The Monk's Mission

by Elder Paisios the Athonite (+1994)

Before I refer to my limited experience with beginner monks, it would be good to offer some counsel for their edification while they are, for one reason or the other, still found in the world. Perhaps this meagre assistance will strengthen them for their monastic journey.

It is most important for a beginner, while still in the world, to find a spiritual Father who will be a friend of Monasticism, because most of the spiritual Fathers in our times are monachomachoi ("monk-fighters"); and war against Monasticism in many different ways. In waging their war they even make use of Fathers of the Church who were involved in important social work, such as Saint Basil the Great and his Vasileiada. [6]

I don't wish to refer to the life of Saint Basil the Great before he began the Vasileiada, but simply express my thought: What would Saint Basil the Great do if he lived in our era? I am of the opinion that he would again retreat to a cave with his komboskini [7] watching the flame of love (of the social work of other holy fathers) being spread everywhere; not only to the faithful but even to the unfaithful, who all together constitute Social Providence, which also looks after members of the Spiritual Charity Associations (although only by granting a certificate of pauperism). In other words, social welfare is shouting every day: "Holy Fathers of our times, leave charity to us, the lay people, who are not in a position to do something else, and look to concern yourselves with something more spiritual".

Unfortunately, however, some clergymen not only do not follow this exhortation, since they do not understand it, but they also prevent those who do understand it and want to dedicate themselves entirely to Christ, feeling intensely the inclination to depart from the world. That is to say, as if it weren't enough that a beginner monk has to hear this from laymen; he has to hear plenty from the clergymen as well, who even make the unreasonable demand that monks leave the desert and come to the world to take up the social work and philanthropy. It is good to also mention some of the crowns which they weave for monks: "slackers, self-seekers, cowards", etc., considering themselves heroes because they struggle in the sinful society and monks cowards because they depart to save only their own soul.

I wonder why they are unable to understand the great mission of the monk! The monk departs far from the world not because he hates it, but because he loves it. In this way he will, through his prayer, help the world more in those matters that are, being humanly impossible, only possible by God's intervention. This is how God saves the world. The monk never says: "I will save the world". Instead, he prays for the salvation of the whole world, along with his own. When the Good God hears his prayer and helps the world, he does not say: "I saved the world", but "God saved the world".

In a few words, monks are the "radio operators" of Mother Church, and therefore, if they depart far from the world, they do it out of love, departing from the distractions of this world in order to be in better contact with God and help people more effectively.

Of course, when their unit is in danger, some mindless soldiers also share the irrational demand of certain clergymen (i.e. that monks should return to the world). They say that the radio operator should leave the radio aside and grab his rifle, as if by adding one more gun to the two hundred others he will salvage the situation. While the radio operator clamours to make contact, yelling "calling headquarters, come in, come in" etc., the others think that he calls pointlessly into the wind. However, astute radio operators pay no attention, even if they are reviled. They struggle until they make contact and then ask for immediate help from Headquarters and the air forces arrive, as well as the armed forces, the navy etc. Thus, in this way, and not with their meagre rifles, the unit is saved. The same applies to monks who advance with divine power, with their prayer, and not with their negligible individual powers. It is especially the case in our age, when evil is so widespread, that we are in need of God's intervention.

It is another matter if a monk, on account of some need, is found in the world for a short or even long period of time; then he assists also with his personal spiritual strength, which God has granted him. This activity, however, he considers as a secondary work, prayer always being his main work. He does this, of course, when in his cell as well, where he employs his handiwork as a secondary task, and if he sees anyone suffering next to him, he helps with whatever he has. Furthermore, when a person with problems visits him, he lays everything aside and tries to assist him humanly as well, in whatever he can.

All of this is to say that, the aim of the monk is not to be engaged in much handiwork and collect money to help the poor, as this translates into spiritual decline. Rather, through his prayer the monk could help, not by pounds, but by tons the needs of others (when, for instance, there exists a drought, by his prayer he could replenish the world's storehouses). Therefore, God "raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill" [8]. Let us not forget what the Prophet Elijah [9] did.

Monks, therefore, don't leave the desert in order 'to go to the world to help a poor person, nor to visit someone ill in the hospital to give him an orange or some consolation (that which is usually done by lay people, and is the sort of thing that God will ask from them). Monks pray for all the sick to receive a twofold health (physical and spiritual), and the Good God has mercy on His creatures and helps them recover, so that they, in their turn, working as good Christians, will also help others.

Furthermore, neither do monks visit those in prison, for they themselves are voluntarily imprisoned due to their great philotimo [10] towards Christ, their Benefactor and Saviour; Christ gives His love in abundance to His children who have philotimo, the monks. Thus, while they are within the castle (the monastery), the presence and love of Christ transforms it into Paradise. This heavenly joy that the monks feel, they pray and ask that Christ give it to all our incarcerated brothers in the world's prisons. In this way, the Good God is moved by the love of His good children and spreads consolation to the souls of prisoners, many times even setting them free.

Besides these prisoners, monks help other more serious cases of those who are not imprisoned for just ten or twenty years, but eternally, and are in need of much greater help. These are our brothers awaiting trial, who have fallen asleep, whom the monks visit in their own way, offering many spiritual refreshments. The Good God helps the reposed, and, at the same time, acquaints the monks, after their pained prayers for their departed brothers, with an inexpressible rejoicing, as if saying: "Don't worry, my children, I have helped the departed as well".

