Monday, 28 November 2005

Intercessory Prayer

In praying the Jesus Prayer, we should not ‘hop around’ various names and intentions: we should once and for all fold into all our being all those people and all those intentions for which we want to pray, and concentrate on the Prayer. It is a temptation to ‘hop around’ names and intentions; that prevents us from progressing into the depths of the Prayer so as to purify our inner being, optimally so as to purify our heart in conscious sobriety.

When we are praying the Jesus Prayer or an allied prayer, such as the Our Father, we should optimally have our mind in our heart in silence and stillness, praying the Prayer with intent. This can become even painful, so as to give meaning to the word of St Silouan the Athonite that to pray for someone is to shed blood. For in our very stillness, alone before God with our mind in our heart, our very self invokes the God who is before us: we are quite literally as one before Another. Our whole being is focused on the words of the Prayer in the depths of our heart, where is also our mind, united to the Prayer. Thus, united to the Prayer are our mind and our heart and our intent. This is a painful but fruitful experience.

As we progress in the Prayer in this way, we descend ever more deeply into our being, ever finding that we must ‘repent’ in order to begin to make progress in making the words of the Prayer, whatever formula we use, ‘our own’. This is a never-ending road, a never-ending battle against Ego. It is a never-ending battle for sobriety, in the sense of St Hesychios of the first volume of the Philokalia.

However, there is another road of the Jesus Prayer that will intercept and cut off this road of sober intercessory prayer: that is to emphasize the sentiment or emotions. We should not pursue tears or compunction or other emotional states; we should let them come to us naturally. When they come, we should not dwell on them. We should rather dwell on the sober invocation of God with our mind in the depths of our heart, soul and will.

To be able to pray the Prayer in this way, we must have made progress in descending into our heart with our mind, and we must have made progress in combating passionate thoughts. This is mental ascesis. Mental ascesis is the interior rejection of thoughts which form in our consciousness, which thoughts are expressions of any one of the eight passions.

In the present series on combating the passions, we are discussing how to combat those eight passions, largely at the more practical and exterior level of life in a coenobium. As a Hesychast once said to George: ‘I knew a fellow who early left the coenobium for the hermitage, and although he learned to put his mind into his heart, when he did so he found that he did not have the strength to reject the tempting thoughts. In despair he left the monastic state.’ You must make much progress in combating in the objective conditions of your life the passions that we are discussing, before you can become a monk, before you can become a Hesychast practising the Jesus Prayer in silence and tranquil peace.

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.

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.

Combating the Passion of Sorrow 2 — Handling Psychological Crises in the Monastery

We haven’t heard from our friend George in a while, so let’s hear what he has to say about handling psychological crises in the monastery. George was visiting a monastery when he had a conversation with an Elder. That Elder had a disciple, Fr Samuel, who was going through a crisis. George knew the disciple, who had just returned from a foreign land, and while in the monastery George had heard a few snippets of conversation from here and there, without of course falling into the fault of talking about third parties in their absence. He was curious, however, what the matter was all about. So during his conversation with the Elder, he asked him what was happening with his disciple.

The Elder briefly described how in the foreign land Fr Samuel had fallen into a crisis and could no longer function. George remarked, ‘Perhaps it is psychological?’ The Elder replied, ‘Would that it were, because then we could have a doctor give a prescription for the appropriate drugs for a few months and Fr Samuel would get over it. Unfortunately it’s spiritual.’

Here we see that the Elder, who had great gifts of spiritual discernment, recognized the value of psychiatric intervention in cases of psychological crisis. However, we also see that he could discriminate between crises that had a natural, psychological origin and those that had a spiritual origin. We also see that the ultimate treatment for crises of spiritual origin is not necessarily psychiatric.

