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.

Monastic Practice ~ Liturgical Prayer

Another one of the legs of the stool of monastic life is Liturgical Prayer.  We encounter the word of God in Liturgical Prayer as we do in Sacred Reading.  We need to move from an encounter with the written word to a deeper relationship with the living God of the Scripture.  Liturgy Prayer will aid us in that journey.

One of the things that monasteries are known for is the liturgical services that the monastery has during the day.  The complete round of services is a major part of the life of the monastery and perhaps is the only way that one might come in contact with the monks.  Communal prayer is extremely important in the life of the monk.  Here at St. Columba we serve Matins and Vespers each day as public services but also pray Compline each night.

Liturgical prayer is a continuation of our day and part of our daily rhythm and not an interruption in the day or a distraction from the work we might be engaged in when the bells rings.  When we gather for liturgical prayer we bring all of the concerns of the day to the prayer.  We lay them at the feet of God and ask that His will be done in each of the situations we remember.

Orthodox liturgy hits all of the senses.  The sights, the sounds, the smells of liturgy draw us into a living existence.  Prayer is not a static arrangement but a living and breathing part of our day.  Liturgical prayer deepens our personal prayer and deepens our relationship with the Living God and with each other.

We use the Psalms in our liturgical prayer and through the seasons of the church year we will be able to grasp in a deeper sense the meaning of the ancient prayers.  We need to make them our own prayer and harmonize our heart with our voice so that we will be honoring God with our hearts and our lips.

In his rule for monasteries, St. Benedict assumed that the monks would know the Psalms by heart.  Most of the monks of his day could not read so they would commit all of the Psalms to memory.  Although this is not necessary we should try to at least commit some of our favorite Psalms to memory for use during the day.

Part of the cell rule in the monastery, or the personal prayer routine of the monks, portions of the Psalms are read each day so the monk reads through the entire books of Psalms each week.  The Psalms become part of us as we move through the seasons of our life.

The Liturgical life of the monastery directly reflects the community life of the monastery.  If there is conflict in the community there will be conflict in the prayer of the community.  Because liturgical prayer looks forward to the Kingdom of God the prayer of the community will strengthen each of the members and will foster the loving unity that will characterize the community of believers when God has become all in all.

“Liturgical prayer is designed to lead us ever deeper into the mystery of Christ until we live not for ourselves but for him who died for all humanity and rise again.  Learning the full meaning of liturgical prayer and being transformed by it will occupy us for a lifetime.” (Monastic Practices)

Evangelical Counsels ~ Obedience

St. Columba Monastery Fr. Peter Monks“Will you preserve, even unto death, obedience to the Igumen, and to all the Brethren in Christ?”

With these words, asked by the bishop during the tonsure service, the new monk pledges that he or she will obey the Igumen and live with all the other brothers and be obedient to the community.  In other words you no longer live just for you and you alone but for all the members of the monastic community.

Obedience is not an easy thing for us Americans.  We do not like anyone to tell us what to do after all we are free.  Monastic life, like Christianity itself, is a giving up of our will and handing it over to another.  We still make decisions for ourselves and in the end if we cannot “preserve unto death” we are free to leave the monastery.  The hope is that we will persevere in monastic life.

Obedience is not easy.  As a priest I am obedient to my bishop and to my parish community.  I do have the freedom to organize my ministry in the way that I think it should be accomplished but I will ask the bishop for certain things.  Sometimes it is just advice on an issue and sometimes, it is seeking permission.

The monastic life is the same.  When we enter community, no matter what that community may be, we need to be obedient to each other.  Decisions are made by the superior of that community, who we believe serves as the father of the community, but he does so with humility and also makes decisions based on what is best for the community as a whole and not just for one person.

When I entered monastic life years ago, one of the hardest parts was obedience to the bell.  Five times a day the bell would ring to signal prayer.  You drop whatever it is that you are doing and head to the chapel for prayer.  This was not always easy.  Sometimes I was meeting with someone, or just breaking through writing, and the bell would ring.  But we are obedient to the life we have chosen and it is not supposed to be easy.

We do not sacrifice our own freedom in fact I would argue that by being obedient to the Igumen we actually have more freedom.  This is the spiritual gift that we all need to work towards.

