Sunday, 24 January 2010

‘The Name of God as Nondifferent From Himself’

We recently received the following email:

Dear Monks,

I am interested in Mount Athos and monastic life, since I heard you accept the name of god as nondifferent from himself. And also accept that chanting his name is the means to spiritual development.

Can people who are not orthodox become monks and live in Mount Athos? I myself follow the 4 regulative principles: No illicit sex, meat eating, intoxication or gambling.



We were struck by the phrase ‘nondifferent from himself’ since it sounded like a technical term in oriental religion. So we googled it. We saw that the phrase is associated with a branch of Hinduism that includes but does not seem to be limited to ‘Hare Krishna’.

From our vantage point here in the Arctic, here’s what we can say to Arnold:

According to law of the State of Greece, which exercises sovereignty over the peninsula of Mt Athos as an integral part of the Greek State, only members of the Orthodox Church in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch can take up permanent residence on Mt Athos. We imagine that Arnold would be able to visit Mt Athos for a few days but not to remain there.

Also, although there are similarities between the Jesus Prayer and ‘Hare Krishna’—both involve the repetition of a fixed phrase—the Orthodox Church definitely does not accept that the name of Jesus is ‘nondifferent from himself’. This is a Hindu position having to do with Hinduism in one of its manifestations, and not with the teachings of the Orthodox Church. For more information Arnold could look at our recent posts which contain the text and our commentary on the Gnostic Chapters of Diadochos of Photiki. In that work Diadochos discusses the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox Church. He emphasizes the connection of the Jesus Prayer to Orthodox Baptism. This is a very ancient work in the Orthodox Church, from 450 AD. We would also suggest that Arnold read our recent Commentary on the Our Father, which at times discusses the relation between prayer and God.

If Arnold has more interest in the Orthodox understanding of these matters he should address himself to the nearest Orthodox Bishop or priest.

The Tax Collector and the Pharisee – Love and Authoritarianism 6

Let us see if we can give a definitive analysis of the American Christian Right Wing and move on. It seems to us that the basic spiritual problem behind all the very odd manifestations of Christianity in the American Christian Right Wing is self-righteousness.

The people on the American Christian Right Wing believe that they can interpret the truth by themselves. This belief that they can interpret the truth by themselves leads to self-righteousness.

This self-righteousness leads these people to raise themselves up higher than the Church. From the Orthodox point of view, people with the views of the American Christian Right Wing are not members of the Body of Christ. They lack integration into the Church. They are not properly joined to the Lord. Their lack of integration into the Church reinforces the disturbances in these peoples’ understanding of the truth that arise from their self-righteous reliance on their own reasoning.

The belief of these persons that they can interpret the truth by themselves leads, as we said, to self-righteousness. From this self-righteousness flows their ability both to mix political positions with the Gospel, as if those political positions were part of the Gospel, and to distort the meaning of the Gospel in order to bring it into line with these persons’ political positions and taste for violence. The lack of a proper integration into the Church leads these people to disregard the wisdom of the Church about what the Gospel means as they put forward their own views or the views of a sectarian author.

These peoples’ lack of integration into the Church also leads to disturbances in their spiritual relationship to Jesus Christ, even and especially despite a born-again turning to Jesus. (However, we understand that an actual spiritual ‘born again’ experience among these people is rather rarer than one might believe.) This is especially true when these people are also involved in Pentecostalism, especially of the ‘Third Wave’ or ‘Latter Rain’ variety. Lacking spiritual integration into the Church these people lack the corporate discernment of spirits of the Orthodox Church that would to protect them from spiritual delusion.

The lack of a proper integration into the Church, and hence the lack of a proper relationship to Christ and the lack of a proper corporate discernment of spirits, causes these people to be susceptible to spiritual temptations connected to pride. There are a variety of temptations that one can succumb to that are related to pride. One is self-righteousness. Another is the acceptance of false doctrine. Another is fanaticism. (One can easily see that the spiritual temptations of pride that arise from the lack of a proper integration into the Church, and the consequences of these peoples’ self-righteous reliance on themselves in the interpretation of the Gospel, mutually reinforce each other.) Once the demon of pride has found its home in the soul, it brings into the soul the demon of anger. From there it is easy for the person to pass on to vindictiveness and hatred and violence. And when these people get involved in Pentecostalism without the spiritual discernment of the Church, they are exposed to spiritual delusion and deception on a grand scale.

