Monasticism


These are some thoughts that I’ve had going through my head for some years, and I was finally motivated to write them down a couple of months ago in the context of certain discussions I heard concerning the Great and Holy Council. I shared them on Facebook then, but am posting them here now in order to have them more readily accessible.

When I was a Cistercian novice many years ago, I learnt an important lesson about order in the Church that I have been reminded of recently and that I suspect may have broader relevance.

As some may recall, the Rule of Saint Benedict states that the rank of the monks in the monastery is dependent on their date of entrance, irrespective of their age or social standing. Therefore, “someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour.” Likewise, when a priest enters the monastery, his rank is based on “the date of his entry into the community, and not that granted him out of respect for his priesthood.” This rank orders the daily life, so that “when the monks come for the kiss of peace and for Communion, when they lead psalms or stand in choir” they do so in order of their entry into the monastery. While the abbot may make changes to this rank based on the virtue of their lives, he cannot allow this to be based on worldly considerations.

All this talk of rank may sound alien to our supposedly egalitarian world, but there is something crucially important going on here. Saint Benedict acknowledges and insists that a healthy community needs order. But, by basing that order on something relatively arbitrary, such as the hour of entry into the community, he is also explicitly ruling out an ordering of the community based on age, social distinction, wealth, or other worldly means of exercising power.

I didn’t pay too much attention to any of this initially when I was a novice. Like anyone else who enters a community, I was last in rank for a while, with those ahead of me being both younger and less educated than I was, but I never really bothered about it. But then somebody entered after me who had previously been in another community and who had great difficulty in having to be last in rank. That, and the way she had to work through it, made me realize that there was actually something very significant going on. I realized that it is precisely the arbitrariness of the rank that is a great gift, for it asks us to lay aside all our other identities and power games and accept the truth of who we are in real humility. What matters is not our rank, but our willingness to obey and accept the place given to us – and it is precisely this willingness to obey that indicates spiritual maturity.

I have been reminded of this as I witness some of the rather distressing power play going on in the Orthodox world at present. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Church also has an order that she has inherited from her formative years, in which the ancient patriarchates have a certain rank and are expected to follow a certain order. And yet we now hear voices arguing that certain patriarchates should no longer be accorded primacy because they no longer have worldly might, while others that boast great wealth and power should be accorded a greater rank.

There is no doubt a certain logic to this, but I suspect that it is the logic of my fellow-novice (who was perhaps only articulating what all of us feel in some way) and not the logic of the Gospel, or of the Rule, or of the Church’s order. For this logic is based, not on our achievements or worldly power, but on our willingness to lay aside our own agendas and accept the place that is given to us in real humility. And it is precisely the arbitrariness of that place that is the greatest gift. For it allows all to submit to an order that is already given, rather than one that expresses our own will to power that constantly seeks to reassert itself.

I mentioned quite a while ago that I had been listening to Father Thomas Hopko’s series on the Divine Liturgy, Worship in Spirit and Truth. It’s been a somewhat disrupted listening, but then it is a rather long – albeit worthwhile – series and it took him thirty podcasts to get to the beginning of the Liturgy! Anyway, having just listened to his podcast on the opening words of the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by what he had to say about the words that we use in worship, and in our own personal prayer. I have touched on this before, having quoted Father Florovsky’s words about the point of the prayers of the Church being to teach us to pray. And I have also noted how I have been struck that it is those religious traditions that are most insistent on the use of the right words in prayer – and theology, for that matter – that are, seemingly paradoxically, also most aware of the limitation of words.

I can’t help being aware that this goes rather against the grain of what many people in our society consider prayer to be, and what I was brought up to see it as. Yet I am also aware that, growing up in an Evangelical Protestant home, I was often profoundly uncomfortable with the expectation that prayer was primarily speaking to God in one’s own words. Without wanting to offend anyone, it somehow sounded, well, trite, projecting, and somehow banal, although that sounds like a terribly judgmental thing to say. However, listening to Father Hopko this afternoon, I was able to understand some of my discomfort more. Prayer is a training, as Saint Benedict tells us, to put our mind where our mouth is. Words train us and form us. They form the heart and the mind. And it therefore matters what words we use in prayer. This is an extract from the transcript of Father Hopko’s podcast, and the rest is found here:

The animals and the plants worship God just by their very being. The animals worship God just by their very nature, whereas the human being, who is a free being, has to open their mouth and their lips and show forth God’s praise through their speech. We have speech, and Christian worship is logike latreia, the worship of those who speak; those whose words and sounds have a content to them.