As Christians we are supposed to be obedient to Jesus Christ and His Gospel.  We are supposed to be obedient to the Priest and the Bishop in spiritual matters.  We are supposed to be obedient to the teaching of the church.  So in a way we all must practice this discipline, and it is a discipline. 

Evangelical Counsels ~ Chastity

St. Columba of Iona Monastery Fr. PeterThis is the second in a series of articles on the Evangelical Counsels or vows that a monastic takes upon entering the monastery.  I last wrote on poverty and a reader left me a question about why we call these the Evangelical Counsels.  The simple answer is because we get these ideas from the Gospels themselves hence the term evangelical.  I think we sometimes confuse this term with the Evangelical Church and we need to recall the original meaning of the terms as one that made reference to the Gospels.  I hope that answered the question.

Chastity is another one of these things that often gets confused.  Christians of all walks of life are called to the position of chastity.  If you are single you are called to a chaste life meaning no sex outside of marriage.  If you are married you are called to the chaste state in your married life, in other words the sexual relationship belongs in the marriage bed and only the marriage bed.

This applies to the monastic as well.  Called to live in the state of chastity.  We also have live in the state of celibacy.  And there lies the difference.  Again all Christians are called to live in the state of chastity but the monk is called to celibacy as well.  Celibacy is not having a family.  Actually the more accurate statement would be to not have a biological family as the monastery becomes the monk’s family.

Chastity, like the other counsels, helps us to reach that state of perfection that we are desire to obtain.  Whatever our state in life this should be our goal to better follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  The monk leaves behind family and the hope of a family to be better able to serve the Lord “fulltime” if you will.  The monk will be free from a divided loyalty to the family and to the Church.  The monastic will be able to devote the hours necessary for prayer and work, not that family life is not work, but free from the obligations of the family.  Free to dedicate their life to God.

The Monk

The monk is one who is separated from all, yet is united to all.
Evagrius Ponticos ~ 4th Century Monk

I believe that it is the witness of the monk to the eternal, to preach the tenderness of God, and to live it.
Mother Maria, Her Life in Letters

The word monk comes from the Greek monachos, “alone.” The term is applied to one who makes the choice to lead a life that is solitary, unified, integrated, pacified, and undivided in the quest for the Absolute. For the sake of God, the monk leaves the world, its allures, pleasures, and all those ties which have been part of his life until now. This is painful and hard; after all, monks and nuns have much the same feelings and sensibilities as their fellow human beings.

The difference is that they have heard a call in their hearts, an inviting call that tells them, “Come, I am the way, the truth, and the life. Follow me.” The person who decides to become a monk of nun and enter the solitude of a monastery or hermitage does it because he or she heard this call, a call stronger than any other, a call to communion and fullness of life with God, a call that fulfills the deepest desires of the human heart.

He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what monk is.
Abba John the Dwarf, The sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Adapted from: A Monastic Year: reflections from a Monastery, Br. Victor-Antoine D’Avilia-Latourrette

Orthodox Monasticism: The Symbols

St. Columba Fr. Peter Preble Fr. John A. PeckDuring the Tonsure service when the Monk makes the profession of his vows, several symbols are presented to him by the Abbot. These symbols remind him of the life that he is now beginning.

The service begins with the candidate wearing a white robe symbolic of that which he wore for his baptism. Tonsure into the monastic life is another baptism or sorts as the new monk dies to his old life and is born again into a new life. It is the tradition that the monk receives a new name at this point.

Next the monk is clothed in the Paraman and Cross. On the Paraman are representations of the Cross of Christ with the lance, reed and sponge, and the inscription, I bear on my body the wounds of the Lord. This is fastened about the shoulders and waist by means of strings sewn to the corners, and serves as a reminder that the new monk has taken upon himself the yoke of Christ and must control his passions and desires. These are presented with the following words from the Abbot:

Our Brother receives the Paraman, the Betrothal of the Angelic Schema, as a perpetual reminder of taking upon himself of Christ’s easy yoke and of bearing His light burden, and for the curbing and restraining of all his fleshly desires. And he also takes the Sign of the Lord’s Cross upon his breast, for a perpetual reminder of suffering and humiliation, spitting, revilement, woulds, buffeting, Crucifixion and death of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, which He voluntarily endured for our sakes; and to signify that, as far as possible, he will endeavor to imitate this.