What George tells us is that in that monastery, psychiatric intervention was invoked in all cases of crisis to stabilize the person, and then, given the discernment of the charismatically-endowed Elder, in those cases where the crisis was spiritual in nature, the appropriate spiritual treatment was given to relieve the person of his spiritual burden. This sometimes involved either or both of the Mystery of Unction (Euchelaio) and the Prayers of St Basil the Great from the priest’s Great Book of Prayers. This approach presumes that there is someone available who is charismatically endowed so as to be able to discern what the matter is all about, and who has the spiritual strength to relieve the person of his spiritual burden. Not every Elder can do these things without going to someone much greater than himself for spiritual assistance. Moreover, George tells us, in further conversation with the Elder, he learned that the success of the spiritual treatment requires as it were the agreement of God: God may wish for the sake of the soul’s salvation to leave the soul in the condition it is for a time or even until death—and without that necessarily meaning that that soul is at all lost.

Moreover, George tells us, in that monastery, the Elder had a working relationship with a pious Orthodox psychiatrist who respected the Elder and who worked together with the monastery doctor and the Elder. In cases where the case was completely psychological or, in the judgement of the psychiatrist, required continuing treatment with drugs, the Elder in no case discarded natural human treatment in favour of ‘spiritual treatment’. He recognized that these things work together and deferred to the judgement of the medically trained specialist.

This is true not only for cases of sorrow, but even for cases of psychological crisis that have another origin.

Saturday, 19 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Sorrow 1

We have already discussed sorrow in these two posts: The Jesus Prayer 3 and Sorrow.

In discussing how to combat the passions in the current series of posts, we have until now begun with the more external factors and worked our way in to the interior world of the monk or nun. Let’s do the reverse here. Let’s take the more interior case first.

The thought of sorrow arises as an intrusive tempting thought that if accepted makes us feel ‘down’ or depressed. If we are strong, we can reject such a thought. This is the mental ascesis that we have mentioned in other posts. When sorrow is at its initial stages and has not overwhelmed us, such a mental ascesis is possible. If the monk is experienced with the Jesus Prayer (say, 30 years of it) and also experienced with mental ascesis, this mental ascesis is also possible at the later stages of the evolution of a thought of sorrow into a full-blown funk or depression, when we feel quite down or depressed. However, the beginner in the Jesus Prayer and the weak will find it hard to resist the thought of sorrow once it has progressed beyond the initial stages of a tempting thought.

When we speak of the ‘evolution of a thought of sorrow’ we mean that any attack of any passion begins as a simple thought in our mind which we accept and involve ourselves with. This personal involvement with the thought brings on the further stages of the thought, here the thought of sorrow: this is the funk or depression.

Just as we might have a thought of fornication which if not rejected will evolve to a full-blown sexual temptation or sin, or a thought of avarice which if not rejected will evolve to a full-blown temptation to or act of greed, we might have a thought of sorrow which if not rejected will evolve to a full-blown temptation to or condition of depression. It is much easier to reject a temptation at the stage of the thought than it is at the later stages. This is true of all the passions, but the difficulty of rejecting a full-blown temptation to sorrow is stark: we simply don’t have the strength.

Now the above considerations apply, as we have already pointed out in the other posts, to persons in whom there is no underlying biochemical disequilibrium. We are not suggesting to anyone that an organic illness can be cured by the power of positive thinking. The above considerations apply to persons in whom the cause of the sorrow is not organic. The cause might be a sin that we have committed, an objective sorrow such as the loss of a loved one, an inability to accomplish a desire, an inability to revenge ourselves on someone who has hurt us (let us be honest), an objective hurt we have suffered, and so on. We are saying that in these cases, in the initial stages of the thought, we can reject the thought and be free of the subsequent sorrow.

In cases where our grief or hurt is great, rejecting the thought of sorrow may be very difficult indeed. If we are strong and experienced in the Jesus Prayer and mental ascesis, we can exercise, with the Jesus Prayer, patient endurance until our sorrow goes away by itself.

In some cases we cannot even do that. In those cases, we may be obliged to seek medical assistance, just as in the case of a sorrow which has an organic basis in a biochemical disequilibrium.

Monday, 14 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Avarice 3

The first step in the interior combat against avarice is to trust God. The Gospel is replete with exhortations of our Lord to do this. This might seem a platitude, but let us consider it in more detail. The larder is nearly empty; the visitor who is coming is wealthy: are we going to trust God or put the visitor to the test? Or, we think it would be nice if the kitchen of our monastery had a new floor. The contractor is willing to do it off the books if we are willing to do it off the books. God wants us to do it on the books. He might not want us to have a new kitchen floor. Then again he might. Are we going to trust God? Or do it off the books? Or, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have new quarters for the guests? Then we could entertain them in proper style. With better food. But to find the money, now, …

The next step is to have a personal sense of justice. Shouldn’t the monk of all people follow the Golden Rule?

