Every Holy Monastery is built on the model of the City of God, Jerusalem Above. In the centre of the courtyard is the church, known as the Catholicon, and the cells are around it.
The iconography in a Byzantine church is linked to the science of architecture, which expresses the function it serves. In Orthodoxy, painting expresses its dogma; it relates the history and the venerable sufferings of the Word of God made Man.
The architecture of Byzantine churches has an element of humility both within and without. In the crepuscular light of the inner narthex, the Lity, and the chapels, people rest from the world and the strain of introspection. They are helped to come to themselves, and through themselves to God. It is for the sake of encountering Him that they come to church, to pray, to repent and to undergo, unseen, the “good alteration.”
The light, reduced in the narthex, is increased in the main body of the church and is shed abundantly in the altar area, gradually elevating the faithful from the earthly towards the heavenly.
This gradation of the light is not unrelated to people’s internal progress and spiritual maturity. As regards monks, one might link it to the gradual estrangement of the younger brethren from the secular outlook and their induction into the inner and more elevated aspects of monasticism. It is something of a scale of elevation from the outside towards the inside, and from the bottom to the top, to the cupola with the Pantokrator, the Lord of All.
The cupola is an image of the sky and the floor is an image of the earth. In the cupola, Christ is represented as the Pantokrator, bearing together the characteristics of the Father and the Son in affirmation of the dogma of consubstantiality. “He who has seen Me, has seen the Father.” He is the Being, the Alpha and Omega: He Who exists without beginning and without end, full of majesty, goodness and severity. With one hand He is blessing, sending His divine grace into the world and in the other He is holding the Holy Gospel bringing truth into the world. “The Saviour has appeared, Who is grace and truth.”
In the apse of the sanctuary, like a conjunction of heaven and earth, since the time of the 7th Ecumenical Synod, there is an icon of the Mother of God “More Spacious than the Heavens,” who links heaven and earth.
Just as the building of the Church is bonded architecturally from the foundations to the cupola, so, by analogy, another force flows through and gives continuity to the mystic body of the Church, from the Lord of All to the last rank of the Saints in the Church Triumphant and to the children of the Church Militant who are undergoing sanctification. And the believer is called upon to find himself in this body of the Church, of which the Head, Christ, rules in heaven, while His glorified members stretch down to the earth, where those participating in divine worship stand.
Worship, according to Saint Basil, is “the attentive service of Him Who is worshipped,” i.e. the due respect to be paid to God through prayer and ritual: heartfelt and total subjection and dedication on the part of Man towards the Triune God Who alone is worthy of adoration and veneration in worship.
For the monks who live in a Coenobium, the center of common worship is the Catholicon of the Monastery, in the center of the enclosed, four-sided sheepfold of the rational flock.
The monk offers labor of the soul and body, and in return receives repose for his heart. He usually comes into the church bowed down with great weight, but leaves, if he so chooses, having undergone “the good alteration.” He ministers from the Holy Sanctuary to the outer narthex and in the surrounding spaces. He serves, prays, sings, intercedes secretly, gives ear to the divine words of the readings and is also nourished in the mystery of the Divine Eucharist by the pure Body and precious Blood of the Word of God made Man.
Like an affectionate mother, the Church cries out to its children and, like a second Ark, opens its doors to save them from the flood, as it were.
At the time of Vespers, always 8:30 according to Byzantine/Athonite reckoning, the monk who has been assigned to do so sounds the talandon, as he circles the church in three “stations.” The Holy Trinity, without beginning and without end, is the beginning and end in everything. Thereafter the great wooden or iron sounding-boards are stuck in the belfry. On occasion, depending on the feast, the large or small bells are also rung. The serving priest in the inner narthex has already intoned the “Blessed” to begin the 9th hour during which the Lord tasted death; and the crucified monk at the north wall of the inner narthex, bearing with steadfastness the arrows of invisible enemies, hears the comforting narrative of how a thief used “Remember me” as a key and thus became the first to cross the threshold of Paradise.
Soon afterwards, the Introductory Psalm will be heard in the Catholicon, the exquisite psalm of Creation [Psalm 103]. The beginning of Vespers. The fathers, one after another, have already reverenced the holy icons, as is seemly, and receive the blessing of the serving priest, while another monk reads the appointed portion of the psalter. The prayer-stalls, which Saint Cosmas of Aitolia calls “upright tombs,” receive those who have chosen the crucified life.
“Lord I cried unto Thee, hear me. Hear me, O Lord.” The lament of Adam before Paradise now lost. On their lips, the singers take up the zeal and the prayers of all, monks and pilgrims, calling on the Lord, the Lady Mother of God, the Angels and the Saints of the day, who, as members of the Church Triumphant, stretch out a kindly hand of help to those who are fighting the good fight.
After common prayer in the Catholicon, the monks are called to the trapeza. Architecturally, the trapeza resembles the church, though there is no iconostas. In the center of the semi-circle that corresponds to the apse in the Holy Altar in a normal church, there is the place of the abbot, with priests and deacons on either side. Supper, like lunch, has a certain formality, but the fare is frugal. Monks in a coenobium never eat meat, while on fast days, i.e. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they eat only once. During the meal, silence reign. There is a reader’s stand in the trapeza where a monk reads the Life of the saint of the day or some other ascetic or theological text.
