There are three monastic ranks: the Rassaphore, the Stavrophore, and the Schema-Monk (or Schema-Nun). Each of the three degrees represents an increased level of asceticism. In the early days of monasticism, there was only one level—the Great Schema.
The process of becoming a monk or nun is intentionally slow, as the vows taken are considered to entail a life-long commitment to God, and are not to be entered into lightly. After completing the novitiate, there are three ranks within monasticism. There is only one monastic habit in the Orthodox Church (with certain slight regional variations), and it is the same for both monks and nuns. Each successive grade is given a portion of the habit, the full habit being worn only by those in the highest grade, known for that reason as the "Great Schema," or "Great Habit." One is free to enter any monastery of one's choice; but after being accepted by the abbot (or abbess) and making vows, one may not move from place to place without the blessing of one's ecclesiastical superior.
The word schema comes from the Greek word "σχήμα" (skhēma), which means shape. The Greek plural is "σχήματα" (skhēmata). In English, both schemas and schemata are used as plural form.
The various profession rites are normally performed by the abbot, but in some traditions he must be a priest before he can do this. In those cases, if he has not been ordained or if the monastery is for women, a hieromonk will perform the service. The abbot or hieromonk who performs a tonsure must be of at least the rank he is tonsuring into. In other words, only a hieromonk who has been tonsured into the Great Schema may himself tonsure a Schemamonk. A bishop, however, may tonsure into any rank, regardless of his own.
Orthodox monks are addressed as "Father" even if they are not priests; but when conversing among themselves, monks will often address one another as "Brother." Novices are always referred to as "Brother." Among the Greeks, old monks are often called Gheronda, or "Elder", out of respect for their dedication. In the Slavic tradition, the title of Elder (Slavonic: Starets) is normally reserved for those who are of an advanced spiritual life, and who serve a guides to others.
Nuns who have been tonsured to the Stavrophore or higher rank are addressed as "Mother". Novice and Rassophore nuns are addressed as "Sister". Nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachai (the feminine plural of monachos), and their community is likewise called a monastery.
Monks who have been ordained to the priesthood are called hieromonks (priest-monks); monks who have been ordained to the diaconate are called hierodeacons (deacon-monks). A Schemamonk who is a priest is called a Hieroschemamonk. Most monks are not ordained; a community will normally only present as many candidates for ordination to the bishop as the liturgical needs of the community require. Bishops are required by the sacred canons of the Orthodox Church to be chosen from among the monastic clergy.
Novice (Slavonic: послушник, poslushnik; Greek: δόκιμος, dokimos), lit. "one under obedience"— Those wishing to join a monastery begin their lives as novices. After coming to the monastery and living as a guest for not less than three days, the abbot or abbess may bless the candidate to become a novice. There is no formal ceremony for the clothing of a novice, he or she simply receives permission to wear the clothing of a novice. In the Eastern monastic tradition, novices may or may not dress in the black inner cassock (Greek: Anterion, Eisorasson; Slavonic: Podriasnik) and wear the soft monastic hat (Greek: Skouphos, Slavonic: Skufia), depending on the tradition of the local community, and in accordance to the abbot’s directives. The inner-cassock and the skoufos are the first part of the Orthodox monastic habit. In some communities, the novice also wears the leather belt. He is also given a prayer rope and instructed in the use of the Jesus Prayer.
If a novice chooses to leave during the period of the novitiate, no penalty is incurred. He may also be asked to leave at any time if his behavior does not conform to the monastic life, or if the superior discerns that he is not called to monasticism. When the abbot or abbess deems the novice ready, he is asked if he wishes to join the monastery. Some, out of humility, will choose to remain novices all their lives. Every stage of the monastic life must be entered into voluntarily.
Rassaphore (Slavonic: рясофор), lit. "Robe-bearer"— If the novice continues on to become a monk, he is clothed in the first degree of monasticism at a service at which he receives the tonsure. Although there are no formal vows made at this point, the candidate is normally required to affirm his commitment to persevere in the monastic life. The abbot will then perform the tonsure, cutting a small amount of hair from four spots on the head, forming a cross. He is then given the outer cassock (Greek: Rasson, Exorasson, or Mandorrason; Slavonic: Riassa), an outer robe with wide sleeves, from which the name of Rassaphore is derived. He is also given a kamilavkion, a cylindrical brimless hat, which is covered with a veil called an epanokamelavkion. (These are separate items in the Greek tradition, but in the Russian tradition the two are stitched together and the combination is called a klobuk.) If he has not previously received it, a leather belt is fastened around his waist. His habit is usually black, signifying that he is now dead to the world, and he receives a new name.
