Father Ilarion and the Suffering Horse

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Source: Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses

The sequel to Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father

“There are many times when we read the words “the best book I have ever read”….well, this book is certainly the benchmark by which you can measure all the others you will read. If you are spiritually hungry and thirsting for that one drop of spiritual water….then read this. It will open your heart. The words in this book will feed your soul. If you are reading this because you are undecided…..then why don’t you ask your heart to make the decision for you? I did…..!”

Orthodoxy and Animals

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St Fillan and the Repentant Wolf

If you have not heard of St Fillan, please search his life and read it. There is nothing shameful in not knowing anything, in not having even heard of him or any of these wonderful Saints. We see today the effects of centuries of purposeful destruction of their heritage, centuries of constant attempts to delete their memory. When you discover a Celtic Saint of which you had no previous knowledge, give thanks to God: you have unearthed an amazing treasure. Begin from there and see where Christ leads you – there is no accident, no coincidence in the eyes of God.

St Fillan is such a treasure. I have not been able to find any previous icon of him – if you know of any, please send it to me. This icon focuses on one particular event in the Saint’s life, but tries to make something else visible. Once, a wolf killed the ox which St Fillan used to work the fields, so the wolf had to replace the dead ox and plough the fields with the saint. On the surface, this is what the icon shows.

Pray for a little while and the icon suddenly becomes the image of a confessor’s gentleness, or that of a parent’s struggle to both love and educate. This is the icon of the struggle any loving heart goes through when faced with the need to direct or to punish. Love punishes in a manner that edifies – not crushes; love corrects in a way that allows one to grow into one’s true identity (God has created the wolf to serve man, and in this obedience it finds its true meaning) – not deform one’s identity by imposing the parent’s identity on him.

When love educates, there is no battle of wills involved. In fact, there is no human will here – the only will present is that of God. Looking at their faces, it is obvious that to punish goes against the Saint’s love, while to obey goes against the wolf’s fallen nature. And yet both of them bow down to one another (see their posture) and together, they both bow to God’s will.

The hands that impose obedience look more like hands that caress, hands that bless. The one in authority has the posture of the one under obedience. When you look at their posture, one cannot distinguish who is the one in authority, who obeys to whom, for they both obey to God, and they bow down to one other.

Humanity is called to use the created world in love, not to abuse it with indifference. Humanity is called to help rekindle the true identity of the created world, not to destroy it. For after all – and this is something we should never allow ourselves to forget – our own fall, the fall of Man has dragged the world into its current fallen state.

The expression on St Fillan’s face reflects this very awareness: this animal has killed, this animal has fallen because of our fallen nature, and ultimately, because of my own sinfulness.

Source: Mull Monastery — Fr. Seraphim Aldea

*St Fillan — 9 Jan — is the patron Saint of the mentally ill

* “When you discover a Celtic Saint of which you had no previous knowledge, give thanks to God: you have unearthed an amazing treasure. Begin from there and see where Christ leads you – there is no accident, no coincidence in the eyes of God.” Indeed! But more about the Celtic Saints who have come to me in my recent pilgrimages in the blog posts to follow …

Does Orthodoxy Matter? A Case Study

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And here’s the challenging question …

In the absence of an Orthodox church nearby would you be prepared to pray at home rather than pray with the heterodox?

 

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Orthodoxy means “true glory” or “true faith.”  We Orthodox think very highly of the word.  Or do we?  When it comes down to it, does Orthodoxy actually matter all that much to us (as it should)?  Orthodox Christians in the west find themselves living among many different Christianities and it can sometimes be tempting to think that notwithstanding some of the more obvious differences, (icons, the Theotokos, fasting, worship, for example), all these Christian traditions share much the same faith as us.  If you are of this opinion, then I am sorry to have to disappoint you, but it just isn’t true at all.  How so?

I am going to consider this issue by looking at a case study which reveals the damage that heresy can do in our personal lives, our relationships and even to the society and world that we live in.  It is a fictional story, but quite typical.

John and Mary go to an Evangelical Anglican Church.  John is Orthodox (Greek tradition).  Mary is Anglican.  This is her second marriage, being a young widow with one teenage son (Ian, 15) still living at home. She now has two children with John, daughters, aged 5 and 7.  John would prefer to go to his local Greek Church but his wife is a committed Anglican, and their children, although baptised in the Orthodox Church (with the exception of Ian), prefer the “lively worship songs”, as they put it, which are included in the church’s family service.  Ian is very involved in the local youth group and is thinking eventually of becoming an Anglican minister.  Does Orthodoxy then matter to John?  Well, yes, but only in a remote nostalgic sort of way.  It is some years now since he has attended Divine Liturgy, the last time was at Pascha in 2008.  His stepson, Ian, will have nothing to do with what he considers to be the “stuffy incomprehensible worship” at his stepdad’s church which he has visited once, just after his stepfather’s marriage.

Ten years later ….

Neither John nor Mary now regularly attend the Anglican Church.  John still hasn’t been back to the Orthodox Church since Pascha 2008 and Mary doesn’t like the new Vicar who is a woman.  Mary is quite a conservative evangelical believer who maintains that a woman should not be in a place of authority within the Church over men.  (This is the evangelical doctrine of the”headship of the male.”)  Her two daughters, now 15 and 17 still attend on their own and are very active in the youth group.  Ian, who shares his mother’s conservative outlook, has also left the church, disagreeing with what he believes to be the Anglican Church’s tolerance of homosexual partnerships.  He has started attending a very conservative Baptist church that teaches pure Calvinism, in particular, the doctrines known as TULIP (from the first letter of each doctrine), namely:-

Total Depravity – As a result of Adam’s fall, all humanity, is dead in sins and therefore damned.  Humanity’s nature is corrupt and utterly incapable of godliness.

