Monasticism in the 21st century: A Viable Alternative or a Forgotten Ideal?
A brother went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my prayer rule, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the elder stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all aflame.”
This is what monasticism is: a longing for God that knows no limits. It is the beginning of the age to come, of the Kingdom of Heaven still here on earth. The Church calls monasticism the “angelic life.” According to Holy Tradition, in the fourth century an angel appeared to St. Pachomius—the first of the monks struggling out in the Egyptian desert—to establish a monastic community, and gave him a bronze tablet, inscribed with a Rule for his monks to follow. From Apostolic times to the present day thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people have left everything they had, and scorned everything that this world has to offer, in order to follow Christ and to live the Gospels more fully.
At times this impulse has been stronger, at times weaker, and the Holy Fathers speak of monasticism as a barometer of spiritual life in the Church. When monastic life flourishes, the faithful are really striving spiritually; and conversely, when few people find inspiration in the monastic ideal, monasteries diminish and are ignored, spiritual life amongst the faithful is on the decline.
Is monasticism completely a lost cause today? True, to modern eyes, the monk is increasingly a figure of yesterday, someone silly and eccentric. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the lives of the founders of monasticism abound with dire warnings that monasticism, especially the strict asceticism of past centuries, will be just about impossible in the latter days. Once, when the Holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation, they said, “What have we ourselves done?” One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?” He said, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.” They said, “And to those that come after them, what will happen?” He said, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will persevere in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.”
In spite of the hardships and the off-putting advice of even the most authoritative Orthodox sources, many people still do choose to leave everything and everyone behind, to take up the cross of monastic struggles and to follow our Saviour. I don’t think that it’s too optimistic to speak of a sort of revival of monasticism in our times.
What is it that continues to draw people to this way of life that is essentially a mystery, something that even the holiest monks speak of with awe and trembling? Above all, monasticism is the way of repentance. Not the sort of repentance when we stop to sigh and feel sorry about the bad things we’ve done and then quickly move on to the next item on our list of things to do, or mumble a list of sins at confession so we can go to Communion, but the sort that means a complete turn-about, a conversion, a profound change of lifestyle. This is the repentance of the Prodigal Son of the Gospels, who comes to realize that his entire way of life has been very wrong, and who leaves it all behind to go home to his father to ask forgiveness. The service of monastic tonsure begins with a stichera paraphrasing this parable: “Make haste to open unto me Thy fatherly embrace, for as the Prodigal I have wasted my life. In the unfailing wealth of Thy mercy, O Saviour, reject not my heart in its poverty. For with compunction I cry to Thee, O Lord: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee.” It is this longing for our Heavenly Father’s embrace, for His forgiveness, and for a home with Him that still makes people turn their backs on everything and trudge along this rocky road.
The first step along this road is renunciation of the world, leaving it behind. This does not mean simply quitting school or your job, closing your bank account, moving to a monastery, putting on black and saying your prayers. According to the Holy Fathers the term “world” means the sum total of all our passions, attachments, opinions, petty likes and dislikes; everything that distances us from God and prevents us from discerning His Will. “No one can draw nigh to God save the man who has separated himself from the world. But I call separation not the departure of the body, but departure from the world’s affairs,” says St. Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest monastic fathers of all time. “No one who has communion with the world can have communion with God, and no one who has concern for the world can have concern for God,” he continues. “If you truly love God,” begins St. John of the Ladder, another monastic guide, “and long to reach the Kingdom that is to come, if you are pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgment, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed, for anything of earth… Stripped of all thought of these, caring nothing about them, one will turn freely to Christ…”
At this point the most common question is “How do I know?” How do I know that I’m called to the particular form of renunciation of the world that monasticism represents? All of us have to leave the world in the sense of struggling to overcome our passions in one way or another; there’s no question about that. But how can a person be sure that the Lord means for him to do it by embracing the monastic life? How can we discern the will of God in this case? It’s very true that there’s no specific “monastic type” or particular character trait that defines someone as a candidate. But all at some point become convinced of the necessity of dropping everything and starting along the road home to their Heavenly Father.
