Wednesday, 28 November 2007


...And forgive us our debts
as we have forgiven our debtors...

The most difficult thing to do is to forgive someone.

Why should it be?

Jesus is rather severe with his disciples on the matter of forgiveness of sins: ‘Unless you forgive your brother from the heart, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you.’

When the other has sinned against us, we are injured in our self-esteem. Forgiving the husband who has sinned against our marriage requires humility. Forgiving the brother who has sinned against his commitments to us and who has consciously attempted to humiliate us requires humility.

Our self-love is damaged by the sin of the other and only humility can bring us to forgive the other. This can be quite a struggle. It may require us to pray to God to grant us forgiveness of the other: we must bring forth our weakness to God so that he might help us to make that gesture of Christian love which is forgiveness.

To forgive the other we have to open our heart to him or her, even if he or she is thousands of miles away. This is painful. We don’t want to do it. We want to hate the other, the one who has sinned against us.

We are reminded of a story. A missionary in Africa told us that he had wronged a pet chimpanzee. Now chimpanzees aren’t stupid. There the chimpanzee is in his cage. He bides his time. When the missionary approaches unsuspecting, he picks up some mud from the floor of the cage and slings it in his face.

This is a true story.

This is what we want to do. We don’t want to forgive our husband, our brother. We want to sling mud in their face.

When we look into our own heart we see that we really don’t want to give up our self-love in order to forgive the other. We have to pray for the grace to forgive the other. We have to recognize that our pride is preventing us from forgiving the other.

Christmas is notorious in the helping professions for the strains it puts on family life. Family scenes, even murders, happen around Christmas. One of the reasons is that we harbour resentments towards our close family members because of the sins they have committed—against us! How dare they!

Now a beginning to preventing family scenes and worse at Christmas is to make an attempt from now to forgive the other.

How should we proceed?

Well, we have already mentioned one way: we might pray to Jesus to help us to forgive the other. That is already an act of humility, already a recognition of our weakness.

The next thing we could do, if we have a problem with forgiveness, is to go to confession. This is not to suggest that we are at fault—after all, the other may really have sinned against us—but it is to suggest that ‘cleaning out the pot’ of our heart will make us see things a little bit more clearly when we look into ourselves regarding the person who has sinned against us. A good confession might make us just a little bit humbler, which is a beginning on the road to forgiving the other.

And of course, part of being able to forgive the other is to recognize that we ourselves are sinners who are in need of the forgiveness that Jesus proffered.

Forgiving the other doesn’t necessarily mean cozying up to them. If someone has given us a beating on the street, it is one thing to forgive them, another to go out drinking with them: we have to judge in prudence and common sense what we should do about the other once we have forgiven them.

Once we have forgiven, then we are free. There is no longer a conflict in our heart; there is no longer a problem in our relations with the other. We see clearly in love even if we see clearly from a distance. For once we have forgiven we have a clarity that will allow us to judge what to do. And that might mean having nothing further to do with the person on any level of intimacyor it might mean just the opposite: we have to exercise wisdom and prudence. And forgiveness gives us the freedom and clarity to allow us to judge correctly what to do.

Monday, 26 November 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.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007


When I was an infant, I spoke as an infant, I thought in the manner of an infant, I calculated as an infant; when I became a full-grown man I abolished the things of an infant. For now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror, then face to face; now I know in part but then I will know just as I have been known. Now, then, there remain faith, hope and spiritual love, these three things; the greatest of these is spiritual love.

(I Cor. 13, 11 – 13.)

What role does hope play in the life of the Orthodox monk and, in general, the Orthodox Christian?

Let us look at the role of hope in the life of an Orthodox Christian who has a mystical orientation. One way to look at Orthodoxy is to treat it as the ‘mystical’ form of Christianity. This would be to treat Orthodoxy as a road to gnosis of the one true God—perhaps one road among many in various religions—whereas other forms of Christianity are hung up on institutional parameters or worse. From this point of view, hope really doesn’t play a role: what we are interested in is a set of techniques, notably the Jesus Prayer, which will bring us to gnosis. In this take on religion, Orthodoxy has embedded in it a particularly interesting form of yoga—perhaps without the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church really understanding that.

Let us consider St Paul, who wrote the above passage. St Paul was transported in an ecstasy to the Third Heaven where he heard words ‘which it is not lawful for man to speak’. He qualifies as a mystic. Yet in the passage above, he says: ‘now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror, then face to face; now I know in part but then I will know just as I have been known.’ The ‘then’ that St Paul is referring to is not a condition of gnosis of God in a mystical experience in the present life but a condition of gnosis of God in the Parousia; or, if you will, in the Second Coming; or even, again, in part after our death. Hence, St Paul, the mystic par excellence of the Orthodox Church, thinks that our gnosis of God before the Parousia is partial. Moreover, he says that in this life three things remain: faith, hope and spiritual love, of which the greatest is spiritual love.

Now the Parousia is the wedding of the Bridegroom, Jesus, with his Bride, the Church: this wedding is consummated with the Church as a whole, yes, but also with each member of the Church as an individual person: each Orthodox Christian’s union with Jesus and with God the Father in the Parousia is a personal matter: we are not kneaded into faceless bread.