Someone might ask: "Should we beseech God for His help?". Certainly we should beseech Him. Particularly, God is greatly moved when we sympathize with our brother and ask Him to help, because then He intervenes without transgressing our free will. Here, one observes the great spiritual nobility of God in that He does not even give the devil the right to protest. That is why He wants us to beseech Him so He can intervene—and He wants to intervene immediately to help His creatures. Of course, if God wants to, even now He can wind the devil into a ball and throw him into hell. However, for our own good He does not do it, because the devil, by beating us with his ill will, removes the dust from our soul.

In all that I have said and will mention further down, I want to stress the great mission of the monk, which is of greater importance than human philanthropy. For, even before someone becomes a monk, he has done his charitable work by giving everything away, as well as his own self to Christ (his rich Father), as Christ said to the young man [11]. So now, being His child (as a poor monk), he has a share in God's fortune and asks anything he wants from his Merciful Father. Then, his Father gives His mercy in abundance when it does not spiritually injure His unfortunate children.

A beginner monk hears a great deal from certain clergymen, as well as from many laymen, in their effort to dissuade him from the grandeur of Monasticism. Apart from that which is shameful to say (things, of course, that are not said by serious people), they also say that the monk is a dead entity, who doesn't have children, etc.

I don't want to examine those who say these things and ask them if they themselves have children, for this is the purpose of marriage and, thus, their life has meaning. The monk's aim, however, is different: virginity, "another life" [12]. But I would also like to ask those who have children: "Have they helped their children to secure Paradise, or do they only assist them materially?". Monks, who are concerned with the salvation of men's souls, become more affectionate fathers than fathers according to the flesh, have more children than that of the largest family, considering as their own children and brethren all of God's creatures, and with pain they pray that we might all reach our destination, close to God.

Since it is not easy for certain people to understand the spiritual regeneration that monks bring about in the people, I will mention how they also contribute to physical childbearing. Remaining chaste themselves and pure even from thoughts, they undo the sterility of many mothers on account of their boldness before God, both while still found in this life and also after they have fallen asleep. Therefore, when they are saints, monks "give birth" even after they have fallen asleep. Naturally, monks do not help in the pulpit with the preaching of the Gospel in order to enlighten the young and old, for their life is the Gospel. Thus, the Gospel is preached by example, which is the most positive way, something today's world especially thirsts after. As everyone is, more or less, educated in our day, they can speak of great truths about which they have read, which, however, have no relation whatsoever with the lives of most preachers. Hence, these preachers are constantly carrying about on their back the "woe" [13] Christ directed toward the Pharisees.

In short, monks are not merely lanterns that illumine city streets that people not stumble, but they are remote lighthouses on the rocks directing the ships of this world with their flashes, and upon the open seas the ships are orientated in order to reach their destination.

For this reason, not even parents should prevent their children from becoming monks (the radio operators of the Church), when, according to their inclination, God calls them. This mission is very significant and superior to what they themselves offer to God through their own mission. Lay people go regularly to church and make a promise to light a small or large candle. A monk, however, keeps vigil in church every day and has dedicated his entire self to Christ and, burning out of love for Him, he praises Him and thanks Him for himself and for the whole world.

Yet, I cannot understand why some clergymen and lay people fight Monasticism. Just as the army considers the signal corps an artery of the whole army, so too does our Church regard Monasticism. I would like to know: these blessed people who fight Monasticism, to which Church do they belong?


6. Vasileiada was the name given by Saint Basil (Vasileios) the Great's successors to his social and philanthropic work.

7. Komboskini (pl. komboskinia): The black woollen rope with 33, 50, 100 or 300 knots used by the Orthodox to count the number of times the Jesus Prayer is repeated.

8. 1 Sam. 2:8.

9. Cf. 1 Kg. 18:41-46.

10. Philotimo, according to Elder Paisios, is the reverent distillation of goodness, the love shown by humble people, from which every trace of self has been filtered out. Their hearts are full of gratitude towards God and to their fellow men, and out of spiritual sensitivity, they try to repay the slightest good which others do them.

11. Cf. Mt. 19:21,Mk. lO:21,Lk. 18:22.

12. From the Paschal Canon.

13. Cf. Mt. 23:13, Lk. 11:42-44.

From Epistles, by Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery "Evangelist John the Theologian", 2002), pp. 31-38.

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There are people who say that monks ought to be of some use in the world, and not eat bread they have not toiled for; but we have to understand the nature of a monk's service and the way in which he has to help the world.

A monk is someone who prays for the whole world, who weeps for the whole world; and in this lies his main work.

But who is it constrains him to weep for the whole world? The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, incites him. He gives the monk the love of the Holy Spirit, and by virtue of this love the monk's heart forever sorrows over the people because not all men are saved. The Lord Himself so grieved over people that He gave Himself to death on the Cross. And the Mother of God bore in her heart a like sorrow for men. And she, like her beloved Son, desired with her whole heart the salvation of all.

The same Holy Spirit the Lord gave to the Apostles, to our holy Fathers and to the pastors of the Church. This is how we serve the world. And this is why neither pastors of the Church nor monks should busy themselves with secular matters but should seek to be like the Mother of God, who in the Temple, in the 'Holy of Holies', day and night pondered the law of the Lord and continued in prayer for the people.

It is not for the monk to serve the world with the work of his hands. That is the layman's business. The man who lives in the world prays little, whereas the monk prays constantly.

Thanks to monks, prayer continues unceasing on earth, and the whole world profits, for through prayer the world continues to exist; but when prayer fails, the world will perish.

— Saint Silouan the Athonite

From the chapter "Concerning Monks" in Saint Silouan the Athonite, by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) (Essex: Stravropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1991), pp. 407.408. Posted 3/23/2008.