The Call to Monastic Life

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!

Reasons to Visit a Monastery Part 5

Encountering Sacred

Even if there were no other reason for visiting a monastery, there would remain this one: it is an agios topos, a holy place. “And Moses said, I will go near and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed. And when the Lord saw that he drew nigh to see, the Lord called him out of the bush, saying, Moses, Moses… loose thy sandals from off thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3: 3-5).d Place         

Coupled with the prayers of the monastics, the saints that dwell within the monastery, and the angels that protect it, there are also at least one or more chapels. The presence of a temple of God alone is enough to sanctify a place. And it is in this sanctified place that even without hearing God-inspired words or witnessing miraculous events, the pilgrim is refreshed. His weary and tired body and soul are nourished with more than monastic fare – they are nourished with monastic stillness.

A pilgrim once asked a priest-monk why it was that out of all the monasteries the pilgrim had visited, this one particular well-known monastery was the one in which grace and divine fragrance was the most perceivable. The priest-monk answered that although all monasteries are holy, that that monastery held the typikon to celebrate Divine Liturgy every single day, and confessed people for hours on end, and so as a result it attracted the grace of the Holy Spirit and He dwelt there. As Dr. Constantine Carvanos surmises, “[t]hrough confession at these centers of spirituality, through participation in the moving services of the monks or nuns, and speaking with them, a Christian living in the world is aided by calm refuge from his worldly cares, by being purified, by rediscovering himself, and by tasting of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” (Constantine Carvanos, Discourse on those living in the world, Orthodox Info: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/discourselivingworld.aspx.)

St. Nikolai Velimirovich records: “When [St. David of Garesja] arrived at a hill from which Jerusalem was visible, [he] began to weep and said, ‘How can I be so bold to walk in the footsteps of the God-man with my sinful feet?’ David then told his disciples that they, being more worthy, should go to worship at the holy places, and he took three stones and began to return.” (St. Nikolai Velimirovitch, Prologue, May 27.)

The saint’s humility was so great that he considered the sight of the Holy Land and even its pebbles to be overflowing with grace. How much more does the grace of a sacred place exceed sight and stones? In this sense the words of St. Theodora hold an even greater significance: “Love stillness. One who is not attached to the vanities of this world is strengthened in soul by stillness, abstinence and silence.” (St. Theodora, Matericon, 85.) This strength, harnessed by the grace of a sacred place, can then be brought back into the world if treasured and safeguarded through prayer and watchfulness.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, “if you want to know if someone loves Christ, find out if he loves monasticism,” as the saying goes. Visit monasteries, acquire humble-mindedness, and abstain from judging others – both the believer who is too lax and he who is too strict. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).

Reasons to Visit a Monastery Part 4

Imitation

The command to imitate Christ is found throughout the Gospels. He is the image of perfect obedience, extreme humility, utter chastity, and a life of poverty. To be sure, if a believer only ever read the Gospels, he would be informed on how to live a proper Christian life. However, because man is weak and in need of examples, the monastic life illustrates the Gospel commandments lived out to their perfection. Thus the layman has before him a pragmatic example of how the teachings of the Lord are upheld and practiced. In turn, he emulates those things in an appropriate and prudent way, just as St. Paul encourages: “what ye learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things be practising; and the God of peace shall be with you” (Phill. 4:9).

There is much to be learned and gained from spiritual books, practical guides, and the wisdom of the desert Fathers and Mothers. However, nothing compares to the spiritual benefit brought about by actually being around someone who shares in the grace of God in a deep and intimate way. For whether or not he has “the words of life,” his prayer, his patience, and his virtue are enough to form and inform the humble-hearted that seek his unique, if silent, wisdom. Abba Dorotheos writes: “It is said that a certain brother asked an elder, ‘What shall I do, father, in order to fear God?’ The elder answered, ‘Go and cling to a man who fears God and from the fact that he fears Him, he will teach you to do likewise.’” (Abba Dorotheos, Practical teaching on the Christian life, “On the Fear of God,” [52], 113.)

Laymen are called to keep the commandments of the Gospel with as much precision as monastics. The monk is not called to one type of life, and the layman to another. No, they are both called to “be perfect even as my Father in heaven who is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), just as St. John Chrysostom taught: “You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities… Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence.” (St. John Chrysostom, Pros piston patera (To the faithful father) 3, 14, PG47, 372- 74.)

