A Day in a Monk's Life
How does a monk spend his day?
Many people ask this question especially:
1. The novice monks who are eager in spirit and want to live their monastic life in honesty
2. The youth who is thinking of becoming a monk, in order to see if they are capable of copying with this life or not.
Personally before joining the monastery, I used to read lots if books dealing with monasticism and the first chapter I looked for was talking about how a monk spends his day, whether in the monastery or inside his cell .
3. Those who edit books about monasticism
4. Common people because there are still lots of mysteries about monastic life that people do not know
Prophet Jeremiah says: "Thus says Lord: Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls. But they said, "We will not walk in it."(Jeremiah 6:16). So if we follow the old paths, definitely we will reach heavenly Kingdom because these are ready paved paths.
Some of the elder fathers' sayings:
"The monks have to follow this order in their life: From 3pm they do whatever the superintendent asks them to do, in obedience and submission as taught by St Paul, "Do all things without complaining and disputing. A monk should fear the threatening of St Paul states; nor complain, as some of them complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer"".
"Read some Psalms, memorize some, do some readings and so you can spend the day pleasing God. Our early fathers didn't follow a timetable for prayers; they used to spend the day between readings, praying the Psalms, working their hand work"
"In your cell, spend some time reading the Psalmody, some time in praying the Psalms, some time in testing your thoughts. Do not fix a limit for the Psalmody or prayers from the heart, but practice them as much as God might give you. Never neglect reading and inner prayers. Do a bit of everything of the above mentioned in your day."
Our elder fathers did all in God's fear as St Paul taught in his epistles. If you are sitting in your cell remember your sins, weep and ask the Lord's forgiveness. If your mind goes astray, bring it back quickly.
"In the morning wash your hands and bow in a metania in front of the cross, in order to concentrate your thoughts and gets your heart inflamed with God's love. Weep and plead to the Lord. Pray this short prayer before reading the Holy Bible, 'O Lord, make me worthy to enjoy the Mysterious of Your Only Begotten Son. Shine unto my heart with your pure light. Grant me Your grace; do not let the mention of Your Holy Name depart from my heart day and night. 'Preferably read the Book of Acts and St Paul's Epistle in order to cleanse you till 9am. Then stand before the cross, do a metania, pray the 3rd hour prayer, do not hasten in praying the Psalms , feel the words you are reading and mediate on them. Then read the elders book till 6th hour. After the 6th hour prayer, keep working while doing metanias."
Our fathers consider the handwork done in their cell, in God's fear, equivalent to gaining one of the virtues for two reasons:
1. it relieves you from boredom, as St Anthony was taught by the angel and
2. The monk earns his food and living needs from selling his handwork and he is also able to give alms.
From the 9th hour till evening he eats, prays and does metanias. At night, raise your heart to God thankfully, for all His grace and mercy during the day. Do this in great fear and awe because the night sacrifice is the most acceptable to God, as David says: "Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice." (Psalms 141:2). Then eat moderately do not indulge in many kinds of food, do not fill your stomach lest the enemies attack you at night.
Finish your canon after eating, as directed by the elder fathers. Spend the night in three parts; Psalms with metanias, reading and singing praises, in order to receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit throughout the whole night. A monk who spends the night in vigil resembles the angels of light who are always glorifying the Lord.
Be keen to complete the seven Agpia prayers set by our elderly fathers because they preserve our life
St Nilus of Sinai:
"Split the day into same work, some prayers and some readings. Keep your mind meditating and contemplating."
St Isaiah of Scetis:
"Pray a lot during the night, because prayer is the light to soul. Spend around two hours of prayers and singing Psalms at night before sleeping. Do not be reluctant in the Agpia prayers lest you fall in the hands of your enemies, the Psalms preserve you from the sin of impurity. Eat once daily, moderately and stay awake at night also moderately. Spend half of the night in prayers and the other half to have a rest. If you are living in a cell, fix an amount of food and certain time to eat regularly because the destruction of the soul comes from the greedy stomach.
In the morning read God's word first, before starting any work, then do whatever you have to do in your cell actively.
In your cave do these 3 things:
1) Hard work,
2) Pray and read
3) Always think that today is the last day alive and so you will not sin
The author of "Studies in the History of Egyptian Monasticism" (Page 153), records how the monks were keen to pray the seven prayers of the Agpia. They pray the Sunset Prayer and before sleeping prayer then have a little rest at the first quarter of night, then whoever had slept wakes up for the midnight prayer, which they consider very important quoting David the Prophet's words: "At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You" (Psalms 119:62). He who is reluctant to rise for prayer is considered reluctant in giving thanks and gratitude to God. At dawn they pray the Morning P Prayer after which they are not allowed to sleep but rather spend around three hours reading the Holy Bible and meditating. The Morning Prayers, the third hour prayer at 9am, the 6th hour prayer at 12pm and the 9th at 3pm.
The author of "The Coptic Monasticism at the time of Anba Macarius" (Page 362) says: "The day of the monks starts immediately after Midnight, with the Prayer and praise of Midnight, then they keep reading the Holy Bible till sunrise, following the first great commandment of St Anthony, "Pray always, memorize the Psalms and the Holy Bible before sleeping and straight after walking". By doing this a monk is not giving any chance for the evil thoughts to come through his mind."
The early fathers used to read the Holy Bible or Psalms while doing their handwork because weaving baskets was an easy job that did not require much attention, thus they mastered memorizing huge parts of the Holy Bible.
Handwork ends by 12 noon, then a monk has some rest, each according to his needs.
