ORTHODOX MONASTICISM: A BRIEF STUDY FOR THE LAYMAN

by Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver

 

We are living at a time in which the monastic life is not only considered abnormal, but is even ridiculed and condemned. Even they who profess to teach the word of God, especially within Protestant Christianity, cynically condemn the monastic life as useless, isolationist, abnormal, and not in conformity with the teachings of Christ. They teach that they who enter monasteries and convents certainly are not the ideal Christians.

 

The Early History

Yet, history witnesses to us that the ascetic life, the life of monasticism has existed within the Church from the very beginning. Even before the Church had been established on earth, a voice came crying out of the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. That voice belonged to Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist. It is not incorrect to see him also as the forerunner of monasticism within the life of the Church. For Saint John prepared the way for a King whose Kingdom is not of this world. Monasteries and convents more than anything else are vivid witnesses of that coming Kingdom.

Saint John had left his home and his people early in life and went to live in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 4:5). He went to live the life of an ascetic. He had been there for several years, living the life of a hermit (heremitis). During that period he prayed incessantly, having dedicated his whole being to God. When the time came for him to fulfill his greatest mission, he returned to society to prepare the way for the King. He began by calling people to repentance and proclaiming that the Kingdom was close at hand. After he baptized Jesus in the Jordan, his mission was completed and from that point Jesus took up the message: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Our Lord Jesus speaks of persons who deny themselves everything in life, including the community of marriage in order to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel where our Lord’s disciples state that one should not marry, if by marrying he would lose the Kingdom of God, the Lord answers, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:10-12).

In this discussion with our Lord pertaining to eunuchs, we can readily see that He is talking about three kinds of individuals: those who are born to be celibate, those who are made to be celibate, and those who choose to live as celibates. We are interested here in two types: the ones who are born to be celibate and the ones who choose to be celibate. In pondering these words of our Lord in our minds, we must conclude that the attitude that many people have that everyone must be married or live with a member of the opposite sex because it is natural, is an unnatural statement.

Saint Paul, as we know, was not married. As a matter of fact, in his first Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:5) he says, “Do we not have a right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” However, in the same letter he says, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman … I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another … To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do” (1 Cor. 7:1-40).

On the basis of these words from the New Testament, there should be no question that the celibate and consequently the monastic life is ordained and blessed by God. The first Christians knew this and looked upon those who lived the ascetic life in the wilderness as heavenly men or earthly angels. Saint Anthony of Egypt was such a man. In the Orthodox Church he is recognized as the father of monasticism. He was born in the year 251 A.D. and fell asleep in the Lord 105 years later. During his lifetime he influenced many people to follow Christ through the ascetic life. Since his day there has been an unbroken continuation of Orthodox monasticism to this day. The ascetic who gave a system to the monastic life was Saint Basil the Great. He was born during the lifetime of Saint Anthony in 329 A.D. and he began his own ascetic life after his education in Constantinople and in Athens. He lived as a monk in the area of Pontus in Asia Minor where his mother and his sister were already living monastic lives.

 

Blessed By God

If the monastic life is blessed by God, it must have a definite purpose and objective both for the monastic and for the world. In regard to the monk and the nun, we can use as the basic premise or foundation the words of our Lord when He says, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15:19).” In regard to the world, we are reminded by the Lord in both the twelfth and the sixteenth chapters of Saint John’s Gospel that the prince of this world is Satan. Therefore, monks, nuns, and monasteries remind us that the people of God are not of this world and that the world is under the influence, if not the control, of Satan. We are reminded that we cannot love both God and mammon. We cannot have two masters at the same time. The monastic life is a strong reminder that our purpose in this life must be interrelated with the life that is to come, the future, the unending life that Christ promises.

