Perhaps the greatest contribution of the monastic way in our contemporary world is its prophetic presence in an age of confusion or ignorance, when people tend to overlook the spiritual dimension of the world. “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9). By purifying their own souls, monastics seek to purify the soul of every person as well as the soul of the world. The prayer of monastics sustains the whole world (Gen 18:23-33). Their primarily spiritual importance, therefore, becomes social, moral, and even environmental. In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus defined the monk as “the one who is separated from all and at the same time united to all.” He was right.
By restoring the divine image within their own bodies and souls, monastics aspire to refresh the divine image within all people and to renew the face of God on the face of the whole world. Thus, a genuine monastery is “an icon of the church,” says the great visionary Saint Basil (330-379). Indeed, a genuine monastery might be said to constitute an icon of the entire world. It is an example and prototype of a healthy community. Within this context, a genuine monastic does not evade social responsibility; he or she seeks a deeper response to the meaning of life, in the re-creation and reformation, the transfiguration and transformation of the entire fallen world, by silently changing water into wine through Christ (cf. John 2:1-11).
Monasticism proposes a different way of perceiving and doing things in the world. In our age, we have become accustomed to seeing things in a particular way. Indeed, we are constantly bombarded by numerous images, both visual and aural, that determine our ways of responding and reacting. Monasticism provides us with a different set of values, an alternative way of living without compromising. Monasticism seeks to change the world with silence and humility, rather than through power and imposition. It changes the world from within, internally, and not from the outside, externally. In many ways, authentic monasticism proposes a revolutionary worldview, especially in a world where so many people are stuck in established ways that have proved destructive. The silence of the monks is a way of waiting on the grace of God, an earnest expectation of the kingdom.
By maintaining the spirit of the Gospel, monasticism is said to constitute the sinews of the Church (St. Theodore the Studite, 759-826) and the lungs of the entire world. When it functions properly – and, like any other human institution, it does not always function smoothly – monasticism transmits clean are that sustains all people, all animals, and all creation. In many ways, then, the silent prayer of monastics bears greater influence and impact on the natural environment than numerous visible and loud actions that catch our attention. Saints cleanse their surroundings by spilling into them the grace of God that permeates and fulfills everything. It is no wonder that so many Orthodox saints had a natural and friendly relationship with animals that lived near them.