The most important and most common monastic terminology
First: the jobs (duty) of the monks (the fathers):
- Abbot: (Head of the monastery)
He is the spiritual father of the monastery and the principal in charge of the monastery. He is chosen on the recommendations of the monks. In the past the abbot may only be an ‘Eghomanous’, but now every monastery has a bishop for their abbot.
- The father in charge “Robitta”:
“Robitta” is a monastic term given to the monk father who is in charge of the monastery affairs, in the same way as a father is in charge of the affairs of his family affairs.
- The church father:
He is the one in charge to lead the hymn chorus in the monastery. He is also responsible of handing down the rosary to fathers and brethren. He is also responsible of ringing the bell for prayers at different times through the day. He also leads the mid-night prayers daily.
- The lantern father:
He is the monk father responsible about lighting the lanterns of the church, hence, his name ‘lantern father’. He is also in charge of the cleanliness of the church and of tidying up the altar and preparing it for the prayers and liturgies.
- Brothers under examination:
When the abbot accepts someone to become, hopefully, a monk, he is given first a blue apparel, then a white one, shortly before being consecrated as a monk. Such period is known as an examination period; and the person is called (brother under examination). That is, the abbot needs to find out if he is going to succeed as a monk, and he himself needs to find out for himself if life inside the monastery will suit him for the rest of his life. If things turn out in his favor, then he is ordained as a monk.
- Monk of the synod:
Being recommended and ordained, the new monk joins the synod of the monastery and carries out the tasks assigned to him in the monastery. Thus he is given the name “monk of the synod’
- Monk in isolation:
A monk starts living among the monks of the monastery, his brothers, a kenonian type of life where everything is shared among them. If the monk achieves a level of perfection in his spiritual worship then he may step unto complete individual isolation away from everybody, dwelling in a cave in the mountains and would go back to the monastery for Holy Communion every now and then or for a very necessary need of aid. In such case, he is considered (a monk in isolation).
- A locked-up monk:
Such is the monk who stays locked –up inside his cell starting by a couple of days moving on to couple of weeks never leaving his cell until the end of the week until he reaches-up to complete shut-up in his cell, enjoying spiritual life with God.
- Monk with mystical ascim:
When a monk grows and advances in spiritual life and he develops an eagerness to fulfill the ‘Holy Ascim’ ritual, for this mystical ascim is a very special, serious and tough ritual to be achieved on the spiritual level through severe ascetic regime – and if he is recommended for it by his ‘father of confession’ and the abbot of the monastery, then the abbot of the monastery carries out the rituals of the prayers of the Holy Ascim and he becomes an ascim monk.
- The Pilgrim:
It is a very high level in spiritual life for the monk after leading a spiritual life of isolation in a cave in the mountains, he may move on to an advanced level known as a pilgrimage life when he becomes a monk in isolation without a shelter. This is the highest spiritual level when monk pilgrims move easily from one place to another needless of any means of transportation.
They gather together to pray and take part in Holy Communion. Also, they may resort to the monasteries for supplies to fulfill the sacrament of Holy Communion on their own. Closed doors are not an obstacle to them that may hinder them from getting into the buildings. Once, they fulfill the liturgy prayers in any of the churches, they would leave a sign as water, on the altar indicating they had carried out the prayers of the liturgy, so that the priest would not carry out the liturgy prayers a second time on that same altar.
Second: The Places:
The office of the ‘Robeita’, the principal father who is in charge of administrating the different tasks in the monastery.
A word that roots back to Syrian language meaning the “store room” containing the needs that are distributed later among monks. Every monk has his share or lot in that place.
A word from a Greek origin, meaning the ‘share’ or the 'lot’. It refers to the lot of each monk that he receives from the monastery, that which is distributed equally among all monks.
- The Table:
In each monastery, there is an ancient table to the west of the church. In old times, monks used to spend the days of the week in their caves scattered in the mountains, then they would meet in the monastery on Saturdays and Sundays for prayers to the ‘table’ (Aghapy) after finishing their prayers. Then they would go back to their caves. Nowadays, some monasteries still follow the same routine.
- The Cell:
the cell of a monk consists of 2 compartments, an outer compartment called ( the reception) where the monk may receive and host the monks, his brethren who come to visit him and receive his blessings – and an inner compartment called (seclusion room) and it is confined to the monk only. No one is allowed into that room except the monk, even his brethren are not allowed into it. It is the room where the monk shuts himself up for prayers, fasting, spiritual struggle, metania, readings and contemplations …etc. it is considered the most holy place in a monk’s cell.
It is a Greek word meaning the grave – yard. It is the place where all monks who passed-away peacefully, would be buried after carrying out the funeral prayers. Usually this place is set to the west of the church.
- The Fortress:
It is a huge building made of huge bricks consisting of many stories with no entrance ground door. The only door entrance unto the fortress is 6 meters high above the ground leading unto a moving wooden corridor that rests at its end on an opposite building that you can climb up to by a ladder. At times of threat the monks would get into the fortress and draw-up the wooden bridge from the inside by means of iron chains to stand up perpendicularly at the entrance door of the fortress thus no one can reach up to them … the barbarians fail to invade the fortress.
From the inside, the fortress is designed, organized and prepared for everyday living for a long period of time. There are some rooms that are used as cells for the monks. On the ground floor there are outlets leading to the ‘Tafous’ (place of burial for monks) in case any monk would pass-away during their stay in this shelter away from the barbarians.
Inside the fortress there are churches to say their prayers. Usually on top of each fortress there is always a church named after Archangel Michael (the guard angel). When the threat is over, the monks would leave the fortress back to their normal life in the monastery.
