monasticism

Less “Bishops,” More Monastics

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.

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Great Lent Week Two: Pursuing the Monastic Mindframe

One of the things that drew me to Orthodox Christianity is monasticism.  These people were,and still remain, unique examples of what it is to follow Jesus.  They attend church services, at least, two or three times a day.  They pray as they work.  Their meal time is spent with the words of scriptures and stories of saints.  Except for liturgical vestments, everyone is dressed in the same, simple garments.  Monks and nuns renounce not only sinful pursuits.  They also have rejected respectable careers, loving marriages, decent hobbies, and other things we consider good in the worldly kingdom so that they can focus solely on the kingdom of heaven.

Macarius the Great

Of course, Jesus never called everyone to this sort of lifestyle.  But, as I journey in the faith, I see tremendous value in striving to emulate those who have.  Consider how many of us are addicted to pursuing entertainment by TV.  While some programs may be educational and it is good to keep abreast of things newsworthy (not everything in the news is worthy of attention), too much of what is on television is based on sensuality and ego-driven self-help.  Refraining from television during fasting periods and replacing that time with prayer, spiritual reading, or helping people in need does our souls a far greater good than following empty comedies and meaningless dramas.  The monastic lays aside personal gain and follows the instruction of a seasoned and wise elder.  Our society is deeply committed to individualism and self confidence.  While everyone should gain some skills in their various occupations, no one ever succeeds in life by themselves.  We all need to be taught, trained, and guided.  The ability to be an effective father or mother in the faith is given by God through much patience, effort, and a humble spirit.

An Ethiopian Orthodox monk

St. Macarius is well renowned for his spiritual wisdom.  Yet, one of his prayers begins with these words,

Oh Lord, forgive me a sinner, for I have never done anything right …”

This man has fasted and prayed as much as any of the holy men of ancient Christianity.  But, he uses a language that puts himself at the same level as the tax-collector in our Lord’s parable.  Macarius also is said to have not considered himself a true monk and that there were others who have pursued the holy life with greater fervor than himself.  The mind of a monastic is always to consider one’s self as not yet attaining righteousness while doing everything to seek it.  This humble mind frame keeps us from thinking too much of ourselves and from complacency in the pursuit of God.  Let us not forget that God gives grace to the humble.

My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: The Need for a Monastic Model

The trip began with making confessions with Fr. James.  This is a preliminary step before visiting a monastery.  The crew was Chris & Rhonda, Gary, an Episcopalian priest Fr. Andrew, Fr. James and his daughter Lilly.  Fr. Andrew has been teaching and inviting Orthodox speakers into his congregation, much like I intended to do at Trinity had I stayed.  Chris and Rhonda have been very active at St. Basil since their conversion last December and Chris and Fr. Andrew are taking the St. Stephen’s course in Applied Orthodox Theology.  Gary was catechized with me and sings in the choir.  Fr. James has been to Holy Cross before and is friends with Hieromonk Hillarion.  Like the rest of us, it was Lilly’s first trip there.  I think we all came on the journey searching for something to help us in some facet of our faith.  For me, I wanted motivation to deepen my prayer life and see first hand how monasticism plays a role in the life of the Church.

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Waking up on Friday

We didn’t make it in time for the evening Vespers due to a couple of stops and not leaving Hampton until about 10.  So, we got to the guest house and Fr. James led us in the Akathist to the Sweet Lord Jesus from the Russian (Jordanville) prayer book.  The guest house has four fully loaded bookshelves.  Because Orthodox converts tend to be bookworms, we all found something too our likings.

Hermitage of the Holy Cross

Hermitage of the Holy Cross

Me, I picked up “On Wealth and Poverty” by John Chrysostom.  I have heard that the saint was no fan of luxurious lifestyles and opulence.  But, in the first of his seven sermons from the story of the rich man and Lazarus he honors the fact that Lazarus never complained about his lot in life nor did he curse the rich man for not coming to his aid.  Of course, there is no excuse for the “haves” of this world not to share their wealth with the “have-nots.”  But, for the poor to curse the wealthy is also wrong.  Martin Luther King Jr. was always cautious to teach protesters not to hate the people who sought to maintain segregation.  Unfortunately, due to our “winner take all” culture, I am afraid we are losing the message of Chrysostom and King.  It is too easy to vilify the rich and oppressive and not see them as human beings just as it is too easy for them to look at those who protest as being losers and moochers.  I doubt St. John sought the Roman government to bring economic equity to all.  And although King supported the idea of a living wage, I highly doubt that he encouraged people to throw away their work ethic.  In a monastery, everyone shares in labor, food, and prayer.  While the bishop or abbot may have a larger hermitage, all share in equal resources.

The next morning, we began the day with a 5 am Orthros (Morning Prayer).  Even though Hieromonk Hillarion permitted me to take photos, I felt it best not to.  For one thing, my camera could not drop to a 3200 or 6400 ISO.  Even if my camera had that ability, I thought it best to focus on the service and not getting shots.  It seemed as if the Christ Pantocrator icon in front of me was encouraging me to get my nightly prayer discipline together.  The presence of the monks was also impressive to me as these men had forsaken even godly lives in the world to detach themselves from the world.

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l to r: Gary, Fr. James, Chris, and Hiermonk Hillarion

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Christ Pantocrator at the pilgrim’s section of the church

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Relics of St. John the Baptist, my patron

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The Theotokos icon above the collection of holy relics

I think this is one of the greatest errors of Protestantism, they have no monastic communities and life-long celibacy is not encouraged.  The presence of communities of men and women who leave the “normal” world and it’s pursuits behind to pursue a life of prayer serves as a role model for the rest of us.  Monks and nuns are the front line in the spiritual life of the Church as they are the examples for the rest of us to follow as closely as possible as we all follow Christ.  Not everyone is going to stand at 3 hour prayer vigils and pray the Jesus Prayer under our breath at every waking moment.  But, each of us can maintain regular times of prayer and take breaks for prayer during the day.  There is neither television nor popular music to distract one from a life of prayer.  Neither is there the pursuit of politics or sports to keep the monks seeing others and each other as the icons of God – made in His image.  This is not to say that they are perfect people, for no man is perfect.  But, a monastery is a place where perfection can be achieved.  To the degree that is possible, all should strive to have their homes a bit of a monastery.

Without looking to monastic communities as the role model of focus on prayer and repentance, Christianity pays less attention to God and more attention to divisive and narrow ideologies.  It is only natural for some people to lean a little more to conservatism and others to liberalism.  When people of divergent opinions come together constantly with Christ and the kingdom of God as the center, we rise above these two imposters and find a harmonious balance.  However, where there is no such center, we see each other as enemies and dehumanize those whom we disagree with.  There is no doubt in my mind that we need fewer politicians and politically driven media outlets.  We need more monasteries, monks, and nuns.