The Lavra I
The Lavra – 1
“In the Encyclopedia of Community, which might qualify as the bible of the communal studies field, the entry on Monastic Communities states: “there are two kinds of monastic life—eremetic (hermit) and cenobitic (community).”
Indeed, these were the two primary models that survived, but it is more helpful to see the monastic world as a spectrum between these two extremes. In fact, the majority of monks in places like Palestine and early on in Egypt were neither coenobitic nor eremitic, but were a part of lavras.
Lavras were communities in which the monks lived in clusters surrounding a series of central building that included (normally), a church, a bakery, storage facilities, and perhaps a few other common buildings such as an infirmary or guest quarters. The monks lived within walking distance of the central area, but showed a surprising degree of diversity and independence: some lived alone, others lived with two or three others and occasionally one would see homes of up to five people, usually under the direction of a spiritual elder. Each cell or house followed their own rule away from the central church and could even hold distinct theological perspectives, but they would come together one to three times throughout the week for common meals and worship; undoubtedly, they came together other times as well, but the primary paths converged at the core.
The Greek term “lavra” (Λαύρα) meant in ancient Greek a passageway, lane, or a back alley. However, it should not be seen as a lonely, empty path but a place of congregation. When lavra was translated into Syriac as the model spread north, it was translated as Shouka (suq, in modern Arabic), which is a a marketplace, a vibrant and bustling place full of discussion, commerce, and social intercourse. So lexically the term meant something like a place where pathways connect, a sort of intersection of souls.
The fifth century monastic theologian Evagrius Ponticus gave a definition that seems to capture the broader picture: the lavra is a place “where the dwelling place is separate and distinct, but the common life accomplishes a single goal: divine love.”
The origins of the lavra system in Egypt is a bit obscure but the first lavra in Palestine was founded by Chariton in 330CE, who was captured by bandits while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and decided to stay and found a community at the place of his captivity. The pinnacle of the movement was in the sixth century with St. Sabbas (439- 532).
The most important primary sources are “The Lives of the Monks of Palestine” by Cyril of Scythopolis (6th century) and “The Spiritual Meadow” by John Moschus (d 619 or 634). The period of decline begins in the seventh century and by the 9th century, there are none left in the traditional form.
Even at their peak, however, individual lavra communities never grew too large by coenobitic monastic standards: most were between a dozen to seventy people, though there are a couple of examples swelling to 150 individual monks. The constraining factor, as with most things in the Middle East, was water: they needed to find unsettled places in the Judean desert that had an adequate water supply, which usually meant inhabiting fierce cliffs and ravines. Many of the cells and houses were caves or structures built attached to the caves, which provided natural air conditioning as well as protection from the weather and robbers. From above, they could almost appear almost as spiders with a network of paths leading to a central core.
The lavras were designed so that most of the formal interaction between the monks occurred in these shared core structures while the cells or houses were kept private. The cells and houses were not too distant from the core: monks write about being able to hear their brethren’s singing and all could hear the talon striking the board in the central area to mark the time periods of the day. The central complexes varied from little more than a chapel and a common room to rather robust central facilities: one abbot known as Gerasimus created a model where the common areas were more far more instrumental and vibrant than the original lavras.
His form of lavra had a church, storeroom, and refectory as with others but it also had a kitchen, living quarters for staff including abbot’s quarters, and guest quarters. Regardless of the size and form of the core complex, there were always private zones and common zones with differing sets of rules applied to each area. Herein lies one of the most the distinctive element of lavra versus coenobitic forms of monasticism: searching for a balance between individualization/privatization of life with the inherent value and advantages of a life in community.
The early monastic world, much like our own today, struggled with the question of community. The earliest monks were the hermits, especially in the deserts of Egypt and the wilds of Syria. They were fierce individualists, whose goal was to be “alone with the Alone.” Later monastic writers such as St. Basil the Great was so appalled by this form of religious life that he argued that being a hermit was not only unchristian (for how do you love one another when you are alone) but also inhuman, since to be human is to be social. For those of the second camp, a coenobium or life in common that sought uniformity in all areas of life—all the monks looked the same, prayed the same way, followed the same schedule, etc…—was the ideal. In the midst of these extremes stood the lavra, which allowed for diversity of life with varied degrees of individualization and privacy yet sought to harness the resource advantages of communal life and the opportunity to practice Christian virtues with one another. This diversity and individualization was apparent in many areas of life.
