The Monastic Life

The Monastic Life #

The following was written in response to a question put forth by some people concerning the Monastic vocation or life. While this article does not cover every aspect of the Monastic vocation, it is a good beginning.

The English words Monk, Monastery, Monasticism, even the Ge’ez and Amharic words “Maenaekosae” come from a Greek root which means alone. However, to fully understand that aloneness which is proper to Monasticism, one must first work on learning the true vocation of every Christian. It would be much easier for Monks to figure out what they are supposed to be doing, and get on with it rather than wasting precious time, if their Spiritual Fathers had insisted that they learn to be fully Christian before trying to do Monk type stuff. Even he or she who thinks that the self is well on their way down the right road is most apt to take wrong turns.

So, I hope you see, that whether or not one becomes a Monk or Nun, the first thing a Baptized and Chrismated Orthodox Christian needs to do is find a Spiritual Father, so that he or she may begin to repent, for, truly, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. And every lay man and lay woman should take to heart, this message of the great forerunner of Monastics, St. John, the Baptizer of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Not everyone who met Jesus Christ while He walked the earth recognized Him for what He proved to be. St. John paved the way for many of those who would believe, by disdaining every comfort and braving the desert wilderness to announce the coming of the Messiah. And people came to where he was alone to hear his message. But first he had to be purified by that aloneness in which he emptied himself of all carnal desires and personal preferences. The Gospel according to St. Luke 1:41 relates that the Holy Spirit filled St. Elizabeth, John’s mother, while he was in her womb, so that at hearing St. Mary’s voice, the embryonic John leaped in his mother’s womb and she blurted out the prophecy, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” But St. John still had to go through years of preparation before he was ready to do the mission that was God’s will for him, day in and day out, months and years and many crowds of people to baptize unto repentance. His dedication to truth ultimately cost him his head, but I think that he was well prepared to make that sacrifice.

If we are serious about following Christ Jesus, we have to grow to really believe that He is coming back in glory to judge us according to our deeds, at the end of time, some time, any time, we know not when. So, for God’s sake, begin by being the best of what you are now. Learn to renounce your own will in order that Almighty God’s will might be done on earth, at least in your watch, as it is in heaven. There are several texts in which Our Lord Jesus Christ outlined the requirements for those who were serious about following Him. Here are four which are the basis of what I wrote above: Mt. 19:16-finish; Mk. 10: 17-32; Mt… 24: 44 - f; Lk. 12: 40-49.

Monasticism may be seen as it exists in three different types. Many insist that those ways -other than the way they know - are not really Monasticism. That just goes to show you, that people really do not change, all that much, just because they have become Monks. You can take the boy or girl out of the world, but only by God’s grace may the world be taken out of the boy or girl.

Type #1 Monasticism is called Ermitic = Hermit = Anchorite characterize by virtual or relative seclusion. St. Anthony of Egypt (c. 250 - 355 A.D.) is credited with pioneering this way of life. St. Athanasius, Pope of Alexandria wrote a biography of St. Anthony, and probably was responsible for an early version of what became a special type of Christian literature, called “Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” This, in turn, became the basis of a voluminous international collection that, later, was known among the Byzantines as the “Philokalia” (love of goodness).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one should not loose sight of the fact that Anthony, obviously, drew upon inspiration from he whom others have called the prototype of all Christian monastics, St. John the Baptizer of Our Lord. There is in Ethiopian traditional literature an account of how St. John’s mother, St. Elisabeth, took him to his father, St. Zachariah, a Priest serving at the Temple in Jerusalem, to protect him from king Herod’s infanticide decree. Both parents were killed for defying the Kings order to save the child. The infant, however, was spirited away to be raised by pious desert dwellers. Some have suggested that those who raised St. John may have been the Qumran community (Dead Sea Scroll fame) in the desert region on the Northwest coast of the Dead Sea.

St. Anthony kept trying to find a place of fool-proof seclusion, only to at last realize that it was God’s will that he take in others and share what God had revealed to him. For him, perhaps the initial seclusion was necessary to prepare him with something to share with others. There are many different, often conflicting, histories of Christian Monasticism. Of course, some of these authors have been people like Graham Hancock, who, thought they might have a degree in studying and have studied their topic very intensely for years, may still be offering conjecture rather than hard evidence. Even with hard evidence an author may misinterpret what he or she finds. From an academic point of view, I think that many of us recognize the truth of the dictum publish or perish. However, we would do well to make a mental note to go with that fact. Recall that only in the end, when the Lord returns in glory, will all truth be revealed. Only then will all know how much is left of what has been published.

