FIDELITY TO THE MONASTIC VOWS
AS A MEANS OF HEALING THE ESTRANGEMENT BROUGHT ABOUT BY ORIGINAL SIN
In paradise man was in communion with God, and God was life and security for Him. Disobedience and the fall into sin disrupted this life-giving unity with God, and death entered man’s life with all its devastating consequences. Thus, man lost the security and support he had from God, the Giver of life, and out of fear and the struggle for survival, he conceived his own way of life, based thenceforward on his natural, created powers. Previously, he had kept the commandments of God and enjoyed every good thing, and lived in incorruption. After the transgression, though, seeking protection from the threat of death, he took refuge in the following three substitutes or pseudo-supports, which were to alienate him from the life of God (cf. Eph. 4:18). The first pseudo-support is his self-will and the persuasiveness of his logical reasoning. The second is the pleasure (hedoné) of the senses and the desires naturally associated with reproduction; and the third pseudo-support is the possession of material goods. These are the three substitutes that man turned to for survival, having lost the true security and life of God.
By relying on the persuasiveness of his own logical judgment and will, man undergoes the first alienation and falls into the Luciferian delusion of self-deification, raising a wall between himself and God. In succumbing to the lure of progeny and the pleasure of the senses, he puts on the “garments of skin” (Gen. 3:21), and undergoes the second alienation. The first alienation occurred through the arrogance of his mind, the second took place by putting his trust in the pleasure of the senses, and in the desire for progeny. His life is thus preserved, but it is changed into a “living death,” that is, into a life of self-love combined with spiritual death – a prolongation of life in death. Finally, so as to feel secure he makes efforts to acquire “much goods for many years” (cf. Lk. 12:19), as “the fool hath said in his heart” (Ps. 14:1), and so he brings upon himself the third alienation, which completely darkens his intellect and hardens his heart. He is now given over to the vanities of this world and the folly of idolatry.
The fall into the whirlpool of these three alienations disposes the conscience of man negatively with regard to God, to his neighbor, and to the world. In his relationship with God, he gives preference to himself; in his relationship with his neighbour, he is led by the passionate desire to dominate – lust for power; in his relationship to the material world, he is given over to the frenzy of acquisitiveness.
Monasticism aims to remove these three annihilations, and to restore man to a genuine hypostatic form of existence. Aside: To the true universality, which is the fulfillment of the purpose of man’s creation. End of aside. The aim is realized by the accomplishment of the three monastic vows: obedience, virginity or chastity, and poverty or non-acquisitiveness. Obedience, however, is of particular importance, because the other two vows draw their power from it, as a natural corollary.
The Vow of Obedience
Obedience (Gk. Hypakoë) is the first condition of the monastic life and its basis. Obedience is cultivated by human ascetic effort, but also, and primarily, it is a gift of God.1 According to Fr. Sophrony, our father founder, obedience is a “sacred mystery” in two senses: it is a “secret” revealed only by the energy of the Holy Spirit, and it is a “sacrament” of the Church. For the life to which it elevates man is indescribable and incomprehensible.2
It is Christ who first showed us the model and example of perfect obedience. He came into the world “in the Father’s name” and not “in His own name” (cf. John 12:50), which would have betrayed a Luciferian tendency to self-divinization.3 He taught us that His Father’s commandment is eternal life. He voluntarily (cf. Heb. 10:7, John 5:30) accepted this commandment and fulfilled it without sin (cf. John 14:30-31). In addition, as the only-begotten Son, He was unceasingly and constantly the bearer of the good pleasure of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, in order to save us He demonstrated perfect and exact obedience to the will of His Father, even unto death and the shame of the Cross (cf. Phil. 2:8, Heb. 12:2). But the righteous God did not let His child Jesus “see corruption” in the tomb (cf. Ps. 16:10, Acts 2:27; 13:35). He raised Him up and exalted Him to be a Prince and Saviour of the world (cf. Acts 3;15; 5:31; Heb. 2:10). By His obedience Christ, the New Adam, initiated a new law of life, becoming the healthy root of the “new humanity” (Eph. 2:15; 4:24).
In fulfilling his obedience, the monk imitates Christ, setting himself on the path of the Lord’s will. Only a psychologically healthy soul can undertake obedience. Psychological health is manifested by the monk’s consciousness that he himself is insufficient for immediate knowledge of the great and perfect will of God. He follows the wise exhortation of Holy Scripture: “Ask thy father and he will show thee; thine elders and they will tell thee” (Deut. 32:7). He holds to the general rule of monastic ascesis: “Do not trust in yourself.” He thus has recourse to his spiritual father, confident that to him it has been given to know God’s will more clearly. In this way, he recognizes that the true God is the “God of our Fathers” (Exod. 3:15-16), and thus overcomes the disorder of double-minded fallen man, who cannot discover the sure path of life. “A double-minded man,” says the Apostle James, “is unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:8); it is through obedience that he finds stability. Having this humble predisposition, the monk becomes fit to put his hand to the salutary plough of obedience (cf. Lk. 9:62).