For example, they did not have a common rule to guide their life, across different lavras in the same region or even among the population of a particular lavra. Some communities met formally multiple times a week for meals in common and long church services; others hardly met in common at all, sometimes only in feast days. One should see it as a sort of spectrum where some lavras functioned very closely to the coenobium model while others functioned practically like a collection of hermits. The point is that the monks themselves decided where on that spectrum their community would place themselves and there was not one norm among the lavras.
While the amount of time dedicated to community varied, the primary energy in all the lavras would be dedicated to the private and individualized zones comprised of their cells and houses. Typically, they would divide their days into the classic monastic tri-part: prayers and reading, work, and eating/peace (sleep). However, the specific mix and form would differ between cells. Some might wake up every morning before dawn for long prayers; some might have a more relaxed or informal schedule that depended on shorter prayers. The spiritual exercises also differed. For example, fasting was the central ascetic act of the period for monks. All Christians and especially monks fasted to degrees that seem unimaginable to the modern world. Gerasimus mentions it was normal to eat only bread, water, and dates within his Lavra. However, Moschus tells us of a monk who ate only once slice of bread every four days; another was content to eat only the holy bread on mass on Sunday. Unlike the coenobium where fasting was more or less uniform regardless of personal capability or aspirations, the mark of the lavra was its relative spiritual diversity.
This diversity would have been apparent even to the casually observer. Unlike the coenobium where the monastic habit would quickly identify a monk as belonging to a particular monastery, clothing was also not uniform or mandated. Clothing always represents charged symbols that communicate social messages, but the monks were allowed to decide these messages for themselves. St Sabbas, for example, wore regularly such tattered rags that he was frequently mistaken for a beggar.
However, there were certain fashions and trends, so to speak: most of the monks in Palestine seemed to wear a sort of sleeveless tunic with a hood. However, the point is that clothing was another area of diversity within the lavras.
The apparent diversity would also have been noticeable in the ethnicities of the monks of Palestine. The monks tended to be from all over the Roman Empire: from Italy, Asia Minor, and throughout North Africa. In fact, one of the earliest leaders, a man named Euthymius, had only one native Palestinian at his lavra but it was often that many different areas of the Roman Empire would be represented within the lavras of Palestine. Clearly, these were still all Christian males, so grandiose claims of progressive values are not appropriate, but its international flavor stood in stark contrast to the provinciality that marked monasticism in other areas and kinds. Unarguably, the international character of the lavra monasteries was due to their location near Jerusalem, which was a beacon for pilgrims the world over. But it also speaks to the genetic structure of the community that allowed for a diversity of practices and norms. Much like today, the traditions and norms of life and faith varied across the empire. If one were a faithful monk from Gaul who travelled to a coenobium in Palestine, he would be asked to forgo all that he knew to conform to the uniform practice of the monastery. However, if he were part of a lavra, he could retain most of the traditions and practices that were familiar to him because most of his life was spent in his cell or house. In fact, the literary record shows some signs that some houses within lavras were comprised of people from a certain region. Therefore, the structure of the lavra model fostered diversity within an overarching unity.
This diversity tended to foster the cross-pollination of ideas. In the earliest lavra in Palestine, one of the monks could write in Greek, Latin, and Syriac and became a teacher to others. In fact, one interesting subgroup of the lavra population was immensely popular bishops and theologians who sought quietude in remote lavras, where their anonymity could be protected since they spent most of their time on their own. One can imagine a healthy and perhaps heated exchange on one of the lanes leading to the central church between a new young lavra resident from Egypt with an aging bishop from Rome about the proper way to divide up one’s prayers for the day or a myriad of other theological questions. Once again, the structure of the lavra compared to the coenobium or the hermits fostered such an intellectually dynamic environment. Unlike the coenobium where the spiritual life along with every other aspect of life was merely given to you, the proper way to live would be a point of discussion because each cell or house would be deciding the contours of their specific form for themselves. Inevitably, debates would emerge that would foster reflection and experimentation. By creating a diverse environment that fostered debate, the danger of division and schism would inevitably also rise—and, as will be apparent, it was precisely such a debate that contributed to the decline of the lavra system as a whole—but the structure of the lavra tended to encourage reflection, debate, and experimentation.”
An excerpt from Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, “The Long Lost Lavra” “Social Sciences Directory” 2: 3 (August 2013) 1-20. http://www.thelavra.org/the-ancient-lavra