Now, it’s very interesting here to note that when we’re calling on God to open our lips and to put the words into our mouth, we have to really pay attention to the fact that we are praying in the words that are given to us by God. These are words given to us by God. Worship is not done in our own words, certainly not in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. We do not pray in our own words, so to speak. We pray in the words God gave us to say.

St. Benedict, a great monk of the Western Church; very much influenced by the Eastern Tradition, says that in liturgical prayer, in the Church’s worship, we do not put our mouth where our mind is. We put our mind where our mouth is. In other words, we don’t say what comes to our mind. The words are first put on our mouth, our lips. They are given to us by God, and then we put our mind on what we are saying, and we’re saying it because God has commanded us to say it. He has inspired us to say it.

As Saint Anthony the Great said, “In the worship of the Christian Church, God gives His own words for His own glorification.” He puts His words into our mouth. And that’s very important, because in traditional Biblical worship when the Kahal Israel, the People of God, the People of Israel, the Ekkli̱sía tou Theoú, the Church of God, the Church of the Lord gathers, the words of the Lord are provided by God. We don’t make them up. We don’t express what’s on our mind and heart when we go to Church.

Now, when we pray privately, we even then don’t begin in our own words, at least in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We begin private, personal prayers in our room; in our heart in the words God gave us. We say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” We say, “Holy God. Holy Immortal. Holy, Holy, Holy.” We say, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Those are words that God gives us.

We say the words of the Psalms, which are the words that are inspired in human beings by God. They are the words of God in human words. But they are ultimately God’s words. They are inspired words. They are the Holy Spirit praying within us. Now, we begin with those words that God gives, and then in our private devotion, we can move in several directions.

We can move where, taking those words that God gives, we somehow use them as a formation or a pattern for what we ourselves might personally wish to say. So sure, we can pray in our own words or fill our own content with these words, but we never do that publicly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We always use the words together. We use the same words, and these words are primarily those inspired by God; given to us by God.

But then also, the words of prayer, both in our heart, in our room, in our closet, and the corporate worship of the Church can lead human beings into the wordless prayer; into the silence from which God’s words emerge and into which God’s words lead us. So in the Orthodox Tradition, the hesychastic prayer, the prayer of silence, is deeply connected to the prayer of words.

But you begin with words. You don’t begin with silence. You are led into the silence through the words. And the words lead us deeper into a meaning, which even the words themselves cannot really contain, limit and totally express. So there is a communion with God in silence that is beyond and above words, the wordless prayer of the heart.

St. Isaac of Syria and St. Seraphim or Sarov even say that there’s a condition beyond worship. There’s a condition beyond petitionary prayer where you are just one with God. The Holy Spirit is in you totally, so to speak, and you are in communion with Christ; in communion with God; in a love relationship; a union of love that’s beyond words.

And we know that really love is always beyond words, even the best of words. All the best of words are limited and in some sense, if taken too literally, are misguiding. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “When it comes to words, even the words inspired by God, every man is a liar, because this reality so transcends words.” But they are words, to use the expression of St. Gregory the Theologian now, theoprepic. In other words, they are appropriate to God. They are true words, or to use the line of the Psalter, they are pure words.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Pietermaritzburg to see my mother, travelling by bus instead of flying as I had done on recent trips. And, while driving through the Karoo, I realised that, while I had travelled through it by bus shortly after coming back to South Africa, that had been at night. I realised with something of a shock that it must have been at least fifteen years since I had travelled through it by day.

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I have always loved the Karoo, that vast expanse of emptiness and semi-desert at the heart of South Africa. I remember driving through it as a child and, long before I had heard of the Desert Fathers or learnt the language of monasticism, longing to wander off into it, plunging myself into its arid emptiness. This was not an obviously religious longing, at least not in terms of the religious vocabulary that I knew at the time. And yet I somehow think that it may account for quite a lot. Later on I used to fantasize about a monastery in the Karoo, although I have learnt in the meantime that fantasies are not a good basis for monasteries.