The next step is to cultivate Christian charity—spiritual love—for others. This is not sentimental or obsequious, but strives to do the best, and to have the best—the spiritual best—happen, first to those of the House of Faith, and then to all men. Evagrius remarks that spiritual love and avarice cannot coexist in the same person. Hence, to cultivate spiritual love is to negate the passion of avarice and to displace it from the soul.

Finally, there is the matter of ambition. Avarice can be intertwined with ambition, and ultimately with a pride that is demonic. Here, it must be wondered: in this day and age in the West, is being a monk such a big deal? Wouldn’t it have been better to aim for CEO of Multinational, Inc.? As we once heard a monk remark: ‘We all started out with the same ideal when we became monks, but along the way we got diverted from the true road. And now we lose both this life, having renounced marriage and the world, and the life of the world to come, having gone off the road of true monasticism.’

At the level of the thoughts that occur to the monk, the monk should beware of thoughts that come to him detailing plans for making a lot of money to relieve his financial problem. In general, thoughts of money or wealth, even for ostensibly good causes, should be rejected. The monk should attend to his work with the means he has, remembering that one of the petitions of the ‘Our Father’ is ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ In praying this prayer, he commends all his needs to his Heavenly Father, who knows what he needs before he asks. As St Paul writes, there is a great gain in godliness with self-sufficiency—with being content with what you have, with making do. After all, we chose monasticism for God, not for money or wealth or fame or glory.

Combating the Passion of Avarice 2

The key points at which the monk is exposed to temptations to avarice from his concrete environment are as follows.

First in selling his products. The practice in Egypt was to have a pious layman take the monk’s mats or ropes to market and to sell them for the monk without haggling for a high price. In the case that the monk engaged in selling his products himself, he absolutely avoided haggling over the price and gave a price that was a little lower than the going one.

We know of a Cistercian monastery that owns a farm. Their practice is to charge a little more than they can for their products, not because they are avaricious but because to do otherwise would be to compete unfairly with the surrounding farmers. If monks are doing the work, a monastery has no labour costs to speak of, so the monastery’s production costs are going to be much lower than those of the surrounding farmers. Charging on the basis of actual production costs would force the surrounding farmers’ prices down. In general, farmers neighbouring communal farms have for this very reason often complained of unfair competition, even when the communal farm was not monastic.

Next in dealing with his employees. The monk is dedicated to living the Gospel, not to exploiting foreign workers. And how scandalous it is for workers and sub-contractors and professionals to leave the monastery grounds because of sharp, dishonest dealings on the part of a senior monk, saying, ‘I will never set foot here again.’!

Next, in viewing visitors and friends as sources of income, not as images of God.

Next, in dealings with the authorities. Let false papers be far from you and you will live in peace until you are resurrected in the resurrection of the just at the right hand of Jesus Christ the Lord.

Next in setting his standard of living. While a monk living in a coenobium might not own anything in his own name, the coenobium might be at a rather high economic level in comparison to the surrounding society. Here there is a problem with the educated Western monk: if the other members of his cohort are prosperous professionals, is he going to rest content living by the light of a kerosene lamp? Might not this be a mere quixotic romanticism? This is not to deny that there are great monastic saints that lived on berries in a lean-to, nor holy men that lived by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Here it is well to remark on the historical Russian dispute between the monasteries which were ‘possessors’ and those which were ‘non-possessors’. That is, between the monasteries which had great possessions and those which had none. As the dispute is usually presented, the bad guys were the ‘possessors’ following in the footsteps of St Joseph of Volokolamsk. But the merest glance at St Joseph’s homilies shows that he was a very spiritual man. The matter is not so simple as such a simple dichotomy would suggest.

However, surely a man becomes a monk today not to improve his lot but to improve himself. Poverty, says Evagrius, leads to humility.

