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The Gospel Call to Monasticism

by Nun Brigid

If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me. (Matthew 19:21)

In traditional Christianity, the monastic life is seen as a "standard" or "norm" of the evangelical [1] life, since it strives to fulfill not only those commandments of Christ that are common to all Christians, but also the various "counsels" He gave to those who are willing to accept them. These counsels include the renunciation of earthly possessions: "If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven" (Mt. 19:21); the renunciation of marriage and family life: "For there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let him accept it who can" (Mt. 19:12). "Everyone who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting" (Mt. 19:29); and the renunciation of all the business of the world (as far as possible) that might distract or hinder one from the search for that "one thing needful," the salvation of ones soul: "Therefore, take no thought, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'Wherewithal shall we be clothed?'" (Mt. 7:31) "For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, but lose his own soul?" (Mt. 16:24-26) Similar ideas can be found in many different places throughout the Gospels. Martha and Mary, who are both considered saints in the Orthodox Church, are recognized in patristic literature as "types" of the Christian in the world (Martha) and the monastic (Mary). Our Lord chides Martha for her misplaced complaint against her seemingly self-indulgent sister: "Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things; and yet only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken away from her" (Lk. 10:4143). Martha's "busyness"—even in her service of the Lord Himself—cannot replace that "best part" that Mary has chosen, quietly sitting at the feet of her Lord. Monasticism is often called the angelic life" because it mystically foreshadows the future, heavenly life, where the resurrected will be "like the angels," without earthly cares. "The children of this world marry and are given in marriage. But those who shall be accounted worthy of that world and of the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor take wives... . for they are equal to the angels" (Lk. 20:34-36).

St. Paul, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, explains more fully why our Lord counsels those "who can accept it" to remain unmarried:

... I say to the unmarried and to widows, it is good for them if they so remain... . I would have you free from care. He who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please God. Whereas he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided. And the unmarried woman, and the virgin, thinks about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and in spirit. Whereas she who is married thinks about the things of the world, how she may please her husband; he who does not give her in marriage does better (I Cor. 7:38).

A widow "will be more blessed, in my judgment, if she remains as she is" (I Cor 7:40).

Though, in accordance with the Gospel, monastic life has always been recognized by the Church and the faithful as a "better" way, Christian marriage also has God's blessing, and can be the vehicle for one's sanctification and salvation. As St. Gregory the Theologian in his "Oration on Holy Baptism," "We do not dishonor marriage because we give higher honor to virginity. [2] It should be understood, too, that monasticisms objective superiority" does not mean that individual monastics are all therefore "better," by virtue of their way of life, than other Christians. Indeed, it is very wrong to think of monasticism as some kind of "exclusive" society composed of a spiritual "elite." Monasticism is repentance; and the doors are open to all who will enter in, whether thief, harlot, prodigal, or righteous. Anyone may become a monastic. Some come to monasticism in their youth, some in old age, some after leading very adventurous and independent lives, some after leading very sheltered lives. As for why people choose monasticism, St. John of the Ladder has this to say: "All who have willingly left the things of the world, have certainly done so for the sake of the future Kingdom, or because of the multitude of their sins, or for love of God. If they were not moved by any of these reasons, their withdrawal from the world was unreasonable." [3] He qualifies this a little later by saying:

Let us not abhor or condemn the renunciation due merely to circumstances.... I have seen seed casually fall on the earth and bear plenty of thriving fruit... . I have also seen a person come to a hospital with some other motive, but the courtesy and kindness of the physician overcame him, and on being treated with an astringent, he got rid of the darkness that lay on his eyes. Thus for some, the unintentional was stronger and more sure than what was intentional in others. [4]

Thus, there is no general rule whereby those who should be monastics can be distinguished from those who shouldn't. Those become monastics who freely will to be so, who consciously put aside thoughts of a marriage or a career, and choose to persevere with patience in the difficulties of monastic life. The monastic's renunciation of the world takes place on two levels, as characterized by the words of St. Paul: "The world is crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). The first level of renunciation, when a man "crucifies the world to himself," is by far the easiest. Abba Dorotheos explains: "The world is crucified to a man when a man renounces the world to become a solitary, and leaves parents, wealth, possessions, business dealings, and the giving of presents. [5] Having crucified the world to himself, a man begins to realize that the world is still within him, in the form of passions. Then he must try to "crucify himself to the world," a far more difficult struggle. "How can a man be crucified to the world? When, after being freed from external things he begins the combat against pleasure itself, against the desire of having things, against his own will, and he puts to death his evil passions. Then he himself is crucified to the world and is worthy to say with the Apostle, the world is crucified to me, and I to the world. [6] A true monastic life cannot begin for the novice monk until he truly comes to know himself and can face the reality of the evil in his own heart. This may sound simple, but it is often a very painful and difficult journey at this point. If he is willing to accept the fact that he is a fallen creature, then there is hope that a genuine spiritual life can begin for him. The monk must be like the repentant harlot of the Gospels who "began to bathe His [Jesus'] feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed His feet," (Lk. 7:38) quite aware of her own sinfulness, but also full of love for her Saviour Who came "to call sinners, not the righteous" (Mt. 9:13). A monk is one who is aware of his sinfulness and is repenting, but who also hopes, like the harlot, to hear the words addressed to her: "Her sins, which are many, shall be forgiven her, for she has loved much" (Lk. 7:47).