The only difference between a Christian living in the world and a monastic living in a monastery is that monasticism “rejects any kind of compromise and seeks the absolute”[12], whereas the layman struggles as best he can in the midst of the distracting world. Both are acceptable and blessed in the eyes of God. Both ways are only successful by the grace of God. The layman should not be disheartened by his struggles in “the darkness of the world” (Eph. 6:12). Rather, he should take courage that he is upheld by the prayers of countless monastics, as Bishop Nikolai of Lavreot has stated: “The life of the faithful is supported by the prayers of the monks. This is elucidated by the very fact that the faithful take refuge in such prayers. Just as Moses stretched out his hands and the Israelites conquered the Amalekites, so the monastics lift up their hands to God and we, the faithful who are struggling in the wilderness of this world, conquer the noetic Amalek.” And more significantly, the layman should take courage that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).

Reasons to Visit a Monastery Part 2

Spiritual Conversation and Action

One of the greatest benefits of visiting a monastery is the spiritual conversation and activity pilgrims are able to take part in. At a monastery, spiritual stories and uplifting anecdotes abound. Although many monastics shy away from conversation with pilgrims for a variety of reasons, given the appropriate circumstance a conversation with a monastic can rear a multitude of benefits – not to mention conversations with fellow pilgrims.

Whether they share a story they have heard, wisdom from the Mothers and Fathers of the Church, or even a tale from that monastery, their words inform and enlighten the pilgrim and help refocus his busy mind. Even time relaxing in the world does not refresh the soul the way a spiritual conversation does. This type of conversation, though found more rarely in the world, is often a common occurrence at a monastery.

Furthermore, many monastics, despite not living in the world any longer or dealing with its struggles and temptations, have great wisdom to share. Not only did they also once live in darkness (Matt. 4:16), but they have a wealth of experience from speaking with pilgrims who confide in them. Through prayer and reading, the monastic manages to help the pilgrim approach his problems with a bit more clarity and even a new perspective.

Coupled with this beneficial spiritual conversation is the spiritual activity that takes place in a monastery. Work and prayer are two primary tenets of the monastic life. Work, however, is done in a slightly different spirit than work done in the world. An Abbess at a monastery not far from Thessaloniki has often said work in a monastery is a great deed because it is done solely for the love of God, and the love of His saint, the monastery’s patron. She teaches that to even pick up a piece of garbage in a monastery yields a great heavenly reward because it is done in honour of the saint, to keep his house clean. After helping with work in the monastery, she would tell the pilgrims: “The patron saint wrote down the work you have done, and you will find it presented on the Day of Judgement.”

When a monastic bakes bread, he bakes for the glory of God. When he chants in church, he chants for the glory of God. When he sweeps, he does so for the glory of God. And when a pilgrim partakes of such God-honouring work, he begins to look at his own work in a different light, just as the monastic offers all his work for the glory of God, so too can the pilgrim – both while at the monastery, and when he returns to his work in the world. The Christian home is a microcosm of the coenobitic monastery; when the mother, father, or children clean the house, they too can do so for the glory of God.

Both the monastic and the pilgrim can approach work the way Abba Apollo did: “If someone came to find him about doing a piece of work, he would set out joyfully, saying, ‘I am going to work with Christ today, for the salvation of my soul, for that is the reward he gives.’”(Abba Apollo, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 36)  The only difference between the monastic’s work in the monastery and the layman’s work in the world is that the monastic knows that he left behind his own success to seek the Kingdom of God; the layman merely needs a reminder now and again. He needs to ask himself which of the following he is and who he desires to glorify: “The man who loves himself seeks his own glory, whereas the man who loves God loves the glory of his Creator.” (Philokalia, St. Diadochos of Photiki: “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination: One Hundred Texts”, vol. 1, [12], 255).

Reasons to Visit a Monastery Part 1

I recently came across this post on the blog of the Orthodox Christian Network.  Thanks to the author I have her permission to reproduce it here.  Over the next few days I will be posting the five reasons to visit a monastery.  There are in no particular order but are here for your edification.  Any questions on any of these please feel free to contact us.

