A recent post seems to have generated a great deal on interest—not all of it appreciative—on lay spiritual formation in the Orthodox Church. Reading through the comments I find much with which I agree, but rather more with which I must disagree not only in substance but in tone.
There seems to be no disagreement with the theological assertion that the Christian life is grounded in Holy Baptism. Indeed, one of the most critical voices in the comments section offers us a series of patristic quotes that in fact argue this very point. Indeed, one cannot claim to be an Orthodox Christian (or Catholic Christian for that matter) and deny this. "Baptism," writes Nicholas Cabasilas, "is nothing else but to be born according to Christ and to receive our very being and nature."
The sacramental foundation of the Christian life does not negate the importance of our free assent to Divine Grace. Far from it. Without repentance the grace of Baptism lays dormant in the soul. Metropolitan Spyridion (GOA, retired) once expressed the matter this way: To be a Christian requires two things, repentance the Holy Baptism. While God is indifferent to the historical order, we are us converts or we are Christians in name only. Or, if I may borrow from St Ignatius of Antioch on his way to martyrdom, "I do not wish only to be called a Christian; I wish to be a Christian!"
Within the Tradition of the Church, monastic life holds a pride of place for the clarity, and intensity, with which the monk lives the life of repentance that flows from our New Life in Baptism. Bishop-elect Jonah (himself a monk of the Valaam Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Russia), the former abbot of the Monastery of St John of San Francisco, summarizes monastic life in a brief essay that appeared several years ago in Again magazine: "Five Good Reasons NOT to Visit a Monastery The temptations of monastic maximalism." I think this essay might help clarify the matter under consideration here.
Fr Jonah writers that
While the maximalist witness of monasticism is a great blessing to the Church, and really to world as well, it is a witness not (as has been pointed out in the comment section) without its own risks. Specifically, there is a temptation "to think that the monasteries are doing it 'right,' while the parish is doing it 'wrong.'" Following from this is a "second temptation." We might find ourselves—consciously or unconsciously—thinking "that there is not as much grace in the parish services, and that the services and liturgical/spiritual life are not being taken seriously." Subtlety, but no less really, Fr Jonah points out,
The Church, as Fr Jonah points out, is "a spiritual hospital." Within this hospital, "the monasteries are the intensive care wards, with the specialists." When we try and generalize the monastic vocation to the whole Church, when we try to impose monasticism on the parish (or ourselves), we fundamentally dishonor not only the monastic life, but also reveal our own lack of gratitude to God for the gift of our own life. We can never lose sight of St Paul's teaching that the Church is a Body with many members and that each member has his or her own function. The eye cannot not pretend to be a foot; a lay person in a parish cannot pretend to be a monk. Each order in the Church has its own vocation and just as "You don't go to a family doctor for cancer . . . you also don't go to a neurosurgeon for a cold." Without a doubt one finds in the monastery
Along the way to this life of freedom "The great temptation is to idolize the elder, and even substitute him/her for Christ. A personality cult leads to the destruction of both the elder and the disciples." Likewise, we our also we may be tempted to substitute the monastery and monastic life for the more ordinary, though no less important, life of a Christian called to sanctify the world. In either case we cannot substitute the monastic vocation for our own personal vocation. And this is precisely what happens when we forget that monastics is the fruit of baptism but that it does not exhaust the meaning of baptism.
In the final analysis, the goal of both monastic life and the vocation of the Christian in the world is the same: "obedience to God." But this obedience is not found in either the monastery or the parish as institutions, but rather only and "always within the Church" as together in mutual respect and support for each other's unique vocation we move "always toward a more profound level of communion, both ecclesially and personally."