Monasticism – What Is Possible

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In the 4th century, the great Bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote a biography on St. Antony of Egypt. St. Antony was among the first hermits. St. Athanasius was both a first rate theologian and an outstanding writer. For a time in which books were copied by hand, his small tome on St. Anthony became a “best-seller.” More than that, it set on fire the imagination of a generation of Romans (from all over the empire). The result was a massive growth in monasticism, such that the deserts of Egypt would eventually hold hundreds of thousands of monks (as unbelievable as it seems). Indeed, the entire matter looked like a state crisis, when the sons and daughter of the well-born were no longer producing children but pursuing God in the desert.

That initial impulse yielded the Desert Fathers and contained monastics from every walk of life, including those who had left the service of the Emperor in order to enter the service of God. They established a monasticism that would come to be a hallmark, especially of the Eastern Church. Constantinople had a massive population of monks.

Some have said that Anthony’s foundation of monasticism prepared the Church for the compromises that came along with the Church’s later embracement of the State under Constantine and later. The monastics had no place for compromise in their lives. They had a vision that believed entirely that the way of asceticism was a way to know God and to truly become a partaker of His life in this life.

Ever since those times, Orthodoxy in the East has often risen and fallen with the fortunes of the monasteries. They were a consistent force for Orthodoxy against the various heresies that arose and held to the faith in such a way that compromise of the truth seemed absurd.

Every great flowering of the Orthodox faith in its subsequent history was accompanied by a flowering of the monastic life. Often the monasteries were the place where the flowering began. Such names as St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Theodore the Studite, St. Athanasius of Athos, St. John of Damascus, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov (and the roll could be ever so much longer) are all associated with monastic health and rightness of belief.

So how is this relevant for the Orthodox Church today. I do not think anything has changed. There were speculations in Europe in the mid-20th century that a new monasticism, a “hidden monasticism,” would come into being. Robbed of the great monasteries by the Communist revolution – many thought to find alternative ways to have this essential presence in the Church’s life. Some began to “re-imagine” monasticism.

As time has gone by, such “hidden monasticism” as they imagined has largely not been born. Instead, Communism is fallen, and the great monasteries are being reclaimed and thousands are filling their space. The monasticism that has seen such a rebirth since 1989, is still quite young and will take generations to come to its full maturity. But such a rebirth has begun.

In America, as recently as the early 20th century, there was exactly one Orthodox Monastery, St. Tikhon’s in South Canaan Pennsylvania. Others followed by quite slowly. With the coming of the Elder Ephraim from Mt. Athos to America in the 80’s and 90’s, monasticism began not a rebirth, but a new birth in America. Today, there are monasteries that number in the 10’s (the Elder Ephraim’s communities are around 20 simply by themselves). But there has been a birth of new monasteries with the OCA, the Greek Archdiocese, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and a number of others. Monasticism is growing – slowly in relative terms – but growing.

The question is, whether there will be young men and women who will come to believe that the monastic life holds the same promise that the first monks saw. It is not a promise of a changed world, nor of institutionalized educational service or medical service. It is the promise that through careful devotion to Christ we can become what he promised us we would be. Generations of such men and women have changed the face of certain parts of the world – primarily because they changed their own faces first.

27 Responses to “Monasticism – What Is Possible”

  1. luciasclay Says:

    Monasticism is something I am learning to understand and appreciate, perhaps even desire though I will not be able to participate.

    As a child I spent a few years in a religious boarding school, it was something to be desired in my environment. It was a privilege not all could have to go and attend such schools. In fact since I have been in 7th grade I have worked to be able to afford to go to Christian school. At the boarding school we would rise, eat at set times, worship daily at set times, work at some task at set times, study at set times, sleep at set times. We were apart from the world on a parcel of land somewhere in central Ohio.

    The teachings of the church that ran it aside there was much there that I loved. It was not monastic but its probably the closest I’ll ever come to understanding that life experientially.

    I now have the duty of a father to my children. That is my vocation.

    An Orthodox priest pointed out in his homily one week that John the Baptist was a desert ascetic. And as obvious as it now seems I hadn’t realized it before. Now studying further I see that the schools of the prophets and even those who were under Samuel himself have a striking similarity.

    Has the practice of monasticism been a part of the spiritual life we as the Church inherited, has it been part of spiritual life all along ?

    Regards.

