Meyendorff Lecture: Glimpse into Byzantine Monasticism

When Dr. Alice-Mary Talbot presented the fourth annual Father John Meyendorff Memorial Lecture on our campus recently, she opened a window into Byzantine monasticism that revealed a culture as rich and diverse as the personalities of the monks and nuns who embraced it. Her presentation, titled, Varieties of Monastic Experience in Byzantium, 800–1453, highlighted the many ways one could be a Byzantine monk or nun, and the continuous tensions in Byzantium between the eremitic (solitary living) and coenobitic (community living) forms of monasticism.

She also drew attention to the unique typicon, or rule of life, developed by each monastery, which originally was passed down orally and eventually was set down in written form. The order of life reflected in each typicon, she noted, depended on many factors: the circumstances of the monastery’s founding and its location and size; its spiritual director; and even the gender of its inhabitants.

Additionally, she gave examples of the multipurpose functions of monasteries within Byzantine society—from literary centers, to hospices, to hostels; as well as the multiform lifestyles demonstrated by individual monks—from wanderers, to pillar saints (stylites), to recluses, to anchorites, to unaffiliated solitary monks, to holy advisors.

All in all, said Dr. Talbot, who is Director Emerita of Byzantine Studies, Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine monasticism was marked by “fluidity and flexibility,” and the several modes of monastic life had only a few things actually in common, such as taking of vows and renunciation of  the world. Generally, she said, “autonomy and individualism” were often witnessed in both monks and monasteries. She concluded her lecture with a fitting quote from Philotheos Kokkinos, from the vita of Sabas the Younger: “Since there are many dwellings in the kingdom of heaven, thus the road of piety which leads thereto must branch into many pathways.”

Archpriest Alexander Rentel, assistant professor of Canon Law and Byzantine Studies at the Seminary, introduced Dr. Talbot to the audience, noting that her scholarly interests had often overlapped with those of Father John Meyendorff, former Dean of St. Vladimir’s, who himself had at one time held the position of Acting Director of Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, and after whom the Seminary’s annual lecture is named. Also in attendance at the lecture was His Grace the Right Reverend Paul (Gassios), bishop of Chicago and the Midwest, who was on campus visiting the seminarians who hailed from his diocese. A public reception followed the lecture.

Read an oral history interview with Dr. Talbot regarding her association with Dumbarton Oaks, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent.

Dr. Talbot’s lecture has been posted as an audio podcast in the “Voices of St. Vladimir’s” section of Ancient Faith Ministries. Listen here.