Driving through the Karoo I became aware of how air travel has distorted our sense of time and space, although I suppose that our ancestors could have said similar things about any automated travel. It is so easy to hop between cities without realizing what is between them, and to rarely experience the endlessness of a road that stretches on and on. And it is so easy to assume that the concerns of the “city” – and of instant communication that now encroaches even into the “desert” – are indeed the real and only ones.

I have been reflecting a bit in recent months on the need for a thorough consideration on how the patristic teaching on the passions relates to the various “issues” that are thrown at me through the daily news. From rape and violence, to greed and corruption, to the way we are programmed to become consumers, to the various discussions around sexuality, to what often seems like a mindless cultivation of anger and aggression … the list could continue and I suspect that many of them are intertwined. And yet all too often the response of religious leaders is mere platitudes and moralism, whether of the “right” or of the “left.”

Driving through the Karoo and thinking about these thoughts that had been going through my mind, I was reminded that the systematization of Christian thinking around the passions and the virtues originated in the desert. It was in the starkness of the Egyptian desert that the early monks came to insight into what it means to be human, the forces that shape and control us, and how we can engage them at their roots and be transformed by actively cooperating with God.

The proper locus of theology, in an Orthodox understanding, is in the desert. This is not just the emptiness or the endless permutations of postmodern thought. The desert has a history and a clearly dogmatic content. But it is a content that leads to transformation. And somehow, if we are to speak of transforming society, we surely need to pay attention to this content.

I came across this interview with Father Gabriel Bunge, which includes a discussion of his experiences since becoming Orthodox, yesterday and thought that it might be appreciated by a wider audience. I have long appreciated his writings and was particularly moved when he was received into the Church about a week before I was. This interview has lots of resonances for me, particularly the difference between knowing the Church from the outside and knowing it from the inside, and also his sense of having been drawn to the Benedictines because they were simply the original monastic tradition in the West. I might quibble a little with the broad strokes with which he paints monastic renewal in the West – I don’t think that the first Cistercians set out to impose anything from above, although reform movements later became institutionalised – but in general his points are well taken. He also has some very perceptive comments on the relationship between monasticism and bishops and the importance of episcopal discernment. Highly recommended.

This is another essay that I wrote a few years ago, shortly before I became Orthodox, and never got to publishing. I thought that it may be worth publishing it here as it relates to things that I also keep coming across here and so have expanded and updated it slightly in the hope that it may be helpful.  Of course, there is more that can be said on related matters if I ever get to it…

A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.

What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.

That silence is important for the monastic life is indisputable. But for a concept such as “silence” to come to define monasticism, even to the point of replacing any reference to God, is at the very least rather problematic. For Saint Benedict, the necessary condition for becoming a monk was that one truly sought God. Silence can be an important means by which we seek God, but we also need to ask ourselves what silence means. Is silence something neutral? How and with what is silence filled? What is the relationship between word and silence? Is the silence of a Christian monastery different to that of a Buddhist monastery? And what is it that actually happens in the silence?

Since coming back to South Africa, I have become aware that there is a similar dynamic at work among many people who are seeking after “spirituality” – something that I keep hoping to write more about. All too often I have seen references to retreats, courses, groups, and “inspirational” quotes (I could name names but I won’t) that originate in a Christian context but would seem to replace any specifically Christian content with a reference to silence, or solitude, or the absolute. An experience of this silence is what we are told that we need to seek, often by contrasting it to dogma which is invariably viewed in negative terms. But, once more, what is this silence? What is its relationship to Christian tradition and to dogma? (more…)

I’ve recently finished reading Olga Lossky’s biography of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Toward the Endless Day. It is fascinating and very well written and I may write more about some of the issues that it raises for me again. However, one thing that struck me, and which I thought would be worth making available to a broader public, is a letter that Behr-Sigel received from Mother Eudoxie, the foundress of the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God in Bussy-en-Othe, in 1957.