When the monk seeks the will of God with this disposition, as a lowly disciple, he is prepared to accept the first word of his spiritual father as coming from the mouth of the Lord, in whose name, too, he had asked advice. Aside: This is a matter of faith. End of aside. He gradually obtains knowledge of the divine will, and becomes capable of discerning the machinations of the enemy. “We are not ignorant of his devices,” says St. Paul (2 Cor. 2:11). This discernment is necessary so as to refute every delusory suggestion, because the will of God in this world is manifested in the same relative outward forms in which the natural will and the demonic will present themselves to the human mind. Aside: We have to learn to discern the thoughts (logismoi), of which there are three kinds: thoughts from God, natural thoughts, and demonic thoughts. End of aside.
It is worth emphasizing at this point that obedience, like every other Christian virtue, must be a free and voluntary act in order to have eternal value before God. Aside: “If any man serve me, let him follow me,” says the Lord (John 12:26). Whatever we do without freedom has no eternal value before God. End of aside.Obedience means free denial of a man’s will and opinion, a giving over of his logical judgment to the authority of another person, his elder or father confessor. Notwithstanding man’s creation as a free being in God’s likeness, when sin intervened in his life his will was distorted and his intellect was darkened. Instead of desiring to think on things Above, he wants to set his mind on things here below, and is attached to objects and values of this world, which are “unprofitable” for the soul (Heb. 13:17).
The free will of man, together with his reason, are the most precious of his natural gifts; and when obedience is at work, it offers these two faculties, the will and the reason, as the most pleasing sacrifice to God. Aside: When man becomes a “fool” for the commandment of the Lord, and cuts off his will for the sake of the Lord, it is the most pleasing sacrifice to God, because he has offered to God that which he holds most precious in himself. End of aside. Then, as recompense from God, the monk receives the supernatural gift of the knowledge of the good and perfect divine will.
Aside: In the Church an exchange takes place between man and God. We present and offer our life to God, as far as we are able, and in return, God offers His life to us. This exchange of lives takes place in the Church, and even more so in the Liturgy. There is an exchange of life in the bread and wine we offer to God when we say, “Thine own, of thine own, we offer unto thee in all and for all”; and God says to us, “The holy things unto the holy.” We put all our life in that bread and wine, all our prayers, all our expectations, everything that our conscience embraces, and we offer it to God. He accepts it, and puts His life into the bread and wine – the Holy Spirit. He infuses them with His life, and returns them to us in order that we may eat and live, saying to us, “The holy things unto the holy.” This takes place par excellence in the Divine Liturgy, but it happens also every time we fulfill a commandment. We make a little effort and, in return, we receive an incorruptible gift from God. The exchange is unequal, because our God is bountiful and kind-loving. We offer a corruptible and sinful life to God, and he offers back to us His limitless, incorruptible and eternal Life. And the monk, by becoming a fool for the sake of the Lord (cf. I Cor. 4:10), and sacrificing his natural and corrupted mind, his natural and distorted will, receives the knowledge of the good and perfect divine will, through his father in the Spirit – to begin with. And this is only to begin with, because after he is initiated, God becomes his guide and his teacher directly. We must not forget that the Lord said, “one is your Master, even Christ” (Matt. 23:8, 10). Our fathers dare to give us birth, and we become their sons. Then we, in our turn, in due time, become fathers as well. God has not created masters and servants; He has created fathers and sons in a relationship of love: the fathers give birth to sons, and the sons, in their turn, become fathers. This is the good pleasure of God. End of aside.
By the free exercise of obedience, the monk makes himself a servant after the example of the Son of God (cf. Phil. 2:5-7),4 and for this voluntary enslavement he is given the freedom of the children of God. The schooling of obedience aims at introducing man into the life-giving and saving will of God.5 This initiation makes him like Christ6 and leads him to the perfection of Christian life, to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.7 Aside: To that enlargement about which we spoke earlier, which makes him a universal person, in the image and likeness of the New Adam. End of aside.