The men and women who enter into the monastic life are God’s reminders to us that we cannot be concerned only with this life and the things that have to do with this life. How many times have we heard elderly Orthodox men who were most successful in the business world and who rarely ever made time for anything else in their lives say, “I really don’t know if there is a life after this one.” Their remaining time in this world is very short. Yet, they don’t have even a hint of an afterlife. No doubt, many of us, once in a while might place certain members of parish councils in the same category as the successful businessman who made no provisions in his life for the development of his faith. For we see these council members so caught up with paying off the parish mortgages or increasing the monies in the treasury or even attempting to invest church monies, all this and more for material security and stability, that they never seem to find time to attend even one Divine Liturgy from beginning to end. It almost makes one feel that the church is more of an earthly corporation than the Ark of salvation placed on earth by God. Monastics and monasteries, hopefully, are reminders of the purpose of the Church on earth.

One who becomes a monk or a nun believes that he must turn his back to what the world represents. He can then turn his total focus on God and what God represents. A monk and a nun seek to find the true life, the real world which our Lord describes. They seek to be united with their real Father and get a glimpse of their real homeland. They seek the true freedom that only God can give.

The monastic knows that in order to find who he is, his real self, in order to experience true freedom, he must return to the Father in that mystical union which surpasses human understanding. He realizes that the freedom which the Prodigal thought he had when he left his father was actually slavery and that true freedom is only with God. This is why the monastic seeks to find God within him. If he is made in God’s image, then he must recognize God inside of himself. He must find his birthright stamped on his very soul and know that he belongs to Christ Who died for him.

 

In The Twentieth Century

We, in our generation, have seen so many demonstrations around us, groups and individuals asserting what they believe themselves to be and demanding the freedom to live that way. They believe that if they had the right to have equal rights in all things, no matter if they are qualified or if their gender allows it, if they could practice their unnatural way of life without hindrance, if they could transform privileges into rights, then they will have acquired true freedom. Unfortunately, there are no monastics around to tell them that all this is a trick of Satan, the same trick he pulled on Adam and Eve when he told them, “No, you will not die; on the contrary, if you eat from the forbidden tree, you will be equal to God.” A monk can readily see the trickery of Satan when it comes to the desire of equality and freedom.

This is why monasticism is an enigma and an irony to the twentieth century mind. People see it as submissive, highly disciplined, and with total loss of freedom. A monk and a nun see it as enlightening, spiritually growing, and the ultimate acquisition of true freedom which only the soul can experience.

There are three basic rules in Orthodox monasticism. The first one is obedience, the second one being chastity or virginity, and the third one being non-acquisition or poverty. Although a monastic must practice these three basic rules at all times, each one can be looked upon as symbolizing the three systems of monastic living: the Cenobitic, the Idiorrhythmic, and the Heremitic. Before going into the three basic rules, let us briefly examine the three systems of monastic life.

Most people understand monasticism through this first system called the cenobitic life. Cenobitic monasteries are those which are administered by an abbot. Under his guidance the monastery operates with specific rules and daily schedules. Each monk has his obedience or work assignment to do, besides attending the prescribed services and offices. An idiorrhythmic monastery is one made up of a cluster of houses in which the monks live in small groups, each group in its own house, rather than individually in cells as in the cenobitic. In the idiorrhythmic monasteries there is no abbot as such; but each house has a senior monk who is looked upon as the guiding force of the group. The third system which is the heremitic is the life style which a monk imposes upon himself. He lives by himself in a hut or in a cave and comes down to the monastery whenever he attends the Divine Liturgy to receive Holy Communion or comes for basic food provisions. In all three systems voluntary obedience, chastity, and poverty are at all times practiced.

In Orthodox monasticism obedience is the first and foremost rule. However, it must be voluntary. If a monk or a nun lives in voluntary obedience, he or she experiences more and greater freedom than a person in society who must live by the rules of society, whether he wishes it or not. The monk must never believe that his obedience was forced upon him; for it was he who made the decision to live the monastic life. He must desire it; he must believe that he is doing it voluntarily. Otherwise, he has no business becoming a monk. A monk must have in his mind the same willing obedience that Jesus displayed to His mother the Ever-Virgin Mary and to Joseph, as Saint Luke records for us in his gospel (Luke 2:51). In this respect a monk denies himself; he denies the whims and the desires of his ego and he becomes a slave of Christ. For he knows that only in this way will he find his true self, his real identity and his true freedom.

