare–to pray is to work–is a principle that new monks quickly learn at Mepkin.

Mepkin Abbey has several thousand acres of woods, pastures, gardens and forests. Until recently, the monks ran an egg business with 40,000 chickens; they recently transitioned into the mushroom business. The manure from chickens is collected, processed, bagged and sold as compost, and the trees that cover much of the monastery are managed as a renewable forest.

The land, a gift from the family of the publisher Henry Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, back in the 1940s, came with a magnificent garden along the Cooper River that the monks meticulously maintain. The Abbey has a beautiful church, a wonderful library, a conference center, a guest center, a gift shop and more than a dozen immaculate retreat houses. The monks entertain a constant stream of retreatants, guests and sightseers while cooking for themselves and caring for their aged and infirm in a spotless state-of-the-art infirmary.

Impressive as this sounds, what is most amazing is that all these accomplishments represent the part-time effort of a couple of dozen elderly men living and working together mostly in silence. They attend church services six times a day and spend hours in solitary prayer, contemplation and sacred reading. Because their mission is to live a life of silent contemplative prayer, they work only part time. … [continued]

The Establishing of a Monastery: Tisarana

In the summer of 2006, the monks visited the newly-acquired property on which their future vihara–monastery–would be built. The monastery they envisioned would be called Tisarana, and would be one of only three monasteries dedicated to the Thai forest tradition of Buddhism in Canada. The land had been donated to them by a generous benefactor–108 acres of farmland in rural Perth, Ontario. The property came with a large, old brick house, a barn, a garage, and a few other stray buildings. By 2014, the monastery would be a thriving community, and as they approach the completion of their second phase of development, the monastery will be able to accommodate a total of eight monks, eight lay members, and between twenty-five to fifty daytime visitors to the monastery. 

A large component of the Thai forest tradition includes isolation and mediation, and as such, one of the major projects has been the building of several kutis (cabins) throughout the property–spread out, so as to ensure adequate privacy. Much of the daily life of the monks is dedicated to meditation and teaching, though it is not uncommon to see one with a hammer in his hands. The monastery is largely supported by dana–that is, goodwill and generosity of lay supporters–which is an important tradition in Theravada Buddhism. Unlike like many European monastics, Buddhist monks are generally not permitted to work for money–though chores are commonplace in any Buddhist monastery. 

Over the past few years, the buildings of Tisarana have received a major transformation: the barn has been turned into a small meditation hall, and the garage has become the main office. The landscape has been reshaped to accommodate future buildings, gardens (Buddhist monks are generally forbidden from breaking the earth, so much of the landscaping was handled by lay supporters), etc. Future plans include the building of more cabins, a large meditation hall, further renovation of the large barn and renovation of the small barn into a winter workshop, washrooms and showers for the monks, an expanded kitchen area, a library, and further accommodation for visiting monks and laity. 

Work has been ongoing for eight years, and the monastery is far from complete. However, the community is thriving and lively, and the monastery houses three resident monks, as well as a few novices or training monks. Considering the austerity of the Thai forest tradition, it is heartening to see such a thriving, stoic contemplative lifestyle being practiced so successfully in Canada.


Establishing a New Secular Monastic Community

Establishing a New Secular Monastic Community

Many of us long to live our lives in quiet contemplation, and yet few of us are capable of doing so alone. We strive to belong, to find a sense of community, and yet we never quite fulfill our deepest desires: to study and learn, to contemplate and explore our deepest selves. For some, religious orders provide a perfect refuge for the contemplative mind, where prayer and piety lead their lives. But not everyone subscribes to faith, and for those of us who seek a contemplative lifestyle outside of religiosity, there are few good options. … [continued]