Monday, November 26, 2007

On Becoming an Orthodox Monk

Many people wonder how to become an Orthodox monk. This blog, ‘Orthodox Monk’, attempts to answer that question after a fashion and according to how we, the blog author, understand Orthodox monasticism.

This blog has been composed much like a book. The curious will find information on becoming an Orthodox monk not in a specific post but in the blog taken as a whole. If anyone is interested in ‘Orthodox Monk’s views on how to become an Orthodox monk, they should read the archives of this blog.

In particular we recommend that they read the full text of the tonsure to the Great Schema. We have also posted separately basic commentary on the meaning of the vows and more general commentary on the broader implications of the vows. These links are also available at the beginning of the post that has the full text of the tonsure.

Now the curious might think that Orthodox monasticism is interesting but that the Great Schema is beyond his or her abilities. That may or may not be true. However, the Great Schema is the standard and criterion of all Orthodox monasticism. A detailed study of the Service of Tonsure to the Great Schema is important for the curious seeker who wishes to understand ‘what Orthodox monasticism is all about’. There is a principle in liturgical studies: ‘As the Church prays, so it believes.’ A primary source for the theology of Orthodox monasticism is the actual Service of Tonsure to the Great Schema where the Orthodox Church prays corporately.

That having been said, here is a summary of our views on becoming an Orthodox monk or nun:

First of all, you have to be a member of the Orthodox Church. In this regard we would caution the curious that out there is a plethora of pseudo-Orthodox churches, jurisdictions and monasteries which are more nests of snakes than havens of salvation. We would strongly recommend that any reader who is not a member of a canonical Orthodox Church—a Church in communion with the Patriarchs and Archbishops of the various national churches that are historically recognized as Orthodox—get his or her position regularized before proceeding further in actualizing his or her interest in Orthodox monasticism. No point setting sail in a rotten ship.

Next, becoming an Orthodox monk or nun is not like becoming a lawyer or doctor or accountant. A lawyer or doctor or accountant can practise wherever he wants in his jurisdiction. You have to become a monk or nun in a particular monastery. That monastery has to be recognized by the particular jurisdiction that you belong to. Part of the process of becoming an Orthodox monk or nun is finding a monastery suitable for you. In the history of Orthodox monasticism, this has ordinarily been seen as a matter of finding an Elder who can guide you and of joining yourself to that Elder in the monastery where he himself is located. Be that as it may, no one becomes an Orthodox monk or nun ‘at large’: a monk or nun must always be written into some monastery or other, whether or not he or she has found a particular guide in that monastery. And that monastery is ultimately under the authority of the local Bishop.

Next, Orthodox monasticism is difficult. It is not for everyone. As Christ himself says in the Gospel concerning the life of chastity: ‘This word is not for everyone but for those to whom it has been given.’ To become an Orthodox monk or nun, you have to be called.

Next, a study of the text of the vows of the Great Schema will make clear just what is being renounced and what is being embraced. Do not be deceived. The monastery is not a refuge for homosexuals, paedophiles, those fearful of the opposite sex or those who cannot ‘make it in the world’. It is a difficult life. It is for those who seek to unite themselves to God. For those who are willing to struggle to do so.

The Service of Tonsure includes the admonition: ‘You have chosen a good work (in becoming a monk or nun), but only if you bring it to completion.’ People fall on the way. That is why there is always a period of novitiate. The postulant has to test the monastery and test himself or herself—and be tested!—whether he or she really has a vocation and to that particular monastery: whether he or she can carry their cross in the particular monastery where they are doing their novitiate. And as the service of tonsure points out, the crosses get heavier, not lighter, as the monastic life proceeds.

You have to be in love to become a monk or nun—in love with Jesus, in love with his Father, in love with the Holy Spirit. You have to be determined, unwilling to back down. But at the same time humble and obedient. We do not come to the monastery expecting Grace to be showered down on us but the calling of the monk or nun is to a union in love with the Holy Trinity in this life—to the extent possible given who we are and given the human condition of life in the flesh.

Next, the canons of the Orthodox Church forbid a monk from seeking ordination to the priesthood: ordination must be offered by his Superior. The importance of this is that the postulant has to be clear in his mind just what his vocation really is and what he can expect once he becomes a monk. We do not come to the monastery expecting to become teachers: those who want to teach others, assuming that they are not just confused, should consider the priesthood rather than the monastic life. The case of the unmarried priest is special and does not really belong to the scope of this blog.

Finally, you have to be right with God to become a monk or nun. Do you attend Church? Do you go to confession? Do you lead a moral life? These are fundamental questions that we must ask ourselves. Start with a good confession to a sound priest. Discuss with him your interest in the monastic state. See what he has to say. And may God direct your steps.

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