People often talk of vocations and callings, assuming that there has to be some sort of mystical experience to convince you to become a monastic. It’s true that a lot of monastics can look back to a particular event that was the turning point in their lives. Nine times out of ten there’s nothing really otherworldly about it. If you hear voices or see angels, probably the last place where you belong is a monastery!
Even if there is such a moment, the choice and decision to follow a monastic path is almost always a period of real struggle, of doubts, fears and temptations. A lot of the monastics I know, when the thought first came to them, wanted nothing to do with it and were quite shocked by the idea. The Holy Fathers emphasize that there is nothing that the evil one hates as much as monasticism and he will do everything possible to turn someone away from this path. If one is at all spiritually alert, you can practically see and hear him at work at this point. I’ve known people to get incredible job offers, receive huge amounts of money, marriage proposals from tall, dark, handsome and rich men. An older nun I knew had her husband, missing for twenty years, turn up on her doorstep the day before she left. In spite of the trials, there’s a growing conviction that there is nothing else that you can do, that no matter what, the monastic life is the only viable alternative. And this nags at you until there’s just no other way out.
Once a monk escapes from the world, he begins to try to finally think clearly and to concentrate on the things that will determine his eternal fate. He begins to really understand and to feel that we, wretched sinners, really are perishing, that we desperately need a Redeemer and Someone to heal our souls, and that in Him alone is life, that everything besides is empty and senseless. He begins to really feel and experience this, not just to say the words. Only when a person stops listening to the noise and clatter of the world, turns his eyes away from its wild, psychedelic colors, and when he gets over the hangover that the world leaves you with, does he begin to see himself clearly and to discern the meaning and aim of life on this earth and to struggle against his enemy, the evil one. St. John of the Ladder tells us, “All who enter upon the good fight, the monastic life, which is tough and painful, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they … expect the heavenly fire to dwell within them… Let everyone test himself, and then eat the bread of the monastic life with its bitter herbs … and drink the cup of it with its tears…” Yes, it’s true. The monastic life is not “fun.” Most of us, especially those that had to go through a severe trial to leave the world, experience a “honeymoon” period, when you finally take the plunge, make the break with the world and get to a monastery. It’s such a relief to have all that behind you, and to have finally started out on the way. Everything and everyone seems wonderful, you’re so full of zeal, and you can practically see the grace, it’s so abundant. For some monastics this stage can go on for years. But sooner or later “reality” strikes and you see that everything that’s been written about the hardships of monastic life is not just fancy words or symbolic phrases or allegory. It’s not the physical side that’s hard. With some effort and discipline anyone can learn to get up early and to stand through long church services, to make prostrations and to work, and work hard, at jobs that you don’t necessarily like. A lot of people in the world have a much more difficult life in that sense. It’s the encounter with yourself and who you really are and the struggle to change that, that is the slow but painful, day by day, minute by minute work of the monk. The work is done largely through our contacts and conflicts with other people. St. John of the Ladder is very blunt about this: “… Derided, mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice, and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned.” For most of us the most difficult element in all this is giving up your own will. One of the most quoted monastic sayings, that of Abba Dorotheos—another great teacher of the monastic life—says: “I know of no fall that happens to a monk that does not come from trusting his own will and his own judgment… Do you know someone who has fallen? Be sure that he directed himself… Nothing is more grievous… nothing is more pernicious.”
When I was a young novice, I would get really annoyed at the writings of the Holy Fathers and the constant repetition that in the latter days monks will not be able to perform any great spiritual feats, but will work out their salvation through patience and long-suffering. “How boring!” I would think, “Surely if we set our minds and spirits to it, we can do it too? How come all we’re allowed is to sit around and be patient?” The secret here is that this is truly a great mercy of the Lord. Today we are not only unchristian in our approach to life, in our thoughts, words and actions, we are outright anti-Christian. Were the Lord to grant us the grace and give us the strength to perform even just one tenth of the ascetic feasts of previous times, we would not only not profit, but the resulting pride and vainglory would lead us straight to perdition. This is especially true in monasticism, where, for the inexperienced, the intense work on oneself is very easy to confuse with the self-analysis that so many self-help/feel-good-about-yourself guides teach today.
