“When I was a boy, all we had was reverends. The AME had one or two bishops. But, everyone else was just a reverend. Now, everyone wants to be a bishop, everyone wants to be an apostle, everyone wants to be a prophet of the fourth quadrant of the first hemisphere … ”
Dr. Jeremiah Wright
After Christianity became a legalized religion, some believers noticed a problem in the church. There was an increase of people who converted to the faith for the wrong reasons. Some did so to curry favor with government officials and businessmen. Others thought this would be some sort of magic religion that would guarantee good luck and success. Still others simply wanted to be a part of the crowd. Whatever the reasons, the new converts had a tendency to ignore the words of the Lord; If any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
A core of believers knew that although the persecutions from the Roman government had ended, the true enemy, Satan, still had to be fought against. These men and women knew that they could not be victorious in their struggle by having the shallow faith of their society. So, they left their worldly pursuits and lived in prayer and contemplation. Some pursued the life of purity and repentance so severely that they lived naked and alone in the deserts of Africa and the Middle East. Some lived in caves along the Nile River Valley and, later, shacks in the Siberian forest. Others dwelled in monasteries in obedience to God and the abbot or abbess for spiritual instruction. For the monks and nuns, nothing was more important than having their sins forgiven, their souls saved for the world to come and to pray for others.
St. Pachomius of Egypt
Think about it for a moment. These men and women committed themselves to dressing very simply, eating basic food, and shunning any sort of fanfare and notoriety. They made baskets and other handicrafts and had them sold in markets to sustain themselves. Even today, monastics strive to be self-sufficient, live simply, and keep their distance from worldly influences. They live in constant prayer for themselves and the world in every daily activity. Depending on the rule of the monastery, monks and nuns can attend some sort of worship service more than three times a day lasting for hours. Those who aren’t called to live as actual monastics choose to live simply without pursuing so many of the things of this world. They read the works of the ancient fathers and apply their wisdom to modern life. With proper guidance, they become very prayerful, victorious over their own demons, and help others overcome theirs as well. They seek a deeper faith and not fanfare.
How many more of these guys do we really need?
I think modern Christianity needs more monastics and fewer modern hierarchs. While even the well-established Pentecostal denominations have high standards for their bishops, such titles are far too often obtained too cheaply. Almost anyone with a charismatic personality, knowledge of a few scriptures, and the ability to attract and maintain a following can give himself (or herself) any title they wish. Apostle, chief apostle, archbishop, master prophet; the possibilities are endless. Added to this plethora of titles are the numbers of ways one can “earn” degrees of further education. It used to be there were only a few schools of divinity and theology attached to accredited academic colleges. Now, there are “for profit” colleges offering D. Min degrees and online diploma mills that can give any sort of credential imaginable for as little as $50.
Anyone claiming some clerical office by such shady means in the Coptic Orthodox Church or the Church of God in Christ would face a stern rebuke from the proper authorities. However, with tens of thousands of non-denominational churches with no ecclesiastical authority, any attempt of call such clergy into question has no consequences. No one can judge, or silence them. Their followers and like-minded colleagues will readily come to their defense denouncing their critics as, “bitter, haters, the enemy,” and other names. “You can’t judge me, God anointed me, not you” and other phrases are also used against anyone who dares question them about their legitimacy. But, the current plethora of “hierarchs” is creating a growing number of critics who join non-Christian groups, or drop out of religion all together preferring to just be “spiritual” and good people. As cheaply as the hierarchal titles are obtained, so the faith of the people becomes cheapened as well.
Monasticism is not an inexpensive process. It is like selling all of one’s merchandise for one pearl or a field. But because the pearl of forgiveness is of great price and the field of salvation has a great treasure in it, it is well worth any and every sacrifice. Even for those of us who cannot actually move into monasteries, practicing asceticism to the degree we are able is a struggle. They lose friendships as we tend to like to spend time alone. Many water-cooler conversations will be alien or repulsive to us. Pursuits that were once the highlight of their lives are put aside for prayer and repentance. But, monastics pursue greater things than notoriety and popularity, which are fickle and unstable. Their souls are anchored in the unbroken line of those who renounced the world for the next world from John the Baptist and Jesus Christ to Anthony and Macarius to Brianchaninov and Theophan to Paisious and Seraphim Rose. They may never pack a stadium full of people who want to hear good preaching. But, their prayers are a blessing to us all. And some of them pass down wisdom and spiritual insights that are useful for every generation in every land.
A keeper of the ancient faith
To those who feel a calling on their lives to serve the Lord, please channel your enthusiasm to the disciplined and humble path of monasticism. Jesus Himself said that the lifestyle is not for everyone. But, we can all seek to live as close to being a monk or nun as possible. The writings from ancient to modern monastics are available to us; order and read them. We have monasteries here in the US; take a pilgrimage and meet one or two. Under wise spiritual guidance, we can take on a greater pursuit of repentance and renunciation of the world. We have enough bishops of questionable character and credentials. We need more Christians who will deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. We need more monks and nuns.