Saturday, September 27, 2008

Monastic Vocation and Witness

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.The Great Schema or Megaloschema - this is my ...

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

A monastery, among other things, is a place which practices the liturgical and spiritual life in a maximalist way. This maximalism is expressed in a number of ways, including long, full services, strict ascetic discipline, and very conservative attitudes in everything from language, style, and dress to how one conducts one's personal life. . . . The monasteries incarnate Orthodox culture, regardless of what ethnic flavor it may have. It is the timeless, universal (Catholic) culture passed on by the holy fathers and mothers of the Orthodox Church, through personal discipleship and obedience. The monastic culture is nothing other than obedience to the Gospel, through discipleship to our spiritual fathers, who convey the tradition of how to live out the Gospel in its fullness. To visit an Orthodox monastery is not just to visit that particular community in that place at that time. It is to enter into that living Christian culture which has been handed over from generation to generation by the holy fathers.

But, we need to exercise great care—a care that appears to me absent in some of the comments—that we confuse the monastic witness with the monastic vocation. Again, Fr Jonah:

Monasticism, the way of repentance, is a radically different way of life from living in the world, with a family, a job, and in a parish. Parishes are the front lines of where the Church meets the world, where a culture is sanctified and transformed by the Gospel. People lead busy lives in the world, and are not able to lead as active a liturgical life as in a monastery. Parish life seldom is and often cannot be maximalist in ethos. Yet a parish is not a compromise, a second-class way of being a Christian.

The importance of lay spiritual formation is that it focuses on what Fr Jonah calls the "very high calling" of being "a Christian in the world" and being called by Christ to take "the Gospel to the world." To be faithful to our calling requires that we be both a "living and witnessing to Christ" and do so precisely in and through our "participating fully and actively in the culture." Monastics, lay Christian men and women living in the monastery,

have a different calling: to be "not of this world," and to structure their lives solely by the Gospel, and by the traditions of the Church, especially the liturgical cycles. It is very important to remember that there is no difference between the services prescribed for a parish and those of a monastery. There is no difference in the rules of fasting, prayer, or piety. The main difference is that people in parishes are engaged in the world, and monks are not. The monasteries are critically important to the life of the parishes: they constitute the reservoir of the living Tradition, in its purity, where people can experience the Gospel lived out in a radical way. Monasticism can inform their lives, inspire faithful laity to greater dedication of their lives to Christ and the Gospel, and provide a place of healing and spiritual consolation.

That the monastery and the parish follow the same rules of fasting and prayer does not mean that monks and lay people fast and pray the same way anymore that all monastics—even in the same monastery—follow these rules in the same manner. "Fasting, and all the other rules of the Church, are a means and not an end. If we fast, and feel proud about it, and condemn another for not being so strict, it would have been better for us if we had not fasted at all (Romans 14:3 ff)."

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,

This inevitably leads to judging the parish priest as less 'spiritual' and lazy because he cuts the services. Little do we remember that at our first monastic services we were the first to sit down when we had a chance, and glance at our watches every five minutes, wondering if and when it was ever going to end! Parishes abbreviate out of pastoral necessity, and at the discretion of the pastor. One must not judge a priest or parish when they are doing all they can!

Informing this judgment though is invariable our own lack of appreciation for the gift of our own life and vocation as Christians living in the world. It is this fundamental lack of gratitude for our own vocation given to us in Holy Baptism, and sealed in Chrismation and nourished in Holy Communion. For many, I would argue that most Orthodox Christians (and I suspect Catholics, but I will leave this to Sherry) who are indifferent to daily prayer, fasting, Confession of sins and good works because they have never been taught that they have a vocation that is every bit as valuable and God-pleasing as monastic life.

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

The great elders are those specialists who through years of ascetic purification and experience know how to deal with many of the big questions in life that people bring. Many have great spiritual gifts. Many do not. Most monastics are not elders by any stretch of the imagination. This does not compromise their ability to serve as confessor, consoler, and spiritual father. Whether it is a parish priest, a priestmonk, an eldress, or a great elder, the source of the advice and consolation is ultimately the same: God.

The hallmark, Fr Jonah argues, of a "true elder" is that he "always leaves a person with a profound sense of freedom, even when he reveals to a person the will of God. There is never any manipulation or personal agenda. The elder simply wants the salvation of the person, and is a vessel for him of God's love and forgiveness." It is the absence of this sense of freedom that I think most characterizes the tendency of some to monasticized the Church. The witness of monasticism, to return to my initial distinction, is to challenge us to live our own vocation with the same intensity and purity of heart that we see in the monks. The fruit of my fidelity to my personal call is not only my own personal inner freedom, but also that there is absent in my dealing with others any manipulation or personal agenda on my part. If this is not manifested in my life to the degree it is in an elder, this fruit should at least be relatively present.

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."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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