Unconditional Election – Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate a response to God; therefore, from eternity God elected certain people to salvation and others to damnation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response because man is unable to respond to God, nor does he want to.

Limited Atonement – Because God determined that certain people should be saved as a result of His unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect alone. All whom God has elected, and for whom Christ died, will be saved but the rest will be damned to hell for all eternity; again as determined by God’s sovereign will.

Irresistible Grace – Those whom God elected He draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.  Man cannot choose to love God by his own choice and freedom.

Perseverance of the Saints – The precise people God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith to the end. None whom God has elected will ever be lost; they are eternally secure even though they may sin grievously after election.

Although Ian is a pious and committed believer these doctrines trouble him.  He begins to doubt that he is one of the elect, chosen by God for salvation.  His sinful life (he occasionally resorts to prostitutes) troubles him greatly but his church tells him that he is unable to make any right choice and save himself.  Ian enters a very dark period of depression, made much worse by the impact of these heresies on his mental health.  His fragile relationship with his atheist girlfriend disintegrates.  He seeks medical help for a latent depression which has now become the full blown clinical variety.

Five years further on, the two daughters are now at the same university, one just about to graduate but they have been unable to find an evangelical church they like nearby, so they have stopped attending church on the grounds that they believe in Christ and are saved, so what’s the point?  Back home John and Mary now lead thoroughly secular lives.  John sometimes thinks wistfully of his childhood back in Cyprus when he used to attend church with his Nana but this seems to him a very distant idealised time now.  He hopes, nonetheless, that his wife or children will respect his wish for an Orthodox funeral if he dies first.

So, did Orthodoxy matter to John?  Well yes, particularly earlier on, but for most of his adult life only in a nominal sort of way.  He had certainly not been catechised in his youth and his grasp of the faith, therefore, had always been somewhat tenuous.  Did Anglican evangelicalism then strike him as being similar to Orthodoxy?  Well yes, mostly.  He only saw differences in the worship style which often set his teeth on edge.  Let’s face it.  He attended the evangelical Anglican Church for the sake of his wife and family.  When they stopped going, so did he.  There is only one God after all and this was just a different way of being a Christian, it seemed to him.  He did lament his stepson’s involvement in the Calvinist church because he could see how its refusal of human freedom and choice, its dark doctrines of divine election to salvation or damnation, did not feel right to him, but he couldn’t really say why. 

Did Mary his wife ever consider Orthodoxy when the lady Vicar arrived?  Well, no, why should she?  Her husband rarely spoke of his childhood faith and she concluded that it could not have meant much to him in that case, so why should she consider it?  John and Mary now spend a conventional Sunday together as most couples do in their street, getting up late, going to the gym occasionally, shopping at B&Q, taking a drive into the countryside; just the usual and normal things everyone does nowadays.  Both still consider themselves as Christians, but obviously not of the fanatical sort whom they blame, quite rightly, for destroying Ian’s piece of mind.  As for the two girls, well they eventually graduated and now have families of their own.  Churchgoing, however, has become completely alien to all their families with the rest.

So, does Orthodox Christianity matter to you?
Does it matter enough for you to find out about it in more depth?
Does it matter enough for you to practice it as faithfully as you can, notwithstanding the distractions of modern life?
Does it matter enough for you to stay loyal to this faith no matter what challenges are presented to it by both family life and society as a whole?

And here’s the challenging question …

In the absence of an Orthodox church nearby would you be prepared to pray at home rather than pray with the heterodox?

What is the Role of a Spiritual Father?

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These excerpts are from a paper on the Orthodox Christian monastic life, yet all they say about the role of the spiritual father, I find it equally relevant to those who live in the world.

“… you choose, or rather, recognize your spiritual father or mother, and he or she will recognize you as his/her spiritual child.

The spiritual father does not need to be some kind of clairvoyant elder. Rather, he is someone to whom you can open your heart. There is often a mutual recognition, that “this is my father,” and “this is my son.” Or, at least, that this is a person with whom I want to work out my salvation.

The discipler, the spiritual father or mother, is the one to whom you will promise obedience, as a means of being obedient to Christ. It is a sacramental relationship: obedience given to the spiritual father for Christ’s sake becomes obedience to Christ. The spiritual father will not give you something immoral or illegal—it would be your duty to disobey such a command. Being obedient means cutting off our own will. It is training. But it is also a means of grace, because we are obedient to Christ through our obedience to the spiritual father. This is itself a means of grace, a synergy or cooperation with God, and accomplished by the power of His energy. We strive to harmonize our will with God’s will, by cutting off our self-will in obedience. Then it becomes all grace, God’s activity within us. But the more we resist, rebel and protest, the more self-willed and independent we are, the more we reject the grace of God.

The passions of envy and jealousy, abandonment anxiety, pride, and anything else surface in the first few years [of the discipleship],  if things are working right.

Obedience is not about subjugation. It is not about depriving the disciple of his will, or much less surrender of one’s personhood. These are abuses. Rather, obedience is willing submission in love. 

It is a relationship of the most profound intimacy and openness.