According to the ‘Coptic Seneksar’ the building of fortresses in the monasteries date back to King Zeinon who reigned over the East Roman Estate (474 – 491 AC) in honor to his daughter ‘Elaria’ who became a nun in disguise in St. Makarious monastery by the name of “monk Elary” without revealing her true identity to anyone.
According to church history, when Pope Shenouda I (859 – 880 AC) went to spend the “Pascha week” of the lent at St. Makarious monastery together with the distinguished people of the congregation and witnessed himself the tribulations that the monks suffer from every now and then from those who attack them, he built a fortress in each monastery where the monks may find shelter protecting them from these attacks (history of the Coptic Church P.472 – ‘El Kharida Al-Nafissa’ = the precious jewel Vol.2 P.199).
The place where the ‘bread-Korban’ used for liturgy – the Holy Communion – is being baked. This refers back to “Bethlehem” the place where our Lord Jesus Christ was born – Glory to Him. He is the one who offered Himself as a sacrifice to God the Father, to deliver all human beings.
Third: The monks’ clothing:
- “Kolonsowa” (the helmet):
On top of the part that covers the monk’s head, there are 12 crosses, 6 crosses on one side and 6 on the other side. They refer to the number of the disciples of Jesus Christ, the twelve disciples. In between these 2 parts there is a line, a cut that divides it into 2 parts, which is sewed until we reach ⅓ of the distance then a cross is knitted at the end of that line, exactly at the rear of the monk’s head, referring to the Lord Jesus Christ (supporting the monk in his spiritual struggle against deamons). It is fastened by 2 strips under the monk’s chin.
His Holiness Pope Shenouda II Pope 117 in the succession of the Alexandrian Popes of St. Mark brought it back in use for all monks and he himself was the first to wear it in our modern times.
The design of the monks’ helmet in this way reflects the spiritual struggle of St. Antony the Great, father of monks, against deamons. It has been related that Satan once became furious at St. Antony, praying all the time and he was unable to defeat him as he had all these crosses on his head, (Satan fears the cross) so he got hold of his helmet desiring to put it off his head but St. Antony, the Great took hold of it as well preventing Satan from fulfilling his wish, as a result the helmet tore into 2 parts, at that moment St. Antony called upon Jesus Christ to rescue him, at once Satan turned into black smoke and fled away, as St. Antony made the sign of the cross on himself. St. Antony took the torn helmet and sew it using the tough needle by which he weaves the baskets and then placed it on his head again. Hence the form and design of the monk’s helmet up to the present time. (Sublimity of monasticism PP 153, 156).
- “Mentaka”, (the belt):
It is like a belt or sash. It is made of leather or linen that the monk wraps on his hips and is called ‘Zounarion’ in the Coptic language i.e. a belt. It refers to spiritual awareness and steadiness and strength for spiritual struggle.
It is designed from leather strips interwoven to make the shape of the letter ‘X’ knotted with crosses: a big one in the middle at the front and another at the back and small crosses in the midst of each of the 4 strips on both sides.
Fourth: Monastic terms:
- Monastery’s law:
It refers to the regulations and rules set by the abbot of the monastery by which all monks abide. It conforms to monastic life and it is compulsory to all monks.
- Monastic rule:
It refers to the system of prayers and praises by which each monk should abide for the benefit of his spiritual life according to the guide lines set to each monk by the father of confession.
- “Mettania” (kneeling down before God):
It is a Greek word implying a change of thought, heart and mind, thus turning from worldly leisures to focusing on God. The word “Mettania” according to Arabic interpretation means “repentance”, i.e. turning back to God after abandoning the crooked ways and sins, it is performed by kneeling all the way down, head to the ground.
- Monks orchard:
A book containing the most wonderful stories (true stories) about austere fathers, fathers in isolation as well as those living in monasteries along the wilderness of Egypt. This book contains their vital wise sayings. St. Palladius set this book, following the instructions of someone called “Lausas”, thus it is referred to as “Lausasian History”.
It is one of the most interesting and magnificent monastic books that informs us about Coptic monasticism as its peak, to the extent that most of its readers called it “paradise of the fathers”.
The book has been translated into Arabic under the name, “the monk’s orchard”. All monks mentioned in this book served as torch-light leading the way of virtue to all generations for who so ever wishes to tread unto that subline spiritual path. They served as bright flowers in the Coptic monastic orchard.
About the year 388 AC, he wished to meet with Egyptian austere fathers leading life in isolation in the wilderness of Egypt and become apprenticed to them. So he came to Egypt and spent nearly ten years where he wrote this precious book that contains treasures of the wise sayings of the Egyptian austere fathers of the wilderness.
- Monastic salute (Aghapy):
It is a Greek word meaning “love”. It refers to all forms of love: love among the holy trinity or that between God and man or man and God, or that between man and oneself, or between man and his family, or even the love of a Christian to his enemy.
The word “Aghapy” is the common monastic salute in all Coptic monasteries. It is uttered when one monk meets another or when he knocks at the door of another monk.
- "Haziz = continuous meditation:
It means continuous recital and meditation of short prayers, as for example the prayer of Jesus (my Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me). Or continuous meditation on one of the bible verses or continuous prayers of the psalms. By this, a monk keeps his mind occupied by Heavenly thoughts continuously and his soul ignited by divine fire.
This is a sublime spiritual level when the mind is elevated to witness superb heavenly scenes. Thus, a monk becomes totally isolated from all worldly matters. As was the case of St. john El-Kassir, when the man in charge came up to his cell to take the woven baskets his hand-made ones to sell them, but St. john was so occupied by heavenly thoughts and scenes that the moment he goes back into his cell, he forgets about the baskets and concentrates on heavenly thoughts. When this act of forgetting was repeated, St. John asked the man to go get the baskets himself, as he was totally occupied by heavenly matters.