Saturday, 28 June 2008

Justin (Updated)


A reader with the moniker ‘JustinHesychast’ has submitted this question to us in the form of a comment:

Orthodox Monk,

What is your advice for one who earnestly seeks the monastic life, and has been for a year now (2 years learning about the Church), yet is prevented by parents to be received into the Church, and wishes to pursue the monastic life immediately following high school graduation?

This is a difficult question.

St Seraphim of Sarov once remarked that when he spoke from his own human judgement he often made mistakes: only when he spoke from Divine inspiration was he correct in his discernment of what to do in the various situations.

If St Seraphim of Sarov had that problem, what about us?

In general, these questions are best answered one-on-one. Justin would be well advised to discuss this with a priest.

That having been said, let us look at the matter from a theoretical point of view.

First let us look at the legal issues. We are not a lawyer, however, and for legal advice Justin or any interested readers should consult a properly qualified attorney licensed to practise law in their state.

Once Justin turns 18, he is, we think, an adult in the eyes of the law. We even think that at the age of 16 he has in many if not all jurisdictions the right to leave the family home. In any event, on attaining the age of 18 Justin is legally an adult and responsible for his actions: he cannot be prevented from joining the Orthodox Church and further a monastery, assuming that the monastery wants him. He could join a cult; he could do anything: so long as he is not breaking the law, at the age of 18 he is a free man.

Now, equally, once Justin is 18, his parents are no longer obliged to support him. They can put his things on the sidewalk in front of the family home and tell him that he is no longer welcome there. Legally, they are within their rights. Justin would have to walk.

So once Justin is 18 he can legally join the Orthodox Church and a monastery and his parents can just as legally tell him to get lost.

The only way legally for Justin’s capacity to exercise adult freedom to be taken away from him is for someone to get a court order that Justin is incapable of managing his own affairs—let us suppose that Justin is schizophrenic—and that he needs to have a guardian even though he is legally of age.

Legally, Justin’s parents cannot kidnap him. Legally they cannot brainwash him to free him of his attachment to Christ and the Orthodox Church and monasticism.

Of course, if Justin’s father is a pistol-packing American with a lot of money, he might think that he is above the law. He might kidnap Justin and get a lot of high-priced lawyers to prove that it was in Justin’s best interests and therefore legal. Things happen.

This is the legal context.

Now let us look at the family psychological context.

Justin is at an age where men traditionally go through a rebellious phase where they question their parents’ values. This motif is so common that we think that it is a hard-wired part of the genetic makeup of every young man. Just as traditionally, parents usually don’t respect their son’s freedom in quite the way the law spells out. Moreover, psychologically, a man in Justin’s position still has a great deal of emotional dependence on his parents. In traditional families, what would happen, it seems, is that Justin would get married and set up house with his wife, all the while maintaining relationships of emotional dependence on family elders.

In America, this model has fallen by the wayside. Now there is at best a nuclear family, or even a single-parent family, or even, alas, a family with two parents of the same gender. Hence, in America the transition from dependence to responsibility that a young man of Justin’s age goes through creates far more psychological tension than it does in a more traditional culture: the transition from dependence to responsibility is not smooth in America.

Hence, Justin has to consider that although at the age of 18 he has certain legal rights and responsibilities (being an adult is not only a matter of doing what you feel like but also of accepting the consequences of your actions), he also is emotionally bonded to his parents in such a way that it is psychologically impossible for him simply to walk away from his mother and father never to see them again. He has to consider well just what he is going to encounter emotionally if he exercises his legal rights.

One thing that Justin does not tell ‘Orthodox Monk’ is why his parents are opposed to his joining the Orthodox Church (first issue) and his becoming a monk (second issue). First of all, let us point out that in Orthodox theology, becoming a monk is not necessary for salvation, but a calling given to some but not to all.

It could be that Justin’s parents are devout Evangelicals who think that Orthodoxy is idol worship and heresy. It could be that they are devout Roman Catholics, perhaps even charismatics, who think that the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church. It could be that they are prosperous middle-class academics who don’t believe (the PBS crowd). It could be that they are devout Orthodox Jews. In this case, if Justin joined the Orthodox Church his family would go into formal mourning for him for a week as if he had died and then have nothing further to do with him.

It’s important for Justin to discuss with a psychologist what is motivating his parents in their refusal to countenance his entry into Orthodoxy.