The vows of the Riasophore/Rasophore are 'implicit' rather than 'explicit'. Such vows (chastity, poverty, obedience, perseverance, stability) are inferred by the rite traditionally used in the tonsuring. Some will remain Rassaphores permanently without going on to the higher degrees.
Stavrophore (Slavonic: крестоносец, krestonosets), lit. "Cross-bearer"— The next level for Eastern monastics takes place some years after the first tonsure when the abbot feels the monk has reached an appropriate level of discipline, dedication, and humility. This degree is also known as the Little Schema, and is thought of as a "betrothal" to the Great Schema. At this stage, the monk makes formal vows of stability of place, chastity, obedience, and poverty. Then, he is tonsured and clothed in the habit, which in addition to that worn by the Rassaphore, includes the paramandyas (Slavonic: paraman), a piece of square cloth worn on the back, embroidered with the instruments of the Passion, and connected by ties to a wooden cross worn over the heart. The paramandyas represents the yoke of Christ. Because of this addition he is now called Stavrophore, or Cross-bearer. He is also given a wooden hand cross (or "profession cross"), which he should keep in his icon corner, and a beeswax candle, symbolic of monastic vigilance the sacrificing of himself for God. He will be buried holding the cross, and the candle will be burned at his funeral. In the Slavic practice, the Stavrophore also wears the monastic mantle. The rasson worn by the Stavrophore is more ample than that worn by the Rassaphore.
After the ceremony, the newly-tonsured Stavrophore will remain in vigil in the church for five days, refraining from all work, except spiritual reading. The abbot increases the Stavrophore monk’s prayer rule, allows a more strict personal ascetic practice, and gives the monk more responsibility.
Great Schema (Greek: Μεγάλο Σχήμα - Megaloschemos, Slavonic: Схима, Schima) — In the Russian tradition, monks whose abbot feels they have reached a high level of spiritual excellence reach the final stage, called the Great Schema. The tonsure of a Schemamonk or Schemanun follows the same format as the Stavrophore, and he makes the same vows and is tonsured in the same manner. But in addition to all the garments worn by the Stavrophore, he is given the analavos (Slavonic: analav) which is the article of monastic vesture emblematic of the Great Schema. For this reason, the analavos itself is sometimes itself called the "Great Schema". It drapes over the shoulders and hangs down in front and in back, with the front portion somewhat longer, and is embroidered with the instruments of the Passion and the Trisagion. The Greek form does not have a hood, the Slavic form has a hood and lappets on the shoulders, so that the garment forms a large cross covering the monk's shoulders, chest, and back. Another piece added is the Polystavrion or "Many Crosses", which consists of a cord with a number of small crosses plaited into it. The polystavrion forms a yoke around the monk and serves to hold the analavos in place and reminds the monastic that he is bound to Christ and that his arms are no longer fit for worldly activities, but that he must labor only for the Kingdom of Heaven. Among the Greeks, the mantle is added at this stage. The paramandyas of the Megaloschemos is larger than that of the Stavrophore, and if he wears the klobuk, it is of a distinctive thimble shape, called a koukoulion, the veil of which is usually embroidered with crosses.
The Schemamonk also shall remain some days in vigil in the church. On the eighth day after Tonsure, there is a special service for the "Removal of the Koukoulion."
In some monastic traditions the Great Schema is only given to monks and nuns on their death bed, while in others they may be elevated after as little as 25 years of service. In the Greek tradition, the Great Schema is not looked upon as a major elevation but rather as having come to the full practice of monasticism, and so a monastery may be filled with monastics of the Great Schema.
If a bearer of some monastic title acquires the Great Schema, his title incorporates the word "schema". For example, a hieromonk of Great Schema is called hieroschemamonk, archimandrite becomes schema-archimandrite, hegumen - schema-hegumen, etc. In Russian tradition, in such cases the part "schema" is commonly truncated to "схи" (sche), and correspondingly the titles are spelled as схимонах, иеросхимонах, схиархимандрит, схиигумен.
Coptic Orthodox monastic degrees
In the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria there are only two degrees of professed monks, corresponding to the Rassaphore combined with the Stavrophore and the Great Schema. (There is nothing equivalent to separate Stavrophore status in the Coptic tradition).
The two rites of Rassaphore and Stavrophore are served one immediately following the other, as a single service, very seldom nowadays to be separated by several years. When the two rites are separated, the portions of the habit that were given in the previous rite are not given a second time in the latter rite.
As for the Great Schema, which is made of a leather cord twisted in design and has five to seven small crosses along its length and worn crosswise around the neck, flowing down cross wise front and back, it is usually granted to bishops either upon their episcopal consecration or shortly afterwards and it is usually granted when a monk has reached a high degree of asceticism or has been living as a hermit and also to the monks, hieromonks, and abbots who have been in the monastic life for over 30 years and have been living in an exemplary monastic life.