Finally in pursuing wealth for its own sake, so that the monks can live as rentiers. Being a rentier opens a whole new can of worms for the Abbot, who has to send someone to business school to study business and investment and finance and taxation and—, so that that monk can deal with the business advisors of the monastery.

Through donations, St Pachomius’ Fourth-Century group of monasteries quickly became one of the wealthiest landowners of Egypt, to the dismay of the saint’s immediate disciples who watched the decay of the first spiritual ideal. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the Pachomian monasteries died out so quickly.

However, theoretically, being a rentier entitles the monk to the free time necessary for prayer.

Combating the Passion of Avarice 1

We discussed the nature of the passion of avarice in this post.

Avarice starts from the obvious: the need for food and shelter. The monk has to do something to provide for himself, unless he plans to live until winter on berries in a lean-to in the forest. However, there is a tension between the structure of advanced industrial society and the structure of Orthodox monasticism, which is more suited to simpler occupations than either modern industrial society or the education of the modern monk would have us envisage.

In the Syrian tradition, the monk did not work, and depended on God to feed him. This appears also to have been the practice in Sinai.

In Egypt, the monks insisted on work. There is a story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about the young monk who insisted on spending his time in prayer and not working. The Elder sent him to pray outside the cell and when the time came to eat, and the young monk knocked on the door to come in and eat, saying ‘I’m so-and-so,’ the Elder refused to open, saying that so-and-so was with the angels, praying. The Egyptian practice has become the norm on Mount Athos. It is expected there that the monk will work to keep himself.

The final alternative is to belong to a monastery which has wealth and to live as a rentier.

In Egypt, the monks practised very simple occupations which left their mind or nous free for contemplation. But this was integrated into their social context. They plaited mats or made ropes from the local raw materials. This was appropriate to the cultural and economic conditions in which they lived. There was a ready market for mats and ropes in the district.

In the Middle Ages, monasteries farmed land. In the Roman Catholic Church, in a reflection of the social structure of contemporary medieval society, in the Cistercian and Carthusian orders there were two classes of monks: the choir monks, from the higher class, who occupied themselves with higher theological studies, prayer and the priesthood; and the lay brothers, from the peasant class, who occupied themselves with a regime of simple prayers and manual labour on the monastery farm. This two-tier system was formally abolished after Vatican II. The Cistercians were noted for founding their monasteries in otherwise uninhabited marshlands and reclaiming those marshlands. Neither of the two orders could be considered parasitical.

Monasticism necessarily follows the social and economic conditions in which it finds itself.

In the United States of America, with its advanced industrial and technological culture, it would be absurd and laughable to find an Orthodox monk plaiting ropes for a living. It would also be absurd to expect to find in the United States an Orthodox two-tier monastic brotherhood farming in a feudal arrangement.

Moreover, monastic poverty has one meaning in the United States and another in Ethiopia, just as poverty itself is a relative concept. How realistic would it be from a psychological point of view and from a sociological point of view to expect an educated monk in the United States to live at a Third-World level of poverty?

This interrelation with the surrounding culture and economy creates a serious problem for monastic self-support in countries of the First World.

Nowadays, small First-World monasteries support themselves by manufacturing or merchandising luxury items, or by doing the same with simple tourist trinkets, or by doing the same with religious items such as icons or books, or by some combination of these things. Monastic brotherhoods today are too small to have the capital and other presuppositions of entry into the advanced technological economy to which they belong. For example, it would be ridiculous to expect a monastery to aspire to manufacture carpets on a industrial scale. Moreover, practice of an advanced profession—say, computing—is mentally demanding and inconsistent with the practice of continual prayer. However, computing and the Internet have introduced the possibility that some industries, such as publishing, can be pursued on a much less capital-intensive basis. The final alternative again is to wait until the monastery becomes wealthy, if ever, and to live as a rentier.