Moreover, there is a complicated psychological and spiritual matter here. We believe in Orthodoxy; we think it’s true. However, that does not mean that everyone who is interested in joining the Orthodox Church has completely pure motives. It is possible—especially given Justin’s age and the tendency at that age to rebellion—that his interest in the truth of Orthodoxy is mixed up with an adolescent arrogant rebellion against his parents’ values. In that case, as part of the process of becoming Orthodox, Justin, before he enters the Church, has to humble himself and purify his motives! It might be that his parents sense this—that he is not as spiritually inclined as he thinks he is—and that they see some aspects of his impure motives. This does not prevent Justin from becoming Orthodox—or even later a monk!—but it does complicate matters and does require that Justin humble himself so as to acquire a deeper appreciation of the weakness of human nature and in particular of the impure aspects of his own interest in Orthodoxy. If Justin is not free of such arrogant tendencies, later there will be a serious problem in his spiritual life and in such a case it is not out of the question that he might later either leave the monastery or, God forbid!, the Church.

Next, there is the issue of Justin’s intellectual capacity as a young man of 18 to understand certain issues. It seems to be a scientific fact that the human nervous system has not finished maturing until about the age of 21. That means that Justin’s hardware is not in its final operating order. In more prosaic, human terms, we all know the story: when I was at the age of 18, my father knew nothing; as I grew older I began to be astonished at how much he had picked up. In other words, 18 is a perfectly normal age for someone to establish his religious identity, but it has to be said that it is not an age where the person is going to be able to understand all the nuances of his own motivations, all the nuances of Orthodox theology and so on. Put yet another way, the beauty of youth is that there is no past; the curse of youth is that there is no future: the idealistic young man is not bound to the failed norms of the previous generation but just as certainly does not have the sense of proportion, nor the wisdom, that comes from age. That is why we can send young men off to Afghanistan: they think they are immortal, that they will always be 18 years of age. There they come of age. Sometimes they come back in boxes, sometimes with their brain turned to porridge, sometimes horrified at what they have seen.

Let us now look at the spiritual issues.

First of all, the Gospel is clear that he who loves father or mother more than Christ is not worthy of Christ. Hence, assuming that Justin’s motives are pure, he will, once he is 18, join the Orthodox Church, recognizing calmly that the result might be that he no longer has a family home or even family.

Here, it must be said that in America, the Orthodox Church is not in the best condition that it might be and that Justin might get himself mixed up with phoney-Orthodox who are using Orthodoxy as sheep’s clothing to cover up the ravening wolf. You have to be careful, Justin, that you get involved with a parish that belongs to a canonical Orthodox Church—one in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople. Anything else is ‘outer darkness’. That doesn’t mean you have to join the Greek Church, but it does mean that you should join a Church united with the Patriarch.

Moreover, if Justin is ‘cunning as a snake and innocent as a dove’, he will check the history of the group he is involved with. Are they sound? Do they have a history of psychological or moral or theological deviation? We could go on but we think that Justin will get the point. This is a very serious matter, Justin.

Next, as for joining a monastery immediately after high school graduation, we would advise against it.

It is best for a candidate for monasticism, especially a young man in the midst of sorting things out with his parents and who has entered the Orthodox Church over their objections, to spend some time as a layman in the Orthodox Church.

This is for a number of reasons. There is the issue of psychological maturation. Although Elder Porphyrios ran away from his family to Mt Athos at the age of 8, he was the sort of fellow who would lead Elder Paisios later to remark: God sends a saint like Porphyrios into the world once in 350 years. Moreover, as Elder Porphyrios himself remarked, he was physically precocious: he was shaving at the age of 8.

In general, unless we have a direct call from God verified by a Spirit-bearing elder, after entry into the Church it is sounder to mature for a while as a layman. Since monasticism is not necessary for salvation, we have to discern whether we really indeed do have a vocation—things are different after our Orthodox Baptism—and we have to strengthen ourselves. It is wrong to think that the answer to temptation in the world to get involved with women is to join a monastery. As the service of tonsure says, do not think that you have struggled adequately until now, the struggles will increase. Hence, if you cannot keep chastity in the world, you are still going to have a problem in the monastery. It is harder, not easier, in the monastery. If it were easier, given the difficulties of marriage everyone would become a monk or nun.

Let us use this metaphor. If we cut a tree down to use the wood for carpentry, we cannot use that wood immediately. We have to season it. This can take, if we use natural means, 3 to 5 years. If we do not season the wood, then when we use it for flooring or furniture or construction, it is likely to split or warp. This can damage the floor or table or building so much as to make it useless. Better to let the wood sit in the sun and rain for 3 – 5 years. Then the wood will not split or warp. Do you likewise, Justin.

So let us suppose that in the summer after high school, when he is 18, Justin is baptized. Then what?