The relationship between a spiritual father and son is a relationship of love and respect, mutual in every dimension. It becomes the context in which we authentically develop our personhood, and transcend our ego-centrism. Submission to a spiritual father means to enter into a mutual striving for salvation together (1Peter 5:5). It is a relationship of the most profound intimacy and openness. You come to know each other profoundly. And yet, the relationship of a spiritual father and son is also a participation in Christ’s own sonship to the Father. It is a relationship that is sacramental, full of grace. That grace does not depend on the charismatic gifts of the spiritual father, his maturity or clairvoyance. Of course he should be someone blessed by the Church to have such a ministry, and likely will be a priest. If the relationship is undertaken in good faith, on both parts, it becomes that sacramental bond in Christ by the Spirit.

We must remember that this relationship, because it is the very means of working out our salvation, will be tried by fire.

It is important to respect and have faith in your spiritual father. But know for certain that your spiritual elder is a sinful man with passions and shortcomings, like yourself. If you have the idea that he is sinless and infallible, you are only setting yourself up for a huge fall. And if you judge your spiritual father for his inevitable failings, you are also setting yourself up for a fall from your own pride and arrogance. We must remember that this relationship, because it is the very means of working out our salvation, will be tried by fire. Our faith in our spiritual father will be tried by enormous temptations, by his mistakes and shortcomings, and by our own brokenness, rebelliousness and arrogance. But what is important is to persevere through the temptations, and not allow ourselves to judge him. It is said that there are very, very few great elders in the world, but what is even more rare is the true disciple. We must remember that our judgment exposes our own hypocrisy, more than anyone else’s.

Our faith in our spiritual father will be tried by enormous temptations, by his mistakes and shortcomings, and by our own brokenness, rebelliousness and arrogance. 

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the Lord’s most vivid illustrations, and used extensively for the monastic life. How profoundly we betray our Father, going off and living prodigally, wasting his riches on harlotry and riotous living. Coming to our self, finally, we repent and return to the Father. How the Father has waited for the return of his beloved son, no matter how much the son’s insensitivity, words and actions have hurt the father. The Father does not assign us a place with the servants, but restores to us our birthright—now a gift of grace. So also does our spiritual father wait for us to repent, to return, so that we may receive the gift of his love.

‘Make haste to open to me Thy fatherly embrace, for as the prodigal I have wasted my life. In the unfailing wealth of Thy mercy, O Savior, reject not my heart in its poverty. For with compunction I cry to Thee, O Lord: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee. ‘(Troparion at Monastic Tonsure)

You have found your spiritual father when knowing you, you realize that he loves you unconditionally.

Always in a spirit of unconditional love and acceptance, even when the passions are raging and the son is in a state of rebellion and stubbornness. 

The relationship to the spiritual father is the way to work out authentic self- acceptance. The spiritual father loves the spiritual son unconditionally, and that love is the foundation for the son to learn how to love the other, to accept himself, and to look at himself in naked honesty and love himself in a healthy way. Constant confession, opening the heart to the spiritual father, and exposing the most shameful and inmost thoughts and inclinations, is the way to this deep cleansing of the heart. The father must give his son both the encouragement and the rebukes that help him see himself. But this is always in a spirit of unconditional love and acceptance, even when the passions are raging and the son is in a state of rebellion and stubbornness.

All the rage, anger, rebelliousness and hatred that are concealed in the heart get projected onto the spiritual father.

So the spiritual father is called to be patient, no matter how hurtful the son can be. All the rage, anger, rebelliousness and hatred that are concealed in the heart get projected onto the spiritual father. The passions of envy and jealousy, abandonment anxiety, pride, and anything else surface in the first few years [of the discipleship], if things are working right.

The spiritual father is called to be patient, no matter how hurtful the son can be.

Obedience is one of the most important things to expose the passions. Obedience demands the cutting off of the will; and our passions are in what we will. Obedience also demands cooperation with the other brothers. We easily cooperate when we want to do something; when we don’t, that is the key point in the confrontation with our will. And if we have underlying passions, such as envy and jealousy, pride and arrogance—Why did he get to do that? [He]  loves him more than me… Why should I have to do that?… or I should have gotten to do that… etc.—so the real battleground of purification is obedience.”

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Dedicated with a love and gratitude which words can’t express to my spiritual father, one I recognised very soon, as “this is my father”, one who loves me unconditionally 

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Dedicated also to St. Dositheus, ο αληθής υποτακτικός,  the true obedient, a Saint I am personally very drawn to.

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Anything that the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh has to say is of the utmost importance for our spiritual life, even more so when such a gifted spiritual father talks about “SPIRITUALITY AND THE ROLE OF A SPIRITUAL FATHER”

Why Be a Monastic? (II)

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Why be a monk?

What is a monk? One who strives to love God with all his heart, all his soul and all his mind and all his strength, and to love his neighbor as himself.

Monasticism is the heart of the Christian Church. It is radical discipleship to Christ, taking the Lord at His word in the Scriptures, and striving to live by it in an integral way.

Monasticism is about living the Gospel without compromise. It is about living in Christ by the Holy Spirit, and growing by grace to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Monasticism is about life lived in obedience to Christ, in self-denial and bearing the cross of whatever suffering God sends us to help us work out our salvation. Monasticism is about working out our salvation in a community of like- minded men, by learning to love our brother “who is our life” (St Silouan).

Who can become a monk? Anyone. BUT, that does not mean that everyone is called to it. It is a calling, a charism, a gift. There are no impediments to becoming a monk. But not every community is able to receive everyone.