  2. Katia Says:

    “…. we have a great need of more clergy. This is true not only in England, but in many places in the world, and yet how many parents ever think to direct their children towards taking up the monastic life or preparing them for the ministry? Like all the “gentiles,’ it seems that Orthodox parents today are only concerned that their children pass exams, and get good jobs and get on in this world, – yet recently we have had some very clear indications that “this world” is on a very shaky basis. So this is a short-sighted prospect even in secular terms! One cannot map out our children’s futures for them, but believing parents should at the least open to them the possibility of serving the Church.”

    The Shepherd – an orthodox christian pastoral magazine

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    My two eldest daughters are married to priests. My son is a reader. Nothing would make me happier than to see all of my children serve in some way, according to God’s call. We didn’t have to encourage, we simply based our life in the Church and prayed with them at home. God did the rest. But if parents do not love God or love the Church, children will know and draw the wrong conclusions sometimes.

  4. Katia Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I agree with you, what can i say, you are a prime example, children are influenced by their parents and not what they say but what they do by ‘walking the talk’

  5. Margaret Says:

    Pray for us! We have a teenage daughter who is questioning the very existence of God and a son seven years behind her who serves faithfully as altar boy, of his own accord, without having to be asked. I look back at home life with my daughter when she was younger and regret not having done more in the home, although we said nightly prayers and went to church, we were Episcopal. Now that we are Orthodox I am struggling to pray more regularly with our family and read the scriptures and talk openly about our faith. Along with regularly attending services. Our daughter goes but does not partake.

    I try to encourage both children to dedicate all parts of their life to God and if that means Monasticism, so be it! what a blessing that would be for their lives here in this world! There is nothing more important than God and we were created for Him. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement, Fr. Stephen. Forgive me!

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Margaret,
    Each child has their own path and we never quite no what it is. Pray for their salvation and trust that God will do what is necessary. Sometimes a teenager questions because they have genuine questions – it can be an expression of wanting something deeper. Assure her that if she wants to know God He will make Himself known, but she must be patient. It’s not just that He wants us to know Him, but to know Him in the right way at the right time, such that knowing Him will do us good and not do us harm. Just some thoughts. You have my prayers.

  7. Katia Says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I hope you do not mind, my sinful opinion i was same daughter as yours to my parents, words or anything could not persuade me, to follow Jesus Christ way, but they planted the seed in me as child,and they could only pray for me, their prayers and tears with God’s mercy, grace and help, helped this seed slowly to grow in me.

    Monasticism is blessing for the parents and the whole world, somewhere i ve read that the monasteries are the lungs of the Earth. Monks never stop praying for the salvation of all.

    With love in Jesus Christ

  8. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen and thank you, Katia! I appreciate the words of truth and encouragement. I will hold you also in prayer. We all need prayer, but these days I am desperate for my family! Glory to God for All Things!

  9. Katia Says:

    Dear Margaret,

    I will pray for you, with Faith, Hope and Love we will win.

  10. jw Says:

    I’m reminded of the Bishop in Augustine’s Confessions (bk 3). When Monica, with tears, entreats him to pray for her wayward son (Augustine, prior to his conversion), the Bishop responds: “”Go thy ways and God bless thee, for it is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.”

  11. Stephen W Says:

    Margaret,

    O good Mother of the Good King, most pure and blessed Theotokos Mary, do thou pour out the mercy of thy Son and our God upon Margaret’s daughter

    You have my prayers..

    Father Stephen is truly blessed! I have seen many priests who have had quite a different outcome. But then again, it’s not over yet. The hour may be late but there is still time for repentance. I am quite sure that I do so many things wrong with my children, who are very young, but I do talk to them about Monasteries and the fact that there are different way’s to dedicate their lives to God. We had the pleasure of visiting a monastery with the whole family last year. It was cold for June, so my four year old son borrowed a long black sweater and walked around calling himself a “prayer”. It has been a year and I know that he keeps this memory with him. My job is to help him to keep this memory and to build on it. May the Lord have mercy on us all.

    Stephen W

  12. Sean Says:

    Reading both the post and the comments, I thought I’d say a few words:

    I live in a country where most people are Orthodox (that would be Greece by the way), and where Monasticism is an Old Tradition. We have a continuous (even if not steady at all times) flow of Monks and Nuns to several very important monastic centers, well-known to the rest of the world, such as Meteora or Mount Athos or the Monastery of St John the Apostle, where the Saint wrote his Revelation and died, and other literally numberless monasteries. In the wider region of my hometown alone there are more than 5 monasteries, 2 of them with a significant number of ascetics. Still, monasticism is not an easy vocation. It is extremely, extremely hard and requires one’s full reserve of patience, resolution and determination to follow that specific path.

