Wednesday, 23 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Sorrow 4 — Preventing Psychological Problems in the Monastery

The first thing to do to prevent psychological problems in the monastery is to build the monastery in a sunny, dry location. All the cells (individual rooms) of the monks should have a good southern exposure and be free from dampness.

The next thing to do is to make sure that the monastery is well-built and well-heated or well-cooled, as the case may be.

In more northerly locales, the lack of sunshine in autumn and winter naturally brings on depression even in healthy persons. We wonder how the monasteries in the far north of Russia handled this matter; unfortunately we do not know: it would be a matter worthy of investigation for anyone contemplating founding a monastery in the far north or far south.

Next, the diet of the monks should be healthy. Only after charismatic discernment of the will of God by the Superior or Elder should monks embark on an ascesis which will deprive them of necessary vitamins, minerals and so on.

Next, the program of the monastery should be adapted both to the climate and to the psychological needs of the monks. The monks should not be ‘stressed out’ by an excessively burdensome program (say, for the sake of argument, church services 12 hours a day).

Finally, all monks need to work. This is a matter of psychological balance. However, the work should be suited to their physical and mental strength and age.

Monks with known psychological problems or with family histories of psychiatric illnesses that are known or suspected to have a genetic basis should be allowed to embark on personal asceticism only with the greatest circumspection on the part of the Superior.

The Superior should inculcate an attitude of mutual respect and courtesy in the monks that he is forming: ‘wildman’ behaviour should be eliminated and not at all tolerated in monks and novices. This especially includes those monks who have positions of authority in the monastery and who give orders to other monks. This is not merely a matter of preventing psychological deterioration in psychologically unstable persons, but also a matter of maintaining a psychologically healthy atmosphere in the monastery. Monks because of their way of life and relative isolation are more sensitive to psychological disturbance. Hence, allowing ‘wildman’ behaviour such as temper tantrums, shouting because of anger (especially on the part of monks in positions of authority) and such like creates an atmosphere in the monastery that does not allow the monks and novices peacefully to seek God in their hearts and to live a life of continual prayer.

‘Particular friendships’—special, emotionally exclusive, relationships between two or more monks—should be eliminated. These exclusive relationships will destroy the brotherhood. In serious cases, the offending monks are to be expelled. The problem starts long before any physical sin: the emotional exclusivity tears the brotherhood apart.

Christian monasticism does not foresee homosexual relations among monks or among nuns. Hence, the Superior should be very cautious about introducing persons with a homosexual orientation into his or her monastery, even if they are chaste. This is particularly true if a person has adopted a ‘gay-liberation’ ideology even though he or she expresses a wish to remain chaste. Times change; we grow old in the monastery; we change. It goes without saying that Christian monasticism does not foresee sexual relations between monks and nuns (or laywomen), or between nuns and monks (or laymen). See, in general, our remarks in Combating the Passion of Fornication

There is no antinomian tradition—that is, no tradition of conscious freedom from morality and law, the person having advanced spiritually beyond morality and law—in Christian monasticism, and any such expression should be dealt with ruthlessly, even by summary expulsion from the monastery.

These points concerning relations among monks, among nuns and between monks and nuns, and concerning antinomian behaviour, are points at which Christian monasticism takes a very different stance from Tibetan Buddhist monasticism, although we do not know the details of Tibetan Buddhist monastic rules. There is no tradition of tantric yoga in Christianity, so that the physical expression of tantric yoga between monks and nuns, found even among accomplished Tibetan Buddhist masters, is completely alien to Christian monasticism.

The monastery should be careful to maintain courteous Christian relations with its neighbours. This is especially true if the neighbours are not Orthodox Christian. This is so that the monks are unburdened by conflicts with the external world. The monks came for God. They did not come to fight the monastery’s neighbours.

The monastery should be properly inserted into the Orthodox Church. In Orthodox ecclesiology, the monastery is necessarily under the jurisdiction of an Orthodox bishop. Relations with that bishop should be sincere relations of children with their father. When the monastic superior has reached the spiritual stature of St Savas the Sanctified—in the eyes of others, not in his own eyes—, then he can in dogmatic matters carry the banner of Orthodoxy. In cases where the Orthodox monastery is not properly inserted into the Orthodox Church, it can be assumed that the psychological condition of the monks or nuns is not good, and that they will attract unstable or disturbed vocations.

Finally, the Superior should have a personal sense of justice and spiritual love. He should have the spiritual strength to shoulder the burdens of other people, especially of the persons he accepts. He should love his monks with a true spiritual love, and not with a human love that prefers one man over another. He should have a clear idea what monasticism is all about, and why a person becomes a monk. He should be a man of God.

These things are the presuppositions of an emotionally healthy Orthodox monastery. It is in such a monastery that a monk can maintain his sanity and progress in prayer.

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