It is important to remember that monastic life is about striving for Christ. A monastery is not a psychiatric hospital, not a poorhouse, retirement home, group home or halfway house. To use it as such is to abuse it. To try to use it as a means to escape the responsibilities of life, or in order to be taken care of, will only lead to disappointment. This does not mean that the monastery does not take care of the ill, elderly or those in need. Those are important ministries of a monastic community. But to join the monastery to try to escape the necessities of living, working and relating in the world is to come to it for the wrong reason. The only reason to join the monastery is for the love of Christ, and the desire to follow Him.

Preparation for Monastic Life

St Ignatiy Brianchaninov writes that God-pleasing life in the world is the most important preparation for monastic life. This means to fulfill all one’s responsibilities,

and live according to the commandments, working to support oneself, and being merciful to the needy. And, of course, one must go to church, receive the sacraments, and live a life of prayer and fasting.

To join the monastery, on a practical level, one should have all one’s debts paid off. Bankruptcy, for the sake of convenience or laziness, is not an option. It may be best to live close to the monastery while paying off one’s debts, and do whatever it is that will pay them off as quickly as possible, and honorably.

We must battle to overcome consumerism and worldliness while living in the world. The Lord calls us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” If one has children, or ill or elderly parents, one cannot simply abandon them. Their welfare must be seen to. This is an essential Christian duty, which as the Lord tells us, cannot be abolished. It also means that one might have to put off monastic commitment until such issues are
resolved. Those issues have to be dealt with before one enters the community.

One cannot “retire” to a monastery. A monastery is a place of intense struggle, work and constant, demanding effort. Monks often work harder than those who are in the world, with hours per day of services on top of the work load. St Benedict’s motto was “Prayer and work.” We must strive to earn our own living by the work of our own hands. Everyone has to work, to contribute, to share the burden. The difference is that in the monastery, work is sanctified, and work sanctifies us, as our contribution to the life of the whole body. It is a means of serving one another, and of overcoming our selfishness.

Neither can one escape his problems or “issues” in the monastery. In contrast to living in the world, where there are endless distractions to keep us from confronting our problems, emotional and psychological issues, there are no distractions in the monastery. In the monastery, there are no television, movies, radio, newspapers, novels or friends, parties, alcohol or narcotics. There is only the silence, the services, our quiet work, and our prayers. And in the normal course of spiritual development, all our issues come up and hit us squarely in the face.

When to enter the monastic life

The virtually universal consensus of monastic spiritual fathers and mothers is that the younger one enters the monastic life, the better. It becomes harder and harder as one gets older.

In the past, and still in the “old countries,” it was not uncommon for children to enter the monastic life, either with their families or by themselves. Several prominent figures in the Orthodox churches in America became monastics at 11 or 12 years of age: Bp Jovan, Mo Benedicta, Fr Roman. Others entered in their late teens or early twenties.

The best time is generally from 18-25, because one’s identity has not yet crystalized, and one is looking for one’s place in life. From 25-29, one’s identity has

begun to solidify, and one gets into patterns that will be with him for his whole life. The early twenties are a time of great idealism and energy, while the older one gets, that becomes more and more moderated by experience. After 30, and especially after 35, it becomes more and more difficult. Some spiritual fathers recommend that people in their late 40’s and beyond simply remain in the world, in their own homes, and keep to the rule of life given by their spiritual father, a kind of “white monasticism.” Contemporary Roman Catholic monasteries seldom admit people over 40 or 45.

The old Orthodox tradition of retiring to a monastery is a wonderful thing, if one has resources that one can contribute so that he will not be an undue burden on the community. Still, it will require an enormous adjustment for an older person, who has either been on their own or had a family, to adjust to community life.

The Biggest Obstacle

To read about the biggest issue for people joining a monastery, the three ways men are called to the monastic life, according to the Fathers of the Church, how you choose a monastery, the distinctive features of Life in Common, the Koinobion, the Way of Spiritual Growth from Psychological Religion to Authentic Spirituality, the three levels of human life: the carnal man, the natural (“psychic” in Greek), and the spiritual man, spiritual healing and various psychological/ psychiatric health Issues, the Monastic Vows and Gospel Virtues: Poverty, Chastity, Obedience and Stability, and a lot more go to Monastery of St. John Articles and read the article in full.

 

 

Why be a monastic? (I)

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Monasticism in the Twenty First Century: A Viable Alternative or a Forgotten Ideal?

A brother went to see Abba Joseph and said to him,(subscript: )”Abba, as far as I can I say my prayer rule, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

This is what monasticism is: a longing for God that knows no limits. It is the beginning of the Age to come, of the Kingdom of Heaven still here on earth. The Church calls monasticism the Angelic Life. According to Holy Tradition, in the 4th century an angel appeared to St. Pachomius, the first of the monks struggling out in the Egyptian desert to establish a monastic community, and gave him a bronze tablet, inscribed with a Rule for his monks to follow. From Apostolic times to the present day thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people have left everything they had and scorned everything that this world has to offer in order to follow Christ and to live the Gospels more fully.

At times this impulse has been stronger, at times weaker, and the Holy Fathers speak of monasticism as a barometer of spiritual life in the Church. When monastic life flourishes, the faithful are really striving spiritually, and conversely, when few people find inspiration in the monastic ideal, monasteries diminish and are ignored, spiritual life amongst the faithful is on the decline. At the end of the 4th century, when persecution of Christians ceased and the Church knew peace for the first time, but the zeal of converts hadn’t cooled, and many Christians desired to give everything to Christ, monasticism even became a mass movement.