Type #2 Monastic life is called Cenobitic = common life. St. Pachomius is credited as being the writer of the 1st Rule to govern this type of Monasticism. St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Benedict of Nursia, Augustine of Hippo are authors of other famous Monastic rules. This is the best situation for most people (men or women) to begin (test) a Monastic vocation. Successful Cenobitic Monasteries are those where there are Elders who have been properly formed by learning strict obedience. Many ventures have failed or even degenerated into houses of temptation where inhabitants think that it is possible for a bunch of good ole' boys to get along by running away from the reality that we all need to experience tough love. A life centered on prayer and repentance where everyone is dedicated to the practice of the “Rule of Life” is the key to success. Even institutions which have survived for hundreds of years can fall in one generation where Monks are allowed to loose this vision. Besides what many have heard about vows of poverty, complete chastity, and obedience, according to some Rules, stability is another vow, in which all members understand that they will remain faithful to that community for the rest of their lives, and that usually means staying in the same place.

Type # 3 is called Idiorythmic - This, in a sense, is like a combination of the above two life styles. It can only work where those who have matured to the point of being tonsured or taking the vows have matured to the point of living with a minimal Rule, perhaps in separate huts, where each may even take food by themselves, and come together only for the established common liturgical prayer life, the Divine Office (Mashafa Saatat) and the Eucharistic Liturgy - Qedasse.

Ideally, each Monastery is a microcosm of what Eden was supposed to have been. It is a family in which the individual can find treatment for the spiritual diseases from which he or she has suffered. I find that most people suffer from some unresolved anger issues that come from their early childhood. For some it was a matter of physical or psychological abuse. For others it may have started with imagined abuse or neglect, seeing what pathetically selfish beings we are from our mother’s wombs. In any event, most of us manage to grow up with some pretty twisted ideas of how life is supposed to be. God’s grace is always sufficient to overcome such obstacles, but we still have to do a lot of hard labor to cooperate with His Divine Power, if we are to win these battles. That is where Cenobitic Monasticism comes in; it is like a hospital where, with expert care the sick psyche can get its act together. It’s not for everyone, but it is for those who are serious about changing their world view. Even if an individual does not ultimately become a Monk or a Nun, it’s the best way to get on the right track, taking up one’s Cross to follow Jesus Christ. From those who have advanced in this life to the spiritual maturity, judged by Elders, come some of the people best prepared to become Anchorites = Hermits.

You asked about what the “Vow of Obedience” entails. For a Monastic vocation to mature and bear fruit, one must be totally obedient. The period of testing is learning why complete obedience is necessary to become a Monk. One keeps no secret thoughts but bares all. That is the only way that one can learn to apply grace to cure the thought processes which cause us to fall into temptation. Most people never stop to think about these issues, supposing somehow that they have been divinely inspired to know what’s best for them. Look around you at the evidence. How many people do you suppose are really happy with their lives? Most of their misery is really self-inflicted. Despite popular misunderstandings, Monasticism is really about finding true joy in life. As we say whenever we pray “Our Father” “Abatachin hoy:” “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven . . . Lead us, lest we wander into temptation; but deliver us from the evil one.”

Thoughts can be sinful or thoughts can be virtuous. As always the choice is ours. All of our works begin with our thoughts. If we do not learn how to apply grace to our thoughts, our works will not be works of righteousness. It is allowing a tempting thought to linger in our minds that can be sinful. Others see our actions, but God knows our thoughts. Even though we are often quite clever at deceptions, including self-deception, God sees through all that. That is why we need to learn how to expose all of our thoughts to the light. In order that the Divine Light may penetrate our hearts. The Apostle St. Paul put the solution quite well in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter 5: “12 and we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; 13 And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves. 14 Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. 15 See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men. 16 Rejoice evermore. 17 Pray without ceasing. 18 In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

This whole chapter reads like a Monastic Rule. However, I have underlined verse 17. As every true Monk knows that is the key to controlling stray thoughts. It doesn’t suppose that it is possible to do nothing else in life but pray. Instead, it points the way to the vocation that we all have of learning to talk to God with such honesty that everything we think, do, and say: every work becomes a prayer of selfless praise of God for all his mighty and loving acts toward us. We gradually learn to shape all our behavior so that we show forth God’s love to all whom we meet. Thus we keep all the commandments and find fulfillment as God’s creatures.