It might be useful to repeat here the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee:

Two men went up to the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Having stood towards himself, the Pharisee prayed these things: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of Mankind, swindlers, unjust men, adulterers—or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of 10% on everything that I own.’ And having stood far off, the tax collector did not even want to lift his eyes to Heaven but beat his breast saying: ‘God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ I say to you, the latter went down justified to his house rather than the former. For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be raised up. (Luke 10 – 15.)

Note that the Gospel states that the Pharisee ‘stood towards himself’. This phrase is clear in the Greek but hard to render in English. Although the Pharisee was a least superficially and externally devout, he did not turn to God in prayer; he turned towards—depended on—himself.

Let us add to the Pharisee’s boast: ‘I am not like the rest of Mankind, committers of abortion, homosexuals, believers in Islam, drug users and spongers off the Government dole. I pay my own way, collect guns to protect the American Way of Life and help organize my local Tea Party Movement.’ Perhaps the point we are trying to make is now clear.

The Lord said that the leaven of the Pharisee was hypocrisy.

Let us who are Orthodox Christians say with the tax collector: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.’

May all have a blessed Lent!

–Orthodox Monk

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Becoming an Orthodox Nun

Some time ago we received the following message that we have only now been able to turn our attention to:

Dear beloved Orthodox Monk:

As always I am praying for you every day. I am just a simple woman, so I have a simple question. Is there an age limit for people who are thinking of monasticism?

I am sure many people in the world today are attracted to it, simply because the world is, well...more evil than ever. I understand that it is a calling, and not just a "whim". I understand that God either calls us to life in family or life in monasticism. But I would just like to know about this - and also, although I love your commentaries, (thank you so much for the explanation of the Lords Prayer!! Glory to God for that!) I would love to someday see a monk or nun write something like "A Day In the life of ..." Ivan Ivanovitch is interesting, but not as interesting to me as our wonderful Orthodox nuns and monks.

God bless you!


PS: Please forgive my spelling. I am embarrassed because you are very educated. I have severe dyslexia and I struggle. Please forgive me.

Let us first take the question of whether there is an age limit for people thinking of monasticism. The answer is no, but there are factors which both the postulant and the monastery have to take into account.

First of all, let us look at the issue of a lower age limit. Let us look at the situation in a jurisdiction such as the United States. In the United States, the Orthodox Church is a minority church and cultural norms from the countries of origin of various Orthodox jurisdictions cannot be applied across the board in the United States without modification. There is a historical tradition of early vocations in Orthodox countries which would not be proper in the United States largely for legal, but also for social, reasons. In other words, it wouldn’t make sense for a postulant to be received into a monastery who was not legally an adult. It would cause too much trouble legally and socially—too much scandal. That is not to say that a person interested in monasticism who was still a minor could not visit a monastery with the permission of his or her parents.

In general, moreover, nowadays young men and women from urban settings do not have the emotional and spiritual maturity—despite being old beyond their years because of what they see on television—to become monks or nuns until they are nearing their thirties. They are simply incapable before that of living a monastic vocation. Of course there are exceptions.

Moreover, our own view is that before the person enters the monastery he or she should be as well-educated as is suitable given his or her abilities. This is necessary in part for psychological reasons, in part for social reasons. The psychological reasons are that a person who is undereducated is going to get fed up with his way of life in the monastery. He or she is going to get fed up with his or her underutilization of his or her ability—for example, assuming that he or she is able, at not being able to read Scripture in the original language, at not being able to read the Fathers of the Church, at not being able to understand the Services in the original language, at not understanding deeply the dogmas of the Church.