One of the travel writers of the period, St. Palladius, tells of his visit to “Oxyrhynchus, one of the cities of the Thebaid (in Egypt). It is impossible to do justice to the marvels, which we saw there. For the city is so full of monasteries that the very walls resound with the voices of monks. Other monasteries encircle it outside… The temples and capitols of the city were bursting with monks; every quarter of the city was inhabited by them… The monks were almost in the majority over the secular inhabitants… and there is no hour of day or night when they do not offer acts of worship to God… What can one say of the piety of the… people, who when they saw us strangers … approached us as if we were angels? How can one convey an adequate idea of the throngs of monks and nuns past counting? However, as far as we could ascertain from the holy bishop of that place, we would say that he had under his jurisdiction 10,000 monks and 20,000 nuns. It is beyond my power to describe their hospitality and their love for us. In fact each of us had our cloaks torn apart by people pulling us to make us go and stay with them.”

Closer to our own time, in Russia in 1907, towards the end of the spiritual revival of the 19th century and before the Revolution there were 24,000 monks and 66,000 nuns, about 90,000 monastics, living in 970 monasteries.

On the bleak side, the countryside of France, where my monastery is, is peppered by empty monasteries in ruins, remnants of the Age of Faith, as historians call the Middle Ages. They are testimonies to the spiritual barrenness of France, where more people believe in astrology than in Christ, and people spit at me on the streets because they think I’m a Moslem. It would never occur to them that a woman wearing black might be a nun. The scene at the airport here in Ottawa when I arrived was nothing like the scene in Oxyrhyncus when St. Palladius walked through the gates, and you could probably travel clear across Canada or America and not see a single monastery nor meet a single monk or nun.

But is monasticism completely a lost cause today? True, to modern eyes, the monk is increasingly a figure of yesterday, someone silly and eccentric. People think of roly-poly Friar Tuck from Robin Hood or of the sinister, murderous monks in the novel “The Name of the Rose”. The word “nun” brings to mind Mother Theresa or silly movies about nice but rather dumb women wearing strange, uncomfortable clothes. Even in someone with a more Orthodox frame of mind the word “monastic” applied to our times calls up the image of St. John of Shanghai, of Fr. Seraphim Rose, or the New Martyr the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, and we wonder what can these saints possibly have in common with us?

Is anything from their lives and experiences at all relevant or applicable, and how can we, Orthodox Christians of the 21 century, even dare to aspire to imitate them? The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the lives of the founders of monasticism abound with dire warnings that monasticism, especially the strict asceticism of past centuries, will be just about impossible in the latter days. Once, when “the Holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation, they said, “What have we ourselves done?” One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.” The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?” He said, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.” They said, “And to those that come after them, what will happen?” He said, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will persevere in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers”.

Reading St. Ignaty Brianchaninov’s instructions for contemporary monastics, first published a little over a century ago and known in English as “The Arena” can be downright depressing. “We are extremely weak,” he says, “while the temptations that surround us have increased enormously… Spiritual activity is quite unknown to us. We are completely engrossed in bodily activity and that with the purpose of appearing pious and holy in the eyes of the world and to get its reward. We have abandoned the hard and narrow way of salvation… we monks are diminished more than any nation, and we are humbled in all the earth today for our sins….” At the end of the Arena, St. Ignaty uses the image of beggars eating the scraps left over from a sumptuous banquet to describe the monks of the latter days, where the Lord says to them, “Brothers, in making my arrangements for the banquet, I did not have you in view. So I have not given you a proper dinner, and I am not giving you the gifts which have all been given away according to a previously made calculation which only I can understand.” If someone today so much as even dares think of monasticism everything around him, both worldly and Orthodox, of the Church seems to say, “Forget it! Don’t even try! It’s absolutely useless!”

In spite of the hardships and the off-putting advice of even the most authoritative Orthodox sources, many people still do choose to leave everything and everyone behind, to take up the cross of monastic struggles and to follow our Saviour. I don’t think that it’s too optimistic to speak of a sort of revival of monasticism in our times. In the 20 years that I’ve been struggling to be a monastic my monastery has doubled in size. Every week we get letters and phone-calls from women and girls that want to come, to enter or to learn more about our life. They are clearly searching for a deeper, more intense spiritual life and some form of dedication.

Our monasteries in the Holy Land are growing and flourishing. Since the years of Perestroika in Russia hundreds, if not thousands of monasteries have been opened. When I travel there, on the street every few feet of the way someone comes up to ask where I’m from, what monastery, for prayers, for a word of advice or consolation. They weep at the very sight of a nun and press lists of names into my hands, and their last kopecks and rubles. A very serious writer noted in surprise that in Russia more tourists visit monasteries than exhibits, museums or zoos.

What is it that continues to draw people to this way of life that is essentially a mystery, something that even the holiest monks speak of with awe and trembling?

Above all, monasticism is the way of repentance.

Not of the sort of repentance when we stop to sigh and feel sorry about the bad things we’ve done and then quickly move on to the next item on our list of things to do, or mumble a list of sins at confession so that we can go to Communion, but the sort that means a complete turn-about, a conversion, a profound change of lifestyle. This is the repentance of the Prodigal Son of the Gospels, who comes to realize that his entire way of life has been very wrong, and who leaves it all behind to go home to his father to ask forgiveness.

The service of monastic tonsure begins with a stichera paraphrasing this parable: “Make haste to open unto me Thy fatherly embrace, for as the Prodigal I have wasted my life. In the unfailing wealth of Thy mercy, O Saviour, reject not my heart in its poverty. For with compunction I cry to Thee, O Lord: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before Thee.” It is this longing for our Heavenly Father’s embrace, for His forgiveness, and for a home with Him that still makes people turn their backs on everything and trudge along this rocky road.