The great 4th-century desert father, St. Macarius of Egypt, further explains these two renunciations:

When man transgressed the commandment, and was exiled from Paradise, he was bound down in two ways and with two different chains. One was in this life, in the affairs of this life, and in the love of the world, that is to say, the love of fleshly pleasures and lusts, of wealth, and glory, and possessions, of wife and children, of kinsfolk, of country, of particular places, of clothes, and of all other things of sense, from which the word of God bids him be loosed by his own free choice... Accordingly, as soon as a man hears the word of God, and makes the effort and casts away the affairs of this life and the bonds of this world, and denies all the fleshly pleasures, and looses himself from these, then, when attending constantly upon the Lord and giving all his time to Him, he is in a position to discover that there is another wrestling, in the heart, another hidden opposition, and another war with the suggestions of the spirits of wickedness, and another contest in front of him... . But this war can be brought to naught by the grace and power of God... . if, however, a man is entangled among the things of sense by the affairs of this world, and meshed in various earthly bonds... he does not so much as discover that there is another wrestling and pummelling and battling within. [7]

Having renounced the world in the first sense, the monk is in a position to fight against the cause of evil in the world, the evil in his own heart.

The Chiliastic Barrier

The materialistic mind of our society has difficulty with this simple, yet profound Gospel call to reject the ways of the world—a call that takes its most perfect and radical form in monasticism. Faith in the reality of God, and the future Kingdom, and the fallenness of our world has been replaced with faith in "progress" and man's "perfectability" through proper education, science, and appropriate social measures. A real, living faith that is willing to sacrifice worldly security and comfort is rare in our wealthy country, even among Christians. Though our society does not openly condemn Christianity, its materialism and wealth have killed faith more effectively than the direct persecution of Christianity by Communism. Whereas monasticism in America is poor both in numbers and quality, it is thriving in Eastern Europe.

One current thrust against traditional monasticism argues that monastics should return to the cities, because the cities are the "deserts" of the modern age. Yet cities are still what they have always been—centers of commerce and culture, and learning and vice, full of magnificent buildings and other structures, the showcases of the best and worst men can produce. Monastics seek to put behind them what is temporal and belongs to fallen man and have therefore always sought out the wildernesses of the world. The wilderness is God's own creation, where one can contemplate Him through His handiwork. The confusion of what is man's and what is God's is a chief characteristic of modern secular thought.

Thus, since even the first steps of monasticism are not understood today, it is not surprising that its deeper meaning and goals remain hidden from the understanding of modern men, especially those in such materialistic societies as those in the West. In an interview in Epiphany, [8] Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast states that the goal of Christianity is to transform our present fallen world and society into the "other world," especially through politics. Monastics are represented as trying to transform the little corner of the world surrounded by their monastery wall into a "heaven on earth." Those involved in "peace work" are trying to do the same thing, but on a broader and therefore, it is implied, more effective scale. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding here*: there will be no "heaven on earth," no final resolution of the battle between good and evil, until the Second Coming of Christ. "Do you think that I am come to give peace upon the earth? I tell you nay, but rather a sword" (Lk. 12:51-52). Christianity does not seek to create a future earthly Utopia; it strives to save souls now, by preparing them to live in the heavenly kingdom. A rebellious non-acceptance, on the personal level, of the circumstances of our fallen world makes a Christian life nearly impossible. These circumstances include the existence of disease and death, the injustice prevalent in the world, and the strife caused by the passions of greed, lust, hatred, fear, etc. The miracle of Christianity is that God has given us the power to save our souls through these very fallen circumstances, if only we will to do so and call upon His help. It is through a Christ-like endurance of the vicissitudes of life that we acquire the virtues, and God's grace. These circumstances then become the instruments of our sanctification. Paul encourages those who are married to bear patiently each other's weaknesses; those who are slaves to give heartfelt service to their masters; those who are masters to struggle with love of authority. He does not counsel those who are oppressed by the circumstances of our fallen world to rise up in rebellion, but to overcome the "evil" of our fallen state through the "good" of love for God and man, and the practice of the virtues. Of course, it is also our duty to replace outward evil with outward good where we can, so that those who are weak may not despair—but with the idea of saving souls, not of creating a worldly Utopia.