When the monk accepts the word or the decision of his spiritual father, he learns to accept within him the life and the will, firstly of God, and then of his brethren. By these means, the shell of his isolated individuality is shattered, broken, and his being is expanded. He is perfected in love, and finds harmony and perfection in his relationships both towards God and his brothers. At first, he has to struggle to bear within himself the will of his confessor and his fellow monks. However, as he progresses in the knowledge of the divine will, his hypostasis – his person – becomes enlarged, and contains in himself the life of the entire world, which he embraces in his prayer.8 His small, individual will is denied. He sets aside his broken earthly reasoning, and receives as a gift the wisdom and the divine universality of Christ. From this point of view, obedience is a sacrament of the Church which creates true persons in the image of the truly personal God, hypostases having true universality. The spiritual father becomes a “labourer together with God” (cf. I Cor. 3-9), a co-worker of God, in the sacred and everlasting creation of gods “for eternity in the uncreated Light.”9 Aside: It is a wonderful service, brimming with inspiration. End of aside.
By the practice of obedience, the monk crucifies his intellect and his will, and thus removes from his life the supports and the security by means of which previously he had hoped to oppose death. Aside: Do not forget that it is because we are afraid of death that we are sinful. Sin reigns in the world because of the fear of death. The fear of death makes us selfish, and we would do anything to survive; and because of that we remain selfishly in our own “closed circuit,” and all we succeed in doing is to increase death and sin. Therefore, the fear of death made sin reign in the world, and when we try to survive at all costs, we create false supports in order to resist death, but we become more and more entangled in its teeth. End of aside.
By obedience accomplished in God’s name, the monk concentrates his spirit on the advice or commandment given him, and thus, freed from every care over transient matters, he directs his mind uninterruptedly to prayer. Because he does not rely on himself, but places all his trust in God “who raises the dead,” as St. Paul says (2 Cor. 1:9), he is freed from bondage to all created things, and attains to purity of intellect. Aside: This is the goal of obedience: to help us become free from cares and thus acquire purity of mind, which is the necessary precondition for pure prayer. End of aside. Purity of intellect is the most precious fruit of obedience. This purity is also an essential precondition for pure prayer, which will re-establish the primordial communion of the creature with the Creator, bringing his person face to face with the unoriginate God.
It becomes very clear from the above that obedience is radically different from discipline, surpassing it as heaven surpasses earth. Discipline means submission to a superior human will, for the sake of earthly benefit. Discipline subjects man to an impersonal “Rule,” to the “Law,” the “Typicon,” the “Institution,” the “Administration.” Discipline favours the general over the particular, or the majority over the individual. In complete contrast to this, obedience is a free act of faith in God and is always accomplished in His name. Aside: Strictly speaking, full obedience is only possible in a monastery, because only in a monastery are all things organized in such a way as to function for the glory of God (cf. I Cor. 10:31), and to contribute to the performance of the Liturgy. End of aside.
The most perfect form of obedience, which bestows on man the fullness of the hypostatic principle, making him truly an image of God, is shown, as Fr. Sophrony observes, when his spirit
is led by the “greater love” of Christ (John 15:13). Then man attains to the grace of theology as a spiritual state, and becomes a receiver of revelations. Aside: Fr. Sophrony saw monasticism as “a gift of God,” and as an “urgency” of the spirit of man to respond to the “greater love” of Christ that had touched him. Monasticism is also an act of thanksgiving. End of aside. This obedience fulfills all the commandments and becomes the means by which the living Tradition of Christianity is assimilated.10 Aside: Without obedience, the thread of Tradition is broken, as it is precisely through obedience that we imbibe the spirit of Tradition. End of aside.
By cutting off his own will and denying his own reasoning the monk does not lose his personality, nor does he come to self-annihilation, as it may seem to people in the world. On the contrary, he rises above the limits of his created nature, and becomes manifestly a true person-hypostasis. He becomes the bearer of divine life and of all humanity.
The Vow of Virginity or Chastity
Aside: I say the vow of virginity or chastity (Gk. Parthenía or sôphrosynë), because it sometimes happens that people who are married and living in the world, after a mutual agreement, decide to separate in order to become monks and nuns. They do not comprise a large proportion of monastics, but there are not a few, especially in Greece. I say virginity or chastity because, strictly speaking, what matters before God is not celibacy or married life but the fulfillment of the commandments. Monastic life is created “artificially,” in such a way as to give the greatest possibility of fulfilling the commandments of God. And again, I say virginity or chastity, because what Christ desires is more especially the virginity of the heart. He says in the Gospel that what counts before Him is what the heart does. There is “adultery in the heart” (cf. Matt. 5:28), when we give our heart over to a passionate, carnal thought; there is also virginity of the heart, when the heart is totally given to Christ. That is why I am talking about virginity or chastity, because what we target is the virginity of the heart. End of aside.