Spiritual Direction

Finding a spiritual guide who has the will and means to guide and direct a believer in his endeavour to live the Gospel precepts in his daily life is not an easy task. It requires prayer and discernment on the part of the seeker, a humble disposition, and an openness to the will of God. This is because once the believer asks a priest or monk to be his spiritual father, he enters into a relationship with that person that cannot easily be dissolved, and which will have everlasting effects on his spiritual life: “A spiritual father… becomes the means of leading the life of men out of hell (by the negative effect of their passions), and into pure Christian life and spiritual freedom.” (Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 174)

Thus, the goal should be to find a spiritual guide who not only preaches Christ, but lives like Christ. As Monk Isaiah wrote to Nun Theodora: “The Holy Spirit is for everyone; but in those who are pure of the passions, who are chaste and live in stillness and silence, He reveals special powers.” (Monk Isaiah to Honourable Nun Theodora, Matericon, 160).  This is the primary reason why a person living in the world seeks spiritual direction from those living in monasteries. Not because the Holy Spirit only dwells in those who wear the monastic habit, but because their way of life is far more conducive to acquiring the Holy Spirit. The greatest spiritual guides are those whose manner of life teaches as much or more than their words and advice. If a spiritual guide does not live the commandments of Christ, if he has not experienced temptation, if he does not actively struggle to overcome his passions, then how will he teach others to do likewise? On this point Archmandrite Zacharias of Essex says: “if the word that the spiritual father says is not seasoned with grace, nor proceeds from a heart that is warmed by the love of Christ, it becomes like the work of psychologists or counsellors – a ‘half-blind’ worldly activity. The word of the spiritual father must bear the seal of grace, the seasoning of grace.” (Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 174).

The life of the monk is a macrocosm of the Christian life in the world. And so, it follows that if there are good spiritual fathers in the world, there are great spiritual fathers in the monastery. The reason for this is very simple, as St. Nikodemus states: “monastics, through ascetic struggles and through the monastic way of life, first purified themselves (from the passions and from faults) and then set out to purify others: they were first enlightened and afterwards enlightened others: they were first perfected, and then perfected others, they were, to express it concisely, first made holy and afterwards made others holy…” (St. Nikodemos, Handbooks of Counsel [Greek], 15-16)

For those who have spiritual fathers in the world, they need not forsake them for a priest-monk. They can, however, with the blessing of their spiritual father, seek the counsel of a monastic in certain circumstances that require the guidance of an experienced and specialized “doctor” since, as St. Zosimas says to St. Mary of Egypt: “Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit.”

And in fulfilling the instructions of one’s spiritual guide, the layman becomes a candidate for the grace which is for the saints (2 Cor. 8:4). By this, one becomes like a certain youth who, living in the world, “began immediately, with great eagerness, to fulfill the command which the elder had given him… With this work that he did, he was made worthy to lift his mind up to Heaven, where he cried out to the Mother of Christ for compassion; and through her intercessions, he was atoned before God and there came down upon him the Grace of the Holy Spirit….” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, from Dr. Constantine Carvanos’ article A Discourse for those living in the world, Orthodox Info).  Ultimately, this is the goal of seeking spiritual direction: to not only be “atoned before God” through a life of repentance, but through the counsels and prayers of one’s spiritual guide – who himself has attained grace – to have the Holy Spirit “come down upon us.”

Monastic Practice ~ Work

As I have written before, the monastic life is like a three legged stool.  One of those legs is prayer, the other is divine reading and the third, and the subject of this essay, is work.

Monastic work is very different from the work we might perform in the secular world as it focus is not on us but on the other.  Our work is an expression of our love, not the love of work or the love of money, but the love of the community and of the other.  Self-forgetful service to the community is a movement out of me and a movement toward the other; it is a movement of giving and a movement of love.  If our work loses the intent to serve the other, then it becomes merely a means of support and less a monastic practice.

By our work we intend to accomplish something good for others or ourselves.  If this is not our mission then we are not working we are just simply playing.  We have to put ourselves wholeheartedly into our work and accomplish it fairly well then and only then can we take pride in our accomplishments, not for our won glory but for that of the other.

The early monastics in the Egyptian desert refused alms even from their own relatives.  Rather they worked and earned their bread by their own hands by their own labor.  This form of manual labor offers a distinct value in the spiritual life.  If we rely only on two legs of the monastic stool, that of prayer and reading, the monastic can get restless and start to think about other things.  Manual labor helps to keep us focused on God.  This is true if you remove one of the other legs of the stool.  A balanced life is what the monk strives for.

Josemaria Escriva, founder of the Roman Catholic Opus Dei said this about our work; “Your work too must become a personal prayer, it must become a real conversation with Our Father in heaven.”  Manual labor should not have priority over liturgical prayer or divine reading but for the work to have value there must be balance between our work, prayer, and reading.  They must flow in and from each other.  For one who truly knows how to work their work can be a prayer.

In the monastic life, work and prayer can converge in to a single point.  That point of convergence is a heart that is penetrated with love.  Work and prayer are both expressions of love if they are done for the other.  All of my work can become prayer if I do it under obedience for the good of others and for the glory of the Holy Trinity.  We work for the same reason we pray and practice divine reading; we do this a means of truly seeking God.