This post is part of a longer essay written by His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA whilst he was abbot of the St. John of Shanghai Monastery in Manton, California. In this part of the essay, His Beatitude lays out the three ways by which we are called to monastic life.
By Metropolitan Jonah
There are three ways men are called to the monastic life, according to the Fathers of the Church. The first is a direct call from God. The second, from other people. The third, through circumstances.
The first is the strongest. Somehow, God reveals His will to us, that He wants us to become a monk. Sometimes this is through a mystical experience, sometimes through a deep insight into our self. On the other hand, because this comes from God directly, and may be a great surprise to us, we often rebel. St Symeon the New Theologian had a profound experience as a youth, and then went back to the world and worldliness, and only later repented. St Augustine has a famous saying: Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet! St Silouan fell back into worldly passions after his calling, and then repented.
A direct calling from God to monastic life may be part of a direct calling to spiritual awareness. The grace of God penetrates our being and opens our spiritual eyes, and instills faith within our souls. He opens the reality of Himself to us, and in so doing, also opens our awareness of our own fallenness. This spiritual awakening may coincide with a calling experience, or may come later on. It is a fundamental shift in our consciousness, illumined by grace, and leading us to repentance and the transformation of our whole life. Not all mystical experiences are from God, and they must be tried and tested. First, they must be submitted to one’s spiritual father, for his discernment.
The second way, a call coming through other people, is where it becomes plain to others, especially our spiritual guides, that we should embrace the monastic life. Of course, it should be plain to us as well. When we seek guidance, such as that of a great elder, his words may resonate in our souls, and we will know that what he spoke is the truth. We may or may not like it, but it remains the truth. Then we try it out. And it should be plain to us then that it is the way God wants us to go.
The third way, by circumstances, is most nebulous. Sometimes we can find ourselves at a monastery, and find that we like the way of life, and simply begin to fit in. Or we meet the spiritual father, and want to be close to him. Sometimes it comes through a realization of the vanity of our life in the world. There are many ways this can happen.
What is clear though is that when we know we have a calling from God or that it is clear through others and resonates in our souls, we go as soon as possible. It is not something to be put on hold, to “wait until I bury my father.” This is a calling from the Lord and should be pursued at once. The more intense it is, the more intently we should pursue the call. This does not mean that we should hurt others in doing so. But we must not let them hold us back: “He who loves father or mother…son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” The initial stages of life in the monastery are where we try our vocation, begin our detachment from the world and from our fallen self, and our own will. It is in the furnace of obedience in which we come to know whether we are called to this life or not. This knowledge, the realization of God’s call to us, is the fruit of much prayer. We must seek God and His will, surrender ourselves to His will completely. To pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Thy will be done!” is something very helpful for our search. But when it becomes clear to us, we must do it!