In the First World today, Orthodox monks are not peasants. While it is by no means universally true, they tend to be well-educated persons who were dissatisfied with the opportunities available to them in the broader society for personal psychological or religious development. They are ordinarily persons who by virtue of education and social position could very easily pursue an advanced profession such a medicine, engineering or law but instead choose to become monks. Orthodox monasticism in the First World has this character: it tends to be a choice of members of the intelligentsia. (Of course, there is also an ethnic element.) But this means that some of the more agrarian pursuits traditionally associated with monasticism are not easily undertaken by these monks. For example, it might be thought that an Orthodox monastery could own a vineyard and sell wine, or similarly for beer. But unless the monks have someone among them who by training is a biologist or agriculturalist, how are they going to know anything about vines or hops or wine-making or beer-brewing? Or are they going to hire a professional to do it for them? But then they just as well might discard the habit and go into business.

In the Byzantine period, in an epoch when slavery was legally permitted, St Theodore Studite forbade his monks to hold slaves, remarking that that was permitted only to lay people. He considered the holding of slaves inconsistent with the monastic profession. Nowadays monasteries have employees, not slaves. But is it not just as scandalous to see a monk mercilessly exploiting a foreign worker to save his monastery a dollar?

Of course, the notion of the monk as rentier has entered into the mythology of the Enlightenment and Reformation: the monk as fat exploiter of the poor, as a precursor of the cigar-smoking capitalist. But there is genuinely a danger of avarice on this road.

These matters form the presupposition of the battle against avarice.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Fornication

The psychology of men is different from that of women, and the passion of fornication expresses itself differently in men than in women. We do not have the gift of clairvoyance to be able to enter into the inner world of others, so we will necessarily restrict our comments to the psychology of men, leaving others to address the psychology of women. However, clearly, in women female physiology, genetic programming for the maternal role, whether the woman has ever borne a child, or even been pregnant, the age of the woman—all these sorts of things purvey a significance that is not evident in the man. An example is the normal human response to a child: the man and the woman ‘see’ the child differently. The man might see the child as a potential sexual partner whereas the woman would normally have a maternal response to the child. This indicates that it is more dangerous for men who have professed chastity to be around children than it is for women who have professed chastity to be. That is why in the monastic rules, in men’s monasteries where children were allowed—there is one strand, a Basilian strand, in Orthodox monasticism that allows it; there is another more ascetical strand that forbids it—the monk placed in charge of the children is to be an aged monk, in whom ideally the passion of fornication is quite dead.

Evagrius remarks that when the monk is young and vigorous, the passion of fornication is similarly vigorous and seeks its outlet in practices according to nature. As the monk continues in the monastic condition of celibacy, however, the passion of fornication is to an extent diminished and no longer has the strength to seek its outlet in practices according to nature. If the monk in this diminished condition succumbs to temptation, he is likely, it seems, to seek an outlet in practices contrary to nature. Evagrius cautions the monk that it is far easier to purify a soul that first approaches monasticism—say, as a sinner who ‘converts’, repents and then enters the monastery—than it is to purify a soul that, having once been purified by monasticism, then falls into a sexual sin. For, he says, sorrow is ever bringing the sin before mind’s eye of the monk and leading him to despair.

In general, in man the sexual urge is like a fire that is looking for something—anything—to ignite, like an itch that is looking for something—anything—with which it might be scratched. It appears that the sexual urge presents itself to the consciousness of the woman in a quite different fashion, making the treatment of the passion of fornication different for the woman than for the man.

If someone who has a vow of chastity falls into a sexual sin, he is most likely going to be enslaved by the passion: he will compulsively seek after the pleasure again and again. This is true of all the passions, but particularly stark in the case of fornication. It is not a trivial matter to give a vow to God: ‘God is not mocked.’ It takes the prayers of several saints to free the monk or celibate priest from such a bondage to the demon of fornication. And very few who have fallen find their way to such saints.

Hence, it is a matter of the utmost seriousness to discern in God whether the man approaching the monastery or seminary for the celibate life has the strength and the true inclination to remain celibate all his life. ‘It is better to marry than to burn.’ In the Orthodox Church there is no dispensation from vows.

This is one case.

Here is another case. We once heard about a younger monk who had cast off the habit—and his vows—and got married. Since the monk was Orthodox, and there is no dispensation from vows, this suggests that there were serious spiritual consequences to the monk’s action. We were once driving with a priest who remarked on the case. We replied: ‘But the monastery where the monk was (living alone) was quite isolated.’ The priest replied: ‘Ah, yes—so the visitors had to spend the night.’ Let him who has ears to hear, hear.