Virginity or chastity constitutes the second vow of monasticism. Aside: Of course, if one already has virginity of heart, then he is protected from every fall of that kind of passion. End of aside. The dogmatic basis for virginity is the life of Christ. Christ is indeed the prototype for the monk’s ascetic effort. Aside: Virginity is an imitation of Christ’s life. End of aside. In its highest form, virginity is spiritual. This virginity requires the fullest possible following of the first commandment of love for God, and purity of intellect. For this reason, the state of spiritual virginity presupposes obedience, and it is unattainable without it. Aside: We know that monks who are obedient are always rich with prayer and dead to sin. End of aside.
Christ was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. His birth did not involve sensual pleasure which, according to the ancient law of life after the Fall, is followed by the just sentence of death. Neither did Christ ever base His conduct on kinship “according to the flesh,” but was consumed by zeal for His Father’s House (cf. John 2:17). He offered the bonds of physical kinship as a sacrifice for the sake of His heavenly patrimony. Aside: Remember when Christ was at the wedding in Cana, and the Holy Virgin came to Him and said, “They have no wine.” Despite the love He had for His Mother, He told her, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” That is to say, He was not there to fulfill the will of His Mother but the will of His Heavenly Father. The Holy Virgin humbly accepted His wish, denying her own will; and Christ accepted this sacrifice of His Mother, and “His hour” came immediately, although He had said, “Mine hour is not yet come” (John 2:3-5). So the obedience of the Mother of God, cutting off her will when Christ was sharp with her, accelerated the coming of His hour; and he performed the first miracle at the wedding of Cana. End of aside.
The monk, following Christ’s example in unwavering obedience, attains to humility and attracts the grace of God, which purifies the intellect. Aside: Because God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud (cf. Prov. 3:34 Lxx, Jas. 4:6, I Pet. 5:5). End of aside. This purification is a necessary precondition of spiritual virginity, as is indicated by Christ’s word mentioned above (John 2:3-5). Furthermore, grace brings the sweetness of love for Christ. These two effects of grace: the purification of the intellect and the sweetness of love for Christ instill in the monk’s spirit the exigency to strive for spiritual virginity.
In no sense do these sweetening effects of grace descend to the level of fleshly satisfactions or pleasures. Aside: That is to say, he who finds the grace of God has more than pleasure, he has “ineffable joy”;11 and so, having found such a treasure of life, he will not look down to earth for substitutes. End of aside. These sweetening effects inspire unmitigated temperance, and they distance the monk’s soul as if instinctively from every thought or act that does not conform to divine love. They bring forth an unrestrained attraction towards God, and an unquenchable thirst for Him. In such a state, the monk desires to respond to the Lord’s love by gratitude. Aside: That is why the monastery becomes a place of thanksgiving. End of aside. Just as He lived His earthly life in virginity, so does the monk follow His example, and imitates Him (cf. John 13:15). He breaks every natural bond, and freed from every care, seeks only the presence of the loving and living God.
According to the great Apostle Paul, our only concern in this life is to please the Lord perfectly, either by death or by life. Aside: He says that it is not important whether we are in the body or are apart from the body; what is important is to be pleasing to Him (cf. 2 Cor. 5:9). Or in another place, he says that whether we live or die is not important, what is important is that we are the Lord’s (cf. Rom. 14:8). End of aside. This goal is feasible for the monk who is without earthly cares and has “presented his body as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” (cf. Rom. 12:1). Living in this way the monk is not reconciled to the law of corruption and death, which came into the world through the pleasure originating in disobedience. He transforms every energy into a spiritual force, so as to keep his spirit unceasingly abiding with the Spirit of God. Aside: He transforms psychological energy into spiritual energy in order to keep his spirit unceasingly united to the Spirit of God, that is to say, in prayer. End of aside. A life of spiritual virginity is an exalted art and culture, whose fundamental value lies in the “guarding of the mind.” The most important rule of this contest is not to surrender the mind to passionate images and thoughts. Aside: Our Father Founder, Fr. Sophrony, used to give us a slogan from time to time: “Do not surrender the mind,” that is to say, do not give the mind up to any thought, to any kind of passion. “Do not surrender the mind.” In this is the beginning of everything. End of aside.