Take, for example, the concept of “moods.” This is not an Orthodox concept; we do not have moods, we are inflicted by passions and we strive to acquire virtues. “Being in a bad mood” can never excuse your behavior in a monastery. This can be very hard for a novice to accept. Likewise, we do not have any “rights”; we have obligations and obediences, and we owe it to the Lord Himself to fulfill them, but no one owes us anything. Similarly, we cannot expect to be “happy” and “fulfilled”; we come to a monastery to weep for our sins.
I remember Metropolitan Philaret, paraphrasing St. John of the Ladder, saying, “If everyone knew how hard it was in monasteries, no one would ever go. But if they knew the joys and rewards of monastic life, they would all come running.” And it’s true, the rewards and the blessings really are there. One of the Optina Elders, St. Barsanuphius, taught, “True blessedness can only be acquired in a monastery. You can be saved in the world, but it is impossible to be completely purified… or to rise up and live like the angels and live a creative spiritual life in the world. All the ways of the world … destroy or at least slow down the development of the soul. And that’s why people can attain the angelic life only in monasteries… Monasticism is blessedness; the most blessed state that is possible for a person on this earth. There is nothing higher than this blessedness, because monasticism hands you the key to spiritual life.” In what do we find this blessedness? There is the knowledge that every day of your life and every minute of your day are sanctified and significant before God. Even your “bad” days and your really low days have meaning before Him. As long as you live the life consciously there is no wasted time. There is the solemnity and beauty of the Divine Services of our Church, which is truly the beginning of the life of Heaven still here on earth. In the world our attendance in church is always time stolen away from the world’s affairs, a welcome respite, a sort of spiritual treat. In the monastery the services determine the very patterns of life, and they are the real life; everything else is time stolen away from them. They nourish us, instruct us, and in a certain sense even entertain us. When I was entering the monastery, one of my greatest fears was that eventually I would find the services boring—the same thing, year in, and year out, forever. Instead I find that they contain such vast wealth and so many levels, each more profound that the one before it, that a lifetime is nowhere near enough to begin to appreciate them.
There is nothing more beautiful than the way monastics die. Most of our sisters die having received Holy Communion, surrounded by the community, with prayers and chanting and tears. Not the desperate tears of the world, but tears of parting with a friend and sisters, even if just for a while. The funeral service of a monk, which is quite different than that of a lay person, is a lesson on the monastic life and the solidly grounded hope of eternal life that it represents rather than a meditation on death. For those that spend their life on the threshold of the age to come, death is merely stepping into the next room.
“Monasticism,” one of the Optina Elders said, “supports the entire world. And when there will be no more monasticism the Dread Judgment will be upon us.”
And for those of us that are drawn to this way of life there simply is no other way to live. One writer described it like this: “Some people are very single-minded by nature. And there are ideas that permeate the lives of such people down to the very last detail. Everything is beautiful, joyous and of consolation, but this life is overshadowed for them by the memory of one thing, by a single thought: that of Christ Crucified. No matter how bright the sun might be, how beautiful nature, God’s creation is, how tempting far-away places might seem, they remember that Christ was crucified, and everything is dim in comparison. We might hear the most beautiful music, the most inspired speeches, but these souls hear one thing: Christ was crucified, and what can ever drown out the sound of the nails being hammered into His flesh? Describe to them the happiness of a family life, of a beloved husband or wife, of children, but Christ was crucified, and how can we not show the Lord that He isn’t alone, we haven’t deserted Him. There are those that are willing to forget everything in the world so as to stand by His Cross, suffer His suffering and wonder at His Sacrifice. For them the world is empty, and only Christ Crucified speaks to their hearts. And only they know what sweetness they taste still on this earth by sharing in the eternal mystery of the Cross, and only they hear what He says to them when they come to Him after a life full of incomprehensible hardships and inexplicable joy.”
Mortals, escape with me from a false world!
Christ calls. Away! Life be our voyage fair,
Safe riding o’er the surge of cares and lies!
One quest alone employs the lonely Monk,
How he may reach the Haven of true peace,
Where never comes the strain of breaking hearts.
O happy life, all music, free from sorrow!
Where is the prudent seeker of true gain
Will part with all the world and choose the Cross?
–St. Theodore the Studite