Sunday, June 22, 2008

Orthodox Monasticism

It’s very different from Western monasticism.

In the first place, we don’t have orders. There aren’t groups analogous to Dominicans or Franciscans or Benedictines. Our monks and nuns are just – monks and nuns.

Secondly, Orthodox monks and nuns do not have secular missions. They do work to support themselves; they do such things as write books, make greeting cards, weave baskets, and grow their own food. But they do not, for example, work outside their monasteries as nurses or doctors or schoolteachers or social workers or community organizers. They stay in their monasteries, although some few priest-monks work outside their monasteries pastoring parishes. They are all what Catholics would call “contemplatives,” devoting themselves to prayer, worship, study.

Orthodox monks and nuns practice asceticism, but not with any idea of gaining “merit” thereby. (We do not believe salvation is a matter of merit in the first place; therefore, we are not concerned with how or by whom it is supposedly earned.)

Orthodox monastics may even whip themselves raw, but not seeking to punish themselves, as if punishment could somehow purge or atone for sins. Instead, they deny themselves physical comforts in order to wean themselves from addictions to the things of this earth. They do it in the course of battling the demons. (Nobody knows what a demon is, who has not set out to conquer it. Most of us are at best only dimly aware of the demons we serve.) They seek to learn to be content in any situation, resting always in Christ, living only for Him. And if they inflict actual pain upon their bodies, it is to counteract temptation, especially lust. (Fact is, sexual desire is easier to control when your body is in pain.)

And if some are severe with themselves, it is because that is the degree of severity they have found necessary to gain mastery over their minds and bodies. You cannot give to God what is not yours to give, cannot consecrate to Him that over which you have no control. So monks and nuns seek to be in command of themselves, that they may live only for Christ, and not in slavery to anything or anyone else.

The monastic lifestyle aims at making it easier to grow to the full stature of Christ, which is the goal of every Christian life. The monastic life removes distractions, such as romantic involvements, and cares, such as rearing a family or pursuing a career, to make it easier to concentrate on developing in Christ. It provides much more time for prayer and worship than is usually possible in secular life. In that sense, we do consider it the superior lifestyle; we call it “the angelic life.” That doesn’t mean it has any spiritually or ecclesiastically higher status, just that success in living as a Christian is easier for them than for the rest of us. That’s the whole idea of monasticism, in fact: to make it as easy as possible, to provide the soul every advantage.

Can’t the rest of us also become saints, in our married and family lifestyles? Certainly, we can. It’s just harder for us (and therefore, more commendable for those who do become deified). Are we second-class Christians? Not at all! Well, at least if we are, it’s not by definition because we are not monastics. If we are second-rate Christians, it is because we haven’t tried hard enough.

A note for those concerned about rank: a monastery for women is ruled by our rough equivalent of a “Mother Superior.” Everybody in her monastery is subject to her; within the monastery, she even outranks visiting bishops.

I don’t know anything about the process of becoming a monk or a nun, such as how long it takes, whether there are vows, what the intermediate steps may be. Perhaps if someone reading this does know, you’d be kind enough to educate us via the comments box.



Anonymous said...

Well, perhaps there are exceptions to every rule? OrthodoxWiki lists Alexander Golitzin as a priest and monk of the Orthodox Church in America who is also a full professor at Marquette University.
I don't know how this works within the Orthodox monastic world, that would be interesting to find out. Perhaps other readers might know?

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Yup, exceptions to every rule. Monastics can get special dispensations for such things. .

Another possible exception: I think, but am not sure, some monks are not attached to any monastery.

Anybody know?