Immediately after the refectory, there is Small Compline, read in the inner narthex. The Mother of God is also properly venerated here, through the Salutations read before her icon. The monk in charge of the church has lit the light in good time and is censing the narthex and the whole church in proper order. The recurring “Rejoice” in the hymn blends wonderfully with the delicate, wafted incense. The reader, bare-headed; the fathers without their cowls; and everyone standing down from their prayer-stalls, as a sign of honour.
Immediately thereafter follows the last reverence of the day to the icons and the blessing from the abbot or celebrant. A short hymn and then the dismissal “Through the prayers.”
Then comes the reverencing of the holy relics. The kiss of the lips corresponds to the embrace from the depths, when the veneration in the heart rises to the lips.
The sun is already hastening to set and each one, before taking rest, has to account for the actions of the day… The bell at the Gate sounds for silence: twelve o’clock Byzantine time. “Thou appointedst the darkness and there was the night.”
“As we arise from sleep, we fall down before Thee, O Good One, and we cry unto Thee with the hymn of the angels, O Mighty One: Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.” After the end of the Midnight Office, the celebrant priest censes the whole of the church, as far as the outer narthex. After the exclamation “Glory to the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-creating and Indivisible Trinity,” the Six Psalms begin.
The monks in charge of the church have made sure that all the candles have been extinguished and now everyone is concentrating on what is being said. These are moments of complete sanctity, when not even deep bows of reverence are appropriate. It is the time of the impartial Judgment, and blessed is he who will be found then to have the divine light of virtue so that he may progress through it into the light that never sets.
“God is the Lord, and hath appeared unto us; blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” Readings from the psalms, hymns, canons. The saints of the day, the “roll of honor” of those valiant souls who, with faith and love, gave the whole of their lives to Him Who is Life itself and Love Itself, the Lord Jesus.
The night proceeds towards its end. Ever so gently, the sun rises. The Holy Fathers, who ordered everything well, designated this time for the singing of the “More Honorable” to the Birth-giver of God and Mother of the Light. Before the Sweetly-Kissing Mother of God, candles of veneration and hope are lit by the pilgrims. Everyone stands down from the prayer stalls and the priest censes: “Rejoice, sweet-scented Fragrance of Christ; Rejoice, Life of mystic festival.”
The Divine Liturgy, the high point of the day and night’s prayers has a peaceful character; the voices of the priests, singers and readers are supplicatory and humble.
The Holy Chalice was, from the first, common to all the faithful. Any pilgrims who wish to do so may partake in the Lord’s Feast, provided they have prepared in due reverence and, above all, have confessed. Only partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ with a pure conscience can restore those deadened by sin to life in God.
Time on Athos flows very quickly. It really is a mystery how the nights succeed the days and the end of the week comes.
When monasticism is experienced conscientiously, it is a life above nature, a real martyrdom. This is why the grace of God Who is without time, makes the time of life-long martyrdom of the conscience relative, with the hope of the Resurrection. And this hope becomes tangible every weekend, when the great bells ring out for Vespers. This small, weekly “Pascha” is repeated every year, for as many days as the readings from the Pentecostarion last, i.e., the length of time of the celebration of the great and eternal Pascha.
“Pascha of the Lord, Pascha; and again I say Pascha in honor of the Trinity.” Pascha, the passage from darkness to light; Pascha, the exodus from Hades to the earth; Pascha, the ascent from the earth to the heavens; Pascha, the transfer from death to life; Pascha, the raising of fallen mortals; Pascha, of the faithful, the real life; Pascha, the nourishment of the whole world. The names for Pascha are inexhaustible, because the grace suggested by it is multiple. It is the repose of souls, the congruity of the faculties, the illumination of the eyes, the sweetening of the throat. It is good cheer, it is delight, it is peace, it is joy.
Night and day the monk flees in his life from the things below to those above. It is the supernatural way for the ascent from being “in the image” to being “in the likeness,” for Man to become like God.
The Blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast, mighty in action and in contemplation, used to say that “a real Monk is the product of the Holy Spirit.”
Despite the siege laid against the monastic life by the manifold cares of the world, it retains the prerogatives of a life which is more philosophical and more elevated. Poverty, chastity and obedience remain the unchanged ideals and aims of every monk, through the triptych of prayer, work and fasting.
Studying, eating, resting, and working, “one working on the land, another in the garden, another in the foundry, another in the bakery, another on construction…” (The Lausaicon of Palladius), whatever the obedience to which he has been assigned, the monk ceaselessly calls upon Christ the Bridegroom, crying in supplication through silent repetition of the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Signposts to heaven, the cypresses in the courtyards of the Monasteries and in the peaceful cemeteries of Athos murmur “Alleluia” night and day, in all moods and in all voices. And the Lord of All, from all the cupolas of the main churches and chapels never ceases to bless and give repose to the living and the departed. And the waves of the Mountain are waves of the sea, of the air and of the bells, bearing messages of comfort and hope for all the world.
Taken from the book, The Holy Monastery of Philotheou