The Gospel is clear: celibacy is not for everyone but for those to whom it has been given. Moreover, it is for him who ‘is able’ to receive the call to celibacy.

The passion of fornication presents itself to the mind’s eye in two related ways: as an image with sexual content that enters the consciousness, and as a spontaneous excitation of the sexual organs. In both cases, however, the monk must as soon as he can utterly reject the temptation psychologically.

But this is unnatural, the reader of this blog might claim. We are speaking about monks and nuns who, after a testing of their vocation, have freely professed life-long chastity. Persons in the married state must reject similar temptations against fidelity to their spouse; unmarried Orthodox Christians must reject such temptations against their personal chastity.

These considerations lead us to some remarks on how to combat the passion of fornication.

First, monks shouldn’t be alone around children on a continuing basis.

Secondly, monastic superiors should reflect seriously on the presence of children in their monastery.

These considerations also apply to monks and women visitors—and indeed also to nuns and men visitors to the monastery. Historically, monasteries have been cloistered: closed to members of the opposite sex.

Next, on the more interior level, the first thing for the monk to do—if he hasn’t already done so—is to turn off the television. We have to minimize the images that impinge on our consciousness that might excite a sexual response. It is not only at the immediate moment we see them that they might bother us, but also later, through the memory. This obviously also applies even to printed books and magazines, including both text and illustration. In the case of the Internet, a sensible thing to do is to avoid bad sites and to turn off most if not all imaging.

Next, the monk must keep temperance in his diet—recall that the road to a man’s heart is through his stomach: gluttony is the presupposition of a temptation to fornication. This includes quantity of food, type of food, spiciness of the food, amount of alcohol consumed and so on. In a strongly ascetical regime, the monk even reduces his intake of water.

In a general context, the regular regime of the monastery with its long services calms the monk and indirectly soothes his passion. This also applies to regular attendance at the Mysteries, including Confession.

At the very interior level, Evagrius remarks that the temptation of the monk is the tempting thought or image that rises into the monk’s consciousness from the passionate part of his soul, and that the sin of the monk is his consent to the forbidden pleasure of the tempting thought or image. This applies not only to the tempting thoughts of fornication but to tempting thoughts of all the eight passions. As the monk progresses to sobriety through use of the Jesus Prayer, he becomes more and more able to intercept these tempting thoughts or images at their early stages and to reject them. This is mental ascesis. However, mental ascesis is practised for tempting thoughts and images of all the eight passions, not just of fornication.

Finally, prayer is required. This includes not only the Jesus Prayer, but also petitionary prayer for help. Here, the comments of St John of the Ladder in the Ladder of Divine Ascent on the passion of fornication are apposite.

Monday, 7 November 2005

Combating the Passion of Gluttony

When we are before food at table we are faced at some point with this choice: to stop eating or to continue. That is the point at which we experience the temptation to gluttony. We may want to continue to eat because the food is tasty, or because we want to continue to fill our belly. Usually, at the point that we are faced with the choice to stop eating or to continue, it is quite clear to us why we want to keep eating. As we have already said in another post, there are two aspects to gluttony: the desire for tasty food and the desire to fill our belly.

How do monks approach temperance in regard to food and drink?

First of all, in the Orthodox Church, monks do not eat meat. This custom, which goes back all the way to Fourth-Century Egypt, and is perhaps hinted at in the New Testament, is found even today in some of the more monastic congregations in the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Cistercians.

It should be obvious that abstention from meat changes the psychological ambience of the monastery in subtle ways. Monks are less aggressive, less sexually charged.

Next, the Orthodox Church has complex fasting rules, which require that on many days, the monk abstain from dairy products and fish, eating only vegetables cooked without oil. Mere adherence to the Church’s fasting rules brings about a change in the monk’s overall diet (and, indeed, in the diet of the lay person who carefully follows those same rules).

In the coenobitical monastery, no great effort is made to put all the monks onto a severe fasting diet suitable for hermits. The coenobitical monastery is the training ground, and the diet in it is moderate in reflection of this.

However, some points can be made about the proper diet in a coenobitical monastery; these points can be taken as starting points for discussions of more ascetical diets.

