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Friday, September 12, 2008

The Monastic Call

Christian monasticism was born in the deserts of Egypt at a time when the way of Christ was consolidating its position in the cities. The apparent success in the gospel’s appropriation of the Empire was a blessing not unmixed with danger. The early monastics flew into the desert not to escape the city and its newly respectable churches but rather to seek salvation at a time when increasing wealth and prestige might have been the undoing of the Church through a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle!) compromise with worldliness. In this manner the Church’s integrity in both desert and city was preserved. The monastic stood for the gospel’s untameable power, in short for God and the possibilities of an entirely unheard of life in Him beyond the city gate. In the desert wastes new lives were transformed and the gospel returned in power to the cities.

Beyond the limits of ancient maps it was sometimes written:- “Here be dragons.” Indeed this was the truth that the first monks encountered in the desert, a place of combat with adversary powers, with Satan himself. Like a trained athlete the monk entered the arena and faced the ancient foe, for all mankind. The abbas and ammas (fathers and mothers) of the desert pioneered the old ways of sacrifice and martyrdom but in a new setting and circumstance.

Today we have a new setting and circumstance in the west. Orthodox Christians find themselves living in increasingly secular societies that deny the place of ANY religion in the public domain. The State requires that faith be privatised as the price of its freedom. Of course, there is an important truth in this distinction between the personal and the civic sphere. In times past Christians have sometimes been tempted to enlist the power of the State in the repression of dissent and too often the Church has transgressed into aspects of life that could and should never be constituted as ecclesial domains, whether in the sciences, the arts or politics. However, the danger now is that the State will in turn transgress and claim the right to replace God as the arbiter of all that is good and true. When such a State is Godless the fruits will be Godless. We saw this in the brutal totalitarianism of the Soviet Union but it can happen in so-called western liberal democracies as well.

In this new setting for monasticism the call of the angelic life has a profound opportunity and challenge. By its very distinctiveness and isolation from worldliness monasticism is presented with a renewed prophetic vocation by its ability to present a transformation of the common life in God. The city is now the desert where the spiritual meadow must bloom.

In short I think that monasticism will help to restore the credibility of Christianity again in the west. Familiarity with innocuous, adaptive heterodoxy, the bourgeoisification of the Christian tradition has bred a certain contempt and hardness of heart toward the gospel in our culture. Only an Orthodox Christian witness that is both radically obedient to God and warm in its love for Him will now make a difference.

How can such lights be kindled? Only by becoming such a Light oneself. Monastics are born in parishes so the Church must herself once again nurture and value those who take the All-Holy Mary’s assent with utter and complete seriousness. “Let it be unto me according to Thy Word.”


Anonymous said...

Father, bless.

Wonderful reflections; thank you. Called to live monastically in the world, I cannot even attempt to be 0.0001% of what the early Christian Saints were, but I eagerly hold on to that call, though I fail often, to be a Light -- and I pray God finds this acceptable. And thanks be to God for the wonderful parish I have.

Chad said...

Father Gregory, Your Blessing!

Thank you for your insightful and interesting blog. I think there is a real difficulty in the UK at the moment for people such as myself, and the author of the previous comment, who may have the desire to live the monastic life but with no viable monastery which follows the Typicon in this country. Single men such as myself who try to live celibate and committed Orthodox Christian lives in the world cannot (or should not) believe that we are somehow living a kind of monastic life. This belief leaves us spiritually vulnerable to the tempations and delusions of our enemy... The monastic Fathers consistently teach us NOT to live as 'hermits', etc, until we have first gained considerable experience within a monastic community, and only then after a specific blessing. The danger is that we become obedient unto ourselves, and as the saying of the Desert Fathers asserts: "He who chooses himself as a spiritual father chooses a fool and a blind-man". The other danger in considering ourselves to be 'monks in the world' is that if/when a monastery is established in this country, it may prevent us joining the noviciate if we already consider ourselves to be 'living monastically'. Please be clear that I AM IN THE SAME BOAT, and without a monastery I am at a loss to know what to do, save follow the advice of my spiritual father and have an active life within my parish. My hope is that once a monastery is a reality in the UK, many men such as myself will 'appear' from our own 'clefts in the rocks' to form a proper community under the experienced direction of a Grace-filled Abbot.
Ian - I would be very interested in getting in contact with you, especially if you are interested in monastic life in the UK. Father Gregory has my email address if you would like to ask him for it! Pray for me, an unworthy sinner.

Gloriana said...

Excellent post, Fr Gregory - and I found the comments to be thought provoking and enlightening as well.

I am a vowed solitary (though a western 'heretic' of the Anglican tradition - and an 'apostate' from Roman Catholicism.) :-) I am aware that Orthodoxy does not have the variety of religious congregations which the western Church has, but I am sure no one will mind my saying that I found this diversity of tradition (Benedictine, Franciscan, etc. - those in vowed life also engaging in apostolic work) to be very rich in value. Sadly, the Vatican document "Lumen Gentium," when it was misinterpreted, left too many Catholics thinking (1) if I am in consecrated life, I must not ever speak of the vows, since the only vocation is baptism and it might seem superior, (2) any words of affirmation about monasticism or other forms of consecrated life somehow denies the 'universal call to holiness.' (The Orthodox may, overall, be better at affirming that our Christianity involves an ascetic vocation - but when did any catholic tradition deny the universal call to holiness?!)

I doubt I'll live to see this, but I do hope the day comes when there is focus on, for example, the eschatological dimensions of vowed chastity (just as one example.) Few understand the monastic life - too many (at least amongst us heretics) see prayer and liturgy as keeping them from their work of evangelism (please note that I neither agree nor understand this)...

Father Gregory's points are excellent. The last paragraph is one I am currently using as a text for meditation.

Zac said...

Father, just wondering if you've come around to reading that book, The Spiritual Brain, and if that's persuaded you to abandoned a materialist concept of "mind." I'm sure you wouldn't say that about the soul/spirit?

Father Gregory said...

I have actually nearly finished reading it. I am at the bit where he describes the experiment with the nuns. I think you misunderstand me though.

I have never had a materialist view of "mind" in the sense that the authors describe. However, I have never been a psychosomatic dualist either, (hence the importance of the resurrection of the BODY). Whatever the afterlife is, it cannot be the fullness of life in Christ until the bodily resurrection has happened, (for us that is).

Anonymous said...

Chad: wonderful points. I am in Australia, but am always willing to chat via e-mail: exploring_orthodoxy at
My prayers for you; please remember me, a sinner.

Gloriana: you also, like Chad, put things into words I could not. My prayers also.

Doorman-Priest said...

Just thought I'd let you know that I spent a month in Tallinn and every morning I was at the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Catherdral.

I think that may be your influence.

Zac said...


Yes, maybe I did misunderstand you. I thought you were pretty much dismissing the reality of the unseen, immaterial part of us-- which is nevertheless sort of an incomplete shadow without our bodies. And nevertheless, I think the Church's consensus is that the soul does have reality apart from the body, and goes on experiencing consciousness while the body sleeps in the earth before the Resurrection. "In the grave bodily, but in Hades with Thy soul as God; in Paradise with the Thief and on the Throne with the Father and the Spirit wast Thou Who fillest all things, O Christ, the Inexpressible."

Father Gregory said...

I totally agree Zac. (Language is a slippery thing).

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