An Orthodox monastic may not be married, for he has entered into the angelic life on earth. We know that the angelic life is on a higher plane than the married life. Therefore, one must leave his married life behind, if he desires the life of a monastic. This means that anyone, man or woman, may enter into the monastic life. Aside from persons who have never married, men and women who have become widowed or who through mutual agreement decide to enter into the cloistered life of a monastery or a convent, may do so.

If a person is a virgin, it is all the better. But if he is not, then he, as a monastic follows the second rule of monasticism which is chastity. The virgin, too, accepts this second rule which for him is called virginity. However, if a virgin has sinned with his mind in imagining himself involved in marital relations, then he is no longer a virgin and thereafter he must continue to practice the rule of chastity rather than of virginity.

 

Monasticism As Marriage

The reason for these interpretations and technicalities with virginity and sexual relations is because marriage and the exercising of the passions fall into different categories from the dawn of human history to the present. In other words, from the beginning of man on this planet to the establishment of Christianity, an evolution has taken place in the institution of marriage with Judaism and Christianity. Beginning with Adam, we read in Genesis that from his own body came the first woman. God blessed this first union which was between man and himself, so to speak. In essence, it was the union of the male and the female counterparts in the human person which had become two entities. The next form of marriage was between the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve (Gen. 5:4). Afterwards came polygamy; and then with Christianity came monogamy. With monogamy came strict rules forbidding marriage between close relatives, first physical relatives and then, even more importantly, spiritual relatives. For the spiritual relationships established by the Church are of a higher nature than the physical. The highest state of monogamous marriage between a husband and wife is when the two look upon their spiritual union as being on a higher level than is the physical union.

On the basis that marriage is a union between two entities, male and female, we can say that chastity establishes a union between a monk or a nun and God, the man or woman representing the Church (Bride) and Christ being the Head of the Church (Bridegroom). The successful discipline of chastity brings one to the highest form of union or marriage between God and man and that is what monasticism calls spiritual virginity. This state can be described as the equivalent state of grace and innocence which our first parents, Adam and Eve, experienced before they fell from God’s grace and found themselves to be naked. Through this brief description of marriage, we can see how mankind, in conjunction with the process of procreation, can return, individually, to the original state of union with God and the preservation of that state forever. The pursuit of this state by monastics is supported by our Lord’s words in speaking of the resurrection when He says that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven” (Matt: 22:30). It could very well be that monasticism is called the angelic life because of these words of our Lord.

From this outline of the evolution of marriage in its physical and its spiritual sense, it is obvious that the institution of marriage is not in any way demeaned. God uses it to bring man back to his original state of grace and more. God Himself blessed the institution of marriage and our Lord Himself with the coming of the fullness of His Kingdom calls Himself the Bridegroom and the people, the Church, He calls the Bride. The whole idea of the evolution of marriage according to the teachings of the Church is to indicate the greater and greater control one should have for his physical passions (this is why man has no mating season, as other creatures do). Chastity, therefore, means abstinence from the flesh, abstinence on the part of the passions until they lose total control and influence on the human person. It is obvious that for one to become more and more spiritual, his physical desires and appetite must become more and more diminished. If one has the desire to rise to the realm of the spirit and to experience spiritual things, he must separate himself from that which is mundane and carnal and reminiscent of this world. He must become dead to the flesh in order to become alive in the spirit. When this is accomplished, then he can enter the highest spiritual experience of pure prayer.

 

Poverty: The Third Rule

The third rule of monasticism is non-acquisition or poverty, as western Christianity calls it. It is certainly obvious that if a monastic acquires material things, his mind and heart are still with the things of the world. For one to be able to practice pure prayer, his total attention must be upon God. Therefore this rule of non-acquisition is of equal importance to the other two. The rich young man (Matt. 19:22) who did everything that the law required, but could not rid himself of his possessions to follow the Lord is a graphic example of the rule of non-acquisition. It is also reminiscent of our Lord’s words that where one’s treasure is, there also is where his heart is. A monk who has no desires for earthly possessions is ready to succeed in his practice of pure prayer, prayer which is based on the successful fulfillment of obedience, chastity, and poverty.