The food should be edible. We once visited a non-Orthodox house that had—frankly—inedible food. They thought that this was being ascetical. They even had a sign that visitors should not insult the cooks by not eating from all of the foods. This is nonsense. This is false asceticism.

The food should be easy to digest. Monks should not be weighed down, especially before nightfall, with heavy, hard-to-digest meals. This prevents them from sleeping calmly and from getting up to say their prayers.

The food should not be spicy. Spices excite the sexual appetite. This rule can be moderated in cases where the food is fasting food and the lack of seasoning might make it completely inedible.

The food should be nutritious. It is true that in Fourth-Century Egypt, the monks ate once each day 12 ounces of dried wheat-bread (after soaking it), salt, a bit of olive oil and very little else (although they did supplement this diet with some fresh vegetables). But they had Grace to support them and were engaged in a very intense spiritual war. In the coenobium, with the reservations given above, the food should provide all the vitamins and proteins and so on that a person needs, especially for the type of work that he does in the monastery. It is only on the advice of his spiritual guide that the monk should begin to abstain from foods in such a way that he will begin to experience vitamin deficiencies and so on. This requires discernment, not foolhardiness. We have met monks who fasted by abstaining from nutritious foods but eating sweets. This is crazy. In Fourth-Century Egypt, ascetics did not abstain from all foods except pastries. Hence, it is important for the monk in the coenobium to eat from all the foods available on the table so as to have a balanced diet, and if the food is inedible or otherwise personally unappealing, he should discuss the matter with his spiritual guide so that the proper measures can be taken.

Needless to say, given the dual nature of gluttony, it will not do for the monk living close to the city to know all the best French and Chinese and Thai restaurants. That is not why he went to the monastery.

Monks drink wine. In moderation. Wine clouds the mind or nous, and the monk practising the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day will find that any benefit he obtains from drinking a bit of wine is offset by the cloudiness that results to his mind from that wine. The monk praying the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day is pursuing sobriety so as to be able to repel temptation at the stage of his own thought processes. This is not helped by wine, although wine admittedly has other benefits, such as strengthening the monk who is quite tired. An excess of alcoholic beverages excites the sexual appetite.

On great feast days, the meals in the monastery are appropriate to the feast (for example fish is served on all feast days of the Lord and his Mother), without for all that being occasions for ‘pigging out’, or, God forbid, drunkenness.

We were once visiting a monastery with someone who had never visited a monastery before. He was struck by the courtesy shown us when, after the evening meal and Apodeipnon (complines), a senior monk of the monastery served us coffee and a biscuit and stayed with us for conversation. Our companion remarked: ‘It was very courteous of them to serve us coffee, but you could tell from the lightness of the refreshment that, underneath it all, this is a very ascetical monastery.’

Finally, one of the beginning points of monastic temperance is not to snack between meals (unless the doctor orders it). This is what is meant by the reference in the catechism of the Vows of the Great Schema to ‘secret eating’. ‘Secret eating’ is eating outside of meals without permission. There is no point to eating little in the meal in the refectory if you then snack outside of meals. You are just pretending to yourself, perhaps also to others—unless the doctor orders it. In the coenobium, this stricture against secret eating is often tempered by there being a coffee room available to the monk where he can make a coffee or tea at his pleasure and drink it with a rusk—and this without his having a guilty conscience.

Saturday, 5 November 2005

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

In the Orthodox Church, the Ladder of Divine Ascent is the standard textbook of monastic asceticism. During Great Lent, it is read in every monastery in the refectory during meals. While the Ladder is not included in the Philokalia, it is to be taken for granted as a supplement to the Philokalia. When we pose the question, ‘Well, how do I attain to purity of heart?’, to find an answer we start with the Ladder. Much of the Ladder is based on the ascetical theology of Evagrius Ponticus, although the author keeps his distance from Evagrius’ cosmological theories, which were condemned by the Church. People have remarked on the deep psychological insight of the author of the Ladder. This arises from his forty years of experience as a Hesychast.

