In Pursuit of Wholeness and Holiness
A Conversation at a Parish
St. Athanasius: “There are two forms of life and states of life. One is the usual life for mankind, married life; the other is the angelic and Apostolic life of which there is no higher, virginity or the monastic state.” (The Law of God)
Aidan: Other than Marriage and Monasticism, both Sacraments blessed with special church Services, is “Mere” Chastity/ Celibacy in the World truly ‘blessed’ by the Orthodox Church?
Alexandra: In a very literal sense, the Church indeed blesses ONLY marriage and monasticism through specific ceremonies. Some Fathers even count monastic tonsure as a sacrament! Of the 8th Day. Obviously, there is something special about being married or being a monastic, a sacramental bond which is not present in single people living in the world.
Peter: Christ and St Paul commended the single life. Is there any Church canon against being single?
Stephen: I have personally known widowed and single priests who have chosen not to become monastics, but live in a chaste life in the world, serving a parish and working in the chaplaincy with the most vulnerable members of society. I have also known of young people who are not called to marriage and live a celibate life in the world much as many early Christians did before there were any monasteries. And I have also met with people who would have liked to become nuns or monks but their lives’ circumstances (eg. care of children after a divorce they did not seek, ailing parents etc.) are not favorable and have had to do the best they can into the world.
Alexandra: But what gives structure and hierarchy in their lives? Who are they obeying to? Who are they cutting their own will from day to day? Isn’t it that for their spiritual health, people need to be channeled into an accountable way of life?
Peter: I think the important thing is not whether you are tonsured as a monk or not. Many people who are tonsured and are formally monks and nuns, in reality are no better than old bachelors and spinsters, for they do not live, feel and think like monks. On the contrary, a person living chastely in the world and serving God under the guidance of a good spiritual father may be a monk or a nun at heart. God judges not the formal status of a person, but his or her inner life.
Parish Priest: People do not easily fit into a specific mold, and making a Patristic dictum into an ideology would be inadvisable, especially for pastoral reasons. It would be highly irresponsible for a priest to pressure all the single people in his parish to either get married or enter a monastery.
Aidan: But isn’t this celibate life self-centred, obeying their own will and whims? Can these people ever be in good standing with the Church? Monastics are accountable to their Abbot/Abbess. Monastics have obediences and responsibilities to their monastery and their abbot/abbess. Similarly, the cross of the married life is a pretty burdensome one. Husbands and wives have obediences and responsibilities in their families and their parishes. Where is the cross of obedience for such individuals? Singles has no identifiable obediences or responsibilities beyond themselves. It would seem that such a state would almost certainly result in self-will as a guiding principle.
St Theophan the Recluse: “So you made up your mind once and for all to dedicate your life to serving the Lord and not to have anything to do with worldly life. May God graciously accept this sacrifice and bless your good decision! . . . Adapt to that kind of life within yourself, not by a change of outward ways, but of the inward order. Now you may completely refuse all amusements and stay more at home in solitude, engaged in some occupation . . . Implant a little more deeply the conviction that the way of life you have chosen is blessed by God. It was sanctioned by the Savior in the saying about eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. He gave it preference when he said of Mary . . . that she had chosen the better part . . . You see clear examples of it in the person of many Prophets and Apostles . . . Female and male virgins were a fixture in Christ’s Church even in apostolic times; they have been in the Church ever since and will continue to be in it . . . For this kind of life is not alien to our nature [as Fr David has said], and is favoured by the spirit of belief in Christ.” (From The Spiritual Life)
Peter: Speaking from experience unmarried do have responsibilities and obediences, even as adults we are bound to honour our parents and some have chosen the single life to care for sick parents or grandparents, along with providing all the necessities of life. If active in faith there will be church responsibilities sometimes much more than the married take on due to the time being available to do things, and obedience to a spiritual father or confessor. So, it seems we have all the ‘benefits’ of living in the world but also many drawbacks for there is no helpmate (which is after all one of the key reasons for marriage: to do ‘it’ together). The single individual has many responsibilities but they tend to be more nebulous and less organised than those who are married or monastics; this does not mean that they are less, they are just different. There are those who have reached theosis in the unmarried state, such as St Xenia of Petersburg who lived as a devout widow without ever entering a monastery.
Stephen: The Church has certainly had saints who were unmarried and not monastics and who lived in the world chaste lives, dedicated to God, without entering a monastery. They led lives of service, “giving themselves to the service of their brothers and sisters in hospitals, poor-houses, and hospices.” and making their room as one of a monastic cell. If the Church has declared such people to be saints, surely their glorification is the highest blessing the Church can bestow.
Peter: And other than just labeling them ‘single’ or ‘married’ or ‘monastics’, we should rather ask “why?” Why is he/she married? Why is she/he single? Ask yourself are you fasting for a healthy diet or to control your passions?
Parish Priest: I spoke to a hieromonk about this topic, and he said that while marriage and monasticism were the two common paths to salvation, single people in the world could also live God-pleasing lives. He clarified that the decision to remain unmarried was a matter of individual circumstances and with the blessing of a spiritual father.
Stephen: There is no rule that the single life is not blessed. The person living the single life may not be able to give a vow of not owning property, but could, with the blessing of his or her spiritual father, give a vow of celibacy and of obedience (to the spiritual father).
Aidan: So, it seems that the Church has established two avenues opened by the Spirit of God – namely the marriage and the monasticism. There are also some solitarily trails also engraved by the spirit of God.
St Silouan the Athonite: In the last days there will be many with the monastic spirit living in the world as a witness to the Faith, neither married, nor having taken the monastic vows, but single, yet monastics at heart.