    Also there is the obstacle of parents not wanting their children becoming monks or priests. There are two major reasons for that:

    1. Parents do not like the idea that their children will not bear any children themselves. Their existential anxiety, which is normally calmed by the issue of offspring, becomes all the more pronounced when even one of their own children expresses the volition to become a monk or nun (sometimes it is almost regarded an insult and a curse to a parent).

    2. People have been led to think, sometimes by outsiders, sometimes by unworthy clergymen, that being a priest is synonymous with being part of a corrupted, authoritative establishment, with having low education and judgement, medieval principles and hypocritical demeanor.

    This I say because of personal experience. I do not like referring to that experience, but to give a real example I should say that as a teenager I expressed my intention to become a hieromonk (an monk who is also a priest). Because of that, there was constant warfare in my home. My parents objected to the idea most severely and not only did they try to make me abandon it, they also recruited friends and relatives for the same purpose. When, conceding to my own nature and their objections I said I would become a married priest, even though that calmed them down a bit, they still were anxious. What hurt me the most is the fact that they believed I would become the kind of stereotypical priest they had in their minds. In the end, I decided to follow a different path (one they had covertly proding me to for a long time).

    I do not blame my parents of course: they did what they thought it was best for me, within the frame of their own conceptions, and they were and are faithful. Maybe, as a teenager, I was, at the time, as all teenagers are, too absolute in my resolutions and my conceptions. And maybe it was God’s way to tell me “Dude, forget it, you’re not the right man for this job”. After all it was my decision to follow a different path.
    I am writing this for two reasons. First, to let people understand that making the decision to follow a monastic life is a hard to make, and I suspect an even harder to uphold. Second, to let people understand that teenagers have their own way to question things and even doubt their seniors incentives. Their age I think is the age when they make the most important questions and if people around are continuously buzzing it’s hard for them to hear the answers.

  13. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! A Protestant expression of this is perhaps those children who want to become missionaries–especially to foreign parts.

    When I graduated from my evangelical college, the only thing besides getting married I could see myself doing was going to the mission field. Accordingly, four years later largely out of a sense of guilt and obligation (though I loved Christ), I went “short term” for two years with my denomination to a campus ministry in Belgium. It was a bleak and difficult field made more difficult by the fact that after two months, the full-time missionary we were under was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to return to the States with his family, never to return. His replacements arrived only a couple of months before my term was over and we short-termers were having to help them get oriented! What I had intended as useful service to God actually ended up being God’s ascesis for me to come to the end of my own resources and recognize the bankruptcy of a duty-bound orientation to the Lord. Although I knew that we can do nothing lest we abide in Him and His love, I was not living that way. I felt I failed abysmally as a missionary (and doubtless had I been Orthodox and gone with a similar motivation into a monastery, I would have had to be confronted in the same way). I came home in stage 10 of 10 stages of burnout, a little wiser for my experience about the limitations of trying to do things “for God” apart from a true empowerment of God’s grace. It was the beginning of a new start for me attempting to reorder my life with the Lord on the basis of His grace (a process that culminated a couple decades later with my conversion to Orthodoxy). I’d like to think that had I been Orthodox, I would have found a mentor to see me through that transition along with the resources to navigate the pitfalls of the passions and the demons. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit was faithful to guide and keep me, albeit with me being blind to much of what He was doing at the time, but it sure is hard to tough such a situation out without the guidance of a spiritual Father or Mother firmly rooted in the Tradition. The monastic tradition, when it is functioning as it should, strikes me as by far the better place spiritually into which to release one’s children for dedicated service to God. At least they will have the true means of spiritual formation and experienced guidance in that process. That strikes me as by far the better foundation should they later be called into service as a Priest or missionary.

  14. Ian Says:

    I pray for my diocese [Antiochian Australia & NZ] to be blessed with monasteries; we are, perhaps, 50 or so years behind the US in terms of Orthodoxy in the US, and hope for the future. Monasticism has a calling to me, but there is great fear and trepidation: and for now I live in the world as best I can. But who can tell what God has planned?

    Thank you for this post Father.