The living presence of God gradually dissolves the “garments of skin” and vouchsafes the monk to be born anew in the “kingdom which cannot be moved” (Heb. 12:28), where dwell “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23), the spirits that have become “hypostatic.” The divine presence destroys the fraudulent security of fleshly kinship, and brings death to an end in the monk’s person. Aside: Death is destroyed in the person of the monk. In ordinary life, death is prolonged, but in the person of the monk death is destroyed. End of aside. The monk remains in the presence of God and thus crosses over into eternal life, becoming a temple of the Godhead.
The Vow of Poverty
The vow of poverty (Gk. aktemosynë) heals the madness of idolatry, the frenzy of the desire for possessions. This third condition of monastic life – non-acquisitiveness – is a natural consequence of observing obedience and chastity. Aside: You can see the links: obedience helps chastity; now obedience and chastity help non-acquisition. End of aside. The observance of these three vows has as its aim the attainment of pure prayer and the perfect likeness to Christ, the Son of God. During His earthly life, Christ denied Himself any security from material things. He had “not where to lay His head” (Matt. 8:20, Lk. 9:58). He taught people by deeds and words to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33, Luke 12:31), and to “have no anxiety for the morrow” (Matt. 6:34). He pointed out to us that where our treasure is, there our heart is also (Matt. 6:21). Aside: Always we look at the Person of Christ and at the life of Christ on earth in order to find our bearings. End of aside.
Monastic poverty derives its power from obedience. Practicing obedience, the monk is trained to disregard, for the sake of pleasing God, both his own soul and body and anything else in his life that is precious to him. In this way, his spirit is liberated in this way from the very desire for material possessions.12 He attains spiritual poverty, that is, he is freed from making any “provision for the flesh” (Rom. 13:14) and the kingdom of heaven becomes his sole desire. He is thus healed of the alienation brought about by greed for possessions, and vanquishes the temptation of its sham security. He becomes “rich towards God” (Luke 12:21), and keeps his soul “unto life eternal” (John 12:25). He becomes one who, “having nothing, yet possesses all things,” as St. Paul says (cf. 2 Cor. 6:10).
Thus, monasticism offers man the possibility of imitating Christ in humility, in crucifixion, without being destroyed. The more deeply he goes downward by the practice of obedience and repentance – and we have already explained at length how important and how precious it is to learn to go downwards – the higher he ascends, by the grace of Christ who exemplified this path.
All Christ’s disciples, led by the Spirit of God, make their way downwards, towards the apex of the inverted pyramid, in order to be united with Him.13 Monastic life has its aim precisely in this downward progress and union with Christ. The monk submits to “every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13), and united with the Head of the inverted pyramid, he receives as a gift the same state as that of Christ Himself, that is to say, he takes within himself the whole human race, and prays for it. This grace, the gift of man’s “dilation” to the point of infinity, is the prize of the monastic vocation for those who fulfill it with exactitude. It transforms man into a true hypostasis, like the hypostasis of the New Adam, Christ.
This path could seem to be self-centered and, in a certain sense, such a claim is justified because, at first, man is in need of healing. Furthermore, being in a fallen state, he cannot have Christ with him, because Christ is not a “minister of sin” (Gal. 2:17). Whereas, when man struggles legitimately and persuades God that he is not a “dog” (cf. Matt. 7:6), God then accepts him as His son, and entrusts him with His “holy things,” that is, with all the riches of His eternal life.
In man, Christ condescends and becomes a minister to the world, in the work of salvation. This is the most precious service offered by the monk to the world. The monk does not have a specific, liturgical priesthood, but through his humble life of repentance he becomes the priest of his own salvation, and through his prayer for the world, he becomes a partaker in the royal priesthood of Christ, the Saviour of the whole Adam. He becomes a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9).
The alienations or pseudo-supports created by the Fall of Adam became laws which determine how people relate to one another. They are recognized in terms of morality, and even considered valuable in people’s eyes. Even so, it is obvious that they do not witness to anything except love for this world and for the flesh. Scripture says that this love is “enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7, cf. Jas. 4:4), and its tenets are an “abomination in the sight of God” (cf. Luke 16:15).
Aside: Often we see people suffering terrible persecutions from their own family when they decide to become monks and nuns. It is easy to understand why, if the Fall of man created universal laws, you have to become super-universal, supra-cosmic, in order to overcome these laws, like Christ who said, “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). End of aside. It is also easy to understand why the foundations of the world are shaken when someone shows monastic leanings. He collides with laws, states and ideologies of cosmic dimensions. But when, with the grace of God, he makes the leap of faith – taking the decision to become a monk – and follows the Lord on the road of monasticism, he too, like Christ, overcomes the world. The unutterable gifts of the Holy Spirit make him supra-cosmic, and proclaim him an immortal hypostasis in the bosom of the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.