St John of the Ladder (523–603), also called St John of Sinai, wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Here is an edition of the Ladder:

St John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. (Translation of Archim. Lazarus Moore.) Revised Edition. 1978. Boston, MA, USA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

This is the most accurate translation presently available in English. Archimandrite Lazarus Moore prepared the translation and donated it to Holy Transfiguration Monastery, which prepared an introduction and published it and the translation.

The Passage from Vice to Virtue

The passage from vice to virtue is the subject of the second renunciation.

Asceticism is the effort we make to pass from vice to virtue.

All Christians are called to make this effort; the monk or nun is he or she who dedicates all his or her energies to this effort. ‘The light of the monk is the angel; the light of the lay person is the monk.’

The goal of asceticism is to attain to purity of heart. This is the formulation used by St John Cassian. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’

Purity of heart is the condition of having conquered the passions and being full of virtue. It requires the grace of God and the effort of man. The daughter of purity of heart is deep Christian charity—spiritual love. The fruit of purity of heart is contemplation: ‘…for they shall see God.’

We become Monastics in order to attain to purity of heart. This is our orientation. This is our goal.

Thursday, 3 November 2005

Discussion of Asceticism and the Vows of the Great Schema

When the priest asks him why he has come, the postulant answers that he desires the life of asceticism. So this is something that distinguishes the lay person from the monk: the monk engages in asceticism; the monk is he who in the Church has been consecrated to God to live the life of asceticism. There is nothing here about a life of service to the poor, teaching, preaching, that sort of thing. Moreover, the service of tonsure does not foresee that there might be ‘orders’ in the Church: there is just one order, the ‘choir of Monastics’, the order of those who live alone to engage in asceticism.

What are the broad outlines of the life of asceticism as seen by the vows of the Great Schema?

The first vow is a very thorough-going renunciation of the world. In his tonsure, the postulant dies to the world. In the Evagrian tradition, represented in the West by St John Cassian, the renunciation of the world is the basis of the ascetic journey to God.

The next vow is the vow of stability in the Monastery. As we pointed out in the previous post, in the Orthodox Church a monk must be a monk in a monastery somewhere. There are no monks of nowhere in particular. It is a saying of the Fathers that the tree (monk) which is often uprooted does not take root and grow.

The next vow is the vow of obedience. This is not only a matter of good order in the Church, a means to control unruly fellows who want to become monks (or unruly women who want to become nuns). Obedience is the imitation of Christ, who was obedient up to death. Obedience is the primary means of combating pride, the worst of all the passions. Here we see the very close correspondence of the vows to the life of asceticism. The vows are the primary structure of the ascetical way of life.

The next vow is endurance in the afflictions and deprivations of the monastic life. Here it is well to understand the context of the vow. The vow foresees a situation much like Fourth Century Egypt where men and women left the cities to go into the desert, where they suffered great deprivation in material things and where they engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Devil and his demons. The priest is asking the postulant whether he is willing to endure to the end in that struggle.

We might say that poverty is taken for granted in this vow, without for all that this vow being a vow of poverty. Poverty is also taken for granted in the catechism.

The next vow, the classic vow of Monastics, has three elements: virginity, chastity (or, prudence) and piety. As we have pointed out, in the Orthodox Church, ‘virginity’ has never been interpreted to mean that married men cannot become monks, or married women nuns. Neither is it taken to exclude sinners from the monastic life. Virginity is taken to mean chastity in the subsequent monastic life. Moreover, in the Orthodox Church, there is not a narrow focus on chastity: the vow of chastity is combined with elements of a proper way of life for a Monastic: the vow foresees that the Monastic will not only be chaste but also have the proper mental attitude of prudence and piety. This means that the Monastic does not keep a physical chastity while living a worldly life of going to the opera or movies, watching TV, that sort of thing. There is a fundamental (re)orientation of the person towards a life of measured, serene piety—religious practice—and towards a life that avoids excess or foolishness.

The next vow is the 900-word vow which describes the monastic life in detail.

Note the military imagery of the ‘post’ and the ‘service’ of the monastic life before Christ the King.

Note the emphasis that the person must avoid the monastic vices and aspire to the monastic virtues. Becoming a monk is not only a matter of leading a life of piety—we can do that as pious lay people in the married state—but of transforming ourselves, with the help of Christ from persons full of vice to persons full of virtue.