The first step along this road is renunciation of the world, leaving it behind.

This does not mean simply quitting school or your job, closing your bank account, moving to a monastery, putting on black and saying your prayers. According to the Holy Fathers the term “world” means the sum total of all our passions, attachments, opinions, petty likes and dislikes; everything that distances us from God and prevents us from discerning His Will.

“No one can draw nigh to God save the man who has separated himself from the world. But I call separation not the departure of the body, but departure from the world’s affairs”, says St. Isaac the Syrian, one of the greatest monastic fathers of all time. “…No one who has communion with the world can have communion with God, and no one who has concern for the world can have concern for God”, he continues.”

“If you truly love God”, begins St. John of the Ladder, another monastic guide, “and long to reach the Kingdom that is to come, if you are pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgement, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed, for anything of earth… Stripped of all thought of these, caring nothing about them, one will turn freely to Christ…”

At this point the most common question is “how do I know?” How do I know that I’m called to the particular form of renunciation of the world that monasticism represents? All of us have to leave the world in the sense of struggling to overcome our passions in one way or another; there’s no question about that. But how can a person be sure that the Lord means for him to do it by embracing the monastic life? How can we discern the will of God in this case? It’s very true that there’s no specific “monastic type” or particular character trait that defines someone as a candidate. My monastery has all sorts of people: fat, thin, old, young, outgoing, very shy, well-educated, high-school drop-outs, of the sweetest disposition, and some can be downright nasty at times. They did all sorts of things: one was a magazine editor, another a seamstress, someone was a semi-professional ball player, another sister has a PHD in philosophy, one of the youngest sisters came to us practically off the streets. Some of them had happy childhoods, others hated their parents, some of them were extremely successful at what they did, others hated their jobs. But all of them at some point in time became convinced of the necessity of dropping everything and starting along the road home to their Heavenly Father.

People often talk of vocations and callings, assuming that there has to be some sort of mystical experience to convince you to become a monastic. It’s true that a lot of monastics can look back to a particular event that was the turning point in their lives. 9 times out of 10 there’s nothing really otherworldly about it. If you hear voices or see angels probably the last place where you belong is a monastery! One of our sisters made her decision during an akathist before a miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God. All of her friends had gone dancing that night, but she chose to attend this akathist, and in the middle of it, it dawned on her that she was having a really good time; much better than she would have had dancing, and that it would make sense to do this full-time, as it were. Another sister was moved by the example of 2 nuns she met at the Synod Cathedral in NY. They were there to collect money for the Holy Land. Someone from the parish attacked them for no reason, accusing them of taking food from the kitchen without permission. Most of us would have tried to reason and explain the mistake, but one of the nuns, in a beautiful example of monastic humility, simply made a prostration and begged forgiveness. The fact that there really are still people today who try to do what the Gospels teach was a real revelation, and within a year this girl was a novice. Someone else was moved by a passage from St. John Cassian. One of our older nuns made her decision when her parish priest asked her if she knew anyone that might consider entering being a nun. This was soon after World War II, and this person had assumed that there were no longer any monasteries left, that monasticism wasn’t even a possibility. And when the priest asked, everything fell into place for her.

Even if there is such a moment, the choice and the decision to follow a monastic path is almost always a period of real struggle, of doubts, fears and temptations. A lot of the monastics I know, when the thought first came to them, wanted nothing to do with it and were quite shocked by the idea. The Holy Fathers emphasize that there is nothing that the evil one hates as much as monasticism and he will do everything possible to turn someone away from this path. If one is at all spiritually alert you can practically see and hear him at work at this point. I’ve known people to get incredible job offers, receive huge amounts of money, marriage proposals from tall, dark, handsome and rich men. An older nun I knew had her husband, missing for 20 years, turn up on her doorstep the day before she left. Another one had her son threaten to shoot himself, someone else’s mother starved herself for 6 weeks. If you speak to monastics you truly will find that fact is stranger than fiction! In spite of the trials, there’s a growing conviction that there is nothing else that you can do, that no matter what, the monastic life is the only viable alternative. And this nags at you until there’s just no other way out.

Once a monk escapes from the world he begins to try to finally think clearly and to concentrate on the things that will determine his eternal fate. He begins to really understand and to feel that we, wretched sinners, really are perishing, that we desperately need a Redeemer and Someone to heal our souls, and that in Him alone is life, that everything besides is empty and senseless. He begins to really feel and experience this, not just to say the words. Only when a person stops listening to the noise and clatter of the world, turns his eyes away from its wild, psychedelic colors, and when he gets over the hangover that the world leaves you with does he begin to see himself clearly and to discern the meaning and aim of life on this earth and to struggle against his enemy, the evil one. St. John of the Ladder tells us, “All who enter upon the good fight, the monastic life, which is tough and painful, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they…expect the heavenly fire to dwell within them…let everyone test himself, and then eat the bread of the monastic life with its bitter herbs.. .and drink the cup of it with its tears… Yes, it’s true. The monastic life is not “fun”. Most of us, especially those that had to go through a severe trial to leave the world, experience a “honeymoon” period, when you finally take the plunge, make the break with the world and get to a monastery. It’s such a relief to have all that behind you and to have finally started out on the way. Everything and everyone seems wonderful, you’re full of zeal, and you can practically see the grace, it’s so abundant. For some monastics this stage can go on for years. But sooner or later reality strikes and you see that everything that’s been written about the hardships of monastic life is not just fancy words or symbolic phrases or allegory. It’s not the physical side that’s hard. With some effort and discipline anyone can learn to get up early and to stand through long church services, to make prostrations and to work and work hard at jobs that you don’t necessarily like. A lot of people in the world have a much more difficult life in that sense. It’s the encounter with yourself and who you really are and the struggle to change that, that is the slow but painful, day by day, minute by minute work of the monk. The work is done largely through our contacts and conflicts with other people. St. John of the Ladder is very blunt about this: “…Derided, mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice, and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned.” For most of us the most difficult element in all this is giving up your own will. In one of the most quoted monastic sayings Abba Dorotheus, another great teacher of the monastic life says: “I know of no fall that happens to a monk that does not come from trusting his own will and his own judgement… Do you know someone who has fallen? Be sure that he directed himself… nothing is more grievous… nothing is more pernicious.”

