A month or so ago I received an email from a young protestant who wondered: “What good is monasticism?” His arguments and observations were pretty similar to others I’ve heard over the years. I recall my older brother once asking me, “If a hermit is in the desert and is very holy, what good does it do since no one knows he’s there.”
These questions, of course, come from our modern mindset in which good and bad are measured only on utilitarian grounds. Things are good if they are “useful.” Some of the worst ethics ever produced by the human race were utilitarian in character. In the name of “usefulness,” millions of people have been murdered. It is not a very useful category (forgive the pun).
A few brief observations:
- I replied to my brother’s question “who knows they are there?” with “God knows and the demons know and tremble.”
- When God came down to search out the truth of Sodom and Gomorrah, whether they were as wicked as reported, He agreed to spare the city for as few as 10 righteous men.
- By the same token, the value of a very few righteous men or women is invaluable in the life of the world.
- Finally, monastics bear witness to the Kingdom of God by turning away from the Kingdoms of this world. Their very rejection of utility is itself a Divine judgment on the nonsense by which we too often guide our lives.
I am a married priest, not a monastic, but I know how much we need them. Orthodoxy is a maximalist religion. We write canon law based on the maximum good (in most instances) and then, by economy, apply that canon to individual cases. I want monastics setting the bar higher than I can reach – so that I will keep reaching.
Our task as Christians involves the sanctification of all life and time – returning everything to its right relationship with God (or at least recognizing the sanctification of all life and time). Thus the world does not need the Church to be more like the world, but more like the Kingdom of God which reveals the truth of the world in Christ.
May the good God deliver us from the temptation of utility and help us to be useful to the Kingdom. The two can be very different things.
A final question: For the sake of how many righteous does the Lord spare our wicked world today?