The Riasa is presented next with the following words:

Our Brother is clothed in the garment of spiritual joy and gladness, for the putting away and trampling of all sorrows and troubles proceeding from the flesh and from the world; and for his perpetual joy and gladness in Christ.

The leather belt is presented next. The belt is leather and made from the skin of a dead animal signifying the deadness to the world. The buckle of the belt has the symbols of the Crucifixion on it to remind the new monk of his daily Crucifixion. The follow words are spoken by the Abbot:

Our brother is gird about his loins with the power of truth, for mortification of body and renewal of spirit, and for courage and caution.

The new monk is next given the Mantiya, a long sleeveless robe, also called the robe of incorruption and purity, the absence of sleeves signifying the restraining of worldly pursuits. The Mantiya is presented with the following words:

Our brother is clothed in the robe of salvation and in the armor of righteousness, that he may withdraw himself from all unrighteousness, and with carefulness put away the vain imaginations of his mind and the subtleties of his will; that he may have the remembrance of his own death always in his mind and consider himself to be crucified to the world and to be dead to every evil deed, but always alive for the showing forth, without laziness, of every Christian virtue.

Next the new monk receives the Kamilavka with veil or the helmet of salvation. The veil signifies that the monk must veil his face from temptation and guard his eyes and ears against all vanity. The wings of the veil date from the time of St. Methodius (846) who was wounded in the face during the reign of Emperor Theophilus. In order to conceal his wounds, the saint wore wings with his veil and fastened them about his lower face.

Our brother takes the helmet of salvation in the hope that he may not be put to shame and that he will be able to stand against the snares of the devil; and he covers his head with the veil of humility and perpetual obedience, as a sign of spiritual love of wisdom; and that he may turn away his eyes, that they not behold vanities.

Sandals for his feet are now presented:

Our brother is shod with sandals in readiness for the proclamation of the Good News of peace; that he may be swift and diligent in every obedience and every good deed.

The Prayer Rope or Chotki is given. The rope has many knots to count the prayers of the new monk.

Take brother the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, for continual prayer to Jesus; for you must always have the Name of the Lord Jesus in mind, in heart, and on your lips, every saying, “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The hand cross is next given. The hand cross is the shield of faith, with which to put out the flaming darts of the Evil One. The monk will keep the hand cross in his icon corner to remind his of this saying.

Take, brother, the shield of faith, the Cross of Christ with which you will be able to put out the flaming darts of the Evil One; and remember always how the Lord said, “He who would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”

Finally a lighted candle is give signifying that he must strive, by purity of life, by good deeds, and good demeanor to be a Light to the World. The candle will be placed in the Icon Corner and the monk will be buried with this candle.

Take, brother, this candle, and know that from henceforth you must, through a pure and virtuous life, and through a good character, be a light unto the world. For the Lord said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who art in heaven.

Then the final blessing is pronounced:

Our brother has received the Betrothal of the Angelic Schema and has been clothed in the whole armor of God, that he may be able to vanquish all the power and warfare of principalities and powers, and rulers of the darkness of this age, of evil spirits under the heavens, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Let us all say for him, Lord, have mercy.

It is the tradition that the new monk remain in the monastic church for some days praying for himself and for the entire monastic brotherhood. The new monk is to remain clothed in the whole of the habit for those days.

16 May ~ St. Brendan the Voyager

St. Columba of Iona Monastery Fr. Peter PrebleHe was born around 484 at Tralee in Kerry, Ireland. He founded several monasteries in Ireland, of which the chief was Cluain Ferta Brenaind (anglicized as Clonfert) in County Galway. His missionary and pastoral travels took him on voyages to the Scottish islands, and possibly to Wales; thus in his own time he was known as ‘Brendan the Voyager.’ He reposed in peace…

Early in the ninth century, a Latin saga, Navigatio Brendani (The Voyage of Brendan) made him the hero of a Christian adventure that included voyages to unknown lands far to the west of Ireland.

The account provides strong evidence that Irish voyagers visited America as early as the 8th century, before the Vikings; but whether St Brendan himself made these voyages is disputed.