The Arena of the Heart

This applies equally to monasteries. Monasteries are not meant to be Utopias. They are arenas where men, having accepted the fact of their fallen state, work to be healed of the evil in their own hearts. The outward evils of societies are the products of the evil within men's hearts, and not the other way around. "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, immorality, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Mt. 15:19). As St. Macarius explains above, having renounced the world, the monastic is in a position to battle with evil itself, not just its symptoms. It is precisely in those saints who, by God's help, have purified their hearts, that we come closest to seeing a "heaven on earth." This is especially true of the hermit saints, who often exhibited a harmony with nature that no modern ecologist can rival. "For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you" (Lk. 17:21), not in some Utopian society, either inside or outside the monastery.

The essence of monastic life ties in cleansing the heart of the passions that separate man from God, and making it receptive to His grace, to the advent of His coming. It would be beyond the scope of this short article to explain this path in detail, for it is a whole science in itself, complex yet divinely simple. The interested reader is encouraged to find and read some of the classic monastic texts that are now available in English. Such are the Ladder of St. John of Sinai, [9] the Discourses of Abba Dorotheos, [10] or the more contemporary Arena by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov. [11] The lives of monastic saints, found in such books as the Paradise of the Fathers [12] (about the 4th-century Egyptian monks) or the Northern Thebaid [13] (about the more recent monastic fathers and mothers of the Russian wilderness) are no less enlightening—in these one can see how Christian principles have been applied in real life. These lives have inspired countless Christians on their own paths to salvation.

Endnotes

1. i.e. based on the Evangelia, or Gospel.

2. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. vii, tr, by Edwin Hamilton Gifford, D.D., (Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983) p.365.

3. The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 1978) p. 4.

4. Ibid,, p. 8.

5. Discourses and Sayings by St. Dorotheos of Gaza, tr. by Eric P. Wheeler, (Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1977) p. 85.

6. Ibid., p. 85.

7. Spiritual Homilies by St. Macarius of Egypt, tr. by A. J. Mason, (Eastern Orthodox Books, Willits, California, 1974) pp. 168-169.

8. Epiphany Journal, Spring, 1985, pp. 62-73.

9. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, op. cit.

10. Discourses and Sayings, op. cit.

11. The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, tr. by Archimandrite Lazarus, (Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York, 1983).

12. The Paradise of the Fathers by Palladius, tr. by E. A. Wallis Budge (St. Nectarius Press, Seattle, Washington, 1980).

13. The Northern Thebaid by Ivan M. Kontzevitch (St. Herman Press, Platina, California, 1975).

* On this subject see the little-known but splendid and wholly inspiring book The Monastic Life, by Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili. For anyone interested in true Orthodox monasticism, this book is a must-read. Order from the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies.

Webmaster Note: I once made the mistake, in my correspondence with a learned Orthodox monastic of many years experience, of referring to monasticism as "the very heartbeat of Holy Orthodoxy." This is a cliche that I had heard repeated so often in Orthodox circles that I took it as an aphorism.

His reply to my remark is very instructive:

"You are absolutely wrong. And very seriously so. Holy Orthodoxy is the Body of Christ. The heart of the Church is Christ. Moreover, the souls of the Church are not divided between monastics and lay people. Both ways of life, even if one is of a more intense and higher kind, lead to salvation and sanctity. It is a heresy to teach otherwise. In fact, to be precise, several Fathers have called monasticism the "barometer" of the Church, not its heart. It is not part of the essence of the Church, but a measure of the Church's health. This is logical. If a Church has healthy Christians, it will cultivate those virtues which lead to Christianity in its strictest form: monasticism. This means that monastics draw from the virtues of the non-monastics who give them their being and who are the substructure of the Church. The lay people are the chickens. The monastics are the eggs. The number of eggs that a chicken produces tells us how healthy it is. And so with the Church. But without the lay people, monasticism would not exist. No chicken, no egg. You have been given a VERY, VERY distorted view of monasticism. Teach about the chicken."

From the Introduction to Abbess Thaisia: An Autobiography (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 1989). Abbess Thaisia was the spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt. Her Letters to a Beginner is a classic text for monastic novices and contains a well of wisdom from which Orthodox Christians still living in the world can also draw.