Lunch and the period of abstaining from food:
The early fathers fixed 3pm to be the hour for the only meal eaten by a monk. The time was set by devout fathers having deep spiritual experience. A novice was not to eat before or after this fixed time.
The Ninth hour prayer:
Palladius recorded that at 3pm (the 9th hour prayer) you could hear the Psalmody praises clearly everywhere in the desert of Egypt. John Cassian also approved of this fact. Thus, the 9th hour prayer was prayed by all monks before they ate their only meal
A monk might sleep after Sunset prayer up till Midnight prayer, and then he wakes up and starts his prayers.
The Importance of the Cave:
According to one of the fathers, the cell resembles the fiery furnace of the Three Young Saints at the time of Daniel the Prophet, when they were talking to the Lord and praising Him from amidst the fire (they were enjoying His presence with them). So amidst the fire of struggle, the dew of grace and the Holy Spirit refreshes the monk.
The cave is not a place to rest and relax, but it is a place of pain, struggle, joy and crying out to God. It is a place where God comes and visits us. The cell is a sign of an ascetic life and renouncing the world, it is a sign of continuous resurrection to God. It is written: "Now it came to pass, while he blessed them, that he was parted from them and carried up into heaven." (Luke 24:51). So isolating ourselves from people allows us to ascend to heaven and go up step by step in virtues.
A monk's continuous aim is: "but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible ornament of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious is the sight of God." (1 Peter 3, 4), as the Psalmist says: "The royal daughter is all glorious within the palace; Her clothing is woven with gold. She shall be brought to the King in robes of many colors; the virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to You." (Psalms 45:13-14). The life of the cell and the life of the communion in the monastery are like wings for monk, if he uses them in harmony, they will lift him up quickly towards holiness.
Once, a monk went to St Moses the Black and asked him a word of benefit, so the elder said to him: "go back to your cell and the cell will teach you everything." The same advice was given by Anba Arsenius to a monk, the monk followed the advice for three days then started feeling bored, so he weaved some palm leaves, and then he felt hungry, so he ate a little, then prayed for a while, then read the Holy Bible and so on. So with grace of God he kept doing this till he calmed down and had authority over himself and defeated the thoughts fighting him.
Monasticism in the Early Ages:
The day used o start at midnight; Cassian fixed this at the crow of the rooster (around 12am). The monks used to wake up as if repeating with St Paul: "You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness but let us watch and are sober." (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6)
The Apostle Paul fulfilled these words practically while he was imprisoned with Silas, their feet fastened in stocks; "But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them." (Acts 16:25), and as a result of this strong prayer; "Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were loosed." (Acts 16:26)
The monk starts his day with Midnight Prayer as the Psalmist says: "At midnight I will rise to give thanks to you, because of your righteous judgment." (Psalms 119:62); then the Morning Prayer, which finishes around 6am, then he does metanias in humility, reads the Holy Bible from both Old and New Testaments and does his handwork inside his cell till 12pm.
St Paul teaches a very important commandment: "that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lake nothing. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
The third and sixth hour prayers fall during this time, so he can pray them in his cell, while doing his handwork. But if he can't concentrate, he might stop and pray. During work, he can memorize short prayers like, "My Lord Christ have mercy on me, a sinner". He can then have a rest each according his need.
A lovely story is mentioned in The Paradise of The Holy Fathers about the great St John the short; "An elder monk came to St John the short and found him asleep. He saw an angel standing by St John waving cool air on him to relieve him from the heat and so he left. When St John the Short awoke, he asked his disciple if there was an elder here, then he knew that this elder was a righteous one and that he saw the angel."
After the rest, the monk starts preparing his meal. Then he prays the ninth hour prayer at 3pm followed by eating his food. He then reads the lives of the fathers and spiritual books, if he needs any guidance he can go to his teacher. At sunset, around 5pm he prays the sunset and the prayer before sleeping. He then keeps praying until he falls asleep. He sleeps for a few hours, then he wakes up for midnight prayers starting a new day by the grace of God. Nowadays there is no fixed system for a monk's day, but he rather organizes his day by agreement with his confession father.
Here roughly is an order for a monk's day in the monastery:
• Around 4am he wakes up, goes to church for the midnight prayer with the other monks, then the midnight praise, followed by the Holy Liturgy. He can either attend the Liturgy if it is his turn to serve, or go back to his cell and pray his own prayers
• He prays the first, third and sixth hour prayers, followed by metanias, then he reads the Holy Bible
• Around 9am the work starts in the monastery, whether in the church, bookshop, stores, guests' room, bakery, garden, etc…
• Usually, the novices carry out the more tiring jobs because they are not used to spend long periods in their cell. The sick and elders are exempted from any jobs.
• A monk should recite Psalms and prayers during his work; he can also pray some of his hourly prayers, for example the sixth and ninth hour.
• He then eats at the time that his confession father had fixed for him and then has a rest, but if he had already slept in the morning he shouldn't rest again.
• He then prays the ninth, sunset, before sleeping prayers followed by some readings until the church bell rings, upon which he goes to the church for prayers with all the monks.
• Reading is appropriate in summer during daytime, but in winter when the nights are longer, he does all his readings, writings, mediations, cleaning his cell etc…
• Then he can have some time to visit other sick monks or walk in the desert and mediate, he can pray the Veil prayers and part or all of the midnight prayer, or he can learn some hymns, tunes or the Coptic language.
• He goes back to his cell for dinner and finishes the rest of his prayers.
• He goes to bed around 10pm in order to wake at 4pm. Some monks live in separate cells or caves outside the monastery in the desert or mountains. They have their own special system of spending their day. This is an endowment given to us, let us use it appropriately and please the Lord in all our deeds.