When I was a young novice I would get really annoyed at the writings of the Holy Fathers and the constant repetition that in the latter days monks will not be able to perform any podvigs, or great ascetic feats, but will work out their salvation through patience and long-suffering. “How boring!” I would think, “Surely if we set our minds and spirits to it, we can do it, too? How come all we’re allowed is to sit around and be patient?” The secret here is that this is truly a great mercy of the Lord. Today we are not only unchristian in our approach to life, in our thoughts, words and actions, we are outright anti- Christian. Were the Lord to grant us the grace and give us the strength to perform even just 1/10 of the ascetic feats of previous times, we would not only not profit, but the resulting pride and vain-glory would lead us straight to perdition. This is especially true in monasticism, where, for the inexperienced, the intense work on one’s self is very easy to confuse with the self-analysis that so many self-help/’feel-good-about-yourself” guides teach today.

Take, for example, the concept of “moods”. This is not an Orthodox concept; we do not have moods, we are inflicted by passions and we strive to acquire virtues. “Being in a bad mood” can never excuse your behavior in a monastery. This can be very hard for a novice to accept. Likewise, we do not have any “rights”; we have obligations and obediences, and we owe it to the Lord Himself to fulfill them, but no one owes us anything. Similarly, we cannot expect to be “happy” and “fulfilled”; we come to a monastery to weep for our sins. Today just about everything is “boring”. We’ve tried everything, we’re stubborn and very self-assured. To cure the boredom, some people decide to try monasticism. Young people especially want nothing more than to make an impression, cause a sensation. What could be more sensational than to suddenly have all your friends see you 30 pounds thinner, draped in black, clutching a prayer rope, expounding spiritual wisdom? Worst of all, in our times people are prouder than ever before. We take pride in our imaginary virtues, we even take pride in our sins. And most of all, we are proud of our minds. We see ourselves as great thinkers, understanding psychologists, brilliant philosophers, who of course can understand all the finer, most profound monastic truths much more deeply than those that came before us. The notions of humility, obedience, self-condemnation, meekness and renunciation of one’s will used to “go without saying” for Orthodox Christians, but today they have to be learned. One of the Russian new martyrs, Vladyka Varnava Beliaev, wrote that it takes 30 years for someone to start being a monk. That was said 80 years ago; today it probably takes 40 or 50!

So why bother? Is it really worth it? I remember Metropolitan Philaret, paraphrasing St. John of the Ladder, saying, “If everyone knew how hard it was in monasteries, no one would ever go. But if they knew the joys and rewards of monastic life, they would all come running. And it’s true, the rewards and the blessings really are there. One of the Optina Elders, St. Barsanuphius, taught, “True blessedness can only be acquired in a monastery. You can be saved in the world, but it is impossible to be completely purified.. .or to rise up and live like the angels and live a creative spiritual life in the world. All the ways of the world, …. laws destroy or at least slow down the development of the soul. And that’s why people can attain the angelic life only in monasteries… Monasticism is blessedness; the most blessed state that is possible for a person on this earth. There is nothing higher than this blessedness, because monasticism hands you the key spiritual life.” In what do we find this blessedness? There is the knowledge that every day of your life and every minute of your day are sanctified and significant before God. Even your “bad” days and your really low days having meaning before Him. As long as you live the life consciously there is no wasted time. There is the solemnity and beauty of the Divine Services of our Church, which is truly the beginning of the life of Heaven still here on earth. In the world our attendance in Church is always time stolen away from the world’s affairs, a welcome respite, a sort of spiritual treat. In the monastery the services determine the very patterns of life, and they are the real life; everything else is time stolen away from them. They nourish us, instruct us, and in a certain sense even entertain us. When I was entering the monastery one of my greatest fears was that eventually I would find the services boring-the same thing, year in, year out, forever. Instead I find that they contain such vast wealth and so many levels, each more profound than the one before it, that a lifetime is nowhere near enough to begin to appreciate them. The saints have become my close friends and mentors, I experience the feasts differently each year, every Great Lent and every Pascha are a completely new revelation. Above all, in monasticism there is what St. Theophan the Recluse called “being sure that God keeps you as His own”. If you accept the ways of the Lord as your life your conscience will soon be lit up with the knowledge that He, too has accepted you as His own. I remember the night I spent in church after my tonsure, after making my monastic vows. I had such a vivid sense that the Lord was with me, it seemed that Heaven was literally just around the corner, that if I opened the door of the church it would be right there. This wasn’t a feeling; I knew this.

There is nothing more beautiful than the way monastics die. Most of our sisters die having received Holy Communion, surrounded by the community, with prayers and chanting and tears. Not the desperate tears of the world, but tears at parting with a friend and sister, even if just for a while. The funeral service of a monk, which is quite different than that of a lay person, is a lesson on the monastic life and the solidly grounded hope of eternal life that it represents rather than a meditation on death. For those that spend their life on the threshold of the Age to Come death is merely stepping into the next room.

