Monasticism and the Church
In the early Church, monasticism developed gradually. There were groups of ascetics who took the vow of celibacy. Some of them went to deserts, while other remained to live in cities. They set themselves as their principal aim to carry out spiritual work on themselves. This is what the Old Testament describes as ‘walking before God’ when the whole life of a person is directed to God, when every deed and word is devoted to God.
There is no contradiction between not only monasticism and marriage but also between monasticism and a life in the world. St. Isaac the Syrian says that ‘the world’ is a totality of passions. And a monk retreats from such a ‘world’, not the world as God’s creation, but the fallen and sinful world steeped in vices. He retreats not because he hates the world but because he disdains it, because outside the world he can accumulate in himself the spiritual potential which he will eventually realize in the service of people. St. Siluan of Mount Athos says, ‘Many accuse monks of wasting their bread, but the prayer they lift up for people is much more valuable than many things people do in the world for the benefit of their neighbours’.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said, ‘Seek the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved’. Retreating to desert for five, ten, twenty and thirty years, hermits acquired ‘the spirit of peace’ – the inner peace which those who live in the world are lacking so much. But then they returned to people in order to share this peace with them. And really, thousands of people were saved around such ascetics. Of course, there were a great deal of ascetics who retreated from the world never to come back to it, who died in obscurity, but it does not mean that their feat was in vain, because the prayers they lifted up for their neighbours helped many. Having attained sanctity, they became intercessors and protectors for thousands who were saved by their prayers.
In this relationship between monasticism and the Church we begin to discern a special importance of monasticism for the whole Body of the Church along with other church ministries. It has turned out that a monk does not choose the thorny path full of temptation for his own sake. The spiritual richness he has accumulated will nourish dozens, hundreds and thousands of people, thus building the Body of Christ not only through sacraments and instruction as it is done in the ministry of Priesthood but through the example of the whole life of a monk who dedicates himself wholly to the service of God and people.
A testimony to this is the very monastic tonsure which is commonly ranked among the rites, though early church authors (Dionysius the Areopagite, Theodore the Studite) called them sacraments and included them in the list of other essential church mysteries.
Indeed, the initiation to monasticism is a grace-giving and mysterious beginning of a new life of a person in his service of the Church. There are some analogies with other sacraments, Baptism, Priesthood, Marriage and even Chrismation. The first and the closest analogy is that tonsure culminates in the partaking of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, thus being filled with grace. A person taking monastic vows is given forgiveness for all the sins he committed before; he renounces his former life and pronounces vows of faithfulness to Christ; he throws off his secular clothes to be clothed in a new vestment. Being born anew, he voluntarily becomes an infant in order to attain into the whole measure of the age of Christ (Eph. 4:13).
The tonsure takes place in the midst of the community and for the community which is the image of the whole Church of Christ. In this respect, the first question asked by the farther superior is characteristic: Have you come, brother, bowing before the holy altar and before this holy community? (that is, before a concrete monastic community?).
A new member’s entry into a brotherhood involves a new name to be given to him. The customs of changing one’s name in taking monastic vows is very old, going back in its essence to the Old Testament custom of one’s changing the name as a token of obedience (2 Kings 23:34; 24:17). From the moment of tonsure, the life of a monk does not belong to him; it belongs to God and to His Holy Church (in the person of the community). A monk is voluntarily cut off from his own will, which steps back before the will of God and the will of the church supreme authorities (in the person of the father superior). The rejection of all that belongs to him in favour of things common is another manifestation of the fullness of the gospel’s ideal embodied in the monastic community.
Assuming monasticism, a person assumes the responsibility not only before himself but also before those who will look to him, trying to find in him spiritual support. St. Isaac the Syrian says, A monk in the whole of his image and in all his deeds should be an edifying model for everyone who sees him so that, because of his virtues shining forth like rays, even the enemies of the truth looking at him may even involuntarily admit that Christians have a firm and unshakable hope for salvation… For monastic life is a praise of the Church of Christ.
The life of a monk does not belong to him but to God and the Church. A monk justifies his calling only if his life brings forth fruits for both God and the Church. A monk is beneficial for God if he continually works on himself and, progressing spiritually, comes ‘from strength to strength’. He is beneficial for the Church if he conveys to people the spiritual experience he has gained or is gaining to share it eventually with the weak members of the Church or simply to pray for people.
The monastic task is to listen attentively to the will of God and to bring one’s own will as close as possible to the will of God. A monk is the one who voluntarily abandons his own will, putting all his life in the hands of God. The communication of God’s will to church members, whether it is done verbally and individually or through the example of the life of a monastic community in the spirit of brotherly love and peace of Christ, is the fulfilment of the prophetic ministry in the Church.
Choosing only few Christians to carry out this ministry and calling them to live a special life, the Lord through them and in them maintains His Church in sanctity, soundness, meekness and love. If all the disciples of Christ are called to be the salt of the earth, if this world still stands thanks to Christians, monasticism represents the salt of Christianity, the quintessence of the Gospel’s way of thinking which does not allow Christianity to be demoralized and to yield to the pernicious impact of the surrounding world.
The first Christian martyrs were ready to die for the name of Christ, wishing to imitate Him in everything up to accepting death. They became the first saints to be venerated by the Church for their uncompromising stand and faithfulness to Christ. After the persecution was over, it was bloodless martyrs – hermits who escaped from the world to serve God alone – who became the ardent fulfillers of the Gospel. The opposition between the monastic way and the Church was overcome in history since the Church realized the importance of monasticism while monastics sought to dedicate themselves to the Church. In the Orthodox awareness imbued as it is with symbolism and imagery, monastic communities always remain an image of the Church in which it is possible to this day to realize the early Christian ideal in which everything is in common possession and every one occupies his or her own place and obedience is filled with mutual love between the one who orders and the one who fulfils the order, in which tears bring joy in the Holy Spirit, in which Christ is present in every sigh and every thought of a monastic.
Monasticism is called to carry out a special ministry in the Church. But this ministry can be realized only if monasticism becomes a way of perfection and transformation of a person’s life, changing it in the most radical way. Monasticism which wishes to become truly ecclesiastical is subject to the words said by Christ about Himself: Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (Jn. 12:24). In imitation of Christ, a monk follows the way of extreme exhaustion in order to serve the neighbour as far as possible so that he may lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13) and that the devil in his heart may be defeated.
Monasticism remains today an integral part of church life. A great deal of the most difficult and necessary church tasks are fulfilled by monks and nuns. But monasticism becomes a true sacrament of the Church only if it overcomes all the dangers that lie in wait for it in the present era.
At a time when Christianity is attacked by the godless world, when young souls are overwhelmed with doubts because they do not have any support from the customs of devotion, the sanctity and purity of monastic life should become a beacon that will direct all those who swim in the sea of life, both those who are in the Church and who are yet coming to her. For this a monk needs to hear the voice of God and to dedicate his whole self to God. For this he has to come to hate himself and to love his enemy. For this he needs to purify his heart and give Christ Himself an opportunity to work in it. Following this way, monasticism will render a priceless service to the whole Church of Christ.