The fallen human soul is predisposed toward pride. This is something that occurs with the monastic as much as with the layman. When the Christian keeps his prayer rule faithfully, observes the fasts of the Church, or attends church services regularly, the soul is inclined to become puffed up. The antidote is finding better examples than oneself of Christian dedication to remind the proud soul that she is lacking in virtue.
The layman has the ability to make pilgrimages to monasteries and so finds a helpful means to stay grounded in his spiritual life. Encountering monastics reminds the pilgrim that there are better Christians than himself (not that he cannot also learn this in the parish, he most certainly can, but it is an indisputable fact that one is faced with at a monastery). Hence the famous statement: “Angels are a light for monastics, and monastics are a light for the world.”(St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, op. cit., 128) The monastic is simultaneously humbled and enlightened by reading the lives of the saints, just as the layman is when he compares his life with that of a monastic.
Humility is a virtue that the monastic and layman ought to strive for above all else, for as St. John Cassian says, “Humility of soul helps more than everything else; without it no one can overcome lewdness or any other sin.” And so, the layman makes pilgrimages to monasteries in order to draw the soul away from the distracting world and into an environment of stillness and prayer, where the atmosphere is conducive to taking stock of one’s life alongside that of a dedicated monastic, and to allow the grace of the monastery to help him see his own sinfulness.
The following story, taken from The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, illustrates this point: There were three friends, all of whom chose different means of work. The first decided to become a peace-maker among men. The second decided to tend to the sick. While the third decided to live in prayer and stillness in the desert. The first two friends found that they were unable to complete the work they set out to do and became disheartened. So they decided to visit their third friend who was living in the stillness of prayer. They confessed their difficulties and asked for guidance. This was the third friend’s response: “After a short silence, he poured some water into a bowl and said to them, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was disturbed. After a little while he said to them again, ‘Look how still the water is now,’ and as they looked into the water, they saw their own faces reflected in it as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘It is the same for those who live among men; disturbances prevent them from seeing their faults. But when a man is still, especially in the desert, then he sees his failings.’”
And so it is with the pilgrim from the world. In the stillness of the monastery, he is able to reflect on his failings. Whether it be in comparing his spiritual life with the monastic who left all things behind to live “alone with God alone,” as Elder Porphyrios was wont to say, or simply due to slowing down and reflecting on his faults, the pilgrim returns to the world with greater humility of soul.