This interested me for two reasons. The first is that in some circles Mother Eudoxie is probably best known for not having got on with Saint Maria Skobtsova. While I don’t want to in any way detract from the holiness of Saint Maria, I remember that when I first read her biography a number of years ago, despite my admiration for her I felt a secret sympathy for Mother Eudoxie who seemed to appear in a less-than-entirely favourable light! The second reason is that I spent a couple of months in Bussy when I was in transition in recent years and it remains a very important place for me. No doubt some of Saint Maria’s criticisms of traditional monasticism were coming out of particular experiences or contexts, but what comes through in Mother Eudoxie’s description, and which I also experienced in Bussy, and elsewhere, is that the authentic Tradition does not exclude being open to the world and to those in need. In any case, this seemed worth making available online.

I just received your letter, which was forwarded to me here, in Switzerland, where I arrived more than four months ago. I remember you very well and our meeting at M[other] Maria’s place [the Lourmel shelter, prior to the war]. I’ve read your book on Russian holiness.

I’m sorry not to be able to attend the meetings of your ecumenical group [in Nancy] since meetings of this sort interest me very much. I can reply to the questions you ask but, give the time limits imposed by circumstances, I can’t meditate sufficiently on my answers or formulate them as well as I would like.

I left Russia in 1932, where I had made my monastic profession in a small convent – clandestinely, since this was already prohibited by law. I began to wear the habit only when I came to France. At the beginning, I lived with M[other] Maria [Skobtsova], who was dreaming of a new vocation for monasticism, and since there was nothing else, I began to collaborate with her. Her ideal was the active life and social advocacy. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any fondness for the liturgical offices or any knowledge of the Orthodox monastic tradition, and yet it is tradition that links us to the principle goal of monasticism: the transformation of the carnal being into a spiritual being, the purification of the heart by every means – self-denial, obedience, in brief, life according to the Gospel. Activity should be based on this fundamental premise. M[other] Maria practiced a lot of authentic denial herself, but she refused to believe that the traditional means for attaining it were efficacious. This gave our life with her an aspect of disorder, of arbitrariness. In the end, I wasn’t able to continue. I went to England where I had good relations with Anglican convents and, with their help, I got enough money to found a community in France. The beginnings were very difficult. Finally, a friend gave us her property in the Yonne: a big country house, a large garden, and two fields outside the village. We have been there for ten years. At this moment, we are fourteen sisters, a chaplain, and several persons whom we lodge and who help us with our work. During the summer we have boarder; in winter there are a few old women who stay with us on a permanent basis and whom we take care of. They pay us, and it is our only income, which enables us to receive all sorts of exceptional cases: a mother with two small children, abandoned by her husband; sick people without any means; old women who do not yet have their papers to be able to enter rest homes, … sometimes abnormal persons. People know we are there and that they can send someone to us only if we have enough room. As you can see, we do not have a defined activity.

Now, as for the convent itself. We are, of course, faithful to tradition. Orthodox monasticism is perhaps closer, in the way it is organized, to the Benedictines of old, in the times when they cleared the land, when they formed cultural centers in an uncivilized Europe, when you couldn’t be a specialist, when you had to take care of all the needs of the neighbors. The inner structure is also similar. A convent is an independent family, under the protection of the bishop. The abbess is the indisputable head until her death, and it is her personal inspiration that forms the spirit of the community. But only the spirit, because there are fixed rules. The origin of these rules goes back to the Stoudion monastery of Constantinople. There are fundamental rules that have been laid down by the ecumenical councils. But in all that, there are varieties in the details and they form the body of the traditions of a given monastery. We had to begin with everything up in the air and in very difficult conditions. I adopted the rule of a convent in western Russia along with another rule from a Carpathian convent, modifying both according to the circumstances. These circumstances were, above all, the psychology of the novices, who were no longer young and with whom you can’t be too rigorous about matter of fasting, vigils, etc. All that is very flexible, and I take advantage of the leeway offered by tradition. Our sisters do everything themselves. They tend the garden and the two fields, which give us our vegetables; we have two cows and some chickens. We have to take care of the old women, do the housework, sing the Daily Office. All that requires a lot of physical strength – and it also has a spiritual goal that is called “the obediences,” which should be carried out with prayer in one’s heart…

The inner life of the sisters develops under the inspiration give by the Daily Office and the spiritual direction they receive from their superiors and confessors. Since our chaplain is a member of the “white” clergy who is unfamiliar with the monastic tradition, I occasionally invite a priest-monk for spiritual direction, and it is he who professes the sisters.

