Wednesday, 23 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Sorrow 3 — Psychological Problems and Entry into the Monastic State

We were interested in the matter of acceptance or rejection by the monastery of persons with psychological problems, and we had a long discussion with George on the matter. George himself had discussed the matter in the conversation with the Elder that we reported in the last post. Here’s what George told us.

In the monastery, the norm is to refuse persons with psychological problems who wish to become monks so as to evade their psychological conflicts, or whose parents wish to ‘park’ them in a monastery so as to be rid of a family burden. George said that the Elder viewed such vocations as failed from the beginning. This even included persons who wished to become monks to evade military service (in countries with the draft), to evade the law, to evade tax problems and so on.

The Elder had received as postulants a few persons with organic brain damage who could still function, and he had made them monks, but he remarked that it was a difficult matter: the monastery had to bear a burden which could distort its primary mission of worship of God and ascesis. Moreover, as time went on, the Elder remarked, some of these persons’ condition had deteriorated, causing an even greater burden to his monastic brotherhood. Moreover, the Elder had a fairly large brotherhood. It could ‘absorb’ stress from a few difficult monks without distortion of its primary monastic mission.

In the case that the brotherhood is small, the Elder said, it is out of the question to receive a disturbed or subnormal person: there is not enough psychological space for the person to live in the monastery without distortion of the rest of the brotherhood’s way of life. The monastery would become a small ‘asylum’ (in the original sense of ‘refuge’) instead of a monastery.

The Elder remarked that sometimes this was a sort of ‘folie à deux’ between the Superior and the disturbed or subnormal person: something resonated between them based on the illness the person had, and out of that unhealthy resonance the Superior retained the disturbed or subnormal person—and without realizing that he was embarking on the road of group disturbance.

In general, the Elder said, in cases where the person who advances to become a monk is somewhat psychologically disturbed, the Superior has to turn to God in prayer to seek his will: sometimes it is the will of God that the person be placed in that monastery and become a monk. Sometimes the person will, by the prayers of the saints who protect him and the monastery, get over his difficulty and become a good monk or even a teacher of others. In these matters, it is an error to depend on human discernment in the form of psychological testing, the Elder said, without also seeking the true discernment which is from God. The most psychological testing can tell us, he said, is that there might be a problem.

Moreover, the Elder said, on account of free will, even charismatically-endowed Elders cannot know how a person—even a healthy person—will evolve in the monastery. That is why, he said, persons entering the monastery have in the history of Christian monasticism always been tested as novices for a period of years. In the cases of psychological problems, that period of monastic testing is extended. This allows the person to adapt to the monastery brotherhood and the Superior to assess how the person is likely to evolve over his life-time.

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