This means that in the Parousia our gnosis is not merely a matter of an intellectual gnosis of God but also of a union in spiritual love of two persons. This union of spiritual love certainly includes a dimension of intellectual gnosis, we have no intention of denying that. We are merely emphasizing that that is not the only aspect of this union.

Hence when we enter into the bridal chamber of Christ, we consummate our union with him as a person. This marriage ultimately takes place in the Parousia.

Now we cannot expect the fullness of this spiritual marriage in the present life. This is not to say that even in this life there is not a spiritual condition of union with the Holy Spirit, and thus with the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. However, because we are still in the flesh, ‘ we see in an enigma by means of a mirror ... now I know in part’. In no case in this life is our union with the Holy Trinity consummated in fullness. Because of that, ‘...there remain faith, hope and spiritual love...’.

Moreover, because we are in the flesh, as Christians we live the imitation of Christ. By that we mean that just as Christ carried his Cross and was crucified, so we too must carry our Cross and be crucified with Christ. The Gospel is clear: ‘He who would be my disciple...’. Hence, although we may wish to overlay a yogic template on Orthodox Christianity so as to use it as a method of yoga leading to intellectual gnosis of God in this life, which intellectual gnosis would be our ‘enlightenment’, as baptized members of the Orthodox Church we are inserted into a different dynamic, that of carrying the Cross of Christ while we are in this flesh even if we are in fact mystics.

And that is where hope comes in.

Let us take the case of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ. The one blasphemed Christ in despair over his future—after all, there he was on the cross dying—while the other expressed faith and hope in Christ and was saved.

The good thief died in hope while the second thief died in despair. This stark choice is open to every Christian in the adverse circumstances that he encounters in his life.

As we have pointed out, because of the nature of Christianity as the imitation of Christ, the Orthodox Christian is sure to encounter the Cross. The Orthodox Christian is sure to encounter adversity. On that, both the Gospel and St Paul are clear.

Moreover, it might be pointed out that in early times Christians were often sent to the mines to labour until they dropped dead. In more recent times, in the greatest persecution of the Orthodox Church in its history, Orthodox Christians were sent to the Gulag to die. Some returned, having been transformed, as Solzhenitsyn remarks somewhere, into fire.

A small digression: We have wondered about ‘Supermax’ penitentiaries in the United States such as the one in Florence, Colorado. They seem to us ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ as banned by the US Bill of Rights. That is precisely because the penal regime seems calculated to induce despair in the inmate. By all accounts, after a short time the inmate ‘rots’. He is kept in solitary confinement in a cement cell without amenities for 23 hours a day and allowed 1 hour a day of solitary exercise in the prison yard. And this until he dies. While these men are dangerous, surely this regime is far beyond anything necessary for the security of the state: surely this is a vindictive punishment designed to destroy the man. It would take a spiritual giant to keep hope in such a situation.

We will encounter adversity whether we deserve it or not. Sometimes we are in the position of the good thief who is being punished justly for his sins; sometimes we are in the position of Job, tempted by the Devil through the permission of God as a test of his faith. And this despite the fact that we may be accomplished practitioners of the Jesus Prayer and therefore doing quite well, thank you, according to the false model of Orthodox Christianity as the ‘mystical road of Orthodoxy’ that leads us where all the mystics of all the Ages have gone.

What is the characteristic of hope? It is precisely that we do not fall into despair in adversity. It is not that we do not experience the adversity as adversity, that we do not experience the pain, whether of body or of soul, as pain, but that we do not succumb to despair. We do not lose our faith in Jesus; we do not lose our cool; we do not give up.

In this regard we might look at some hope substitutes. The classic substitute is the bottle: a shot of whiskey makes things look bright. Two shots of whiskey makes things look even brighter. Even a monk can fall into this temptation. Then there are the various ‘recreational drugs’ that take the place of hope, the various pills. These things are classically pursuits of a culture that lives for the moment; that is not oriented to the Parousia, whatever the culture might think it believes; that does not live in hope. (This is not to deny that everything from whiskey to pills has a proper use in its time and place: we are not anti-medicine.)

Someone we know who is quite wealthy is caught somewhere in this trap: mixed up, she has passed from cocaine to compulsive sex. She is in various therapies. She has studied meditation with the best teachers at the best oriental monasteries. Now she thinks she is an atheist. She is not stupid but she is chained in her own ‘Supermax’ of the spirit—‘without hope in the world’, as St Paul says.

The classic case is of course the cancer patient. There is really no cure for most forms of cancer and ultimately most cancer patients are going to experience severe pain and/or the conscious realization that they are dying. Here prayer is important, but even more important is hope: the cancer patient must not lose hope.

Those of us who suffer from emotional or cognitive disorders must also be careful not to lose hope.

Even if the adversities we suffer on a dreary Fall day are not as serious as all that, still as Orthodox Christians we must maintain hope. And that hope is something given to us by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. Does not the Divine Liturgy pray that God might send down upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit? But we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit and refuse the thoughts that lead us to doubt and despair.

Best Wishes to All
Orthodox Monk