Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 10 — Note on our Reply to Maggie Ross (Updated March 25, 2008)

(Update, March 25, 2008: As we discuss in this post, ‘Maggie Ross’ is the pen name of Sister Martha Reeves, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Anglican and Ecumenical Studies at the University of Tulsa.)

After we notified Miss Ross of our previous post, in her next post she included the following note:

"...his monastic life." See for example, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller, 1984: Boston, Holy Transfiguration Monastery. [NB update, Nov. 6, 2006. A western Orthodox monk has objected to this remark. Evidently Orthodox monks are no longer trained this way in the West; perhaps my source (an Orthodox Bishop) meant that it once obtained and perhaps still does in certain monasteries in the East. In any event, Isaac's text would suffice if it were the only one available.] [Emphasis added, but the remark in square brackets is Miss Ross' own.]

The ‘western Orthodox monk’ is evidently us: Miss Ross appears to be responding to our remark in the last post that St Isaac the Syrian’s writings play next to no role at all in the formation of the Orthodox monk.

We do not wish to argue with Miss Ross, but we were intrigued by the issue of whether St Isaac is the exclusive reading material of novices in any Orthodox monastery at all.

First of all let us clarify our terminology. Ordinary usage, as can easily be verified by searching the Web, makes ‘Eastern Orthodox’ refer to members of churches in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. These churches are often known by their national appellations: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and so on. Ordinary usage makes ‘western Orthodox’ refer to a person who belongs to an Eastern Orthodox church but who follows a western rite, whether Episcopalian or other. Nowadays, a phrase, ‘Oriental Orthodox,’ is sometimes used to refer to members of churches not in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, churches which the ‘Eastern Orthodox’ have traditionally referred to as Monophysite or Nestorian. These churches are often known by their national appellations: Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Chaldean Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East and so on.

We point this out because we are a little uncertain just how Miss Ross intends ‘western Orthodox’ and ‘Eastern’ in her remark quoted above.

For the record, ‘Orthodox Monk,’ the author of this blog, is a member in good standing of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is a canonically tonsured monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He belongs to a canonical Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction. He follows the traditional Orthodox rite of his jurisdiction, not a western rite. By preference he uses ‘Orthodox’ instead of ‘Eastern Orthodox;’ throughout this blog the two are synonyms.

Now to the issue that intrigued us. As far as we know, St Isaac the Syrian is not the exclusive reading of any novice in any monastery anywhere in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Since, however, we don’t know everything, and since the matter genuinely intrigued us, we went to the trouble of contacting a Greek monk on Mount Athos who has been there for about twenty years. This monk began his monastic career outside of Mount Athos, in Greece. We asked him if he knew of any Eastern Orthodox monastery where St Isaac the Syrian was the exclusive reading material of the novice. He replied, ‘No.’ He further remarked that in such a case the novice would leave the monastery. To our uncertainty why, he clarified that the novice would be impelled into the desert. The monastery would lose its novice to eremiticism. A self-defeating approach to the formation of your novice.

It seems to us that the only likely candidate in the Eastern Orthodox Church for a work given to the novice in a monastery as exclusive reading is the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John of Sinai. That work is indeed prescribed by the Eastern Orthodox liturgical typikon (liturgical rule) to be read in the monastery refectory throughout Great Lent. But in fact we do not know of any monastery in the Eastern Orthodox Church where even St John of Sinai is given to the novice as his exclusive reading material.

In fact, we do know that in the Monastery of Dionysiou on Mount Athos, the liturgical typikon prescribes a great number of readings during Orthros (matins) on a regular basis. These are taken from the ‘classics’ of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. At another monastery on Mount Athos, the liturgical typikon prescribes the regular reading of the catechisms of St Theodore Studite.

Now, given our uncertainty about Miss Ross’ terminology, it is possible that Miss Ross means that in some ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Churches, traditionally known by the Eastern Orthodox as Monophysite or Nestorian, the novice is given such a formation as she describes. We have no information.

In our next post, we will return to our series on the historical survey of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, where we will, as previously planned, discuss the School of Sinai, whose pre-eminent member is none other than St John of Sinai, author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

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