  15. Meskerem Says:

    The Monasteries in Egypt have also been a foundation for the Ethiopian Orthodox root. St. Athanasius of Alexandria consecrated the first Bishop of Ethiopia “Abuna Salama”. The tradition of sending Bishops that started by St. Athanasius continued till the late 1950’s. Even though Christianity came to Ethiopia through the first baptized Eunuch by St. Paul in 34 AD, there was not a Bishop until Abuna Salama, which was around the 4th Century. Actually the Kings (brothers who ruled together at the time) between 298 AD and 336 AD were the first Baptized Orthodox Christian rulers in Ethiopia.

    Not to get away too far from the point, Monasteries still exist from as far back as the 5TH Century. Most of them are on Mountains where some can only be accessed by climbing a rope. This situation gave them secure protection for their hand written translated books and the Bible that were passed down to date in the Ethiopian writings, and very valued for the Orthodoxy into where it got today.

    We can say those Monasteries are the major source of all evangelization and all education which was in fact in the hands of Monks until very recently.

    Thank you Father.

  16. elizabeth Says:

    Father Bless!

    Please pray for us to have the

    “careful devotion to Christ we can become what he promised us we would be”…

    I am slowly coming to see that monasticism is at the heart of the church and gaurds the Church and its teaching.

    I still remember your advice to learn to live in the reality of Pasca by praying the “Lord let me greet this day in peace” prayer. Can you write more on how we can develop “careful devotion to Christ”?

    Thank you.

  17. BV Says:

    Off Topic:

    Father Stephen, I figured you would be interested in this article. Georgian (the Eastern European country) birthrate has increased based on Patriarchal incentive.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7964302.stm

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Many years to Patriarch Ilia!

  19. Katia Says:

    Father Bless,

    “… The life of monasticism is life of perpetual spiritual ascent. While the world goes on its earthbound way, and the faithful with their obligations and distractions of the world try to stay within the institutional limits of the church tradition, monasticism goes to other direction and soars. It rejects any kind of compromise and seeks the absolute. It launches itself from this world and heads for the kingdom of God. This is in essence the goal of the Church itself.

    In Church tradition this path is pictured as a ladder leading to heaven. Not everyone manages to reach the top of this spiritual ladder. Many are to be found on the first rungs. Others rise higher. There are also those who fall from a higher or a lower rung. The important thing is not the height reached, but the unceasing struggle to rise ever higher. Most important of all, this ascent is achieved through ever increasing humility, that is through ever increasing descent. “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”, was the word of God to Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. When man descends into the hell of his inner struggle having God within him, then he is lifted up and finds the fullness of being 26.

    At the top of this spiritual ladder are the “fools for Christ’s sake”, as the Apostle Paul calls himself and the other apostles 27, or “the fools for Christ’s sake”, who “play the madman for the love of Christ and mock the vanity of the world” 28, Seeking after glory among men, says Christ, obstructs belief in God 29. Only when man rejects pride can he defeat the world and devote himself to God 30.

    In the lives of monks the Christian sees examples of men who took their Christian faith seriously and committed themselves to the path which everyone is called by Christ to follow. Not all of them attained perfection, but they all tried, and all rose to a certain height. Not all possessed the same talent, but all strove as good and faithful servants. They are not held up as examples to be imitated, especially by laymen. They are however valuable signposts on the road to perfection, which is common for all and has its climax in the perfectness of God.”

    Orthodox Christian Monasticism – orthodoxinfo.com

  20. Ezekiel Says:

    This discussion reminds me of a recent interview with Mother Gabriella of Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, MI.

    When asked how she came to consider the monastic life, she first told of her family’s piety in keeping the feasts, fasts and the Church Calendar.

    Then she said that when she was a senior (I think) in High School, a respected friend of the family asked her what she planned to do with her life. Mother Gabriella’s answer was vague (as one would expect) at that time: then the friend asked if she had considered the monastic life. In the interview, Mother compared that moment to being “hit in the head” and said “I had not thought of it!”

    Her priest as a child was Father Paisios … and she tells of his encouragement for her piety as a child: “Say ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy” when you think of it during the day.” “Say the ‘Our Father” in the morning when you get up, and make 12 prostrations.” “At night, say the ‘Our Father’ and make 12 prostrations.”

    Her description of life in her native Romania described life in a “one storey universe” where the monastic life was present and real possibility. How different from life in this country! And those who have grown up in various protestant groups have pretty much has monasticism painted as one of those “bad” or “weird” things!

