Share   Print
Related Content

Metropolitan Theodosius on Monasticism

I enclose "Essays and Notes," volume 4, no. 2, 1998, a publication of an OCA convent (Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery). An address by Metropolitan Theodosius of the OCA claims that monasticism is not the highest standard of Christian life. I am sending you a copy for comments.(C.C., NY)

With all due respect to Metropolitan Theodosius, the address in question simply repeats Western misconceptions about Orthodox monastic life.

1) His Beatitude cites "deeply entrenched misconceptions" about monasticism as the "highest expression of Christian life" which lead to a "false dichotomy..., separating the monastics from those living in the world." These deeply entrenched misconceptions, if they are such, are shared by Christ, St. Paul, and the Church Fathers (none of whom he quotes), who praised the virginal life as a higher life. (Among others, to name but a few, St. Jerome, St. John of Damascus, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Theologian clearly call monasticism a "higher calling" and a "higher life."

And if there is a separation between monastics and those living in the world, it is precisely because monastics are called to leave the world. If they have any relationship to lay people, it is that set forth by St. John of the Ladder: monastics are a light to the lay people and are to be emulated. This is not a spiritual dichotomy but a clear spiritual hierarchy.

2) His Beatitude next argues that, since St. Basil uses the "Jerusalem community described in the Acts of the Apostles as the model for all coenobitic monasticism," monasticism is thus derived from the standard of lay life, and not vice versa. It was, however, their perfect emulation of monasticism, and not their married status, for which St. Basil praised the Jerusalem Faithful. Monasticism takes as its true model the lives of the Prophets, St. John the Forerunner, and Christ and His Disciples. Metropolitan Theodosius simply misunderstands St. Basil—and monasticism, which did not, as Westerners presume, begin in the fourth century, but is Apostolic or older in origin.

3) In an incredible misuse of Canons and logic, His Beatitude argues that monasticism is not superior to marriage, since to argue this would be to violate canonical proscriptions against disdain for marriage and child-rearing. St. Paul takes a position somewhat at odds with the Metropolitan's, when he tells us that the virginal life is superior to the married life and that the latter is a condescension—the very thing which His Beatitude decries—to human weakness; a weakness, albeit, perfected by a Mystery of the Church and which no reasonable Christian would therefore ever disdain. In the proper words of St. Kosmas Aitolos, what silver is to gold marriage is to monasticism.

4) Metropolitan Theodosius, arguing that monasticism is not a rejection of sexuality, confuses gender with sex. Monastics are celibate, making sexuality a non-issue. And even gender sensitivity, His Beatitude should remember, is not a monastic aim; not only are monks and nuns called to be like Angels, but Christ tells us that in the Resurrection, that is, in the highest image of life, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Let us not forget, too, that a true monk rises above gender, and indeed that some monastics—let us cite the example of St. Theodora of Alexandria, a woman who lived as a monk in a male coenobium—do indeed transcend their "sexuality" (i.e., gender).

5) Monks and nuns are not the same as laymen, as Metropolitan Theodosius argues, simply because we are all Baptized into the Church. The Second Baptism of "monastic tonsure" brings what His Beatitude calls our "common tonsuring" to a higher level. Following the Fathers, not trendy Western ideas, we must acknowledge that the Angelic life involves a higher degree of commitment to Christ and the Gospels. And while we must not speak of a dichotomy, again, between monastics and laymen, we cannot be Orthodox and deny that there is at work, here, a spiritual hierarchy.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVI, No. 1.

+ + +

A follow up question: Are there any comments on the idea of monastic tonsure as a sacrament equivalent to that of marriage?

Bridegroom imagery is universal to monasticism, both Eastern and Western, and the taking of the Great Schema has been compared to the marriage service, in which the monastic is betrothed to Christ. But one must put this imagery in the context of the mystical teachings of the Orthodox Church, separating it from the "matrimonial" monastic traditions of the Western Church. In the Eastern Fathers and in our Orthodox services (particularly those of Great and Holy Week), the inner spiritual life is compared to the bridal chamber, wherein a mystical union takes place between man and God. But when this imagery is understood outside the context of the Hesychastic tradition and the soteriological principles of Orthodox Christianity (theosis and the restoration of the Image of God in man), it is fraught with dangers of a Freudian kind. The Church Fathers, as in the teachings of the toll houses and all such metaphors, are careful to advise us "to understand all in a spiritual way," as St. Gregory Palamas tells us.

The Western idea (epitomized in Catherine of Siena) of literally marrying nuns to Christ and wearing rings (which even some monks do) is wholly inappropiate and, in my mind, certainly runs the risk of Freudian associations and sexual fantasy in the guise of "mystical experiences" (as in such Spanish "mystics" as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, not to mention the popular Italian monk, Francis). These things never took on a literal expression in Eastern Christianity. St. Catherine the Great, for example, was given a ring by Christ. But this has always been understood in a Heschastic way, as a symbol of spiritual obedience and spiritual union. It spawned no literal notion of monastic matrimony in the East, and has never been used to justify such a notion.

Indeed, as an aside, Palladios points out that among the ancient monastics of the East, the idea of taking "vows" was seen as a violation of free will. To this day, though the word "vow" is perhaps inappropriately used, in actuality, Orthodox monastics simply answer certain questions posed to them at their tonsure to the Small or Great Schema and respond with an affirmative answer. It is in this very same way that "Bridegroom" imagery in Orthodoxy must be distinguished from what has grown up in the Western tradition. The external forms in which we express spiritual customs and truths may seem to be the same as those in the West; however, the context in which they are understood and their spiritual significance in the Orthodox Church are not only different, but are also frequently at odds with what one sees in the West.

Orthodox nuns and monks do not wear rings, as I have said. More importantly, a married Priest, when Ordained, gives up his marriage ring, in order to show that he is yoked to Christ. Thus, there is a very clear distinction between the image of a yoking to Christ and human marriage, as indicated by this custom. The spiritual marriage of man to Christ represents, again, our union with God by Grace, the death of the old man, and the restoration of the Divine Image. This lofty and unfathomable mystery moves wholly away from any of the literal (and thus dangerous) marital images that abound in Western Christianity. And as though to emphasize this, a married man's ring is taken from him at Ordination. How, then, could a monastic be given a ring? By the same token, how can we in any ANY way countenance the idea that monastic tonsure represents marriage? It represents a spiritual union that matrimonial imagery only vaguely (and never literally) touches upon, and this in addressing the true soteriological dimensions of Orthodoxy, which apply to monastics and non-monastics alike.

I hope that these few words have been helpful. Your question is a very important one.