According to the canons, the age for profession is forty, so the primitive and regular (rassophor) novitiates last a long time. There are exceptions, but these depend on the judgment of the abbess.

Sometimes, Western Christians do not understand that, in our concept of monasticism, which is that of a perfect Christianity, a single monastery embraces all sorts of different lifestyles within it walls: from those active in projects on the outside to contemplatives, and all the intermediary states. All that is individual, as are all human souls. Everything should be dominated by love, which is the true goal of the Christian life; monasticism is just one of the paths toward this goal.

Obviously, in our times there are many areas of activity where we could deploy our talents: the translation of the Daily Office into French (one of our sisters is Greek but culturally French), into English (we have a former Anglican who used to be a journalist and the literary editor of a publishing house on the Continent) – all that is very interesting but, unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us; we have all the manual work that need to be done just to subsist, and we don’t have young people willing to commit themselves to the religious life. We feel useful, people seek us out for different reasons, but what do you want us to do?

Let’s go back to the essential: Tradition is steadfast; the goal of monasticism is to give new birth from the old self in us, and that is why a new name is given u when we make our profession. The goal is to purify the heart by fighting against the passions; the means are the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty and the task of imitating the model given us in the life of the Lord; and the true shaping of the soul comes about through the life of the Community, where we all share the heaviest and most disagreeable tasks – all the novices go through that. Later a place, an obedience, is found for each according to her talents. I hope you understand my French, which is far from perfect, even though my father was French. If you need more particulars, please let me know; this letter is more like a rough draft. Pray for me…

P.S. The oral recitation of the Jesus Prayer enters into all of that, obviously. But we still don’t feel able to attain the summit.

From Olga Lossky, Toward the Endless Day, 110-113.

Having visited literally hundreds of monasteries in my research, I have collected a great number of momentos bearing the insignias of particular monasteries. I have calendars with pictures of abbots with various people; I have glossy books filled with pictures of religious treasures and the monastic way of life; and I have CDs of their choirs chanting. I can show friends publicity newsletters and web sites of monasteries I have visited. Many contemporary monasteries seem to excel at self-promotion.

The monastery in Preveza is very different. It has no newsletter, no colorful calendar, no picture books, and no web site. It does not sell a single item in its store bearing its name. It barely has a sign indicating its presence in Famboura. This anonymity is not due to a lack of organization but rather to a conscious emphasis by Bishop Meletios that one of the primary virtues of the monk should be afania (anonymity). As one monk told me:

He doesn’t want to make publicity because he says it is a great shame for a pastor to say that I helped the poor or I built this thing or went and preached in the churches – this is my job; it is not something to be proud of. It is the least I can do. So, you don’t write in the paper that I celebrated the liturgy in this or that region. It is much more serious than that and you have to do much more.

Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, Beauty for Ashes: The Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 173.

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but the account that it chronicles did grab my attention when I first heard about it, and so when I discovered that a friend had it I asked to borrow it. She dropped it off yesterday and I immediately started dipping into it. I do, admittedly, have a pile of books that I really do want to read and am not getting to, but this is a more accessible book for reading over lunch at work than, say, tomes on patristic theology. As the subtitle says, it is about the spiritual transformation of a modern Greek community, a town that had been left in a mess by episcopal scandals, and the difference that the new bishop made. What strikes me so far is the credibility of the tale told. The author comes across as a serious but believing scholar and the people that he portrays have the mark of authenticity about them.

And, although I still have to read the chapter on monasticism properly, I was particularly struck by the words quoted here. If there is one thing that has made me uncomfortable about Orthodox monasticism, it is the romanticism associated with it, and the cult-like figures that seem to be associated with at least parts of this – although, to be fair, the marketing aspect is something that also affects Roman Catholic communities. The words quoted here remind me of all sorts of things, from some thoughts on Saint Basil to some recent words of my own bishop. In short, they are somehow about authenticity. But then I still have to read the book properly and may say more again…

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