The social reasons are that everyone, even in the monastery, has a reference group (their ‘cohort’). If the members of a person’s cohort are well-educated, while it might seem romantically wonderful that the vocation has renounced all of that to lead a simple life in the monastery worshipping the one true Trinitarian God, still, there will be a temptation for the monk or nun when the initial enthusiasm wears off and the monk or nun sees visiting members of his or her cohort functioning at a much higher intellectual level than he or she. This might lead the monk or nun to try to compensate in various non-monastic ways for the disparity in educational level with members of his or her cohort, to the detriment of his or her vocation and to the detriment of the peace and good order of the monastic brotherhood.

While we have emphasized intellectual skills, this is true even of musical or artistic skill.

In all of these cases, however, there will be a delay in the entry of the vocation into the monastery because of the time spent in studies.

We are also of the view that there is a danger if the vocation has not lived an adult role in society before entering the monastery. This is hard to explain but what we have in mind is the danger of a vocation that is trying to escape an adult role in society, and the responsibility that it entails, by entering the monastery. It would be better for the person to have an adult role in society for a period of time—for example by holding gainful employment in his or her field of training—so that there would occur the psychological maturation necessary for the vocation not to remain in a dependent, child-like state in the monastery. Ultimately, you have to take responsibility, even in the monastery. While the monk or nun is committed to obedience, it is better to be obedient in a condition of psychological adulthood.

Let us turn to the more substantive issue being raised by ‘Blackincense’. Is there an upper age limit to the monastic vocation? No.

However, the younger a person is (despite what we have just said about legal adulthood and emotional and spiritual maturity) the more able that person is able to adapt to the demands of the monastic vocation.

With very late vocations, there is a danger that the vocation will not really grasp what monasticism is all about—the combat against the passions so as to attain to the love of Christ, both given by Christ to the monk or nun, and given by the monk or nun to Christ and to others.

This being said, one of the most remarkable saints in the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ was an old man named Paul the Simple who went off to the desert to become a disciple of St Anthony when his wife cuckolded him. St Anthony refused him largely because of his age but Paul simply didn’t take no for an answer. St John of Sinai, the great theoretician of the monastic state, remarks that no one has ever made so much progress so quickly as Paul the Simple—exactly because of his simplicity.

As we age, there are greater difficulties in adapting to the monastery but we also have a clearer idea of who we are, and presumably our experience of life has given us the requisite psychological and spiritual maturity.

Now the next thing that is implicit in what ‘Blackincense’ is saying is whether there is an issue with her dyslexia. In general, cognitive difficulties that do not prevent one from leading a relatively normal life in the world do not prevent one from becoming a monk or nun. We ourselves, although we are by no means an expert, would tend to include dyslexia in this.

The problem arises when there are emotional or other disorders which prevent one from relating to other people normally or else are so debilitating as to prevent a normal life inside or outside the monastery.

We once saw a women’s monastery where the Abbess seemed to be collecting emotionally disturbed vocations. She was also a bit fanatical. This seemed to us to be a dead-end road. Eventually normal vocations will not be able to function in the fundamentally disturbed emotional environment of the monastery and they will leave either before or after their tonsure. Or they will themselves become disturbed as their own disturbed tendencies become exaggerated and reinforced within the disturbed society of the monastery.

In general terms, the only possible case in which a dysfunctional person can be successfully integrated into a monastery is if the Abbot or Abbess has the discernment and strength to handle the person spiritually, and if the monastery is otherwise large and healthy enough that the presence of the dysfunctional person does not distort the social fabric of the monastery so much as to make it a disturbed social system. Of course, dyslexia is not such a serious problem as this.

Blessed are the Merciful – Love and Authoritarianism 5

We have been puzzling over this topic of the authoritarian who proclaims his or her Christian commitment, the far-right Christian who hates his political opponent, the far-right Christian who perhaps is armed, the far-right Christian who perhaps lies about his political opponent. Unfortunately, our puzzlement remains. The only thing we can come up with is this beatitude: ‘Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy.’

We don’t know, being ignorant, but the spirit of this beatitude seems far, far away from the spirit of those who threaten their enemies.

We would ask these people: How do you understand the Gospel? Is it merely words?