Through the practice of pure prayer the monk brings his human will into union with the Divine Will. If God is Spirit, as our Lord teaches, and they who worship Him must do so in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), then the monk must have developed a purity of mind which is unattainable without the expected discipline. The monk knows that he is made in God’s image, but that he must work to become in God’s likeness, as every Christian should. The monk knows that in order for him to experience true freedom, he must come into union with God. This union takes place when there is total agreement between the two wills, the human and the divine. When this takes place the monk enters into the sphere of the Divine and can thus participate in the divine life. This ultimate state of spiritual development is called theosis or deification. In this ultimate state of spiritual development, man becomes God-like. Our Lord speaks of this highest stage of man’s development and progress when He quotes the 82nd Psalm in Saint John’s Gospel and says, “It is written in your law, ‘I said you are gods’?” (John 10:34).

 

Patriarch Elias IV

From all this it should be clear to us that Orthodox monasticism is that vital medium in the world which reminds mankind of its spiritual birth and destiny. In his final letter to Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in June of 1979 the saintly Patriarch Elias IV who fell asleep in the Lord a few days afterward wrote: “I have only one hope for your Archdiocese — that you will encourage your young people to embrace monasticism. Our Church desperately needs monastics in order to meet the challenge of murderous materialism, to firmly establish God’s Will in our revolution against this covetous word.” This statement is equally valid for all the Orthodox jurisdictions in North America.

The blessed Patriarch’s words are clear. Monastics and monasteries are reminders to the world that there is another life, a better life, a life of true freedom, the real life. Monasteries are the satellites which God sent into the world to tell us that as we look to find physical life in other parts of the universe, He is looking to find spiritual life among His children on earth. He is seeking to find the state of grace in man which He gave from the very beginning and which His Son reestablished when He became one of us.

In a more extensive interview in 1977 when he was here in North America, Patriarch Elias IV said:

Your greatest weakness I believe is your lack of vibrant monastics communities. The creation of monastic communities is an indication of the spiritual maturity of the faithful. You have an excellent parochial clergy. However, they are necessarily limited in their witness to the visible Kingdom of God. I mean by this that to reveal the fullness of the Kingdom, the Church needs both the parochial clergy and the monastics. A church without the complimentary effect of these is incomplete. Monasticism is that beautiful garden which radiates the high calling of moral and ascetical life, where all is sacrificed to the will of God. It is a concrete expression of the Heavenly Kingdom. Since you have no monastic communities your spiritual and ascetical direction depends solely upon the bishops. So far, God has blessed this Archdiocese (Antiochian) with good and sincere hierarchs. But, as a good bishop leads his spiritual children to the good, so too a bad bishop, without a check, will lead them to the bad. This is where the importance of monasteries comes in. They have historically acted as the safeguard and criteria for Orthodoxy. You, as yet, lack this important witness and safeguard.

During the past few years there has been a growing awareness among more and more of our Orthodox people that it is time for all of us to give greatly needed attention to the spiritual growth of our people in this country. An increasing number of our faithful have come to the realization that we have given more than adequate attention to the erection of churches and cathedrals, gymnasiums and social centers for our members. If we do not begin to give remedial doses of attention to their spiritual needs, all the building programs of the past century will have been in vain.

We might even say that the wave of charismatic prayer groups which has passed over the Orthodox Church in North America can be attributed, at least in part, to the absence of monasteries as the spiritual centers of our Church life. This is not to demean the charismatic renewal. It is the best thing that has happened to the Protestant tradition which has traditionally denied and even condemned the existence of monasteries and the monastic life. But what does it say of our tradition? For even our own Orthodox charismatics, generally speaking, find it difficult to separate themselves from their material benefits. Actually, they justify their affluency by saying that the Lord is rewarding them for their faithfulness and their dedication. In contrast to this, our Lord says, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor and follow me.” Only a monastic can do this in our present society. Consequently, only true monastics and flourishing monasteries can be the true charismatics of our day.

Father Isaiah is the Chancellor in the Chicago Diocese of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
September 1983
pp. 14-17

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