    Glory to God that monasteries are being founded in this country, and that God is leading people to the monastic life!

  21. Sophocles Says:

    Father bless,

    I am so happy to see this post expressing such favor towards monasticism. I am also very happy to see Elder Ephraim cast in a positive light by you as in the past I was actually “forbidden” at one point to go to St. Anthony’s in Florence, Arizona.

    I felt I needed to draw a line in the sand with my priest at this point and said if forbidden I would have to re-think my involvement in my home parish. I hated having to take that stand but looking back I believe I did the right thing.

    But since then I have met many who speak ill of Elder Ephraim and his monasteries(mostly clergy in the OCA) and it always grieves my heart as I have benefited so much from going there in ways I cannot begin to enumerate.

    But in my last trip there where I spent about 6 days days I happened to have a “chance” encounter with Father Damian from St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Mission in Tempe as I was waiting to meet first with Elder Paisios(the Abbot and who I asked to be my spiritual father) and then to see Elder Ephaim.

    I voiced my grief to him and he let me know not to be grieved as many in the OCA are not against the Elder and the monstery.

    Even Elder Paisios told me not to be grieved as many peoples’ opinions are changing in regards to St. Anthony’s including some that were hostile within the GOA.

    May God grant a flowering of monasticism here in our country. How wonderful it would be that many would come to know our most Holy Faith in such settings.

    Again, dear Father, thank you and a blessed Lent and Pascha to you. It was a real pleasure and honor to have gotten the opportunity to meet and speak with you at the All American Council in November.

    In Christ,

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Like everything Orthodox in America, we come about things in strange ways. Ours is truly the modern country. Monasticism, even like parishes, has come about not so much organically but suddenly – and as an import. Thus there have been predictable strains between monastery and parish, etc. I think this will settle in time because the normal relationship between parish and monastery is good in Orthodoxy. But having started in an unusual manner, it will take time, as the monks said.

  23. Katia Says:

    “Webmaster Note. I recently made the mistake, in my correspondence with a learned Orthodox monastic of many years experience, of referring to monasticism as “the very heartbeat of Holy Orthodoxy.” This is a cliche that I had heard repeated so often in Orthodox circles that I took it as an aphorism.

    His reply to my remark is very instructive:

    “You are absolutely wrong. And very seriously so. Holy Orthodoxy is the Body of Christ. The heart of the Church is Christ. Moreover, the souls of the Church are not divided between monastics and lay people. Both ways of life, even if one is of a more intense and higher kind, lead to salvation and sanctity. It is a heresy to teach otherwise. In fact, to be precise, several Fathers have called monasticism the “barometer” of the Church, not its heart. It is not part of the essence of the Church, but a measure of the Church’s health. This is logical. If a Church has healthy Christians, it will cultivate those virtues which lead to Christianity in its strictest form: monasticism. This means that monastics draw from the virtues of the non-monastics who give them their being and who are the substructure of the Church. The lay people are the chickens. The monastics are the eggs. The number of eggs that a chicken produces tells us how healthy it is. And so with the Church. But without the lay people, monasticism would not exist. No chicken, no egg. You have been given a VERY, VERY distorted view of monasticism. Teach about the chicken.”

    orthodovinfo.com

  24. Moses Says:

    I wonder if monasticism in North America in the years to come will remain as isolated as it is now? What do you think Father?🙂

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    It’s a large country and will need many monasteries. But I think we will continue to see growth. It’s the gradual growth in relationship between parish and monastery that will also take time. We sort of started backwards in a number of ways in the American experience.

  26. Stacy Says:

    Hi Father Stephens,

    Could you please tell me the name of the monk seen on https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/monasticism-what-is-possible/ –your sight at the top of the page holding a bird in his hand…I am certain that he is my father but I have tried to contact the monestary and even left a message asking if anyne could tell me how he is or where he is. I just want to know that he is OK. Thank you, Stacy

  27. fatherstephen Says:

    Stacy,
    The picture is from Mar Saba in the Judean desert (Israel). I do not remember the names of all the monks – though this could be Brother Ephrem who gave hospitality to our group of pilgrims when we visited – my memory may not be at all correct. Sometimes, one young monk in beard and cassock, looks much like another young monk in beard and cassock – unless you know them fairly well. Sorry I could not be more help. The photograph is from another pilgrim.

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