We don’t know Justin’s intellectual abilities, so we can’t tell him exactly what to do, but we would recommend that he go to university if he can and study what interests him, perhaps being financed otherwise than by his parents. This might be medicine; this might be English literature; this might be physics; this might even be theology. (We would remark that anyone who wants to do Orthodox theology must have a good foundation in Greek philosophy and a good command of ancient Greek or even Russian.)

Of course, if Justin is less intellectually able, he should become a carpenter, a mechanic, a cook or whatever according to his own interests and not in accordance with what he thinks a monastery needs.

In the meantime, Justin should lead a serious Orthodox life in close contact with an Orthodox priest who will guide him and help him discern what his vocation really is. Here, it would be good, if Justin is ‘cunning as a snake and innocent as a dove’, for him not to get mixed up with a confused Orthodox pseudo-monastery that will only increase his pride rather than his humility. There are a lot of mixed up monks with the name of Orthodox monk, Justin, starting with yours truly. They are not going to help you. You have to find a sound guide. Moreover, and this is very important, there should be no sense whatsoever on the part of your guide or on your own part that you are obliged to become a monk. This has to evolve naturally.

Moreover, in this regard, we would caution you against making a promise to God or to the saints that you will become a monk. Such promises are binding and are going to cause trouble even if you do have a vocation. The only promises you should be making are those that are written in the service of tonsure—at the time of the tonsure, not before! If you have made such a promise to God or to the saints, or think you might have, you are going to have to discuss it in detail with your confessor before your reception into the Orthodox Church.

In general we would recommend that you make an effort to lead a normal social life while you are in the world—normal according to the norms of the Orthodox Church.

We would also recommend that you practise sports as much as you are able. This will be necessary so that you have the bodily strength and endurance that you will need all through life, whether or not you do finally become a monk.

Finally, if you have any artistic or musical talent you should spend some time on your talent in an Orthodox way.

With best wishes and may God bless you—

Orthodox Monk

Update 30 June 2008: Justin has posted this comment:

Thank you for the response!

I have one last question, if I may. If someone is gay but seeking the Church, what are they to do? Why is it such a bad thing if it is about love and not lust (which is bad even in heterosexual couples)?

Surely you realize, Justin, that the Orthodox Church rejects homosexuality as a practised lifestyle. The question therefore arises: what exactly are you about? It is hard for us to understand what you are doing. If you are reading books—well anyone can buy a book. If you are actually taking a course of instruction, informal or otherwise, at a canonical Orthodox Church, then surely they have explained the teaching of the Orthodox Church on this matter. Of course, if it is a non-canonical Church that you are involved with then who knows what they might teach. We accept the teachings of the Orthodox Church, not of non-canonical groups that call themselves Orthodox.

In the case of your joining a men’s monastery, if the monastery is in a non-canonical group, then who knows what might happen. If the monastery is a canonically recognized monastery in a canonical Orthodox Church, a postulant’s declared homosexual orientation is a problem. We enter the monastery to repent. We do not enter the monastery with an ideology that we impose on those in the monastery.

If with your questions you are not setting poor old ‘Orthodox Monk’ up for some reason, Justin, then it would seem to us that we could understand why your parents might be opposed to your entry into the Orthodox Church. (Which Orthodox Church, however?) We are not in a position to deny you your civil rights. However, the Orthodox Church has been around a lot longer than that. We join the Orthodox Church to embrace Jesus Christ; we do not join it to solve the problem of our sexual confusion.

As to what you should do: well, if we approach the Orthodox Church for reception, we are catechized. A sincere young man who perceives homosexual tendencies in himself will discuss these with the cleric who is catechizing him. If the young man insists that these tendencies are perfectly normal and to be retained and encouraged in loving relationships, then he will ultimately have to choose between the Orthodox Church and his tendencies. It is inconceivable, further, that a sound Orthodox monastery would accept a postulant who insisted that his homosexual tendencies were perfectly normal and to be retained and encouraged in loving relationships.

This is a complicated matter. The political climate of the United States, and even the legal framework, makes it a crime to bash homosexuals. The only thing we can say is that the Orthodox Church has a clear teaching on this matter. We are members of that Church and accept that teaching. For the rest, it is a matter of loving pastoral attention to the needs of the inquirer into the Orthodox Church. We are not in a position to offer that care, Justin, being the dance of electrons in the blogosphere. You will have to find a real person in the real world who is a cleric in a canonical Orthodox Church, Justin. You will have to trust him and humble yourself to listen. One of the greatest blessings that someone can receive from God is a Spirit-bearing Elder. May you find him. May God bless you.

—Orthodox Monk

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the response!

    I have one last question, if I may. If someone is gay but seeking the Church, what are they to do? Why is it such a bad thing if it is about love and not lust (which is bad even in heterosexual couples)?