The phenomenon of revived monasticism in Russia and the vital and improbable role it plays in Russian society is poorly understood by most people in the West, Christian and non-Christian alike, Protestant and Catholic.
Tsarist Russia at its end hosted an enormous network of monasteries, which had grown over a period of 600 years, accruing great material wealth. This impressive physical infrastructure has largely been returned to the Russian church. While the number of monks are far less than in Tsarist days, many of these outposts have been brought back to their former splendor. There is nothing like it in any other country on earth in terms of size and scale. Here is a photo essay describing the 7 biggest male monasteries within the borders of Russia. (There are 3 in this category in the Ukraine which are part of the Russian Church)
There is the administrative role of the monks, only they are allowed to be executives in the Patriarchy's sprawling bureaucracy, and only they fill its leadership ranks.
Then there is the spiritual understanding of the role of monks. The Patriarch's (who is a monk himself) reference to them as an 'army' was not a coincidence. The Orthodox church teaches that monks are like soldiers carrying out 'spiritual warfare' with the demons and the devil himself. Instead of being involved, or even aware of what is going on in the world, monks are called upon to pray, to fast, to live in asceticism, to live an intense spiritual existence. The church teaches that it is the prayerful activity of these monks which attracts the wrath and spiritual attacks of the demons, and serves as a kind of protective shield over the whole country. It is true spiritual warfare.
Which is all rather a contrast to the idea of them coming together for a day long professional conference at the fancy new convention center underneath the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, which happened on September 23. This is something of an innovation, this being the 3rd such event, the last one being 6 years ago. In his hour-long presentation, the Patriarch said he personally found these confabs helpful, and that many of his fellow spiritual warriors had expressed the same sentiment.
The attending abbots and abbesses do what attendees always do at such events, listened to presentations from the main stage, and hobnobbed and networked with each other, exchanging notes and experiences at stand-up tables with tea and cookies. Here is a detailed write-up describing the event (Russian text).
For a good photo essay of the event, click here. It is from the excellent photo archive maintained by the Patriarchal press department, which has extremely well done photos of Christian life and events in Russia.
There were presentations from the main stage on 'The organization of the spiritual life of monasteries', 'Monastic spiritual leadership in modern conditions, and 'The mission of monasteries today', by leading abbots.
In his lengthy presentation (text), Patriarch Kirill avoided discussing world events, and focused instead on spiritual reflections related to spiritual life as a monk. At one point he confessed that he himself often had trouble finding the time and the strength to pray, because his life is such a whirlwind of administrative and ceremonial activity, and he cautioned the audience against getting too caught up in affairs of the world.
Kirill's presentation (in Russian)
Kirill shared some statistics about Russian monasticism which are interesting:
Now a few words about statistics. Currently, there are 947 monastic monasteries in the Russian Church, including 458 male monasteries and 489 female monasteries. Of this number, 570 monasteries are located on the territory of the Russian Federation. There are 277 male and 293 female monasteries in Russia.
It is gratifying that monastic communities are emerging in megacities and in the most remote dioceses. This testifies to the invincible power of God, to the attractiveness of the path that the Lord offers for the specially chosen, for those who find the strength to follow it. This really shows the invincible power of Christ, that people respond to the Savior's love and are willing to devote their lives to Him.
Thus, only 60% of the church's monasteries are in Russia. A large part of the remainder are in Ukraine, and Ukrainian nationalists are trying to seize many of them, especially the oldest, largest and grandest, with the richest history. Another one in Donetsk (Svyatogorsk) is right on the front, and has changed hands more than once over the past months, sustaining significant damage.
Another interesting fact is that there are more nuns and monks in the Russian Church, by a factor of 2:1. Indeed, this writer has more than once heard from monks that it is hard to find men in the modern world who are willing or able to undertake the ascetic demands of monasticism. As a result, many of the revived monasteries are under-manned. Readers of this article from the West may be glad to know that men and women of any country can become monastics in Russian monasteries, although not everyone makes it through the selection process.
Usually, someone wanting to become a monk first has to first work at a menial job at a monastery, sometimes for years, during which the monks evaluate his spiritual abilities. Only if he meets their rather demanding criteria, is he then allowed to become a monk.
Finally, a note about the venue. When the enormous Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt from scratch in the mid 90s, it included a huge modern convention center, The Hall of Church Councils, built into a hill that slopes down from the cathedral towards the Moscow river. Because it is largely underground, it does not appear very large from the street, but inside it is enormous. Here is a video showing the main convention hall, which regularly hosts major events, concerts, etc. It is decorated in Byzantine church style.
In addition to the main hall there are cavernous hallways the reach deep into the foundation of the cathedral, with dozens of smaller halls and rooms for extensive public events. The whole center is very impressive and modern and it gives the Russian Church and ideal venue to host its many large-scale conventions and events in a truly Orthodox setting.