Since the time of the Egyptian Desert Fathers in the 4th Century, a whole wealth of material has been written about monastic life. This offering in no way attempts to compete with these great works, rather it will try to address common misconceptions about Monasticism in Orthodox Christianity.
Although Christ lived and worked among men, participated in the functions of His day, counted women among His friends, and although He instituted no monastic order, monasticism may well be considered the sum and substance of His teaching. Once He had entered upon His mission, He had no family life. In fact, He denied blood relationships (St. Matthew 12:48-50). He spent many hours in the wilderness in solitary communion with His Father. He said: “If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (St. Luke 14:26).
The advice of Jesus to the young man who sought a greater perfection, beyond that of following the Ten Commandments, was to sell all he had and to follow Him (St. Matthew 19:21). Another man He challenged to follow Him without delay, without even taking time to attend to his father’s funeral (St. Luke 9:60). These are hard sayings for people in the world, but admirably suited to monks and nuns.
It is important to note that the Church doesn’t consider the monastic life to be in any way ‘better’ than family life in the world. The Church recognises that monastic life is an equal but different path to salvation than that followed in the world within family life. There is a symbiotic relationship between family life in the world and monastic life in the desert. The one supports the other, most obviously through mutual prayer.
The word ‘monastery’ finds its root in the combination of two Greek words, ‘monos’ and ‘eremos’. The first of these words, ‘monos’ describes the state of the people within the monastery: they are ‘only one, alone, by themselves‘. The second word, ‘eremos’ relates to where the monastery is located: ‘a lonely place, a wilderness, a desert‘. A monk is by himself in a lonely wilderness.
The most common form of Orthodox Monasticism is called ‘cenobitic’. The term ‘cenobitic’ translates as ‘community’: monastics live together in community as brothers (or sisters) and hold all essential material goods ‘in common’. It is important to recognise that the cenobitic life is still a place of alone-ness in the desert. The monastic works out his salvation alongside his brothers, where support and help may be offered and received. However, the journey towards theosis in the Most Holy Trinity is still undertaken alone.
Historically, an Orthodox monastery is established in a remote place, difficult to access and away from the ‘world’. St Isaac the Syrian defines ‘the world’ as:
“the extension of a common name to distinct passions…passions are a part of the current of the world. Where they have ceased, the world’s current has ceased”.
In other words, people in the world are held by the pull of their emotions into a constant whirl of preoccupations; attention to the soul is very difficult in this maelstrom. It is important the world as defined by St Isaac the Syrian does not encroach inside the monastery. The monastery is by its very nature a place of struggle against the world:
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” – 1 John 2: 15 – 17
Therefore monasteries are places that are difficult to find, hidden, inaccessible and remote. A pilgrimage to visit a monastery is hard work, as it mirrors our struggle against the passions. It requires effort, and faith in God.
In the Orthodox Church, we do not believe in ‘vocation’ in the same way that it is accepted in the west. All may attempt monastic life; there is no barrier. The Church gives us two alternatives for the ‘narrow road that leads to life’ (Matthew 7:14). The most common one is the possibility of raising a family within Christian marriage, the other is monastic life in a cenobitic monastery. Ultimately we must chose either one or the other. Very occasionally a person may in fact chose both, as there are a number of older men and women who join a monastery later in life after the raising of children and/or the death of a spouse.
Monastic life is difficult, in the same way that family life is difficult. And just as a successful marriage and family life requires great commitment, perseverance, sacrifice, love of others, and faith and trust in God, so too does monastic life. Both paths may lead to the salvation of our souls through the Great Love and Mercy of God, but we need to do our part, either in the monastery or in the family.