We do give up a lot in monastic life. My arms have ached after holding my friends’ children, knowing that I would never hold my own. But the Lord has given me many children of the spirit amongst the young novices that I work with in the monastery. A monastic will never know the special intimacy and closeness that is the blessing of an Orthodox marriage. And a married person will never know the spiritual kinship of a monastic community. There are no vacations from monasticism, no sick days, no time off. But every day is a feast.

“Monasticism”, one of the Optina elders said, “supports the entire world. And when there will be no more monasticism the Dread Judgement will be upon us.

And for those of us that are drawn to this way of life there simply is no other way to live. One writer described it like this: “Some people are very single- minded by nature. And there are ideas that permeate the lives of such people down to the very last detail. Everything beautiful, joyous and of consolation in this life is overshadowed for them by the memory of one thing, by a single thought: that of Christ Crucified. No matter how bright the sun might be, how beautiful nature, God’s creation is, how tempting faraway places might seem, they remember that Christ was Crucified, and everything is dim in comparison. We might hear the most beautiful music, the most inspired speeches, but these souls hear one thing: Christ was Crucified, and what can ever drown out the sound of the nails being hammered into His flesh? Describe to them the happiness of a family life, of a beloved husband or wife, of children, but Christ was Crucified, and how can we not show the Lord that He isn’t alone, we haven’t deserted Him. There are those that are willing to forget everything in the world so as to stand by His Cross, suffer His suffering and wonder at His Sacrifice. For them the world is empty, and only Christ Crucified speaks to their hearts. And only they know what sweetness they taste still on this earth by sharing in the eternal mystery of the Cross and only they hear what He says to them when they come to Him after a life full of incomprehensible hardships and inexplicable joy.

By Mother Ephrosynia of the Convent of Lesna, France, Lesna Monastery, Provemont, 5/18 December 2000. St. Sabbas the Sanctified

Emotions: A Blessing or a Curse?

A conversation  with Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos 
Father what you have been saying has been a continuous surprise for me, from which I cannot yet recover. How can it be that emotion is also a result of the Fall, or rather that emotion itself is an ill condition?
 
-Emotion is mixed up with the passions of pleasure-loving. It is not completely identified with them, but is imbued by them to a great degree. A healthy man spiritually is a balanced man in all his manifestations. I said earlier that when man’s nous is illumined -when man is at the illumination of the nous- he is not moved by God simply psychologically and emotionally, but has true communion with God. Moreover, he sees in all creation the “causes of beings” -the uncreated governing energy of God. He is not moved emotionally by nature and its beauty, but sees the energy of God in it. As St. Isaac the Syrian says, faith based on theoria -which man attains when he is at the illumination of the nous- “is a gate to the mysteries of God”.
 
I will mention a simple example. St.Diadochos of Photiki says that the introductory joy is one thing and the perfecting joy is another. The first one, being strongly emotional, is mixed with fantasy, “is not devoid of fantasy”, while perfecting joy is associated with humility. Between emotional joy and perfecting joy there is “god-loving sorrow and painless tears”. Emotional joy, which is called introductory, is not entirely rejected, yet we must be led to the perfecting joy. This perfection and cure is achieved through the cross. “By the cross gladness prevails to all world”. Thus within the Church we struggle to transform all emotions as well as everything mundane. The transformation of emotions to genuine and authentic experiences is accomplished by repentance. Repentance leads us from a painful and tragic monologue to a dialogue with the living God. Through repentance, self-condemnation and humility, we transform emotions to spiritual experiences. In this case also holds true what we mentioned about fantasy. The more a person is emotionally ill, the more he reveals the death and darkness of his nous. And the more a person’s emotions are transformed, the more his nous is illumined; he is at the state of illumination. Can you see that the movement of the nous is very important? Can you see that it plays an important role whether the nous follows the movement according to nature or contrary to nature?
 
-Allow me, continued Irene, to ask you to explain even further how the emotions are transformed to spiritual experiences.
 
-I think I referred to the basic points. But since you wish I can expand more on the subject. The Fathers say that in the woman’s soul psychological experiences are connected more with spiritual ones. In other words, many women consider the so-called psychological conditions to be spiritual experiences. They may for example feel an emotional sweetness, while praying, and think that it is the coming of the grace of God. A lot of attention is needed, because at this point many images of fantasy intervene and create the preconditions for serious psychological anomalies.
 
I give you an example. A small girl expresses motherhood by playing with dolls. She feeds them, washes them, puts them to sleep, etc. When, however, she grows up and becomes a real mother, she does all these things undergoing pain. She feels pain to give birth to the child and pain and toil to bring it up. The little girl expresses motherhood, and, I could say, enjoys it emotionally, without pain and suffering, whereas becoming a mother for a woman is connected with pain and suffering; it is a “cross”. It is in this way somehow that we distinguish emotional joy from spiritual joy, emotions from spiritual experiences. Only true and complete repentance can cleanse all these psychological states and make them spiritual. And, naturally, it is our spiritual father who helps us with this; it is he who has the responsibility of distinguishing and curing this condition. In this way and with the help of our spiritual guide our nous is cured; it is led from the movement contrary to nature to that according to nature and, even more, above nature; the nous then is illumined and united with God and it is cured from fantasies and emotions. This is why the realisation of the real problem, and also the cure of the darkened nous are absolutely necessary.
 
Source-The illness and cure of the soul in the Orthodox Tradition
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos